In the opening scene of the 2000 film “High Fidelity,” John Cusak’s Rob Gordon says in a close-up shot to the camera, “What came first, the music or the misery?” He elaborates on this rhetorical: “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” 

I watched “High Fidelity” in the front row of a darkened basement classroom at my previous college, allowing myself to be swept away by the movie’s wit and charm. I witnessed hilarious music snobs and friends of Rob, Barry and Dick capture the experience of browsing record stores on Saturdays.

While the movie sat stored in my filing cabinet of art inspiration, the movie’s opening lines recently jumped back to the front of my consciousness. Studying in my childhood bedroom brought me back to who I used to be and how depression became a part of my daily routine, an extra baggage to haul along, something I was unprepared to carry with me. I reentered a middle and high school frame of mind. I made a Spotify playlist of Paramore, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance and Weezer. I began reading “Wuthering Heights,” an infamously polarizing Victorian novel of two people driven apart by passion and misunderstanding that results in tragedy and loss. The classic had been glaring at me from its lofty perch on my bookshelf since high school. And, as any English major knows, there’s an acute guilt when it comes to not having read a classic. So, with Rob Gordon’s question in mind, I gave in to my misery and embraced the emo.

As someone with depression, I’ve been told to listen to uplifting music and read inspiring self-help books or memoirs. I’ve been told to watch movies with hopeful endings. I’ve been told to drink chamomile tea before bed. I’ve been told to conjure happier thoughts. And yet, none of these antidotes have cured me.

Heading to Goodwill this weekend, my friends and I listened to music and I brought up the question of which came first: the music or the misery? The consensus from this collection of pandemic-weary, (some) mentally ill Gen Z students was that misery arrived first. Then, came the tendency to consume more morose art. I found my experiences matched this conclusion: We acquire art that understands, or even matches, our current emotional turmoil. 

Sometimes these supposedly uplifting books or movies do help. While I read Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly” and can attest to its powerful mindshift changes and advice, I can’t quote Brené Brown. But, I know the lyrics to The Smiths and Car Seat Headrest songs that made me feel less alone. Maybe Brown’s words helped for a few weeks after reading the book, but those lyrics seized my soul and shook me into a realization that others have felt this way and still found a way to forge something beautiful out of it.

In another scene from “High Fidelity,” Rob tells his friend that he’s arranging his records not chronologically or alphabetically, but autobiographically. I’ve found similar experiences with my own misery period of music and books.

Emily Dickinson’s collected poems whispered aloud in my childhood bedroom, a gift from my brother for my eighteenth birthday. Her sweeping existential queries in light of observing a frog croak cradled me during a particularly debilitating bout of depression — a general inability to find reason to brush my teeth, clean the dishes or feel the sun on my skin again.

Car Seat Headrest’s 2016 Teens of Denial was my soundtrack for riding the bus on a weary afternoon after class, watching the light filter in through the fingerprint-smudged windows freshman year of college. In 2018, “Catcher in the Rye’s” Holden Caulfield accompanied me on a break from school during a challenging winter. I walked with Catherine and Heathcliff through the rainy moors and muddy paths when the pandemic brought me home from Michigan. However typical, it’s no wonder young adults gravitate towards the somber. Especially during a pandemic where particular life events or experiences have been snatched away, we wallow. Even before this unprecedented global health crisis, Gen Z has wrestled with declining rates of mental health. The American Psychological Association’s 2019 study on the mental health of people ages 15 to 21, found Gen Z 27 percent more likely “to report their mental health as fair or poor.” A divisive domestic political climate, the rise of school shootings and racial discrimination are just some contributing factors to this generation’s declining mental health.

So, I say, let us watch Richard Linklater, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach with a bedsheet over their heads until three in the morning. Let us bask in each carefully picked word in the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ocean Vuong and John Keats. Let us fall asleep, back laid flat against the bed, headphones blaring Phoebe Bridgers, Daniel Johnston, Dionne Warwick and Perfume Genius. It will do more than forcing a mood booster Spotify playlist ever will. This art won’t bring us down. It will remind us we’re not alone. 

Daily Arts Writer Nina Molina can be reached at

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