Music, Freedom, and the Anti-Capitalism of ‘Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist’

by Isabel Crabtree | September 21, 2020

Being young and a music fan in the 2000s, even as recently as the mid 2010s, meant pirating. Limewire and Youtubetomp3 were basically the way my friends and I learned how to use computers, tapping away with a constant shuffle of new songs piping into our earbuds. We didn’t have money to buy all the music we loved, and this seemed like an answer from indie heaven sent to help us, the chosen ones (a.k.a. Vampire Weekend fans). For better or worse, internet-armed teenagers changed the music industry in the 2000s. 

Something else that happened in the early 2000s was the catastrophic collapse of the economy. The 2008 financial crisis’ impact touches the lives of young adults whose formative years intersected with the crash now dealt with money, capitalism and consumption of media. Years of seeing parents, family friends and mentors struggle with the destructive aftermath of the housing bubble and stock market crash meant many people entered young adulthood on a shaky foundation. Your dad might lose his job. Your mom’s role could be outsourced abroad. Your grandparents’ savings were invested. The daily realities of being a teenager during the Great Recession made growing up seem like a terrible fate, not something to wish and long for. 

As they have done for decades, teenagers turned to music and movies for comfort. The Christmas day I received an iPod was essentially the happiest day of my life. In my hand I had freedom — portable music to let me into a world I had no other way of seeing or knowing. Listening to all my favorite music for free? As much as I wanted? What could be bad about that? Well, lot’s of things, as Spotify has come to exemplify, but for right then, it felt like winning one small battle. In a world where it suddenly became clear that the rich were stealing from the livelihoods of everyday people and happiness from our parents, teenagers decided to steal a little something back.

During this period, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) presented a version of that alternate reality, where capitalism didn’t necessarily need to run my entire life. There was just something so magical and enrapturing about the fun, the music, and the late-night city lights that set the scene for a bunch of teenagers whose raison d’être was music. Chasing it, finding it, swallowing it whole.

The majority of this film is about teenagers running wild and free around New York City. The characters name-drop cornerstones of the 2000s-era NYC nightlife, going to Papaya Dog and Union Pool, Mercury Lounge and The Bowery Ballroom. To a teenager in a small town, nothing could be cooler or more breathtaking. Watching Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) chasing after friends and bands all over the city was the escapism I needed — one of hope for my future. 

In the film, Nick’s countless mix CDs supply Norah with ample free material to load onto her iPod. His doodles and hand-crafted CD covers signal the time and attention these kids put into finding new music online. Norah fishes one out of the garbage after Nick’s ex, Triss (Alexis Dziena), unceremoniously dumps it. One popular girl’s trash is an indie girl’s treasure. The connection Norah feels to Nick, despite having never met at the time, speaks to her unbridled enthusiasm for the music, no matter how it falls into her hands. The mix CD detail is one of my favorite aspects of the movie, because of how I see myself and my friends in it. Norah’s excitement over a new mix, a new soundtrack for her daily life, felt familiar. The high of discovering a new favorite band is one I still chase. 

Even if things seemed grim for the middle class, Nick and Norah showed there was proof that somewhere, music and happiness kept on going. You didn’t even need to have money to enjoy it, if you were Nick or Norah, who eschewed overconsumption in favor of straight-edged, pure fandom. In the film, Nick, Norah, and their friends follow cryptic clues to find a secret show of their favorite band, Where’s Fluffy?, and in doing so suggest a hidden door to a world outside of capitalism. The band was giving a free show, and there wasn’t a huge promotional scheme beforehand, no countdowns to ticket sales or merch drops, just word-of-mouth. Hints crop up throughout the movie: graffiti in shiny marker on a bathroom stall, coded numbers sent out on the alt-radio station. Uncontainable excitement spread across the faces of the group of teenagers as they sped around the city chasing the elusive concert. Time slips by, untraceable, and no one seems to worry about anything other than the show and finding their drunk MIA friend. That night was the dreamscape recounting their obsession with music, a manifestation of what they seemed to think about all day at school, writing lyrics on notebooks and downloading new songs onto iPods.

In one of the least realistic aspects of the film, Norah’s dad owns Electric Lady Studios, and she has to decide within a few hours whether she should take up the helm or go to Brown University. After sharing a midnight meal at Veselka, Norah drives Nick’s quirky car — badly — to Electric Lady while scrolling through his indie-laden iPod. She declares him her musical soulmate, and that is what they bond over throughout the film: their pure, innocent love of music. At the studio, Nick is starstruck by the gold albums on the wall and legendary instruments placed around the room. Norah is at ease, this is her normal life, after all, but her excitement at Nick’s pilgrim-like appreciation is clear. After Nick conversely calls her dad a hippie-turned-yuppie and then questions incredulously why Norah wouldn’t go to work at the famous studio, she makes one of the most realistic and poignant points in the film — She’s afraid that if she works in music, she’ll eventually hate it. 

Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) at Electric Lady Studios in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

This is a fact of life that many people have had to realize. After years of being encouraged to make my passion my job, that to do a job you love means you never have to work a day in your life, reality seeps through the cracks in capitalism’s facade. That’s just not true. Working in a field you’re passionate about can be great, but it’s also still hard work if you want to make ends meet and pay rent (especially in New York City). And, it often changes how you feel about the field. I grew up a huge reader, and wanted to be a book editor. An internship in book publishing made me essentially incapable of finding any pleasure in reading, and I happily said farewell to that industry on the last day of the internship. Norah’s decision at the end of the film to attend Brown and forge her own path is her refusal to over-capitalize her passion for music. Okay, so she’s a rich girl going to an Ivy League, but still, for a teenager watching this film, that was a pivotal moment. It proves that capitalism doesn’t have to control every part of our lives, and that one can be a whole person with interests and desires that lie outside of its strangling system. You can love something without squeezing every cent possible out of it. 

When Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist came out in October 2008, just a month after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, some film critics saw it as a tool of capitalism. In a Slant review Micah Towery wrote, “For as impressively accurate as this film is, it still comes off as a purely money-making venture.” The soundtrack, stacked high with indie names from Vampire Weekend to The Submarines and beyond, Towery argues, is just a tool in marketing a quirky hipster aesthetic to the general public. The lack of interaction with capitalism within the film’s story divorces the movie from any sort of meaning. Though Towery’s point makes sense, it comes from a lens that not many people look through, that of a media professional. Of course a high production film is meant to make money off of fans, but that doesn’t negate everything fans gained from watching it.

To a teenager in a random small town, one who doesn’t even pay to see the movie but checks the DVD out of the library for free, Nick and Norah’s circumvention of capitalism comes in subtle ways, but it’s there, and we see it, and sometimes we do the same thing. Sometimes we just need a blueprint, to know that the future isn’t set in stone, that there’s still a chance for fun and music and happiness while escaping a hard-to-swallow pill for one night. 

To Nick, Norah, and all the die-hards who saw themselves in those characters, it’s not about the musicians, but about the fans. In that way, capitalism almost becomes a moot point in the film. It’s irrelevant at least to a group of teenagers armed with the belief that they deserve the music and perhaps live for it, but also that the music exists for, and because of, them. When Nick and Norah finally find Fluffy, they don’t even stay for the show. They run away from attention-seeking exes, and Norah wonders if her crush is sad they missed it. Nick assures her they didn’t miss anything, the whole point was the fun they had bonding as fans on a mission. They hop on the escalator at Penn Station and move towards the approaching dawn to chase a new feeling around the city.

Isabel Crabtree is a freelance journalist currently based in Brooklyn, New York. When she’s not at a concert or café, she writes about music, film, books and history. You can follow her on Twitter @crabtreeisabelm and Instagram @isa_bel_mc.

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