The Vagaries of Musical Knowledge

Yesterday, I had a job interview at a local record store.

The fun part of the interview was The Quiz. You know, testing musical knowledge, familiarity with various artists, genres of music, and so on.

Generally speaking, I was impressed by the manager’s knowledge. I like to think I know a lot about music and the music industry; even though I don’t follow it as religiously as I did during the 1980s and 1990s, I still try to follow what’s going on. Consequently, I tend to know more stuff than the average person. So, I’m generally impressed when someone else displays some knowledge on the subject.

Apart from the questions about classical music—all of these composers who completed nine symphonies! (except Mozart, with 41, though I couldn’t recall the exact number)—I think where I did the worst was with the names of bands pulled from the store’s best-sellers lists. Unlike the 1980s, when I often owned a huge chunk of the album’s on the Billboard charts at any given time, my musical tastes these days don’t particularly correspond to the charts; I’m more likely to be familiar with names of artists and bands than I am with their actual music—and what I do know about those whose music I haven’t heard mostly comes from reading about them.

[Actually, this last statement has always been true. The most obvious example I can think of is UB40. I remember reading about them (probably in NME) in the early 1980s, especially when their Labour of Love album of reggae covers came out. I’d never heard any of their music before, but the first time one of the local FM stations played “Red Red Wine” I knew immediately who the band were and what the song was.]

Though I probably scored a couple of points when I related the “Hotel California” brouhaha about Frank Ocean when his name came up—something the manager had not heard about before—and I was able to state my dislike of Maroon 5, as well as my frustration about not being able to get into Dave Matthews Band even though I liked him in that episode of House where he portrayed the musical savant whose father basically parades him around like Mozart and one of my friends knows him because their kids went to the same school, my answers were often in the “I don’t know” or “I’ve heard of/about them, but have never actually heard them” categories. In short, my assessment is that I failed 2012 Pop Charts 101. (Maybe if there had been more hip-hop artists mentioned…?)

On the other hand, I did know that Oates was the one with the mustache, which Genesis members had solo careers (Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and—if you count Mike & The Mechanics—Mike Rutherford), and I was able to name all four of The Highwaymen. And I did argue that, although Ringo is probably the popular answer, George Harrison was the most overlooked Beatle, since he was overshadowed by Lennon and McCartney as a songwriter (Hello, Frank Sinatra!), and didn’t have as successful a solo career (early on, at least). (Consider that half of The Best of George Harrison (Capitol, 1976) consisted of Beatles songs, while Ringo’s Blast from Your Past (Apple, 1975) was all Ringo on both sides.)

All of this got me to thinking about the vagaries of musical knowledge.

A couple of months ago, before I’d submitted any applications to this particular store, I’d been at the main store to sell a few things and pick up some other stuff. One of the discs I bought was a copy of Jackson Browne’s The Pretender, which I’d somehow never owned. The clerk who was checking me out (he was about my age, give or take a couple of years) mentioned that it was kind of dark because it was the one recorded after—and we finished the sentence together—”his wife killed herself.”

Now, from what I learned about the way this very small chain of (three) stores works, the individual stores tend to operate autonomously, at least insofar as their hiring practices are concerned. That is, they don’t go through a central office; the managers of the individual stores do the hiring themselves.

So, while I don’t know for sure, it’s entirely possible that I would have performed differently on The Quiz had my interview been with the manager of the main store, because I might have been presented with a different set of questions.

Just in general, I find that the music people are familiar with varies greatly, even within the same geographical area. A lot of my favorite artists are folks that my friends these days don’t know much about (e.g., David Sylvian, KatieJane Garside)—or may have heard of during those artists’ initial successes, but haven’t been familiar with for a long time (e.g., Pet Shop Boys, Scritti Politti); similarly, my friends listen to a lot of music that I’m not familiar with, even though the artists may be wildly popular.

This has always been true for me; even as early as elementary school, the music I was listening to was not necessarily what my friends were listening to, even though (thanks to the radio) we had some reference points in common.

I can’t help but be reminded of the Burt Reynolds line from Smokey and the Bandit when Bandit and Frog are quizzing each other—unsuccessfully—about things they like/know, and Bandit remarks that “When you tell somebody something, it depends on what part of the country you’re standin’ in as to how dumb you are.”

Translation: It all depends on who is participating in the conversation as to how much overlap there is in musical tastes and knowledge. Though I may not have done as well on the Lightning Round Quiz of currently charting bands, I’m okay with that. There are likely a few areas in which I would have stumped the Quizmaster.

(September 21, 2012)