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The Good Listener: How Do I Appear Knowledgeable Without Acting Like A Jerk?

Jack Black in a scene from the 2003 film <em>School Of Rock</em>
Andrew Schwartz
Jack Black in a scene from the 2003 film School Of Rock

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the fliers for yard-cleaning services that know a big job when they see one are a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on ways to drop musical knowledge without seeming obnoxious.

Mvelase Peppetta writes via Facebook: "How do you point out to the children that this 'great' piece of music they're loving right now is actually a cover of something else (most times better) without sounding like an old know-it-all fuddy-duddy? I even failed to do it in that one sentence."

Ha! Yes, well. As you've already surmised, there are words and phrases to avoid when correcting others, whether you're talking about music or ... well, anything, really. Addressing people as "the children," as you suggest, does more harm than good, even when addressing your own actual children. I don't recommend assuming out loud that the older thing is better, even though it often is. Let's see, what else? I'd try to avoid beleaguered sighs, beginning sentences with "You probably don't know," or exclaiming, "Wake up, sheeple!" But that's all common-sense be-nice-to-others stuff.

What you really want is to channel the urge to hold court into something cheerful and affirmative, and to instead say, "Oh, I love the original version of that song — that's so nice that someone thought to cover it." Resist the urge to frame the presentation of the original as a teachable moment, because acting like everyone has to gather 'round Grandpa's knee as he drones on about Sam Cooke isn't going to turn out well for anyone. This is about turning people on to music that you love, and that you think they'll love, rather than correcting cultural wrongs that enrage you.

We live in a golden age of breadcrumbs. Let's say Miley Cyrus covers a song popularized by Ella Fitzgerald. I can feel the bile welling to a nation's throat at the mere placement of "Miley Cyrus" and "Ella Fitzgerald" in the same sentence — oh no, it happened again! — but what's to stop a generation of Cyrus-loving teenagers from taking to YouTube for the purposes of comparison? It doesn't take an extraordinarily inquisitive mind to fall down a YouTube rabbit hole.

Finally, painful though it may be to accept, you're often going to find that people instinctively gravitate toward the version of a song they heard first. If they fell in love with Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" first, then Dolly Parton is likely to sound like an interloper to them. For some, Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" might well sound as if it's been lifted wholesale from "Ice Ice Baby."

This will, in all likelihood, drive you insane — particularly if you're attached to the original song, and doubly particularly if the newer version is performed by a modern-day equivalent of Vanilla Ice. Just remember, as much as possible, that any given cultural education is a decades-long process filled with false starts, chasms of ignorance, cockeyed opinions and personal preferences that are absolutely, inevitably going to diverge from yours. The kinder, more approachable and less judgmental you are as a would-be educator, the likelier you are to successfully spread the word about the music you love — while also keeping people from hating your guts in the process.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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