"There are a whole bunch of alums here getting ready to run the trivia contest, so I'll just finish up my show and hand it over to them."
This was the somewhat nervous-sounding deejay at WCFM on the evening of last December 7 at about 1130PM. Through my computer, via the magic of streaming audio, I was listening to the start of the 70th semiannual Williams Trivia Contest, preparing to compete (electronically) for the first time in 25 years. My Instant Message window was up and ready, clear, waiting for that first question, that first song. My palms were sweating. I was ready to relive my youth.
I found myself in this giddy situation because I was preparing to write this article. Danny had wanted us to focus on personal communities which were nurtured at Williams and then document how they affected us later in life. This set me to thinking. Obviously there was the community of friends I had at school, many of whom I still commune with from time to time. There was the soccer team, which allowed me to be a member of their community thanks to the saving graces of the coach, whose only positive attribute may have been that he didn't cut anyone. And then there was the trivia community, which I became heavily involved in as a member of perennial powerhouse BOMO. I had little in common with most of my BOMO teammates, except that we all shared the guilty pleasure of caring desperately about things that didn't matter.
As it turns out, investigating the details of popular culture has since provided me with my livelihood, but that's another story. We cared about trivia back then because compiling (or just knowing) useless facts seemed an antidote to the compiling or learning of BIG IDEAS that our Williams education required. The eight hour trivia contest on the last day of classes was as much of a release for me as getting a horn into a lead-footed Spaniard is for one of the bulls of Pamplona.
The trivia contests were a signpost for where we were and where we had come from during those unguarded, pleasurably idle portions of our lives. So, I thought, what better way to recall what in pop culture was important to us back then than to study the old contests? And what better way to see how the zeitgeist had changed than to research how the content of the contests had changed in the intervening 25 years?
Luckily, a vehicle for this process has become available. All of Williams Trivia that hasn't been lost or obscured can be found on a campus website (the URL is http://wso.williams.edu/orgs/trivia/). The site is the brainchild of one Des Devlin. Des never even went to Williams (his wife did) but he played in his first contest in 1984 and has participated in every one since. Des has been a writer for Mad Magazine for the past twenty years, which gives him a unique perspective on the whole trivia scene. Zealously archived on the trivia website I found all the questions to every contest dating back to the early 70's, and not just the questions, but also every bonus, super bonus, ultra-bonus, and trivia action, plus an entire section devoted to Williams triviana, essays, and reminiscences, all tied up with Des's unique brand of editorialization and humor.
As a student of pop-culture (and of trivia) I decided to take a core-sample approach. I used the contest in the winter of '76 as my first benchmark. This was a contest which BOMO ran, having won the previous spring. (I discovered in the archive that BOMO has been accorded near-legend status for its size, longevity, and success, having won the contest three times between 1973 and 1980 while placing second a record seven times.) It was also a contest I had a lot to do with running. I helped to organize it and came up with many of the questions.
Next I studied the contest at ten-year intervals, pulling out the December contests in '86 and '96, as well as the most recent contest archived (December 2000) in order to see how the questions, and our notion of pop culture, had changed in the course of the past 25 years.
The purpose of the music in our contest in '76 was two-fold. First, obviously, was the recognition factor. We wanted the songs to be challenging, to be familiar yet not instantly identifiable. Ideally, a good tune would make someone say "I know that song!" at the same time they were saying "But what the hell is it?", running their way through the lyrics for the title, wracking their brain for the artist. Secondly, we wanted the music to be the engine that drove the contest, that kept it going through eight long morning hours. We wanted the music to cause people to dance and sing along, hopefully just as they had in previous years when they heard these songs coming out of juke boxes and car radios.
The music portion of the trivia contest in 1976 was based on the concept of the "oldie". An oldie, of course, is a song that attained popularity (generally #1 on the pop charts) in the 50's, often before any of us were born. They were the songs that provided the musical currency for the first wave of trivia that happened in the mid-sixties. The first trivia contest with music at Williams happened in 1967 and the music consisted entirely of oldies. The oldies we played in December '76 included nuggets like "Cry" by Johnny Ray (1951), "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets (1954), and "Day-O" by Harry Belafonte (1956). These songs were a nod to that earlier era, but we also updated the music to include songs that were a part of our past.
And so by '76, we were playing classic pop songs of our era, not just oldies but songs from our youth, songs we might have heard covered at our junior high school dances. Songs in this category included "Red Rubber Ball" by the Cyrkle, "Walk Away Renee" by the Left Banke, "Five O'Clock World" by the Vogues, "Happy Together" by the Turtles, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, "Bus Stop" by the Hollies, "There's a Place" by the Beatles, and "I Say a Little Prayer" by Dionne Warwick. The tunes were mostly from the mid-sixties, generally five to ten years later than the oldies, but this was music from our past.
Also in the '76 contest, I found a surge of even newer music, music from the late sixties, songs we knew pretty intimately. This was music that would, in later years, supplant oldies on radio stations and create their own ubiquitous nostalgic format, now known as "Classic Rock." The BOMO contest of '76 included such classic rock tunes as "The Last Time" by the Rolling Stones, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" by Bob Dylan, "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield and "People are Strange" by the Doors.
The contest also contained two songs by Todd Rundgren. Now Todd's indisputably great, but why two of his songs to the exclusion of the millions of other pop tunes that could have been included? The reason is simple. I loved Todd Rundgren (still do) and Tom Soybel '79, BOMO's music guru and song programmer, put them in to make me happy. So there were some advantages to running the contest.
Fast forward ten years to the contest in December of 1986. This was a contest run by the Giant Pygmies of Beckles (the name is an obscure Monty Python reference). By 1986, instead of sticking with one team name, teams came up with new names for every contest. This makes for some very colorful nomenclature, i.e.: "A Judo, A Chop-Chop-Chop", "Elvis Needs Boats", and the current champ "Neutered Vampires Who Cheat at Kitten Poker". This as compared to the team name of the winner in the Spring of '69- "Williams B."
But I digress. One major difference in the music in the '86 contest is noticeable immediately. With the exception of "Peppermint Twist" by Joey Dee and the Starlites (1959) and "When My Dreamboat Comes Home" by Fats Domino (1956), the supply of oldies has dried up. Songs 30 years old are deemed too obscure, or perhaps irrelevant. In 1986, classic oldies are no longer songs your older siblings listened to, they're songs your parents listened to. Trivia music has moved on to a new generation.
There is some overlapping between the two contests. "Walk Away Renee" is played in '86 as it was in '76, as is "Friday on My Mind" by the Easybeats, a great song and one that I had requested of Soybel for our contest.
The music played in '86 is generally much more eclectic than in '76. There is a nod to bubblegum with "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" by the Ohio Express and "1,2,3 Red Light" by the 1910 Fruitgum Company. Classic rock is represented by tunes from the Who, the Kinks, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Bob Dylan (two songs), Ike and Tina Turner, Chicago, and the Doors. There are genre songs that never would have passed muster ten years earlier, including "Casino Royale" by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, "My Funny Valentine" by Miles Davis, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" by Ella Fitzgerald and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" by Groucho Marx.
Also in '86 I notice the beginning of a trend. While I find a lot of good AM radio fodder from bands like the Guess Who, the Commodores, the O'Jays, Badfinger, Aerosmith, and Stealer's Wheel, there are also several songs that were relatively new in '86, having been released within five years of the contest. These were songs by bands like Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Husker Du, the Dead Milkmen, and the Cramps, bands that never put out singles and were never heard on AM radio. These were bands that gained and built cachet on college campuses by being played on college radio stations (like WCFM). The music in the contest had begun to play to a home audience.
When I checked out the music from the 1996 and 2000 contests, I found this trend to be much more widespread, but I came to understand why. Yes, the contests were littered with recent songs by alternative or grunge bands discovered and nurtured by college students. Both contests contained lots of recently released tunes by bands like Radiohead, Stone Temple Pilots, Ani DiFranco, Primus, Suzanne Vega, Shonen Knife, Cake, Jill Sobule, Beastie Boys, Fishbone, Sarah MacLachlan, and They Might Be Giants. But other songs came from all over the pop music map. Diana Ross, Tom Waits, Marvin Gaye, Blue Oyster Cult, Kool and the Gang, Juice Newton, Korn, Britney Spears, David Bowie, and the Spice Girls were all represented in the 2000 contest.
Basically, in the last 25 years, pop music has become skewed into so many genres and niches that it's practically impossible to quantify. There is no Top 40 anymore. A partial listing of Billboard's singles charts would include Mainstream Rock, Rap, Adult Contemporary, and R&B/HipHop, as well as Country, Dance, Blues, and others. Radio stations, both AM and FM, now narrowcast to only one of these genres and never cross over to avoid alienating the few listeners they can get to tune in. So I guess the contest music programmers can be forgiven if they include a lot of "their own" music. The landscape has changed.
But the structure of the contest has also changed, and this has had the most serious impact on the music. Through the 80's, the songs began to provide clues to the questions that had just been asked, and by the 90's this had become an ironclad rule. Nowadays, every tune played is inextricably linked to the question it is paired with, either providing a hint to the answer or offering some ironic commentary on the question itself. In the 2000 contest, a question which asks what diner fare you would be served in Rhode Island if you ordered a "cabinet" (answer: a milkshake) is accompanied by "Shake Your Booty" by KC and the Sunshine Band. Another question about the only person who was a first round draft pick in two major league sports is twinned with "Everybody Wants You" by Billy Squire.
This has changed everything about choosing the music for a contest. In the 70's, the function of the songs in a good contest was to take us back, if only for three minutes and in a way only music can, to a simpler, more innocent time when we weren't forced to type term papers and cram for exams. The music returned us to the beaches, the coffee shops, the skating rinks, the Volkswagen Beetles of our youth. Plenty of songs were challenging, sure, but plenty of them weren't. They were just good songs. They were the soundtrack of our early years. (Go to the website and check out the songs. You'll see what I mean).
Now the music is completely subsumed by the trivia questions. The question is chosen, and then a song is picked to accompany it based, first and foremost, on how well it "goes with" the question. Every song conforms to this rule. Where in '76, the music in the contest was an exercise in nostalgia, now the music is an exercise in cleverness. Or put another way, the purpose of the music used to be to please the people playing in the contest, now it seems designed to please the people running he contest. The "soundtrack" aspect of the music has been lost. The music has become, how shall I say it...trivialized.
A final example of this triumph of form over content is the recent inclusion of "song quartets" in the trivia contests. These are four songs, played in a row, with a unifying theme. The practice began in 1988 with the "Horrible Song" quartet, four admittedly terrible songs, played consecutively. In the '96 contest, there were four of these quartets, approximately 15% of the contest. Included among these woeful sixteen were songs like "We Didn't Start the Fire" by George Wendt, "Girl" by Tiny Tim and "Baby Face" by the Wing and A Prayer Fife and Drum Corps. In the 2000 contest there was a "Cheezy '80s" quartet, a "Celebrity" quartet (songs by Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, RuPaul, and Chef of South Park), and a "Glorious Covers" quartet. Now I'm sure these songs are funny. They may even be likable in their own ghastly ways, but I doubt anyone remembers them because one was on the radio while they were nuzzling their first girlfriend. Again, I miss the soundtrack.
But enough old school grumbling. There is good news. Even in the '96 contest the song accompanying question 52 was... "Friday On My Mind" by the Easybeats.
As I said, in 1976 trivia as an art form was only about ten years old. Our contest was simplistic by today's standards. But simple isn't necessarily bad.
The '76 contest followed the format that all previous contests had. The questions came from five basic realms (they have always been called "realms" in the contest, they are simply categories): movies, television, sports, advertising, and comics. There was also a miscellaneous realm, which became a catch-all for questions of various stripes.
Television was my specialty, the result of a misspent childhood. (That I immersed myself in TV as a youth and now make my living at it, yet refuse to let my children watch, is an irony not lost on them.) I was especially fond of jingles and theme songs, and we included eight of them in the contest. Some would be too easy to include in a modern contest, like the Bugs Bunny theme ("Overture, curtain lights,..."). Others, like the Milton the Monster cartoon show theme or the Mobil rocker-arm assembly jingle have fallen into obscurity. But by huge coincidence, one - the Slinky jingle - was included twenty years later as a question in the '96 contest, even though in that time both the tune and the lyrics had morphed somewhat.
By and large, the TV questions came from popular shows that have since become classics and are regularly featured on channels like Nickelodeon: M*A*S*H, The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, The Flying Nun, Mission Impossible, The Munsters. (Q: What is the name of Eddie's pet, what type of animal was he and where did he live? Ans: Spot, a dragon, under the staircase.)
Likewise, the movie questions in '76 were culled from movies that were released decades before we were born, seminal American films: Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, Dark Victory, The Gay Divorcee, The Maltese Falcon, Shane, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. These were real movie-buff movies, films that had provided the raison d'etre for trivia since its inception, much as oldies had done for the music. They were movies that, as trivia experts, we were expected to be familiar with, further cementing their reputation as classics. And, since there were no videos in the 70's, these were the movies that were constantly playing at Bronfman Auditorium.
Some of the questions asked in '76 were very specific to that era. There were a few Watergate questions, as we were still feeling our oats from that glorious debacle. Most of the sports questions were of fairly recent vintage also, if not they'd have been too difficult. Sports experts were a different type of trivia animal, though. Often they could answer any sports question but had little interest in anything else in the contest. Luckily our sports maven, Tom Gardner '79, had a wide breadth of trivia knowledge, the equivalent of a trivia four-letter man.
There was one Star Trek question and one Monty Python question in our contest. In retrospect this was a sort of passing of the baton. Our generation had been huge Trek fans and the (original) series had provided a lot of material for previous contests. Monty Python, on the other hand, was about to explode. It would soon become a huge repository of trivia awareness, a fertile fount for questions, bonus questions, trivia actions and team names.
Jumping ahead ten years to the '86 contest, I noticed immediately that the trivia categories had broadened. The five basic realms still provided the bedrock of the material, but new ones had been added. The realm of the second question in '86 was listed as "Current Events", the fourth was "Williamsiana." There were questions asked from realms of religion, Greek mythology, literature, and botany. One question was listed as "Truly Miscellaneous." (Q: What three adjectives describe your operator on an Englander bus? Ans: Safe, Reliable, and Courteous.)
By '86 a firm tradition was in place regarding the first question asked. Starting in 1981 or thereabouts, the answer to the first question has invariably become the name of the team running the contest. This gave that team a cute and clever way of introducing itself for the evening, while at the same time providing the derivation of its name. It also made sure that everyone calling in received at least one point.
I found some great questions in the '86 contest. Some, I knew. (Q: According to Adrian, what does Rocky's dog Butkus eat? Ans: Little turtles.) Others I didn't. (Q: According to the sheriff in Night of the Living Dead, what's wrong with the zombies? Ans: "They're dead, they're all messed up.") The old timer in me was surprised that there was a Mister Ed question in the contest. (Q: What does Mr. Ed give as the reason he talks only to Wilbur? Ans: "I don't like skeptics.")
Other questions confirmed my old timer status. Question 38 was "On whose farm was Woodstock held?" In '76 this wasn't trivia, it was holy knowledge. Question 53 was "What was Darth Vader's real name?" Now we can see a whole Star Wars installment about little Anakin. Question 86: ("What were the full names of the five Golden Ticket winners in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?") was one I couldn't have answered then, but now that I have kids, it's a piece of cake (so to speak).
Mostly though, what struck me was an erosion of the old pop culture verities in the trivia contest. There were half as many sports questions as there had been 10 years previous. In their place, there were 7 questions devoted to Williamsiana, 6 to science fiction and 4 to geography. Geography? In fact the most famous question in the December '86 contest was from the realm of geography. It was one of the five questions used to break a tie after the two leading teams were deadlocked at 8 AM. The question was "What are Africa's only three countries ruled by monarchies?" The answer isn't exactly on the tip of my tongue, but somehow, one team knew all three countries, while the other team knew only two of the three, thus providing the slimmest margin of victory ever in a Williams trivia contest and causing reverberations still felt in the competition today. The story of the wrap-up of this most famous contest can be found on the trivia website, and is as memorable as the question (and answer) is forgettable.
Studying the questions from the contests of December of '96 and 2000, my fears were confirmed. The content of the contest has by now wandered far from its roots in pop culture. The questions defy simple categorization and seem designed more to amuse than to provide a nostalgic challenge. They also seem incredibly difficult.
In the December 2000 contest, the 4th question concerned abominations prohibited in Leviticus, specifically in chapter 11, verse 12. The 6th question was about a vision St. Catherine had of Jesus. The 8th question asked why FDR was portrayed on the dime. The 11th question concerned one of the eight spiritual titles of the pope. Question 20, I quote: "Around 2500 BC, the citizens of Kish elevated a commoner - and a woman at that - to the rank of queen. Kabuba never forgot her roots, and eventually had herself listed in the roster of rulers with her former profession as her title. What was Kabuba's profession?" Who knows this stuff?
There were four sports questions in the entire contest. There were only seven movie questions. And yet, the contest found room to ask what happened to General Boadicea's burial site, to devote a three-point play to Jack the Ripper's victims, to inquire what major change to the electoral college was instituted by the 12th amendment in 1804. It wanted to know how the date for Easter was determined, which two cards of the Major Arcana were missing from the earliest existing deck of Tarot cards (the "Visconti-Sforza deck", natch) and what unusual carved crest adorns the seat of Sir Edmund Hillary in King's Chapel at Windsor Castle. These may all be semi-interesting facts, but, to me, they're not trivia. Or at least, they're the trivia of academe, not pop culture.
The tone of the contest has also undergone a quantum shift since '76. Going through the transcripts for these modern contests, every question reads like it's auditioning for a David Letterman Top 10 List. Each one is introduced by a jokey realm and modified by a subrealm. Question #3 begins "Realm: Protecting the Free World; Subrealm: From Things that Suck", followed by a movie question. One of the few sports questions is introduced with "Realm: Sports Greats; Subrealm: As opposed to mere sporting goods." The Lettermanization of the contest, combining breezy hipster humor with arch sexual innuendo, can probably be best summed up by question 63. REALM: The Legend Will Never Die! SUBREALM: Perky Blonds in Battle Gear, QUESTION: In the game "Soul Calibur" Sophitia has a move called "heaven's arch." Describe it. ANSWER: It's a throw in which she leans her opponent over backwards, straddles their face, wiggles, and then jumps on their head. SONG: "Kiss My Sticky" by Betty.
Here I was, hoping to chart the changes in popular culture over time by focusing on the trivia contest, only to discover that, twenty five years later, the contest isn't about pop culture anymore. In '76, only 7% of the questions were announced as "miscellaneous" (outside the five major realms of TV, movies, sports, advertising, or comics). By 2000, 64% were miscellaneous questions; two out of three had nothing to do with the traditional categories. What happened?
Two things, I think. First of all, in the past couple decades, low culture has been co-opted by high culture. American Studies 111 at Williams is now "Television Culture". Comp Lit 224 is "The Feature Film". English 390 ("Four Directors") focuses on the films of Hawks, Hitchcock, Bergman, and Godard. No wonder question 65 in the 2000 contest is from The Karate Kid, Part II rather than Citizen Kane.
Secondly, the Internet has changed everything. Given three or four minutes, web search engines make most any question answerable by anyone with a laptop and a DSL, even if they concern obscure 60's cartoon shows. To prove this I went to Google and typed in "Top Cat - policeman". The closest match was, you guessed it, the Williams College trivia website, where I found my answer (Officer Dibble) almost immediately.
This explains both the esoteric nature of the questions and the flip tone of the contest. Today's players don't need a vast store of trivia knowledge, they just need a G-4 and a fast Internet connection. This encourages the contest organizers to find increasingly outlandish questions, and if the answers, once discovered, turn out to be humorous, so much the better. Indeed, making funny connections seems to have become the point of the contest.
So what conclusions can I draw from all of this? That today's students care more about academia and less about popular culture than we did? That the "old music" isn't as important to them anymore? That the Internet has forever changed the way trivia does business? Ahhh... whatever. The new contests may not be much like the old ones, but they're still fun.
I can attest to this from the contest I played in last December. I had been told this would be an "old school" contest, and it was. I knew a bunch of the questions. I enjoyed a lot of the music (although I could've done without hearing Sean Connery croak his way through the Beatles' "In My Life"). I didn't use the Internet to look up any questions or identify any songs (it was hard enough instant-messaging the answers I did know). And I lasted only four hours. But my partner Tom Gardner soldiered on through the night, and BOMO wound up in 8th place with 76 points. It was the team's highest finish since 1980.
I can't wait until May.