Mainstream Obscurity

"A classic is something everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

Mainstream Obscurity is what happens to a work when it lands on every critic's top 10 list, has fantastic word of mouth on many amateur review sites, and is one of the most truly well-known works in media, yet only one in any random five people have actually seen it. Oh, sure, the facts about the work are so well known that a lot of people might think they've seen it, or might even feel they don't have to see it, but the number of people who have actually experienced it is pretty low comparatively.

When the work has become so famous that "everybody else knows about it" — yet no one has actually read or seen the work, that work is wallowing in Mainstream Obscurity. If the work is considered True Art, and True Art Is Incomprehensible, sometimes people assume that the work will be way over their heads, so they don't even bother.

Even university students studying the subject in question don't read many "classic" works for research. Many philosophical and sociological tomes are dense defenses of their theory and rebuttals to critics. Reading Immanuel Kant's Critique Of Pure Reason front-to-back, for example, is not only time-consuming, but possibly more confusing than reading an informed summary. Explanation  Furthermore, those studying the "pure" sciences or technology will usually never be called upon to look at any seminal scientific works at all, simply because Science Marches On. Not only will the material and conclusions have been repeated, refined and summarised in all of the later books on the subject, but later research will have filled in gaps in the work, pointed out errors and highlighted new areas of study.

People, groups and entire genres can also be swallowed by Mainstream Obscurity. A "famous author" can be widely read, best-selling but largely unread, widely quote-mined or just well known for "being an author".

Iconic movie stars have their image reproduced in so many other places that it is easy to recognise their faces without having to ever watch any of the movies they starred in. And if a character portrayed by an actor (or that version of a character, if an adaptation) becomes more famous than their portrayer, the actor's name may be completely unknown to all except trivia buffs.

Likewise, people can be widely aware of an artistic movement or genre, but unable to describe what it was about, or name any artists or works from it.

It should also be noted that there is a danger in assuming that because they haven't read/watched/heard a work, that no one else has. Likewise, one should not assume that a work is more famous than it actually is.

The reverse of Fan Myopia. Often happens when a Cult Classic becomes so well known for being a cult classic (due to Popcultural Osmosis) that the cult classic becomes mainstream. They may have started as an Acclaimed Flop. This can of course lead to Adaptation Displacement and Beam Me Up, Scotty!. See also Praising Shows You Don't Watch, where people, well, do exactly that. Some of these can also be well-known for historical controversy. See also Small Reference Pools.

Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Studio Ghibli:
    • Spirited Away seems to be pretty well-known since the Oscar win. Still seems to be eternally waiting around on people's Netflix queues.
    • Grave of the Fireflies is a famously brutal depiction of the horrors of war, conveniently explaining why no one ever gets around to watching it.
  • Osamu Tezuka is considered the "God of manga." However there are many people (including anime fans) who know of his legacy and works, but have never read any of them; especially Astro Boy, who is one of, if not the most recognizable manga characters of all time (and the first one to have a successful mainstream anime adaptation).
  • Digimon is well-known as Pokémon's rival series note  — and that's about it. It's rather impressive to be able to even name one Digimon, much less several. note 
    • To add, Digimon itself is only seen as a "rival" of Pokémon in America. In Japan the people know the two are completely different franchises with different focus despite having Mons.
  • Bokurano is well known as "Evangelion but even more depressing", along with being very philosophical, but few people have actually seen or read it.
  • This trope even works in Japan: Ghost in the Shell was met with critical acclaim in Europe and the USA, yet in Japan not so much. So it's no surprise that when Japanese actually talk about it, praising it about its greatness so they can associate with westerners, they might admit to have never actually seen the movie.
  • Air: Everybody knows that Misuzu dies, but not many have actually watched a single episode of the series.
  • Monster is regarded as one of the best anime of all… but not watched by many.
  • Now and Then, Here and There is mentioned a lot, but watched as much as Grave of the Fireflies.
  • CLANNAD ~After Story~: How many people can mention anything other than Nagisa's and Ushio's deaths?
  • Unsurprisingly, Texhnolyze is so dark and depressing that only a handful of people ever bring themselves to watch it.
  • Everyone knows the famous Falcon Punch scene from F Zero GP Legend, but how many have actually watched the series?
  • Within Belgium you have one based on Bakugan Battle Brawlers. Many people in Belgium have heard of it (though not necessarily liked it) and at least know that Bakugan is a game, but it is rare to find someone who has actually played it, let alone has the materials that are necessary to play with it. When a Belgian says that they exclude someone for not having a Bakugan they are simply searching for an excuse to exclude someone without outright telling the reason.
  • Despite being one of the more popular anime series in general, Neon Genesis Evangelion doesn't seem to have been really watched by a lot of people, even many of its so-called "fans". A perfect example is how many fan/hentai artists, on both sides of the Pacific, draw Asuka & Rei alongside each other, friendly with each other, or having sex with each other, when in the actual series not only do they dislike each other, they're almost never even seen in the same scene together (they share no scenes in End of Evangelion).
  • Wolf's Rain is likely writer Keiko Nobumoto's most famous work after Cowboy Bebop, but falls into the category of critically acclaimed and well-known but little seen outside of a small core of diehard fans due to its reputation for being really cryptic and really, really sad.
  • Sure Saikano is known for being depressing, but it isn't actually watched or read that often.
  • Narutaru has a bit of a reputation for its graphic violence and Lolicon-ish elements, but the quality itself is rarely discussed, probably since there aren't a lot of people who have actually read it.
  • Detailed information about Kanon doesn't come up very often either.

    Anthropology 
  • There have been entire ethnic groups or nations of people who have left a profound impact on world history, but whom very, very few non-scholars know about. Or people do know about them, having heard them mentioned somewhere along the line, but they don't know why these races of people are so significant. Sometimes they were household names once, but they have decayed into obscurity. In roughly chronological order:
    • The Sumerians are more or less responsible for creating the entire Western civilization - or, for that matter, any civilization - with their inventions of agriculture, (primitive) writing, cities, and organized religion. They were also one of the very first peoples to brew beer. But have you heard anyone mention the great nation of Sumer recently? Of course not, because today that nation is better known as "Iraq."
    • The Hurrians were contemporaries of the Sumerians, and spoke a similarly baffling language isolate. They were also renowned for their mastery of ceramics and metallurgy - nearly all Sumerian words related to copper are derived from Hurrian - and their hymns survive as the earliest known examples of notated music. Their descendants, the Urartians, are only slightly less mysterious, being the precursors to the Kingdom of Armenia.
    • The Hyksos are so obscure that few who didn't study history would even recognize their name, which is itself merely an Egyptian term meaning "rulers of foreign lands" because we still have no idea what they called themselves. But they were the first semi-civilized people to tame and ride horses, as well as the inventors of the chariot and the composite bow.
    • The Phoenicians have gotten especially short shrift. This Semitic nation that inhabited present-day Lebanon invented (albeit with quite a few modifications) the very alphabet in which almost every single book or website (including this one) in the entire Western world is written. As if that were not enough, they also invented soap. Plus, they were responsible for the founding of the daughter nation of Carthage in North Africa - and famous Carthaginians have included the great general Hannibal, the esteemed Christian scholar St. Augustine, and Hanno (the first Westerner to explore sub-Saharan Africa). But if you stopped the average person on the street and asked that person to name all the ancient civilizations they could think of, chances are the Phoenicians would be pretty far down the list - if they were mentioned at all.
    • Who are the Bantu? The original, black-skinned inhabitants of the nation of Cameroon (or possibly Nigeria) in west-central Africa, who subsequently spread throughout the entirety of the southern and western quadrants of the continent and established "black people" - who are certainly very well known throughout the world today - as the preeminent race of Africa. But you'll probably never overhear someone say, "There goes a Bantu!" if they see a person of African descent walking down the street, unless the speaker is a very stereotypically racist white South African.
    • The Sami are a people whom you've certainly seen and whose cultural presence you've felt every year, but about whom you've probably never heard. How can that be? Because these minority inhabitants of northern Scandinavia (previously called by the more recognizable name "Lapps") were the first tribe of people to tame and herd reindeer - so without them, no Rudolph. And for that matter, the popular image of what Christmas elves look like is liberally inspired by the Sami national costume.
    • You've probably heard of the Mongols, thanks to the notoriety of Genghis Khan: the barbarian king who conquered practically all of northern Asia and was the textbook example of extreme cruelty before Adolf Hitler came along. But when was the last time the present-day country of Mongolia made the news? Some people might not even be able to tell you where Mongolia is, even though fossils of Velociraptor - arguably the most famous dinosaur of the past two decades - were found there in the 1920s.
    • If asked to name as many aboriginal peoples of Latin America as possible, odds are you'd mention the Mayas, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Toltecs, or even the Olmecs before you ever thought of the Arawak tribes of northern South America and the Caribbean. Which is a shame, because they were the Indians who greeted Christopher Columbus and who introduced European settlers in the New World to canoes, maize (corn), and tobacco.

    Art 
  • Most artists are only known for one or two works. The amount of people who actually saw their works in a museum is much lower, though granted, it's financially difficult to travel the world for some.
  • Hieronymus Bosch: Painted Hell, but in popular culture this is reduced to just The Garden of Earthly Delights.
  • Leonardo da Vinci: Everybody knows he was a versatile genius who painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. His other paintings are remembered far less well, save perhaps for the Vitruvian Man. And despite everybody knowing he was also a groundbreaking inventor and scientist most people would be able to name any of the stuff he invented, save perhaps for technically accurate anatomical drawings and wings to fly — which didn't work quite as smooth as film adaptations tend to show.
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti: Famous by name, known for the Sistine Chapel, David and the Pietà, but not for much more.
  • Pablo Picasso is best known as a cubist painter, even though he also painted in other styles and was also a skilled sculptor.
  • Salvador Dalí: Better known for his Badass Mustache and a few Cloud Cuckoo Lander paintings with melting watches than anything else.
  • Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Made a lot of paintings with dancing peasants, which is only a chunk of his versatile work.
  • Peter Paul Rubens is often reduced to "the painter in the Cool Hat who painted a lot of obese women".
  • Gustave Doré: Illustrated fairy tales… even though he only illustrated one fairy tale book in his entire life.
  • Edvard Munch: The Scream is one of the most recognizable paintings in the world, but most people wouldn't able to tell who painted it, let alone tell anything about his life or other paintings.
  • Auguste Rodin: Sculpted The Kiss and The Thinker, but the rest of his life and actions are far less known to the public.
  • Edgar Degas: He painted little ballet dancers. That's all the general public knows about him.
  • Edward Hopper is only known for "Nighthawks".
  • Vincent van Gogh: He is probably better known for supposedly cutting off one of his ears than for his actual work.
  • Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec: He was a dwarf who lived in the Moulin Rouge and painted whores. Naming any of his actual works is far more difficult.
  • Andy Warhol: Painted Campbell soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, wore glasses and a wig and made some unwatchable movies. He is very recognizable, but most people don't know anything about his personality. Appropriately in light of this trope, he's also the guy who brought the idea of everyone having "fifteen minutes of fame" into the public consciousness, to the point that everyone recognizes the phrase even if they don't know who created it.
  • You might not have ever heard the name of Roy Lichtenstein, the pioneering pop artist. But you've almost certainly seen some of his paintings. They're so campy and easy to spoof that they often turn up as memes.
  • 19th century British cartoonist John Tenniel is recognizable to many people as the illustrator of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Ask people what else he has done and nobody has any clue. Many people don't know that before he illustrated "Alice" he was already a well known cartoonist for the magazine Punch.

    Comic Books 
  • If you ask any random person on the street to name a superhero most could at least identify Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and other well known heroes but how many non-comic geeks have actually read any comics about any of these iconic superheroes? Sure, part of their success is from screen adaptations, (especially Superman and Batman), but they're still best known as comic book characters through and through, aren't they?
    • Media adaptations of comic book and comic strip heroes often feature animated openings or montage shots of comic books (e.g. the 1980 Flash Gordon film featured shots of the Alex Raymond strips), so that explains this knowledge of the native medium for many of these properties. By contrast, has any Zorro film featured a shot of Zorro's first cover appearance in Argosy All-Story Weekly, a prose magazine?
    • Relatedly, everyone has the same general concept for the storylines of the heroes, but said concept is stuck somewhere in the 1970s to 1980s. For example:
      • Ask anyone on the street who Robin is, and if they know at all, it'll be Dick Grayson, who's been Nightwing for the last 30 years. They'll likely be completely unaware that there's been up to five other Robins since then, depending on which comics you're talking about.
      • They'll know that Lois Lane is Clark Kent's friend and Superman's girlfriend who has no idea they're one and the same, unaware that they've been married for some time, and that Lois knows Clark's secret, much less that it unhappened, or that Lois rediscovered Clark's secret and revealed it to the world. And that now, in Rebirth, they came back to the married (and with a child) status.
      • In the introduction to The Death and Return of Superman omnibus, Mike Carlin noted the easiest way to shut down reporters complaining that they were "stealing" Superman from the people was to respond "Well... when's the last time you bought a Superman comic?"
      • Unless they've been in a coma for a decade or two, they'll know who Batman is. But you'd be hard-pressed to find someone outside the hardcore fandom who knows that he now has a ten-year-old son.
      • They'll probably be familiar with Spider-Man, but they probably won't know that he and Mary Jane are no longer together, or that MJ was actually his fourth girlfriend.
      • They'll probably at least be aware of Green Lantern, but probably won't know that there are now lantern-themed characters for every color in the rainbow.
      • It was particularly notable when the Justice League TV show was launched in 2001 using John Stewart as the Green Lantern. People were all upset about them changing Green Lantern for a black man out of Political Correctness. People didn't know that the character was nearing 30 years old, having taken up the ring in the '70s. Which, due to the popularity of the Justice League show, led to a large number of people confused by the Green Lantern trailer, wanting to know why Green Lantern wasn't black!
    • Ancillary merchandise actually helps in this matter greatly, keeping these properties that rarely make the best-seller lists of books in the public eye. Go into a discount store, Wal-Mart, etc. and look for the tie-in items such as coloring books, plastic cups, ice cream, etc. In the case of Superman and perhaps Dick Tracy (actually a comic strip hero, which made him less restricted in access) and a few others, cut rate DVD copies of public domain films and shorts from the 1930's and 1940's also help.
    • One coloring book about the X-Men, released in the late '80s, advertised the team of being made up of Professor X, Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler and "Ariel" (Kitty Pryde, most commonly known as Shadowcat). This line-up was in place for about a year in the very early '80s.
    • The Onion uses this as the joke in a TV spot about the Green Lantern.
  • If you ask a random person who the quintessential Avengers are, you'll probably be told Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, Captain America and… Incredible Hulk. Not so fast on that last one, there. Yes, he's rejoined the team in recent comics published after the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but unless you're a reader you likely don't know that prior to that the Hulk was a member of the team for exactly two issues, and unlike other team members did not rejoin for over 40 years after quitting. These same people also tend to believe that Captain America was a founding member of the team.
    • A weird reversal of this occurred when The Avengers was released. A large number of fans believed that the film was odd for not featuring Wolverine or Spider-Man, even saying it's not the Avengers without them. Despite the fact that they were largely the two Marvel heroes most recognizable to the general public, both of them had only been full-time Avengers since 2005, and in fact a good 40 years of Avengers history barely included either of them (Spider-Man became a reserve member in the early 90's but was rarely used unless all team members were being called in).
  • Any true fan of comic books as a genre can tell you that Maus is a brilliant, powerful treatise on the Holocaust using cats and mice as stand-ins for Nazis and Jews—all while never seeming the slightest bit childish or reductive. Most true fans of comic books can also tell you that they really mean to get around to reading Maus some day.
  • The Barry Allen version of The Flash is widely credited with kicking off The Silver Age of Comic Books in 1956 but for most of the actual Silver Age he was never a top seller — through out the 1960s all of the Superman stable outsold him by very heavy margins, with even the spinoff Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane titles selling nearly twice as many copies per year.
  • While the New Gods are not exactly mainstream, they are certainly this among American superhero comic fans. Many people have praised the characters and the story's ambitious nature, yet never seem to have actually read the original comics. (Granted, it took a long time for them all to be collected.)
  • Matt Groening's Life in Hell strip, an obscure precursor to his more famous offerings. Most Simpsons fans know it exists, or can at least recognize the art style, but far fewer could name any characters or state what it's about. This is lampshaded in one of the comics, where Groening meets a fan who claims to love all his work, but doesn't even recognize Life in Hell.
  • Many of the iconic newspaper comic heroes of the 20th century fall into this category:
    • Bécassine: In the French speaking world Bécassine is an icon, one of the oldest comics around. But even though she is easily recognizable in France, most people of later generations have likely never read any of her stories.
    • Krazy Kat is a cat who gets zipped with a brick by a mouse. Most comic book fans know this, but how many people have actually read these comics of an acquired taste?
    • Little Nemo: Everyone knows the scene where his bed is flying through the night or that he falls out of bed in the final panel, but how many people beyond that have ever read the stories?
    • Little Orphan Annie is a well-known early 20th century comic strip with an iconic art style. Despite this pretty much everything anyone knows about it comes from the first film of the musical adaptation.
  • The phenomenon can also be spotted in comic strips that have ended due to Author Existence Failure and are better known as publicity stills than for the comics themselves, which are only read by hardcore comics fans or older people who grew up with them. Examples are: Tom Poes, Pogo, Nero, Corto Maltese, ...
  • Robert Crumb is widely considered to be one of the most influential and important comic strip artists in the world and by far the only underground comics artist to still be a household name. That said, most of the general audience knows him more as that geeky Dirty Old Man in the hat and glasses, an image mostly derived from his comics. In the documentary Crumb (1994) the man himself is giving a slideshow explaining to a college audience the three things he is most famous for, all of them not indicative of the entire scope of his personality and oeuvre: Fritz the Cat, the album cover of Cheap Thrills and the Keep On Truckin emblem. Fritz the Cat is better known nowadays for Ralph Bakshi's film adaptation Fritz the Cat, which Crumb hated and caused him to kill Fritz off permanently in his next comic strip. Cheap Thrills has lead him to be associated with the hippie culture, a subculture he never liked, especially not the music. And Keep On Truckin also gave him legal problems because tax administrators thought he held the copyright, which he didn't. Needless to say: all these three things are more indicative of Crumb's work in The '60s than the more mature and personal, autobiographical work he has made since The '70s.
  • Cartoonist Ronald Searle is best known for St. Trinian's, a cartoon series he only drew for four years in a versatile career that spanned more than half a century. Try to ask anyone what else he has done in his life and you probably get a blank stare.
  • A lot of superhero comics like Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Avengers, Captain America, Captain Marvel, The Flash', Wonder Woman, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Judge Dredd''... are better known through their movie and TV series adaptations than the comics they originally appeared in. Most of the general audience- especially outside North America- knows up to nothing about these characters but: "yeah, they are superheroes who fight crime, I guess." Compare them to series like Superman, Batman and Spiderman, where a majority can at least tell you something about the characters or the back story.
    • Similarly, most people in the USA may know that Tintin and Astérix are universally popular European comics, but know next to nothing about it.
    • On an international scale Manga has the same effect. It has gained in international popularity since the 1980s, but if you aren't a fan of Manga and Anime you probably only know AKIRA, Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z and even in those cases just the names and a few of the characters.
  • Archie Comics is an American icon and the characters are well-known in pop culture. But how many people have read over five issues, excluding popular spinoffs like Afterlife with Archie or Archie vs. Predator? The fact Reggie is often forgotten by people despite being one of the main five characters really shows people that genuinely read Archie vs casuals who know them from word-of-mouth or adaptations.

    Film 
  • Many young people in general will often associate a certain actor or director with their latest work, because they never bother to watch any of their earlier and better works or are even unaware of it. As a result certain iconic actors and directors will often be perceived by younger people as "old, uncool hasbeens" of which they don't understand what made them so important or celebrated in the first place? A good example would be Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, who once appeared in a lot of intelligent cinematographic masterpieces and/or good movies in general, but are nowadays cashing in checks by playing parts in forgettable movies where they just play themselves. (Not to mention playing gimmicky, Large Ham comic-book roles that were often completely anathema to their former screen personae, which many film historians claim began with Marlon Brando's star turn in Superman.) So in that regard they are still recognizable to many people, but mostly for being a tabloid mainstay or someone interviewed at the red carpet, not for their most acclaimed work.
  • In particularly sad instances, an actor will only be remembered as the butt of cheap jokes, such as George Hamilton and his unnaturally tanned skin. Few people under the age of 50 remember Hamilton as a popular comedic actor who played Zorro - and even fewer remember his completely serious role as Hank Williams in Your Cheatin' Heart.
  • Citizen Kane is famous for being "the greatest film of all time." Everyone knows the "Rosebud" scene and the big twist at the end, but not very many people have actually sat down to watch it. The fact that it is a very old, black-and-white classic tends to put people off, and the fact that it's so acclaimed by critics tends to make some people assume that it's a boring, stuffy, impenetrable work, or refuse to watch it out of Hype Aversion. In truth, it has a simple, classical "rise and fall" character arc and its then-innovative camerawork is now commonplace, so it suffers from Seinfeld Is Unfunny rather than incomprehensibility.

    Orson Welles himself is also falling into this category nowadays. Many people know that he once made that "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast that caused a mass panic, that he directed Citizen Kane and that later in life he was an obese bearded cigar smoker doing TV commercials. Ask people what else he did in life and many young people will probably be clueless.
  • The Godzilla films are a particularly good example of this. Due to pop culture status (as well as being one of the biggest movie franchises of all time), it's safe to assume that the majority of people actually know who Godzilla is. That being said, however, try asking someone who isn't a die-hard fan to name at least one Godzilla film and see what happens. Even fans of the genre might not realize that the original Gojira was a dark somber allegory rather than a cheesy "monster on the loose" film, since its original American release as Godzilla (with Raymond Burr) was recut to be exactly that. A subtitled release of the film the Japanese saw back in the 1950s was not available to Americans until this century. It doesn't help that, due to Western media's overbearing popularity, not to mention accessibility, over Japanese productions, a lot of people are only familiar with the 1998 American remake (which, while mostly hated in its native country, was actually quite successful in international markets) and have little to no idea that the franchise in reality originated from Japan and has had a firm fanbase way before that movie. This was mitigated a bit with the release of the more recent American film — at least in that more people know about its roots, not that they would actually want to watch any of the "shoddy Asian rubber monster movies".
    • Even the 2014 film still receives the effect of this. For instance, plenty of people tend to complain about Godzilla's short appearances, which is actually as much as how he appeared in the earlier films.
  • Many Academy Award-nominated films are like this, particularly ones nominated for Best Picture. The titles and (usually) the premises become known in the American conscience when they're nominated, and yet, few people can say they've seen more than a couple, maybe even any. This results in many people buzzing about films they have never seen, and probably never will, and this carries on into a new batch of films the following year as the previous winners and nominees are largely forgotten.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Pop culture status has made it so that mainstream audiences are somewhat familiar with the basics of the film. And everyone knows it's the uncrowned queen of Cult Classic films, as Danny Peary would say. That, and, playing the Time Warp every Halloween helps. However, again, ask someone who isn't a fan what the plot of the movie is. Most likely, the answer you'll get is, "Tim Curry in drag." The Audience Participation within the film also counts. Sure, people in general know you're supposed to use props and yell certain lines when watching the movie. But, ask anyone who isn't a die hard fan what you're supposed to say and when.
  • How many people have actually seen Soylent Green? But everyone knows that it's made of people.
  • The Seventh Seal is frequently referenced, parodied and the Trope Namer for Chess with Death, but is watched about as frequently as Citizen Kane. (Which might be for the best, as it is a very, very depressing film.)
  • The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet are all famous for being Film Noir classics, but few people have seen them these days. "The stuff that dreams are made of" has even been used in jewelry commercials. Considering the context, this is either one big face palm or hilarious to those who have seen the film.
  • Most people will know Eraserhead is one of the most creepy, Mind Screwy films ever and has a guy with a weird electrified hairstyle in it, but won't have a clue about what happens in the movie. Of course, even people who have seen it couldn't really tell you much of what it's about, because, again, Mind Screw.
  • Plan 9 from Outer Space is the most famous cinematic example of So Bad, It's Good. Yet more people are familiar with it thanks to Tim Burton's Ed Wood than those who've actually seen it. Outside the USA most people who saw "Ed Wood" are probably not even aware Ed Wood really existed and his films were ''really'' that badly made.
  • The Birth of a Nation. It's monochrome note , silent, shot at a jerky 16 frames per second, and 190 minutes long. Clips from it, and references to those clips, crop up all over the place, but few have the staying power to watch it from end to end. It's also so notorious for the fact that it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and portrays black people in a very negative light that most people are more aware of this sad fact than those would could tell you anything about the actual plot. The controversy is another reason why most people will never want to see this film, unless they are curious about film history. Even in February 2015, when the film celebrated — or would have celebrated — its centennial, nobody gave a hoot, even though its release could with good reason be said to mark Hollywood's birth, resulting in the 100th anniversary of American movies as well.
  • Dirty Harry is often considered the quintessential gritty cop movie, and is so well known that to this day people make Dirty Harry references whenever Clint Eastwood's name is mentioned. Everyone knows that Eastwood played the role, and they know that he said "Go ahead, make my day" when begging a perp to give him an excuse to shoot him. They're also familiar with his catch phrase "You feelin' lucky, punk?", even though that's not what he said, nor was it a catch phrase. They know he and his chief were constantly at odds, and...that's about it. Your average person could not name any of the films aside from the first one, the supporting cast, or even Harry's last name! Callahan, for the record.
  • Though 2001: A Space Odyssey is consistently considered a film classic, and most people recognize the calming red orb of HAL9000 and will quote him on command, relatively few have the patience to sit through one of the slowest and most mind boggling movies ever made.
  • On an individual level, James Dean's career. He's one of the most iconic images of America, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone younger than who was a teenager in the 1950s who's watched Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, or Giant — and even more hard-pressed to find someone who realises that those three films are his entire movie career.
  • Everyone knows who Marilyn Monroe was, what she looked like, and that a grate blew up her dress once, but how many people under the age of 30 have actually seen her films? One of those, Some Like It Hot, is often brought up as one of the greatest film comedies — in fact, an American Film Institute list in 2000 named it the funniest movie ever — but it's rarely talked up otherwise unless a reviewer is making comparisons between it and any other comedy in which the main characters masquerade as the other gender. All the other films, of course, get even shorter shrift. How many people know that Marilyn once played a villainess? Or that she played a psychopath?
  • Can you describe what one of Shirley Temple's films was about without saying something like, "Well, she sang 'Animals Crackers In My Soup' in some movie I don't know the name or plot of"?note  She is more recognizable as a 1930s Hollywood glamour icon than the amount of people who saw her movies.
  • Probably more people know that Old Yeller got shot and that everyone who had a heart cried about it than saw the original Disney film (or read the book it was based on).
  • Everybody is able to recognize Charlie Chaplin and knows he starred in slapstick movies. But for modern audiences: how many people have actually ever watched and enjoyed any of his films compared to his international fame? Let alone those who know he didn't really look like the Tramp in real life.
  • The scene in Safety Last! where Harold Lloyd is hanging from a clock is far more famous than the rest of this film, let alone Lloyd himself.
  • Buster Keaton: His poker face and the scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. in which he is nearly crushed by a falling house are iconic, but how many people besides film buffs have watched any of his films?
  • The Marx Brothers are famous to their dedicated fans and people who actually sat down and watched any of their movies. To the modern, general public Groucho's face may ring a bell, his and Harpo's names may too, but that's about it. Some of their scenes are well-known, like Why a duck?, the mirror gag from Duck Soup and the crowded stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, but not everybody may be able to point to them as the originators.
  • W.C. Fields: Nowadays he is probably more famous as a drunk bulbous nosed man in a high hat in photographs than for any of his films. Which is a shame, because his cynical style holds up much better with today's crowds than many of his contemporaries.
  • Fatty Arbuckle was one of the more famous comedians of the silent era, but is better known now for a sex and murder scandal (in which he was actually innocent) than any of his films.
  • Woody Allen: A world famous and instantly recognizable film director about whom most people know just a few things: he is Jewish, his romantic comedies mostly take place in New York and supposedly feature a lot of scenes where he is visiting a psychiatrist. Apart from intellectuals and film critics most people have hardly ever seen a film of his, let alone one-tenth of his entire oeuvre (which has far, far more variety than the above assumptions suggest).
  • Peter Sellers: The general public recognizes him more as Inspector Clouseau from the original run of The Pink Panther movies than any of his other work, even Dr. Strangelove — and forget about recognizing him from his radio work, comedy records, and even TV appearances. Part of it is that he enjoyed playing so many different roles and almost never appeared as himself in public without instantly getting into a character of some sort. Thus, he is an example of an actor better known for his roles than himself. His penultimate film and the one that many critics and colleagues regard as having his greatest performance — Being There — is downright obscure at this point.
  • Un Chien Andalou: The eye-slicing scene is infamous. The rest of the plot (well, what there is of it) is virtually unknown by most people, who probably don't even know it's a short film. Worse, there is also the misperception that they really did slash that poor woman's eye, when in fact the eye belonged to a (dead) horse.
  • Many Exploitation Films are better known for their outrageous titles and reputations than the number of people that actually saw them.
  • Describe a decaying old car, or any desolate road in a desert, or a highway pursuit, as being 'like something out of Mad Max', and most people will instantly know what you mean though they have probably never seen any of the movies. Indeed, most people don't even realize that the first Mad Max film isn't even set After the End.
  • "Singin' In The Rain" may be one of the most well-known song and dance routines in the world, but how many people have watched the entire movie (or many other Gene Kelly musicals for that matter?) And certainly nobody remembers "That's Entertainment", the film it originated from.
  • Being John Malkovich has an in-universe example with the titular actor (who plays himself). Everyone in the movie admires John Malkovich immensely, and they seem convinced that he's one of the world's greatest living actors. None of them can actually name a movie that Malkovich has been in (except "that jewel thief movie," which Malkovich insists he wasn't in).
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: Yes, despite being one of the biggest blockbusters and featuring probably the most iconic, recognizable, and easily namedropped fictional extraterrestrial of all time, E.T. is beginning to become one of those movies everybody knows about, but younger generations don't watch. Its 20th anniversary theatrical reissue in 2002 was a notorious box office disappointment; Spielberg's decision to tweak the original's fine special effects with CGI and Bowdlerise certain scenes/lines was highly unpopular. However, the original Star Wars trilogy's special edition cuts in 1997 were far more CGI-altered yet financially successful, keeping the franchise going strong. The word franchise may be key — unlike many hits of The Blockbuster Age of Hollywood, E.T. has never had prequels or sequels. And aside from the novel The Book of the Green Planet and a ride at the Universal Studios parks, there's no Expanded Universe. (The nature of the story also precludes heavy merchandising, with E.T. himself the only "toyetic" character.)
  • Everyone still snickers whenever infamous and iconic porn and erotic movie classics like Deep Throat, Behind The Green Door, Debbie Does Dallas or Emmanuelle are mentioned. Back then they were blockbusters, but since the end of the 1970s most of these porn classics haven't been watched or enjoyed by anyone. All of them have dated badly and most modern viewers will probably not get how these mediocre pictures ever managed to become such blockbusters, so to many people nowadays they are titles.
    • Many porn actors like Ron Jeremy, John Holmes, Traci Lords (who is no longer even a porn actress and would rather forget she ever was), Linda Lovelace, La Cicciolina, Lolo Ferrari,... are also better known as punch lines in film and TV comedies, stand-up monologues and/or comedic blogs than the amount of people who actually saw one of their movies. Now that a lot of scenes from porn movies pop up on the Internet out of context and without any credits to the film makers it's even possible that many people may have seen a certain actress or actor reappear in a lot of these films, but have no idea what his or her name is?
    • Pornographic films from The Hays Code era and earlier are even more obscure, primarily because many of them have been out of print for decades. In fact, they're so obscure that for the most part people don't even know of them. The few exceptions are either near-genius-level trivia questions (A Free Ride), movies that were famous for being offensive and/or banned and nothing else (Mom and Dad), or movies famous only because big stars of the era appeared in them (and got in trouble for doing so, of course). A prime example of the latter is Jayne Mansfield in Promises, Promises - released in 1963, and the first mainstream American film since the early 1930s to feature nudity.
  • Akira Kurosawa is the most famous Japanese film director of all time, especially to cultivated cinema fans. That said, how many people have actually watched any of his films and can summarize more titles than just Rashomon or The Seven Samurai?
  • Manoel de Oliveira is world famous as "that director who was over 100 years old and still made movies until he eventually died.'' An amazing feat, but how many of his movies can you actually name?
  • King Kong (1933) remains one of the most iconic and famous films ever made, but few alive today have actually seen it. At the time of its release, the Great Depression did nothing to stop moviegoers from flocking to see it in huge numbers, and it was seen as so revolutionary that the nature of filmmaking itself essentially changed overnight in its wake note ...but a modern viewer without a background in film is far more likely to have seen Peter Jackson's remake (the first remake, from the 1970s, having been almost totally forgotten), or consider the original to be comically dated if they were to stumble across it.
  • Heaven's Gate, the most notorious box office flop in history, even becoming a byword for it. The film destroyed director Michael Cimino's career, nearly bankrupted United Artists, and ended the New Hollywood era of giving directors artistic and creative freedom. It remains notorious, but while many people have heard of it few have actually seen it.
  • Many classic silent films fall victim to this as well, including the aforementioned The Birth of a Nation and the works of the slapstick comedians. While films such as Nosferatu and Battleship Potemkin are highly regarded by critics, film historians, and cinephiles, and continue to garner homages and shout-outs in contemporary media, the vast majority of them go unwatched by mainstream audiences because they are regarded as creaky, dull, or antiquated despite their fame. In particular, Nosferatu is best known to millenials from the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Graveyard Shift".
  • The Jazz Singer is famous for being the first successful sound film and a milestone in cinematic history. Ask any cinephile what they know about the movie and they'll tell you it stars Al Jolson singing in Blackface. Yet most people, even movie fans, have never seen this picture in its entirety and it's not difficult to see why. Apart from the novelty of being the first sound picture it's hardly a cinematic masterpiece and very dated. Jolson himself, by the way, was once one of the biggest singers in the world, but today he is only remembered for appearing in this movie. Some especially naïve people, having seen his blackface pics in long or medium shot (at which range the makeup isn't obvious), have believed that he was black!
  • Many of Andy Warhol's films are notorious in arthouse circles and it's safe to say that everybody has heard of his film "Empire", but nobody — literally nobody — has ever watched it in its entire run. It's not surprising why: it is just a shot of the Empire State Building being filmed for 24 hours straight!
  • Places In The Heart — a.k.a. the movie that won Sally Field the Best Actress Oscar in 1985 is far less famous today than her embarrassingly narmy Oscar acceptance speech, which thanks to Beam Me Up, Scotty! is remembered as "You really like me!" (And who remembers the first film that won her the same honor, 1979's Norma Rae?)
  • Not a lot of people will recognize the movies Paper Moon and The Piano outside the context of Tatum O'Neal and Anna Paquin winning Best Supporting Actress Oscars at a very young age (and in Paquin's case, when talking about her averting the Former Child Star trope).
  • The Pianist (not to be confused with The Piano) is another movie that people remember only because of a young actor's performance and subsequent Oscar win (Adrien Brody). Aside from Brody, the only thing people generally know about the film is that Roman Polanski directed it.
  • Scent of a Woman won Al Pacino his only Oscar, and is seen as controversial due to being seen as a Consolation Award or as snubbing the likes of Denzel Washington and Robert Downey, Jr. It's also known less for the content of the film itself and more for the "HOO-HA" Verbal Tic that the central character utters, something that later became synonymous with Pacino's many late-period bombastic performances.
  • Conrad Veidt originated multiple tropes and lent his face to some of the most memorable villains in popular culture, but few people apart from film buffs and goths have actually watched his films, particularly outside his silent horror ones. Yet everyone knows who Jafar and The Joker are, and has seen characters that look like Cesare. Yep, they're all him.
  • The original Batman (1989) has arguably become this for many younger fans, who prefer Batman Begins and its sequels (as would their parents, since the Nolan films feature less swearing than the Burton films). Tim Burton's '89 blockbuster suffers from a great deal of So Okay, It's Average, since it's neither as realistic as Nolan's trilogy nor as ridiculous as the Adam West TV series, and thus doesn't particularly stand out. Countless people will be able to at least tell you that it's the film in which Batman whispers "I'm Batman" and The Joker asks, "You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" — but they won't be able to give the context of either. Beyond that, the best you can hope for is someone saying something like "Oh, I remember! Wasn't that the one in which Kim Basinger [expect a lot of people to mispronounce that last name] screamed every three minutes?"
  • The same goes for Batman Returns. Everyone remembers it because of Michelle Pfeiffer and her black vinyl Catwoman cosume. But how many people could tell you exactly what Catwoman did in the movie, or for that matter the plot of Batman Returns itself?
  • Many people will very easily identify RoboCop and even the ED-209. A fair share of them remember the fact that it was a pretty violent series. What can come off as quite a bit of a surprise to newcomers to the franchise are the very overt elements of satire throughout the first two films.
  • More people probably know that Jason Voorhees wasn't the killer in Friday the 13th (1980) because of that fact being referenced in the opening act of Scream (1996) than because they remember the plot from the original.
  • Basic Instinct: People know about Sharon Stone's famous "leg cross" scene, although they won't know much else about the movie itself.

    Literature — Prose Fiction 
  • War and Peace is very well known primarily for two things: first, for being an absolute masterpiece, and second, for being a doorstopper over half a million words long. The sheer length scares people away from reading it.
  • Lolita. Her name isn't actually Lolita in the story. It's a nickname for Dolores (Haze), and not even her predominately-used one. Her other nicknames include Dolly & Lo. The book doesn't really live up to its scandalous reputation, either. Perverts looking for a sexual thrill from the novel will be quite disappointed.
  • The Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady. Hands up who has actually read On the Road, Naked Lunch or "Howl"? Certainly, more people know the origin of Steely Dan's name than have actually seen it in Burroughs's book. Worse, these guys are often pictured wearing black turtlenecks and Cool Shades and playing bongo drums. This is in fact a visual stereotype of a "beatnik" most of the Beats would never have taken any part in. The actual characteristic Beat "uniform" would more aptly be blue jeans and a plain white t-shirt! note 
  • The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's most famous work. Referenced frequently in Little Women, and the source of the phrase "Vanity Fair," and those are its biggest claims to fame.
  • Gulliver's Travels: Everybody knows the scenes where Gulliver visits Lilliput. That there happens more in the story than that alone is far less known.
  • Marcel Proust's In Search Of Lost Time. Perhaps the best-known example of a work people never get round to reading ever. This is understandable, as it's one of the longest novels ever written, over one million words.
  • Don Quixote by Cervantes. Although a household name, the classic novel of all time, and the source of the iconic windmill scene, how many people have read the book?
  • Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. Yes, the films were based on a book. No, the book is a well-researched but original work of historical fiction and title character Judah Ben-Hur was not based on a real person of that era. Everyone knows there was a rather brutal chariot race near the end, but that's often as far as it goes. As for actually reading the book or even knowing about it... that's rather less common. And the classic films themselves possess a similar Mainstream Obscurity to Casablanca or Citizen Kane — many people just know that the 1959 film has Charlton Heston, a chariot race and is long as hell.
  • The Marquis de Sade is a very well known author, but in reality is best known for having words (and practices) like "sadism" named after him. Most people give his works a wide berth (if they encounter them at all) because they assume (correctly) that they will be exceedingly nasty. This extends to fans of BDSM literature, many of whom will still find parts of his work to be rather too extreme. Most people won't even be able to name any of his 50-odd works, and those who can will likely cite Justine and/or The 120 Days of Sodom – i.e. the ones with film adaptations.
  • Charles Dickens — With the possible exception of A Christmas Carol, which can be read in an afternoon, more people know the more vivid details than have actually read any of the books, which tend to be lengthy and not exactly easy going. Even A Christmas Carol, despite its brevity, hasn't been read by many people; nevertheless, everyone knows the entire story, due to adaptations of it being par for the course in holiday specials.note 
  • Arabian Nights. Made even worse by the facts that many old translations were heavily bowdlerised. And well known tales like "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves"? Yeah, they weren't originally part of the work, but were added by European translators. So think twice if you think you know Arabian Nights.
  • Zorro presents an interesting case. In the book The History of Mystery by Max Allan Collins, Collins asserts, on page 51, that Johnston McCulley's Zorro rivals Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan for influence. While one can easily find Burroughs novels in mainstream bookstores today, Johnston McCulley's work has fallen out of print. This seems baffling, considering that values dissonance would seem to apply less to Zorro, given that having a Latino (albeit a white Latino) protagonist who seeks retribution for injustice against Native Americans seems progressive. It also seems baffling considering that in the last twenty years, Zorro has had two feature films in theaters, as well as a few TV series, while other properties set in the Old West such as The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy have remained cinematically inert.note  Also, Zorro costumes still remain quite common for children. Despite all of that, Johnston McCulley's books are now rarely in print.
  • The Sherlock Holmes stories. Plenty of people have read them, but far, far more people are aware of him than have read any of them.
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Most people know it's about a guy named Captain Nemo who goes in a submarine and meets/fights a giant octopus. Few could tell you who the narrator and his two friends are, or that Nemo himself is a Sikh.
    • Except Nemo's Indian nationality is NEVER revealed in this book—it is revealed in another of Verne's book, The Mysterious Island. Where in India Nemo is from is also unclear—his true name is supposed to be Prince Dakkar, a son of the Hindu raja of Bundelkund, but also a descendant of the Muslim Tippu Sultan of Mysore. More likely that Verne stitched together what he knew of India and created an improbable mixture of "Indian" backgrounds in Nemo (the character was originally supposed to be Polish and fighting against the Russian oppressor, but France was allied with Russia at the time, so his editor told him to pick an enemy no Frenchman would object to).
    • Nemo however does drop a hint in vol. 2 chapter 3 of Twenty Thousand Leagues:
      "That Indian, Professor, is an inhabitant of the country of the oppressed, and I still belong and shall to my dying breath belong to that country!"
  • More people would be able to identify "Cthulhu" than have actually read an H.P. Lovecraft story, even "The Call of Cthulhu". Most of them are still geeks, so Cthulhu isn't really mainstream yet, but Cthulhu is certainly more well known than the text of the work. Funnily enough, he's not even an especially major power within the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Most people know the names and the basic premise, and the expression for dramatic personality shift that it spawned. There have been over a hundred full adaptations made, and countless references in popular culture, usually involving people quaffing potions and becoming monsters. And how many people know that, unlike in any adaptation in any medium, whether serious or parodic, Jekyll and Hyde being two sides of the same man was a surprise ending?
    • This was, reportedly, the basis for the now-lost film The Janus Head, starring Conrad Veidt. The film kept the story intact but changed the characters' names, so nobody in the audience even realized it was a Jekyll and Hyde adaptation until the end, thus preserving The Reveal.
  • The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. Both were originally written in French, but translations have been published. Both have better-known adaptations but most people are sort of aware that they were based on books (which is more than can be said for Hugo's other well-known title, Les Misérables).
    • Even Les Misérables is not immune considering that a vast number of people wrongly think that it is set during The French Revolution. It's actually set in the June Uprising of 1832, which ironically would itself be completely forgotten today if the actual readers of Les Misérables didn't remember it...
  • Dracula: Obvious, seminal classic of horror, launching an entire and enduring sub-genre, spawning hundreds of adaptations and imitators, and subject to a century's worth of concentrated Adaptation Displacement and Flanderization. Everyone knows Dracula. How many have read it?
  • Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Although the book is sometimes read in schools, most people know so little about the original story that they confuse the names of the creator and the creature. Many people would be surprised to learn that Frankenstein's monster is actually a genius, or that the original text is much more tragedy than horror, or — most startlingly of all — that there is no Igor.
  • Few novels are namedropped in political discussions as often as Nineteen Eighty-Four. According to one survey, it's also the novel most Brits lie about having read.
  • Conan the Barbarian. Thanks to various movies, TV shows, comic books, video games, Frank Frazetta paintings, Terry Pratchett fans, and countless parodies, everyone knows who Conan is. His name has become synonymous with the big, burly, not-too-bright Barbarian Hero who carries a Cool Sword and runs around in a Loin Cloth. Relatively few of those people have heard of Robert E. Howard, let alone read any of the 21 short stories and novellas featuring his most famous character (who's actually a broodingly philosophical and extremely crafty polymath). Even among the few who have read Conan stories, many of them are more familiar with the Bowdlerized versions by L. Sprague de Camp and the later Expanded Universe books written by Robert Jordan than they are with Howard's originals. Most people who haven't instantly think of the film.
  • Played straight with Ian Fleming's novels and short stories featuring James Bond; everyone is familiar with the suave superspy, but comparatively few have actually read any of the original series of books. Averted with the movies, as the great majority of moviegoers have seen at least one of the Bond films at some point during the last 50 years. And even for the people who haven't read the books or seen the films, "James Bond" is still synonymous with "sexy British spy who wears a tuxedo and sleeps with countless beautiful women".
    • Such is the mainstream obscurity that the casting of Daniel Craig outraged many fans with the prospect of a blond Bond. In the book Casino Royale, however, he's not only blond, but he's got a mustache.
  • Catch-22 is much better known for the term it coined than for the novel itself.
  • The Catcher in the Rye. It doesn't help that, in recent years, the novel is more famous (or infamous) by association with Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark David Chapman than for any actual content in the novel. It's truly a shame, because many people who have actually read the book have found it life-changing, thanks to its rather philosophical meditations & ruminations on childhood innocence. It's not just a "dirty" book.
  • Everyone has heard of James Joyce. How many have actually read Ulysses, Finnegans Wake or Portrait of the Artist?note 
  • Sax Rohmer and Doctor Fu Manchu, in that cultural sensitivity has hindered keeping the books in print, though Zebra, Dover and Titan have made efforts, but references to a "Fu Manchu" mustache still occur. Of course, Asian-American civic groups have kept the 1960s Doctor Fu Manchu films off broadcast television, and for the most part, nobody's missing much.
  • Even in serious, academic literary circles, it's often openly admitted that almost no one has actually read Gravity's Rainbow all the way through — despite it being routinely lauded as Thomas Pynchon's supposed seminal work.
  • The Christmas 2012 issue of The Economist described Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier as "the most influential unread novel."
  • David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is on the short list for most acclaimed novel of the past twenty years, and yet it seems to go mostly unread, probably on account of its thousand-page length, enormous cast of characters, extraordinarily dense narrative, and those endnotes; all of these seem to be more famous than any actual events that transpire over the course of the novel. Wallace's essays seem to be more widely read.
  • Most people in the U.S. and Canada are taught in school that Upton Sinclair's The Jungle inspired the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug act but few have actually read the novel. The history surrounding the book is generally considered more noteworthy than the book itself. This may be due in part to the fact that The Jungle, like most of Sinclair's work, is seriously pro-socialist. At the time he was writing, socialism was (almost) a viable political voice in the U.S.; with the passage of time the mainstream of American politics grew less tolerant of left-wing dissent.
  • Moby-Dick. People may know about "crazy" Captain Ahab and that Moby-Dick is the white whale, but who has read it? Who realizes that one of the world's largest coffee chains is named after Ahab's first mate?
  • Many more people have watched the movies based on The Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit than have ever read the original Cult Classic books.
  • There is an in-universe example in the Hyperion series. Martin Silenus wrote a poetry book which became extremely popular and sold three billion copies. Yet another serious poetry work of his — according to him and the publisher, a much better one — only sold twenty four thousand (in a society with over a hundred billion population). His publisher explains that there are less people reading books at all than the number of books sold — but it simply became a fashion to have it at home. Lampshading the trope, she even calls it "Pilgrim's Progress Effect."
  • While "Kafkaesque" is a popular adjective, most people haven't read Franz Kafka's stories, or know much about his writing except that someone turns into a cockroach.
  • Pinocchio, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wind in the Willows, Mary Poppins, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? They all originated as novels. Peter Pan? A stage play, but books followed. The Jungle Book and Winnie-the-Pooh? Short story collections. And ALL of them are best-known to the public via a particular film adaptation (or maybe two, these days) and/or the Disney Animated Canon. Coming to the original texts after those can yield a lot of surprises. (Silver Shoes instead of Ruby Slippers? Peter Pan and Pinocchio are colossal jerks?) So few people realize that there are original, definitive versions of the stories that they become, in the public consciousness, fairy tales and folklore rather than the work of individual authors. Moreover, all of these works have other media adaptations and variations, some to the point of Adaptation Overdosed — especially in their countries of origin — which haven't been subjected to Pop-Cultural Osmosis. (While the best known adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland are still respectively the 1971 musical film and 1951 Disney animation, you might know that Tim Burton directed his own adaptation of Chocolate Factory and a re-imagining of Alice...but what about the stage version of the former Sam Mendes helmed in London?) Some even have sequels by the original author or authorized by their estatenote  that fly completely under the radar. (Willy Wonka took on carnivorous blob aliens in outer space and won? Dorothy and her family moved to Oz?)
  • James Fenimore Cooper was the first American writer to achieve massive commercial success abroad and to exert an influence on the leading writers of his day. The Spy is considered the first substantial novel of American literature and The Leatherstocking Tales are considered classics that for instance shaped The Western. Yet all the average American reader today will remember is that Mark Twain lambasted him in a polemic essay, but never read one of Cooper's books, let alone checked if Twain's sweeping claims are factually correct or not.
  • The Shadow knows ... but virtually no one knows The Shadow. These days, it's a rare bird indeed who has experienced the original Walter Gibson novels, or any of his numerous radio, comic-book, and film adaptations (even the Alec Baldwin joint was ill-attended).
  • Cult book series A Song of Ice and Fire is hardly obscure, but it's best known to mainstream audiences for being the source material of a massively popular TV series, to the point that people know the book series by the show's title. (It helps that the show's name is much shorter, and therefore easier to namedrop.)
  • Pity Uncle Tom's Cabin, now known only as the origin of the slur "Uncle Tom", which actually has little to do with the anti-slavery novel and everything to do with the pro-slavery minstrel parodies of it. Ironically, Uncle Tom's Cabin was, after The Bible, the best-selling book of the nineteenth century in the U.S.
  • War of the Worlds: Everyone knows that the aliens are downright unstoppable by normal means but get sick and die. How many have actually read or watched it?

    Literature — Other 
  • Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's best known plays, many people will probably be able to quote a couple of scenes, like "To be or not to be." But most will never have read the book or seen it performed on stage. They just know that everyone dies, and it had something to do with Yorick.
    • This can be extended to all Shakespeare plays, though a few of them (including Hamlet) are often taught at schools in English-speaking countries (frequently accompanied by field trips to see them performed).
    • The most blatant Shakespeare example is actually Romeo and Juliet. It seems to be remembered by pop culture as a tragic tale of true love, and the "Wherefore art thou Romeo" scene, but otherwise you'd be hard pressed to find someone who knows the plot in any kind of detail.
  • Everyone knows about Sun Tzu's The Art of War, which could arguably be the most well known military book ever, mostly after it was discovered by businessmen. But they almost certainly haven't read it, and probably don't even know that it's very short and reads mostly like a poem.
  • Likewise, Clausewitz' On War and Guderian's Achtung - Panzer! are known for just two things. That they are important works about military strategy and tactics and that they were written by Germans. In the case of "On War", maybe someone will be able to recall its most famous quote — War is the continuation of politics by other means.
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, though it's pretty common reading in colleges, although even there, a few of the Tales tend to be skipped.
  • Paradise Lost. Most people know the name and can quote "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven," though they don't know from the context that it's not supposed to be taken at face value, especially since Satan doesn't really reign anywhere; by the end of the book, Hell is his prison, not his palace.
  • Not a lot of people have actually read Beowulf or The Epic of Gilgamesh.
  • Das Kapital or The Communist Manifesto. Mein Kampf. Quotations from Chairman Mao (a.k.a. The Little Red Book). Wealth of Nations. This trope is a veritable tar pit for influential political works.
    • Understandable for "Das Kapital" (or just "Capital", its English title), since it's a 500+ page book of dense economic theory full of tables and formulae, not amazing socio-economic rhetoric. One section is titled "Circumstances that, Independently of the Proportional Division of Surplus value into Capital and Revenue, Determine the Amount of Accumulation. Degree of Exploitation of Labour-Power. Productivity of Labour. Growing Difference in Amount Between Capital Employed and Capital Consumed."
    • Also understandable for Mein Kampf, which is banned in many places. And in the places where it hasn't been banned, it's generally reputed to be incredibly boring and deeply unpleasant. Even most far-right and Nazi sympathizing people who own a copy use it more to decorate their book shelves.
    • The Communist Manifesto is sometimes read in school, if the teacher or department likes original sources, in part because it's only 45 pages long.
    • The Little Red Book is sometimes outright banned (e.g. in Taiwan, where anti-Maoism is the official ideology), and many languages have no translations. Many places where there is a translation, it's only academic editions. Part of that is that the Book is now out of favor in Chinese communism, regarded as a piece of "left deviationism" and a "cult of personality" (similar disfavor happened to Stalinist works during and after Khrushchev's administration). And while the Little Red Book is still required reading in Chinese high schools, it's doubtful most students retain much considering the Old Shame way modern China treats the Mao era.
    • The Turner Diaries gets this as well. Most people who know of it know of its influence in the Oklahoma bombing and that readers have been known to have been put on an FBI watchlist. Being banned in the United States is probably another factor.
  • On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life by Charles Darwin, more commonly known by its short name The Origin of Species. One good reason for its obscurity is that Science Marches On. Even most evolutionary biologists have not read the book as all the concepts found therein are better and more fully explained in more modern books. However, if more people were better acquainted with it, then fewer people would mistitle it Origin of the Species and believe that it deals mostly with human evolution. For that see Darwin's even more obscure The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.
  • Most of the seminal works in human sexuality like the Kinsey Reports (Sexual Behaviours of the Human Male and Sexual Behaviours of the Human Female) and all the writings of Masters & Johnson. All of their books became bestsellers when first published due to their risque subject matter, but most readers were immediately turned off by the dense data analysis, sociological minutiae and graduate-level physiology material crammed in the books.
  • Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (often shortened to Principia Mathematica or just Principia) is famed in the scientific community as the work that introduced his laws of motion and principle of universal gravitation (among other things). Nobody is advised to go looking for it, however. Not only was it written in Latin, like many learned texts at the time, but Newton deliberately made the presentation difficult and complicated in order to preserve his work from mere dabblers. Also as mathematics has majorly marched on since Newton's day, the proofs (most done by geometry) in the book can be too old fashioned for modern physicists to easily follow. Most of the scientists of the day instead used Pierre Simon Laplace's Celestial Mechanics (published 100 years after Newton's book), which is a reformulation of the Principia in the vocabulary of calculus.
    Newton invented calculus to do physics, but he kept it a secret, and once he knew what the answers were reworked the problems using classical mathematics. Once Leibniz figured out calculus for himself, and published it, everyone just used calculus because it works better.
  • Niccolò Machiavelli. Everyone has heard of him, or at least the adjective that he spawned. Few have actually read the treatise that earned him his reputation, The Prince, and even fewer have read any of his other stuff. This is perhaps the reason why so many people seem to believe that the man was an evil genius who wrote an instruction manual on being a tyrant, when in fact it's considered quite likely that The Prince was a work of satire.
  • Dante Alighieri's Inferno. The basic clues are whether they know it is Italian (English translations can be found online), and that it was just part one of his Divine Comedy, along with Purgatorio and Paradiso note . Even most people who have read Inferno never bother to read the other two books. Bonus points if they know it's 'Inferno' written by Dante, and not just Dante's Inferno. More points to people who are aware that it isn't official church canon; then again, it is the (co-)Trope Namer for Word of Dante.
  • Classical authors, and any work by them that you can name. Many people know the plot of Homer's The Odyssey, but few have actually read a translation of the epic poem. You probably already know what manner of nasty surprise awaited Oedipus Rex, but how many know the rest of the story, or even the name of the author? Homer's Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses — all famous works, but few get further than the names. Only one classical author comes anywhere near managing to avoid this trope — our old friend and multiple trope namer Aesop, whose fables, Bowdlerised as they might be, are still read to kids all over the world.
    • The Coen Brothers managed to adapt The Odyssey into O Brother, Where Art Thou? without ever reading it.
    • Plato's Dialogues used to be required reading in a great many schools, but this has no longer been standard practice anywhere really since the early 20th Century. As a result, popular culture has a dim memory that Atlantis is an island nation that sinks because of hubris, but nobody seems to realize that it's also an allegory Plato made up to prove a point about the power of his ideals of statehood, and not an actual civilization that the Greeks thought actually existed.
    • It should be noted that in most of Europe (meaning France, Belgium and Germany for instance) Latin works avert this due to being taught in Latin classes, which are popular with students seeking higher forms of language education. With Greek works however it is played straight, while they get passing reference in Latin and some excerpts are read in their translated forms they are only feverishly analyzed and studied in Greek lessons, which scare most people off due to the foreign alphabet.
  • Faust isn't a straight example, being derived from German folk legends, with no definitive, seminal work moving it into the literary canon. However, most subsequent works did derive from the plays by Marlowe (The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, 1604) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Faust, 1808/1832), and, more importantly for this trope, the majority of people know Faust entirely through Popcultural Osmosis, and few have read any of the source material.
    • Unless you're German. Unlike most classic works on this page, Goethe's Faust is the one book everyone has to read in school in Germany. Even if it's just a few passages.
    • Bonus points for the fact that the younger generationnote  is more likely to link the name Faust with various Western Animation series of the 2000s and The New Tens.
  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. It is a rather hefty beast, running to six volumes. Historians do read it, as it is still considered authoritative in many respects, and also because it is the earliest such work to actually reference and cite sources. We tropers tend to pick up the title through Popcultural Osmosis, amplified by the fact that every title with "decline and fall" or "rise and fall" is, ultimately, a Shout-Out to it.
  • Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time has sold more than 9 million copies and is probably the first thing people think of when anyone mentions Stephen Hawking (aside from his voice), but is often cited as an example of an "unread bestseller". Hawking mentions this in his 2013 autobiography My Brief History, stating that "It has been suggested that many people bought the book to display on the bookcase or on the coffee table, without having actually read it."
  • The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. Though most people are aware of Freud's major theories, few have read his works.
  • Any scientific text is only on the repertoire for people educated in the theory. For instance everybody knows who Albert Einstein is and that his equation is "E=Mc^2", which is the basis of his theory of relativity. What it actually means is less clear to most of us, let alone the amount of people who tried to read and understand his treatise.
  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which is widely considered one of the greatest autobiographies ever written. Almost no one reads it. For a laugh, just ask around who wrote it.
  • Hunter S. Thompson is the first name that anyone thinks of when the term "Gonzo journalism" is thrown about, and "Fear and Loathing in X" has become a veritable pop culture snowclone, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many who've read the book in question (there's also an element of Adaptation Displacement at play here) or any of his other works. In fact, many so-called "fans" of Thompson like him more for the fact that he was a Cool Old Guy who liked to smoke, drink, take drugs and shoot his gun a lot, rather than having read any of his novels.
    • In the same vein there is William S. Burroughs. Loved by many Rock and Punk Rock fans for being an openly heroin user, yet most have never been able to get past a few more pages of Naked Lunch and are thus unaware that even Burroughs himself wasn't always that positive about being addicted to heroin.
    • Also in the same category is Carlos Castaneda, who is best known for writing a lot of Higher Understanding Through Drugs novels about people taking peyote. Rest assured that most drug enthusiasts haven't even read anything by him.
  • Oscar Wilde is best known for being jailed for being gay and a lot of witty sayings. His work? Not that famous to most people, who seldom read it. Even The Importance of Being Earnest, which still turns up quite frequently in stage and screen adaptations, is little known - even though the standard satirical depiction of snobby social climbers familiar to just about everyone largely stems from the characters in it. (You may not know who "Lady Bracknell" is, but if you saw a parody of her you'd recognize it immediately.)
  • George Bernard Shaw: A man with a Badass Beard who liked to Refuge in Audacity. Does anyone know or attended any of his plays?
  • Samuel Beckett is known for Waiting for Godot and most people know two characters wait for Godot, who never arrives. His other works, however...
  • Many fairy tales also fall into this trope. Most people know only the classic stories and not the more obscure tales by The Brothers Grimm, Arabian Nights, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and/or Joseph Jacobs. Even the more iconic stories are better known in bowdlerised versions, made popular by Walt Disney and Shrek, which often have little to do with the originals. The general public has never read the entire collected fairy tales of these authors from the first page until the last and would probably be amazed that a lot of these stories aren't exactly that child friendly due to Values Dissonance.
  • Nostradamus' Prophecies: Many people have heard of Nostradamus and know he predicted future events, but the amount of people who've actually tried to read his "Prophecies" (even in translation) is much, much lower. Anyone who ever did quickly comes to the conclusion that none of it is as clear, accurate and specific as his reputation pretends it to be.
  • Most people have heard of Edgar Allan Poe, a.k.a. the guy who invented the gothic horror genre. Not so many have actually read any of his works. Even fewer know of his poetry (except The Raven), parodies, detective storiesnote , or fondness for cryptography.
  • Rosemary Wells is known as the creator of Max and Ruby. But not that many people have read the original book versions or read other books written or illustrated by Wells.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This is true of virtually the entire Joss Whedon oeuvre: his film of The Avengers was his very first work to achieve mainstream popular success. The foremost example is Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Because of its attractive star and support from critics, it's not exactly ignored by the press. The name also makes it very memorable. Finally, there's generally a lack of A) canonical vampire slayers, and B) female leads in genre programs, so Buffy the character usually finds a niche in pop culture conversations. However, the show itself was never highly watched in its prime. People also don't remember some of the highlights of Whedon's early career, such as writing a good deal of the dialogue for Toy Story. And practically no one has ever heard of his father and grandfather, even though they were also television writers (and the grandfather actually wrote for Leave It to Beaver!).
    • Ironically, the above also applies to the 1992 film that introduced the world to the Buffy character in the first place. There are probably plenty of non-Buffy fans who are vaguely aware of its existence, having maybe seen it in a video store once or twice...but they couldn't mention anyone who was in it, despite one of those people being Luke Perry. Or another one of those people being Paul Reubens. Or two more of those people being Ben Affleck and Hilary Swank!
  • The CW seems to be all about this. "TV to talk about," but not necessarily TV to see. Gossip Girl, for all its buzz, rarely draws more than a couple million viewers a week. Averted with Supernatural and Arrow to an extent.
  • Likewise, AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad are standard name-dropping fare for people wanting to seem cultured, but continue to get mediocre audiences (even for cable) for shows with so many Emmys. Though the latter ultimately averted this near the end of the series note  Having its first 5 seasons streaming on Netflix and excellent word-of-mouth no doubt helped to promote it to a wider audience in time for the Series Finale.
  • Arrested Development was a hit with critics and all the buzz in the media. It still had few viewers — in fact, it was literally the lowest-rated show of the year in its first two seasons — and was eventually cancelled.
  • Veronica Mars was frequently mentioned in the context of "The fact that this show is struggling is proof that humanity is in trouble," yet its ratings were always mediocre. It frequently made lists of "The Best Shows You're Not Watching," but no one really got the hint except those in The Netherlands, where it aired on the mainstream network Nederland 3 and became a ratings hit.
  • There are very few people who have seen acclaimed shows like The Wire in full, yet because it is the general opinion of critics, they immediately proclaim them "the greatest TV show ever made" after watching the first few episodes. Which is silly, given that it's a very slow-burning show which takes several episodes to get going. In general, shows on HBO and Showtime tend to have this problem, in part because they are higher tier networks which people have to pay extra for, thus meaning that most people can't see them legally until they come out on DVD.
  • This often occurs with certain episodes of some TV shows, many people have probably seen these shows since they often relive in syndication and on TV Land long after cancellation, but not necessarily episodes often cited as classics.
    • Most people could probably say that "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" is commonly considered the best I Love Lucy episode, but not anything beyond about it besides the obvious said in the title.
    • Similarly The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode "Chuckles Bites The Dust" has often been cited as one of if not THE funniest TV episode of all time...but how many who are aware of that "fact" have even seen it or any episode of the show? In a similar vein the show's theme song and opening sequence are far more recognizable than anything about the actual show.
    • Even the case for more recent shows. Everyone who was born before or during Seinfeld was on the air has seen an episode in syndication at least once, but that's not necessarily "The Soup Nazi". However everyone can state the basic premise of the episode or quote the character's famous catchphrase.
    • Likewise, the two Friends episodes everybody cites when talking about the show are "The One With The Embryos" and "The One Where Everybody Finds Out." Outside of hardcore fans, how many would be familiar with, say, "The One Where Ross Hugs Rachel"?
    • Ellen is almost always thought of as "that show where the lead character came out". If you were very young or not yet born in the '90s, you might be forgiven for assuming it was, from beginning to end, a show about a woman coming to terms with her sexuality, when in fact for three seasons it was a somewhat run-of-the-mill Seinfeldian "comedian gets a sitcom"-type show, and it wasn't until the end of the third season that she came out, then spent exactly one season focusing on her being an out lesbian before being cancelled.
  • Everyone knows Twin Peaks was weird and focused on the question of who killed someone named Laura Palmer, but not much beyond that is remembered. This may be for the best, since it prevents the killer's identity from becoming common knowledge, allowing new viewers to properly experience the mystery for themselves. And it actually got terrific ratings in its day, and has only become this trope more recently.
  • The Prisoner was the show with the guy and the giant balloon, right? And he had, like, a jacket, and he was a number or something?
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: most people know Monty Python only for their films and even in that case solely for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The amount of people who actually watched the TV series is far lower. It's safe to say that although Monty Python has a small, but dedicated geeky fan base the general public has probably only watched about half an episode of the in total four seasons before deciding it's too weird or they just didn't get it. Probably more people are familiar with their most popular and accessible individual sketches, like the Dead Parrot, Lumberjack Song, Nudge Nudge and The Ministry Of Silly Walks, which are frequently compiled out of context — and often heavily edited — on DVDs or web video channels than the more obscure Reference Overdosed Anti-Humor sketches.
    • Similarly John Cleese and Michael Palin are the only Pythons most people can recognize by face and name. The others' faces will ring a bell if you've watched any of their episodes or films, but only dedicated fans will be able to name them.
    • There are also many (primarily non-British) people who have never seen the TV show or the films, and are (passingly) aware of the Python phenomenon as merely a crude pastiche of countercultural Deranged Animation and quirky humor that only nerds could possibly understand. Many assume it's all completely incomprehensible and don't bother to ever watch it.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series: Despite being extremely popular among geeks most general audiences will likely only recognize Spock and Captain Kirk and be familiar with the phrase "Beam me up, Scotty", not much else. But at least these characters have some fame among people who don't watch the series. Compared to the original Star Trek the follow-up Star Trek: The Next Generation is far less well known and the only character who might be recognized is Captain Picard.
  • Degrassi: A cultural phenomenon in Canada and a cult classic in the U.S., but to mainstream audiences is best known as the show that Aubrey "Drake" Graham was on before becoming a rap megastar. People may vaguely remember his character was in a wheelchair, but nothing else.
  • Just about everybody in the world knows who the Power Rangers are, but the only incarnation everyone can identify is Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, to the point that if you mention "Power Rangers" to somebody it will probably be the first thing that comes to mind. But with that being said, it's extremely difficult to find non-fans who can name any of the other seasons.
  • Victorious was one of Nickelodeon's most popular kid coms during its 2010-13 run. To most people outside the fanbase, it's only known for being the show Ariana Grande was on before she became a pop superstar. Funny thing is, she wasn't even the star of the show, Victoria Justice was.
  • The X Factor is known outside the U.K. almost exclusively for being "that show that One Direction were formed on before they became famous".
  • Wizards of Waverly Place from the Disney Channel is well-known for being the show that launched Selena Gomez' career as a pop star, and not much else.
  • Hannah Montana is an even bigger victim of this than Victorious or Wizards. Even when the show was still running, it was famous for being Disney Channel's flagship franchise, and the pop idol it spawned with the title character, but not a lot more. It was to the point that people would call Miley Cyrus "Hannah Montana" even when the show had nothing to do with it. Nowadays, it's best known for being the show Cyrus was on before she later became a solo pop star and was Overshadowed by Controversy in 2013 for her infamous behavior. To this day, few people can actually name any of its characters besides the title character (including the "normal" persona of the lead character, Miley Stewart) or its other five lead actors (with the possible exception of Billy Ray Cyrus; in the context of being the "Achy Breaky Heart" guy or Miley's dad rather than being on the show), or know anything besides the basic premise, yet they know it exactly for what the show would spawn into.
  • Malcolm in the Middle: Although it was a very popular sitcom when it was airing, it is today primarily known for being the show that Bryan Cranston was on before he was in Breaking Bad.
  • The Bill Engvall Show is only known for being the show that Jennifer Lawrence was on before she became a megastar. In fact, Engvall himself, despite being a popular comedian of the "blue-collar" movement, is really only now remembered for that little piece of trivia.
  • That '70s Show: Although it still is a Cult Classic, mainstream audiences probably know it better as the show that Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, and "that girl from Orange Is the New Black" (Laura Prepon) were on before becoming more famous.
  • The Mickey Mouse Club is overall mostly known for the theme song and "Mouseketeers". The '90s version is only known to the mainstream for Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera appearing on the show before they became household names. (It isn't nearly as well known that Ryan Gosling was on the show as it is with the former three). Amusingly, not only were none of them original cast members (the show actually premiered in the very late '80s), but the first three weren't even the first pop stars who had their careers launched by the program. ("The Party", anyone?) The 1950s original? Good luck finding anyone under the age of 65 who remembers it for anything other than Annette Funnicello boob jokes.
  • The Secret Life of the American Teenager is known for precisely two things: Being Shailene Woodley's old show before her star-making turns as Tris Prior and Hazel Grace Lancaster. and Molly Ringwald being on it long after the Brat Pack days were over.
  • Anything related to Doctor Who prior to its revival in 2005. More people know it for scaring kids enough to make them hide behind the sofa despite its cheesy special effects than for its plot lines. Additionally, there are a number of individual stories that suffer from this as well. For instance, more people can tell you that "The War Games" introduced the Time Lords in its final episode than can describe the plot of the first nine episodes of the story leading up to it.

    Music 
  • A lot of Classical Music. The composers are often more famous household names than any of their works and even in those cases their operas, symphonies and concertos are reduced to only a few recognizable notes and/or melodies that are often more associated with their use in animated cartoons, films and advertisements than the works themselves.
  • And before we get snobby: some dedicated classical music fans may have never attended a classical concert or an opera in their entire life. Sometimes they only like a work or a composer, because they own a CD that compiles a few famous snippets from their most popular work.
    • Johann Sebastian Bach is widely seen as a high point of classical music, but the most recognized work by him is Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, "Air On A G-String" (from Orchestral Suite No.3), Badinerie (from Orchestral Suite No.2), Bourrée (from Partita No.1 for solo violin), suites for solo cello, and the Brandenburg Concertos. His "Johannes Passion" and "Matthaüs Passion" are widely seen as his masterpieces and often performed, but haven't penetrated popular culture as much.
    • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has a huge body of work, but is mostly reduced to the first few notes of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", the "Requiem", the "Queen of the Night" chorus from The Magic Flute, his 40th Symphony, his 25th Symphony and Rondo Alla Turca. To most people he is just a Child Prodigy in a wig. And Amadeus hasn't done his reputation much good either. The general public nowadays has the impression he was a cross between a genius and a Man Child with an Annoying Laugh who spoke with a very thick American accent.
      • Similar to Mozart, Antonio Salieri is a well known composer to anybody who ever saw Amadeus, but most people know him solely for the very dubious claim that he was Mozart's rival and so jealous of his talent that he killed him. Naming or humming any of his works will be impossible for most people.
    • Most people can recognize the first few notes of "Für Elise", Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and his Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony, but have never heard the rest of the music that follows. Everyone knows Beethoven's grumpy face and knows he was deaf. That's it.
    • Antonio Vivaldi is best known for The Four Seasons, but usually only Spring. That he wrote other music too is totally unknown.
    • Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss is best known for the "Sunrise" segment, famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the rest of the score is totally unknown.
    • Edvard Grieg's score for Peer Gynt is often reduced to simply the "Morning Mood", "Aase's Death", "Anitra's Dance" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King". That the work has more pieces than that is usually not known, let alone that he composed other stuff too.
    • Igor Stravinsky is well known as one of the most famous, important, influential and versatile classical composers of the 20th century. Despite that he is just known for snippets from The Firebird and The Rite of Spring and in the case of the latter only for the huge riot that broke out during the premier in 1913. That he also composed less brutal music is mostly unknown, let alone that the majority of his oeuvre was in fact quite accessible neoclassical music.
  • Edgard Varèse has some fame among Avantgarde Music fans, but he is better known as the main inspiration to Frank Zappa than for his own work. Even hardcore Zappa fans may have never actually listened to any of Varèse's scores.
  • Richard Wagner. You definitely know "Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walküre and the "Bridal Chorus" from Lohengrin (though probably without the words), and you might know "The Pilgrims' Chorus" from Tannhäuser (though it isn't performed in one chunk like that in the opera) or the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, but that will be about it. He wrote 113 compositions, including 13 operas (most of which were rather too long, making their Mainstream Obscurity understandable).
    Wagner has great moments but dull quarter hoursGioachino Rossini
    • What little most people know of Wagner's music is because it's been used in other places—Apocalypse Now and the Looney Tunes cartoon "What's Opera, Doc?" for "Ride of the Valkyries," and weddings for the "Bridal Chorus". Check out the Classics section of Standard Snippet for these and other bits of Wagner that you never knew you knew.
    • "Liebestod" is an example on its own. It is one of the more famous bits of Wagner, a notable finale and dramatic death scene from someone who put a lot into his dramatic deaths. It is a true test of both the musical director and the female lead to be able to do it justice. Now, how does the tune go?
  • Many a student of music and especially theory will go through an entire degree without reading the treatises on which their textbooks are based, such as Heinrich Schenker's method of analysis (known as "Schenkerian Analysis"), which is relatively inaccessible in the form it was published — Der freie Satz ("Free Composition") — so students generally learn it from a variety of sources derived from Schenker. There are also Johann Fux's Gradus Ad Parnassum (a famous Baroque treatise on counterpoint) and works of theorists like Hugo Riemann (who gave us the term "functional harmony").
  • Maurice Ravel: Known for solely the "Boléro", which is almost a Black Sheep Hit, as the rest of his oeuvre sounds totally different.
  • Camille Saint Saëns: Apart from "Danse Macabre" and "Carnival Of The Animals" it almost seems as if he didn't do anything else in his life.
  • Erik Satie: Hailed as one of the great innovators of classical music, yet apart from "Trois Gymnopédies", which can be heard on soundtracks once in a while, his music isn't that well known to the general public.
  • Edward Elgar: In the UK he is known for the "Land Of Hope And Glory" march from "Pomp & Circumstance", which is still played annually to bring up Patriotic Fervor during the Last Night of the Proms and other official UK national manifestations. In the US he is known for the same melody, but associated with college graduations and Macho Men. So it's safe to say that that one section of the entire "Pomp & Circumstance" march is more well known than anything else he ever did.
  • Gustav Holst: "The Planets" is one of the most popular musical works of all time and has been plagiarized so often by other composers, especially on movie soundtracks that depict science fiction or battles that most people probably assume he stole it from them instead of the other way around. It's also his only famous work, more well known than the composer itself.
    • Within "The Planets" itself, everybody knows how Mars and Jupiter go, and there must presumably be another five, but...
  • Aaron Copland is one of America's most celebrated composers, yet only "Hoe Down" and "Fanfare For The Common Man" may ring a bell when played on CD.
  • Swan Lake by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: the first name people think of when it comes to ballet, note  but that's often as far as it goes. Music-wise, the Overture, the Waltz, and the Cygnets Dance get out in the public consciousness somewhat, but that's out of a running time of around two hours. Comparatively few people have seen the entire ballet (even on TV), or are aware of its characters, plot or composer.
  • Jazz: Many jazz icons are well known, but when it comes to attributing individual works to them most people are unable to name one. Even in Louis Armstrong's case they'll probably name "Hello Dolly" and "What A Wonderful World", which are just songs, not jazz compositions.
    • Miles Davis is that guy in the Cool Hat, Cool Shades who faced his audience backwards during concerts. Some may be able to name Kind of Blue, but that's about all most people know about this iconic jazz legend.
    • Dizzy Gillespie's face with the bulbous lips when he played the trumpet is more iconic than the amount of people who can identify his name, let alone one track by him.
    • Glenn Miller: One of the most famous band leaders of all time, yet apart from "In the Mood" and "Moonlight Serenade" most people wouldn't recognize much of his work.
  • Steve Vai is probably the most well known example in rock, since he is constantly cited as one of the best guitarists ever, and yet none of his songs or albums are well known by anyone who hasn't specifically looked them up. Not far behind is Joe Satriani, often compared to Vai, whose album Surfing With The Alien is more famous, yet is not known for any particular tracks.
    • Vai and Satriani are well-known as sidemen and band members, Vai as a member of David Lee Roth's band from 1986-88 and as a one-time member of Whitesnake, and Satriani as a sideman for Mick Jagger and as a member of Chickenfoot. Then again, Chickenfoot is probably best known as that supergroup with Joe Satriani in it, so we're right back to where we started.
  • Swans were merely a cult band for awhile. But in 2012 when The Seer was released to great acclaim and in 2014 when To Be Kind hit #37 on the album charts, they became shorthand for "that one obscure rock group with Gira and stuff".
  • Many of the most critically hailed rock and pop albums of all time are mostly known either for their cover artwork, their name, or the one hit song on the record:
    • Most people recognize The Velvet Underground & Nico for its Andy Warhol banana cover, but only hardcore rock fans can name any of its tracks ("I'm Waiting For The Man" is the only track to get airplay despite not being a single). Thanks to covers such as R.E.M.'s versions of "There She Goes Again" and "Femme Fatale" and Japan's version of "All Tomorrow's Parties", tracks from the album are known by people who were already fans of those bands before they checked out the Velvets.
    • The cover of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols is the iconic image of punk but any tracks other than "Anarchy in the UK", "God Save the Queen" and "Pretty Vacant" are fairly obscure. "Holidays In The Sun" was a single at the time, but has not managed to get the airplay the others did, even after their renewed popularity. Outside Punk Rock circles most people who know next to nothing about the genre have all heard of the Sex Pistols and will likely namedrop them if they have to talk about punk music. Yet in many cases it will be wrong assumptions. For instance: nobody within the Sex Pistols ever wore a punk mohawk or had a safety belt through his nose, yet many people assume they did, because, hey they are punkers right?
    • Radiohead's OK Computer has been named the best album of the '90s, but, again, few people can name a single track from it except "Karma Police" or "Paranoid Android" (or maybe "No Surprises"). It remains fashionable to list Kid A as one of the best albums of the 2000s, yet nobody comments on that many of the tracks.
    • Not just individual albums, but the whole of a band's oeuvre can suffer from this. Jethro Tull for example. Epically long and prolific career, but known only for (a) the image of Ian Anderson playing the flute standing on one leg, and (b) the opening guitar riff from Aqualung, and (c) Living in the Past — a song which the band have often said that they are sick and tired of and regret having written, exactly because it's all many people ever think of when thinking of Tull (made worse by the fact that it was an Old Shame song that didn't become a hit until several years after it was recorded).
  • Richard Thompson, with or without Linda, is a world renowned guitarist and always has several albums on best-of lists, but few people can name any of his songs. He has been called "the best guitarist nobody has heard of".
  • Slayer: "The most talked about band that no one actually listens to." Reign in Blood is hailed as their best, but how many people outside the metalhead community have ever tried to listen or analyze it?
    • Similarly, Anal Cunt are a band well known for their (jokingly) obscene titles and noisy screaming (ironically more well known than many legitimate grindcore artists), but very few people have bought one of their albums.
  • You know the Epic Riff from "Smoke on the Water" from Machine Head If you know anything at all about music or have ever heard anyone learning the guitar, or even just play rhythm games, you know that riff. However, Deep Purple is surprisingly obscure nowadays for such a prolific and popular band. And the riff itself is lifted from a Gil Evans jazz piece.
  • Marilyn Manson is known mostly because of how offended the collective Moral Guardians of the 1990s were at his very existence. A lot of people will know his cover of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) and his song The Beautiful People, but nobody will know that The Beautiful People is from a concept album, Antichrist Superstar, that there were two more after that, that they tell a continuous story when listened to in reverse from release order, or who the protagonists of those albums are. Even less will know about Manson battling depression and suicidal thoughts for most of his life, his history of self-harm or his relationship problems.
  • The song "Linus and Lucy" (the unofficial theme for the Peanuts animated specials) actually has a jazz section in the middle that most people never noticed (and it is a shock when people learn to play it).
  • David Bowie's 1977 album Low is often cited as his single most influential work with regard to other musicians. Pitchfork Media even called it the best album of The '70s! But how many have actually listened to the album and know that four tracks are straight-up instrumentals while the lyrics to the others (especially those on Side Two) are as minimalistic as he gets? For that matter, Bowie's long been subject to Small Reference Pools; realizing just how much he's created (and how many sounds he's gone through) over the decades is eye-opening.
  • Leonard Cohen's name comes up frequently as one of the top songwriters of the past 50 years. But ask the average person on the street if they can name even one song he wrote; don't be surprised if the responses are mostly blank stares. There is a good chance your average person would at least recognize "Hallelujah" if played it due to its frequent covers or uses in TV shows and film, though they might not be aware it's by him. The most famous cover version of it — by Jeff Buckley on his album Grace — is in itself a cover of John Cale (ex Velvet Underground)'s own cover arrangement from one of his solo albums, a fact which very few know about, even though Cale's version was featured in Shrek.
  • The most popular bands in metal (System of a Down, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Slipknot, Metallica (possibly the biggest metal band), etc.) are generally able to be named by the average person. However, it's rare to find a non-metal or non-rock fan who's actually listened to them.
  • Cannibal Corpse. There are few people out there who haven't heard their name before, but the average music fan's knowledge of them is ignorance at its finest. It's not uncommon to hear fans of mainstream metal call them out as noisy trash, meaning that despite being the most famous name in death metal by far, only those who actually like death metal know anything about their actual music rather than just about their controversial cover art.
    • Their current singer George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher is one of the most famous people in death metal music, if partially due to his huge neck. What most non-fans don't know is that he was not their original singer or songwriter; Chris Barnes was. In fact, Barnes was responsible for the band's most famous and controversial material, so it's entirely possible that the average person associates Corpsegrinder with songs that weren't even his!
  • Frank Zappa: An instantly recognizable rock musician, down to his Badass Moustache, and widely hailed as an innovative and creative musical artist, whose scope goes well beyond the narrow boundaries of rock alone, with influences from Jazz, Classical Music, Doowop and World Music. That said, he is still mostly ignored, overlooked or misunderstood by the general public, rock fans and critics. The amount of people who actually listened to his work, let alone enjoyed it, is staggeringly low. Mostly because he never received much airplay on radio and TV and never had any real hits, besides "Bobby Brown Goes Down" from "Sheik Yerbouti" in Europe, which was a number 1 hit in Norway at the time. His biggest hit in the USA was "Valley Girl" (1982) note , which even led to the Valley Girl phenomenon, much to Zappa's hatred. When "Valley Girl" became an unexpected national phenomenon with a lot of Misaimed Fandom from people who didn't get that it was meant as a Satire Zappa regretted ever recording it. He never released it on single nor performed it live. None of these two songs give a good scope of Zappa's iconoclastic style as they are both pretty straightforward novelty songs. Even among those who actually like Zappa there are still fans who only like a couple of his albums and downright dismiss some parts of his gigantic and versatile oeuvre. Or they only know him for naming two of his children "Dweezil" and "Moon Unit"note 
  • Hank Williams: the most important and influential country musician before Johnny Cash, but how many music fans are familiar with his work? Time Magazine even put a compilation album by him, Turn Back The Years: The Essential Hank Williams Collection in their Time All Time 100 Albums list, which praises the most essential and timeless music albums of all time. Yet outside the USA and country music fan circles most people don't know anything about his work.
  • Carole King: This artist has the best-selling solo album by a solo artist on her name note . King's Tapestry has been bought by millions of people, praised by critics, yet has never reached the same amount of mainstream notability other famous albums did. Nowadays most people younger than 40 have probably never even heard of Carole King!
  • Captain Beefheart: One of the most influential alternative musicians of all time, widely praised as one of the great innovators and frequently namedropped, covered and respected by the biggest names in Indie, Punk Rock, New Wave Music, Grunge, Avantgarde Music or Alternative Rock. Yet he is virtually unknown to the general audience. Most people who listen to his music find it to dissonant to listen to. Even his fans won't listen much more than a few times a year to stuff like Trout Mask Replica.
  • Many artists who are generally seen as groundbreaking, innovative or important and pop up in a lot of historical chronicles and/or Top 100 lists are sometimes only music critics' darlings and virtually unknown or nothing more than a name to other listeners: The Residents, Sonic Youth, MC5, Thelonious Monk, Lee Scratch Perry, King Tubby, John Zorn, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, The Electric Prunes, Can, Neu!, Os Mutantes, JJ Cale, John Cale, Velvet Underground, Holger Czukay, David Sylvian, Jah Wobble, Public Image Ltd.,...
    • Even with pop music acts this can be the case. Most people are only familiar with the pop music they grew up with during their childhood, teenage years and perhaps college period. As they grow older and don't quite listen to much hitparade music anymore they may be aware of the newer pop stars, but more because of their coverage in the popular press. At this moment, for instance, people can be aware of Madonna, Justin Bieber, Rihanna or Britney Spears more because they frequently make headlines, without actually having heard one note of their music.
  • While Dave Brubeck may be well known for his composition "Take Five" (actually by Paul Desmond), much of his other work is not well known outside of jazz circles. Brubeck composed more mainstream jazz pieces in addition to his wild metered signature piece.
  • The Grateful Dead: If you have to name a cult rock band they are perhaps the best example, due to their fanbase even having a special nickname ("Deadheads") and many of them religiously attending their concerts. They are also most people's idea of hippie music. Yet, when all of that is said and done: how many songs or albums can you name by this group? That's right, the Grateful Dead are nowadays actually more famous as an iconic hippie band,stoner band and/or concert experience than for their songs or albums.
  • Lou Reed's album Metal Machine Music is notorious among rock fans, but the amount of people who actually listened to it, let alone from beginning to end, is practically nil. And not surprising, really: It's a double LP with nothing but guitar feedback and continuous droning.
  • John Lennon's first solo album with Yoko Ono, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, is probably better known for the Contemptible Cover than the content on the record. Back in 1968 many people listened to it once, then never played it again. It's literally nothing but an uninterrupted recording of them talking and making noise. But at least this album has some notability, while the two experimental follow-ups Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions and Wedding Album are almost entirely forgotten. Snippets of recordings are sometimes used in documentaries about Lennon and Yoko, but that's about it.
    • The same goes for Yoko Ono herself. She is the most recognizable Avant-garde Music and performance artist in the world, but almost nobody has listened to any of her albums. And if they did they usually didn't like it.
  • The Fugs are one of the better known counterculture bands of The '60s, notorious for their Refuge in Audacity lyrics which even got them shadowed by the F.B.I., yet to the average music fan they are fairly obscure nowadays.
  • Hell, take any famous easy listening melody that you frequently hear on the radio, in advertising spots, movies or TV series and chances are that most people will instantly recognize the melody and sing along to it, but won't be able to tell you who wrote it, who sang it and/or what the title is. In some cases they are quick to associate it with the film, commercial or TV series they saw it in and assume it was specifically written for the occasion.
  • Shaman is Santana's most successful album of the new millennium, but aside from "The Game of Love" and "Why Don't You & I" (and don't expect people to remember the Chad Kroeger version), good luck finding anybody's who's actually taken the time to listen to the album. Heck, the same problem exists with Supernatural; aside from the #1 mega-hit "Smooth" nobody can name any other songs on the album (including its other #1 "Maria Maria")
  • Anyone who has spent any amount of time watching movie trailers can recognize "O Fortuna," the Standard Snippet of the Carmina Burana. The vast majority of these people will not know that said snippet is actually just the first (and last) movement of 25. The full version is made up of medieval poetry in German and Latin.
  • The Roots are among the most acclaimed and respected hip hop groups in existence, and have also been Jimmy Fallon's house band since 2009. Yet, aside from "The Seed (2.0)" and the Grammy winning "You Got Me", you're unlikely to find a non-fan who's familiar with any of their music. Todd in the Shadows, in fact, described them as "a group people say they like but don't actually listen to."
  • Al Jolson was one of the most famous and popular singers of the first half of the 2Oth century, but today he is only remembered for appearing in The Jazz Singer and being the best example of a Blackface singer.
  • Ravi Shankar: The world's most famous and recognizable Indian musician, but how many people in the West nowadays have actually listened to an entire album by this wonderful talent? Most people will know him through his association with The Beatles, but are unaware that he already had a long career before he met them and/or that he didn't simply vanish from existence after the 1960s were over.
  • Tech N9ne is one of the most famous figures in Hip-Hop, who even non rap fans can probably name. Yet, his sales and chart placement show the far fewer people listen to him. He's sold two million albums but released a total of 16, and none of his songs have ever charted on the Hot 100. Chances are, if someone has heard his music, it's probably through one of the many movies, TV shows, and video games his music has been featured in.
  • El-P has been a longstanding figurehead of underground hip-hop whose various projects have all been highly celebrated and whose rapping and production work are both held in high regard, while Definitive Jux (which he ran) was home to numerous other major figures in the underground, namely Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Aesop Rock, Cage, Cannibal Ox, and Mr. Lif. However, as far as the mainstream is concerned, he's one half of Run the Jewels and nothing else.note 
  • Weezer's second album Pinkerton. When it was released in 1996, it was widely considered to not only be inferior to their debut, but also one of the worst albums of that year, period. However, over time it grew to be considered their best work. Its release got a perfect 100 score on Metacritic. That being said however, it still only barely reached Gold status, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a non-fan who can name one song off the album. Not helped by the fact that its lead single "El Scorcho" actually got banned from many radio stations and MTV. Its only other single, "The Good Life", actually did get some recognition in The New Tens for being featured in Watch_Dogs. But still, few people talk about any specific songs on the album when compared to how much they talk about the album itself.
  • Lana Del Rey is known primarily as a celebrity and cultural icon rather than a singer. That, and her remixed "Summertime Sadness" radio hit.
  • Björk is well-known to the public for being weird, being from Iceland, and her infamous swan dress. That's it. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who can name one song from her. In fact, she's only had two songs enter the Hot 100, and both of them fizzled out in the 80 range.
  • The White Stripes are one of the most highly acclaimed alternative rock acts of the 2000s and a mainstay on rock radio for most of the decade, and people know they consist a male singer and a female drummer, but the general public will be hard-pressed to name any song of theirs besides "Seven Nation Army."
  • The only thing most people know about girl group G.R.L. (aside from maybe their feature on Pitbull's "Wild Wild Love") is that one of its members committed suicide.
  • Rock and roll singer The Big Bopper is remembered for exactly two things: his hit "Chantilly Lace" and dying in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.
  • Almost everyone in the world knows who Skrillex is and what he looks like, but not too many have actually listened to his music. Compare that to DJs like David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Zedd, DJ Snake, and The Chainsmokers, whose songs are known to everybody but have far less a public image — most people will be hard-pressed to visually identify anyone in the latter category.
  • On that same note, Deadmau5. He's very well-known to the public for his iconic mask, being Canadian, and well, being a DJ. Most people however can't even name one of his songs.
  • Nero is seen as the Ensemble Darkhorse of dubstep. Not bad, considering that their album never charted on the Billboard 200.
  • Avicii is one of the biggest EDM names in the world, but mainstream audiences will be hard-pressed to name a song of his that isn't "Wake Me Up!"
  • The Wu-Tang Clan is a unique kind of band where the general public is more likely to be familiar with their logo and for being influential to Hip-Hop than they are with any of their songs.
  • Kiss. They wore weird makeup and costumes and sang "Rock 'N' Roll All Nite" and "Shout It Out Loud." Which means their only albums remembered by anyone (if even that) are Dressed to Kill and Destroyer, respectively. Neither was the band's earliest or even most popular album. People also don't much remember that their career went through a non-makeup phase between 1983 and 1996, during which they had at least a handful of radio hits. Amusingly, their 1980 concept album Music From the Elder is so obscure that the band members themselves can't remember how to play it!
    • KISS is so affected by this that most of what people think they know about the band is actually false. Gene Simmons is often thought to be the front man. That was actually Paul Stanley, though Simmons did have a memorable persona and took lead vocals often. Few people remember that they made a film (KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park) or that there were more members than just Stanley, Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. Some believe that they were, or at least pretended to be, Satan worshipers, a rumor starting that their name was even an acronym for "Knights in Satan's Service" (the band members have routinely said the name isn't an acronym for anything). Finally, KISS is often thought of as a "heavy metal" band, when in fact their music could be, at best, considered "hard rock", and often included soft, gentle songs like "Beth" or "Forever".
  • Derek Taylor is a deceptively influential figure among guitarists whose approach to tapping and legato (accomplished through what he refers to as the "Spock technique") has been copied by many, many players over the years. However, most guitarists using his techniques would be hard-pressed to name anything that he released even though they're familiar with his approach.
  • Hollywood Undead is very well-known for their creepy masks, the fact that they combine rap with rock, being a Myspace band, and for making party tracks. But not too many people can actually name any of their songs, nor will they know about their serious tracks in their later albums that go hand-in-hand with the party tracks. The fact is, they haven't had any hit on any format, but are still well known for their appearances.
  • The Eagles of Death Metal are best known in the mainstream for being the band playing at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris on at the time of the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks. Far fewer people will be familiar with their music.
  • Wiz Khalifa. He's well known for being tall, skinny, and tatted up, and that he loves cars, pot, and bitches. Not too many people outside his audience actually know about his music, other than his Black Sheep Hit "See You Again", made for the soundtrack of the billion-dollar blockbuster Furious 7, as a tribute to the late Paul Walker. They probably won't be able to name his other songs, such as "Black & Yellow" (his first #1 hit), "Roll Up", "No Sleep", "Young, Wild, and Free", "Work Hard, Play Hard", and "We Own It", despite the fact that these songs all reached the Top 40. In fact, his best known contribution to the music world to mainstream audiences besides "See You Again" is not even his song, but his guest spot on Maroon 5's "Payphone."
  • Despite being a highly prolific producer, British musician Mark Ronson is known outside his home country for one thing: being the actual lead artist on the 2015 megahit "Uptown Funk!", which is almost universally associated first and foremost with its far more well-known guest star Bruno Mars.
  • Destiny's Child was massive back in their late-'90s to early-'00s prime, but nowadays they are known solely for being Beyoncé's former band. Even people who do remember their music won't be able to name its other members (even Kelly Rowland, who had a successful career of her own.)
  • The Spice Girls were huge in the late '90s, to the point where people actually call it "Spicemania", and comparing it to a second British Invasion. Most people outside the UK who grew up after their peak know about them and how big they were, but can't name any of their songs besides "Wannabe". In fact, many people outside their fanbase who were around during their dominance can only seem to remember that song.
  • Conway Twitty was one of the most enduring figures in Country Music in The '70s and The '80s, with a huge catalog of 40 #1 hits (second only to George Strait). But could anyone in the modern day say anything about him other than "that guy that they kept doing Cutaway Gags to on Family Guy" or possibly "that guy with the really deep voice who sang 'I'd Love to Lay You Down'"?
  • Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is one of the longest-lasting Country Music bands, having performed without interruption since 1966, with multiple albums and awards to their name. But could your average person name any song of theirs not named "Fishin' in the Dark" (except maybe "Mr. Bojangles" or "An American Dream", both of which were big pop hits that predated their full-on transition to a country band), or even name one of the band's many members? Some people may not even know anything about them except that time George W. Bush mangled their name at an awards ceremony (as referenced by Dave Barry).
  • DJ Khaled is known for being "that fat Arab guy who has tons of rappers on all his songs" and for being a Snapchat phenomenon. While he has a huge following in the rap community, his only well-known song in the mainstream is "All I Do Is Win".
  • Willie Nelson is an American cultural icon widely known for his hippie appearance, distinctive vocals and predilection for marijuana. However, the only songs of his most people can name (assuming they can name any) are "Always on My Mind", a polished pop ballad that's something of a Black Sheep Hit, and Signature Song "On the Road Again." Almost no one outside of hardcore country fans has heard the landmark '70s albums like Phases and Stages, Shotgun Willie and Red Headed Stranger that made him an outlaw legend.
  • Flo Rida is a rapper mostly known for his top 40 hit songs about partying in clubs like "Right Round", "Low", and "Club Can't Handle Me" but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who's actually listened to an entire album from beginning to end or someone who can name any songs besides his hits.

    Philosophy 
  • Most people with some cultural luggage are familiar with the big names: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas of Aguino, Confucius, Laozi, Friedrich Nietzsche, René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, ... but usually they only know a few things about these people's life stories and a few witty or thought provoking quotes. Most have never read the entire treatises and likely only know about it through some modern condensed adaptation. Even the famous quotes themselves, like "I think, therefore I am" by Descartes are usually quoted without people knowing the context of the text or what the author actually meant by it?
    • Many people know Socrates was forced to drink poison and that Plato was his pupil, but not much more than that.
    • William of Ockham. Mention his name and people will say: "Ockham's razor!". Then ask them what this theory is actually about? Most will not be able to explain it.
    • Diogenes is better known for his lifestyle (living in a crate) than any of his philosophies.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche is better known for claiming "God is dead" and going mad later in life than anything else. The "God is dead" quote is also a good example of a well known phrase often used out of context and with wrong assumptions. Nietzsche is also unfortunately assumed to be some kind of Nazi supporter due to his "Uebermensch" theories, which he thought up almost 40 years before the Nazis came to power and were about something totally else.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: Most cultivated people will recognize him immediately thanks to his pipe, his Fish Eyes and the quote "Hell are the others" from "Huis-Clos". They all know his companion was Simone De Beauvoir and that he was an existentialist, but apart from that they usually don't know much else.
  • Marxism, known to most as the inspiration for communism, but who among the proletariat or bourgeoisie can quote a line Marx wrote?

    Professional Wrestling 

    Radio 
  • Radio dramas such as The Lone Ranger and Dragnet featured prominent adaptations in other media which have helped perpetuate the prominence of these franchises. While these show generally had high ratings as radio shows in their initial runs, syndication of these radio shows in later decades (after the 1960's) did not seem as prominent.
  • The Goon Show is hugely influential; it launched the careers of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, inspired most of the Monty Python team and their contemporaries, and codified many of the "zany Sketch Show" tropes. But does anyone actually listen to it much these days?

    Religion 
  • The Bible may well be the most widely owned but unread book in the Western world. As a result, many people think certain sayings, such as "The Lord helps those who help themselves," or "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" are Biblical, when they really aren't. In addition, a 2014 survey discovered that the one "religious group" that knew the most about the Bible wasn't one of the innumerous variants of Christianity; rather, it was the atheists who knew the most about the Bible and its contents.
    • A common joke among atheists is that the fastest way to become an atheist is to read the Bible (or Quran, or whatever religious text one subscribes to).
    • Most people could probably summarise pretty well the first two books of the Bible — in other words, from Creation to Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. What happens for the rest of the Old Testament? Much less well known.
    • And about that Creation story: most people don't tend to know off the top of their head that there are two accounts of creation, and most English-speaking Christians don't know that Noah's "two animals of each kind" were actually fourteen in one (canonical) verse.note 
    • Everyone has heard of the Ten Commandments. But how many can name them all from the top of their head? Yet there are a lot of people who see these commandments as excellent ethical guide lines, despite the fact that not all of the things we nowadays would see as ethical are mentioned in these commandments.
      • A harder question than one might think, as the bible contains radically different versions of the ten commandments (see Exodus 34 for the "other" version) and even the version Christians pretend is the only one does not break neatly into ten commandments, so different sects disagree as to which commandment number covers which instruction.
  • For Judaism, there's the Talmud, a text that everyone is aware of but almost no one has actually read. Then again, just because this particular collection of jurisprudence is concerned with religious rather than secular law doesn't make it not a bunch of legal briefs.
  • Everybody knows the Quran is to Muslims what the Bible is to Christians. Yet again, not many people have read it all the way through, despite a lot of people being in arms about the content of this book. Especially in the West you have a lot of islamophobes who want to ban it, despite not having read it or only read it through some racist or xenophobic fundamentalist's extreme distortion of certain passages of the book. Some of which aren't in the book at all.
    • In the case of the Quran, one must make a distinction between reading the Quran and understanding the Quran. You see, the Quran is conventionally read in Arabic, even in Muslim-majority countries where Arabic is not the local tongue. In Afghanistan in particular, this issue is compounded by the problem of widespread illiteracy. In rural Afghanistan, you can expect to find that the mullahs — that is, the people who are supposed to be interpreting the Quran for the local people — are illiterate themselves.
  • Ever heard of the Seven Virtues and the Seven Sins? Of course you did. Now, can you name them all from the top of your head?
  • Many religious founders are well known to people who don't even practice the faith. Yet in many cases people only know the large details. Jesus was born in a stable, has apostles, walked on water, changed water in wine and got crucified.
  • When asked to name a Hindu goddess, most Westerners would probably think of Kali and only see her as a frightening, bloodthirsty dark goddess demanding sacrifices thanks to the way she's been portrayed in Western media. (Either that, or she's remembered solely as that wacky costume Heidi Klum wore one Halloween.) Even Western Neo-Pagans make this mistake and often relegate her to just a 'dark' 'Crone' goddess, when in reality, her frightening symbolism is far more complex than that. She's the darker side of Mother Nature all right, but a lot of the shocking imagery is representative of the destruction of evil, not her being evil. For instance, the chopped-off heads she wears as a necklace represent chopped off egos and the skirt of chopped-off hands she wears represent the cutting off of evil deeds. Millions of Hindus revere her as a gentle and loving Mother, who is only frightening to one's enemies the same way a dog can be a beloved pet to its family, but a frightening beast to a burglar.

    Tabletop & Card Games 
  • Call of Cthulhu is essentially the tabletop cultural shorthand for Total Party Kill, so the relative dearth of people that have actually played it is possibly more a matter of intentionally avoiding it than anything else.
  • Many gamers have heard of "Friend Computer" and "Commie Mutant Traitors," but few of them have actually played Paranoia.
  • For the public at large, Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. Everyone's heard of them, but non-gamers are unlikely to know anything about how the games are played and probably couldn't identify which one is which.

    Video Games 
  • Though a number of younger gamers may not have played them (yet), the ongoing popularity of many early generation video games ensures that it's still easy to know "of" a number of defining titles of generations past. Among younger gamers, for example, Mainstream Obscurity may apply to something like the original Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda or Metroid (1985-1986), or even games as recent as Final Fantasy VII (1997). Both Nintendo and Sony have taken some steps to avert this through the Virtual Console and the PlayStation Store respectively, but not all titles have been made available through these systems (most notably, EarthBound until April 2013). The growth of Digital Distribution and services like GOG.com that provide ports of retro games to modern operating systems has helped in recent years.
  • The reverse is also true, where people who used to play a lot of games in their youth but don't really play as many as adults may be unfamiliar with newer games, unless they've got a spot on the news, received tons of merchandising, or their kids play them. Some examples include Angry Birds, Minecraft, or Call of Duty.
  • This might happen with acclaimed games that received a limited print run when released and have yet to be re-released, or were received less favorably at the time and only recently come into acclaim. For example, almost every gamer knows about EarthBound owing to its wide acclaim as one of the best SNES role-playing games and Ness' regular appearances in the Super Smash Bros. series; the same goes for its sequel MOTHER 3 and its protagonist Lucas on a lesser scale. Until 2013, if you wanted to play the former, your only options were to purchase an extremely expensive used copy note , or acquire them using questionable methods. For the latter, those two methods still apply, as such people know Lucas solely from The Subspace Emissary. As a result, almost everyone has heard of EarthBound and Mother 3 and is passingly familiar with the two main heroes, but far fewer have actually played it.
  • The Grand Theft Auto series is a bit an aversion with the ongoing popularity of Grand Theft Auto V but is still worth mentioning. The games are famous for making not just Moral Guardians but the mainstream media declare all video games to be evil for their extremely inappropriate content. But how many people know that the first games were released on the Game Boy and were 2D? A lot of gamers really couldn't tell you more about the series than its violent, offensive, and takes place in an open world, but will still instantly recognized its name. Hell there are a lot of people who think the games are extremely pornographic note  or that they the most gory video games around note , neither if which are true.
  • This occurs with game series that don't get translated for markets overseas for much of their history. Similar to EarthBound, characters from Fire Emblem are far more known by western audiences by their appearances in Smash then by the merits of their own games. Newer games fair a little better, with Fire Emblem Awakening being the most popular of the bunch, but as far as western audiences can tell you, Marth is a blue haired anime swordsman who speaks Japanese...may know the other five Smashers (Roy, Ike, Lucina, Robin, and Corrin) and that's about it.
  • Psychonauts is considered by many to be among the best platformers outside of classic Sonic and Nintendo franchises. It sold under 400,000 units.
  • In its heyday, Metal Gear Solid was the PlayStation's Killer App. A heavy sense of Continuity Lockout, however, renders newer games' plots, in a plot-heavy game franchise, almost incomprehensible to newcomers. A lot of younger gamers only know Snake from Memetic Egoraptor parodies or Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Digital Distribution of older titles eases this somewhat, but there's still a time and money commitment for new fans.
  • Harvest Moon fans are quick to cite Harvest Moon 64 as the best game in the franchise, and as one of the better games on the Nintendo 64, but few fans have actually played it. Most fans began around Friends Of Mineral Town or later, and the game won't appear on Virtual Console due to emulation problems.
  • Sonic CD and Knuckles Chaotix are beloved among Sonic the Hedgehog fans, even though they both came out exclusively for obscure consoles in the early 1990s (the Sega CD and the Sega 32X). Most fans know that Amy and Metal Sonic debuted in Sonic CD while Espio, Vector, and Charmy got their start in Knuckles' Chaotix (although Vector was present, albeit hidden, in the original Sonic game years earlier). However, it's nearly impossible to find one of these consoles, much less these games, although Sonic CD has since been released for Steam and appeared on Sonic Gems Collection.
  • NiGHTS into Dreams... is familiar to a good number of Sonic (and, more widely, Sega) fans, especially those who have played Sonic Adventure, where it appeared as a pinball board, but it didn't sell well, even for the Saturn.
  • Jet Set Radio tends to come to mind quickly when cel-shaded animation or the Dreamcast is brought up in gaming conversations. The critics adored it, but it was not one of the best-selling games even for the Dreamcast, although it's now available on Steam.
  • Super Mario RPG is hailed as not only an interesting Mario departure, but one of the greatest RPGs ever. It also came out near the end of the SNES's lifespan and no one cared about it at the time. People may know Geno as a very popular Super Smash Bros. request, but that's it.
  • Beyond Good & Evil is very popular and widely praised for a game that sold for ten dollars and still sold less than 100,000 units.
  • Zero Wing entered the mainstream because of its hilariously bad translation of the intro...but very few people know anything about the actual gameplay, or have ever played the game itself.
  • Grim Fandango, while it often appears on critics' best-of lists, hasn't even sold 100,000 copies. Due to being a PC game from the 90s, it requires extra effort to get it running on modern computers. Though in 2015, a remastered version was released on multiple platforms.
  • Panzer Dragoon Saga at least was this. It was visible on many top 100 games lists and is considered to be the best game on the Sega Saturn, but many have not played it. It helps that only 10,000 copies were printed in the US, making it a hard find even then (although to be fair it fared better in Europe and Japan).
  • Two of the most acclaimed Playstation RPGs, Suikoden II and Valkyrie Profile, both sold poorly (the former due to being released a week before both the release of Final Fantasy VIII and the Sega Dreamcast launch; the latter being a late-gen release from a barely present stateside Enix). A couple years on the market, both games received a considerable amount of retrospective, and shot up in value on eBay. Only recently was Suikoden II released on PSN. Valkyrie Profile, meanwhile, in spite of receiving a PSP port and PS2 sequel, remains absent from digital platforms.
  • Ace Attorney has a large fanbase, but to the general public it's only known for Phoenix Wright and the Objection! meme. Good luck finding someone who isn't a fan that can name any character besides Phoenix Wright, or knows anything about the gameplay.
  • Crysis is famous for its insanely high graphics, equally infamous for the insanely expensive PCs needed to run them, and that's about it. Conversations about Crysis that don't involve its graphics are rare, and Crysis is the go-to example to use for the "PC Master Race" in a forum argument. It's been described as "the only game that gets talked about more than it gets played".
  • The System Shock series is considered one of the best horror-themed shooters to be released on the PC. However, almost nobody has ever played the series prior to its rerelease on Steam and GOG in 2013. There are many reasons to why the series didn't achieve mainstream success from its PC-exclusivity to it's lack of physical copies since 2001. In fact, most are more familiar with its SpiritualSuccessors Bioshock (i.e. System Shock UNDER THE SEA) and Dead Space.
  • Chrono Trigger is one of the most beloved games on the SNES, as well as one of the most highly acclaimed RPG's of all time. While it sold an at-the-time respectable 300,000 copies in the US, its commercial success and mainstream recognition (read: recognition among casual gamers) aren't anywhere near its popularity with hardcore gamers and old-school JRPG fans.
  • The entire fighting game community knows Street Fighter II as the grandfather of fighting games, but it is relatively untouched by the younger generation.
  • Capcom's Darkstalkers has a cult following over the years, but is solely known for Morrigan Aensland, the sexier-than-sex succubus who has appeared in more crossover games than her own. Good luck finding someone who can name any other characters besides maybe Lilith, her moe sister or Felicia, a near-nude Cat Girl. Possibly Hsien-Ko as well due to her appearance in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. They probably won't know anything about the gameplay either. The series is Best Known for the Fanservice, and not much else.
  • The Bullet Hell genre is well-known for its displays of beautiful enemy-projectile art, and the notorious lengths to which Final Bosses, True Final Bosses, and Bonus Bosses will go on the hardest difficulties to push the player and the hardware to their limits; just look up videos of Touhou or CAVE Final Bosses on YouTube and you'll find some videos with hit counts of at least 7 digits showcasing the hardest bosses in various games. Perhaps because of the sheer intimidation factor, comparatively few are willing to actually play the games and get familiar with each game's specific quirks and gimmicks.
  • Tetris: The Grand Master's most iconic elements are pieces falling at instant-drop speeds at just halfway through the game, as well as its sequels' "Invisible Tetris" sections; one particular video of Tetris: The Grand Master 3's invisible bonus section has over 6 million views on YouTube. But this is pretty much all that most people who have heard of TGM will tell you; if they're lucky, they may tell you about the unique TGM level counter or its grade system. Very few have played the games, though not necessarily because It's Hard, so It Sucks, but because the games have only been released for Japanese arcadesnote This is because... and thus are very difficult to get access to without resorting to piracy.

    Web Original 
  • While many web sites, memes and Internet personalities can be popular on the Net many of them are still completely obscure in mainstream media. And even if you have access to Internet there is a lot that one can be unfamiliar with if you haven't per chance stumbled upon it while surfing, or by being linked to it.
  • /b/ is so well-known as to be widely considered synonymous with 4chan, and the most frequented board on the site by statistics. Yet ask a user of any other board, or a website with a shared userbase, "Have you been to /b/?" or "What's going on in /b/ right now?" and you'll usually get a blank look. Even when people are sharing screencaps of great threads or funny moments, people can often produce a /co/ or /v/ or /r9k/ screencap on demand, but come up short with /b/.

    Western Animation 
  • Bambi gets this for similar reasons to Old Yeller. Everyone remembers the first half of the movie, or at least the iconic scene where Bambi's mother is killed and he leaves the forest with his father. What many people don't remember is the second half, in which Bambi returns to the forest as an adult and has to save the animals from a human-caused wildfire.
    • Maybe, if anything else comes to mind, Thumper reciting, "If ya can't say nuttin' nice...don't say nuttin' at all" is what most remember.
  • Betty Boop is more known today for appearing on merchandise than for appearing in short films. Ask anyone what Betty ever did in her cartoons, besides saying "boop boop a-doop" and getting stalked by horny old geezers, and you'll get a blank stare.
  • Casper the Friendly Ghost is a friendly ghost who doesn't want to scare others... and that's about it. Ditto Richie Rich who is known... for being rich.
  • Fantasia: Adjusted for inflation it's the fourth highest-grossing animated film ever, widely praised as a masterpiece of cinema and art, but not many people today can actually name a segment from it aside from "the Mickey Mouse part", "the one with the mushrooms", "the dancing hippos" and maybe "that scene with the devil guy".
  • Felix the Cat: One of the oldest, most iconic and enduring cartoon characters of all time. Yet, how many people under 30 have ever seen one of his cartoons of the silent era? Apart from that: how many people could actually tell you anything about Felix's personality? The reason the series even remains known is simply by the power of inertia, since the series is so firmly rooted in the public consciousness and animation culture.
  • Popeye the Sailor: People know that Popeye is strong, eats spinach, has a girlfriend named Olive Oyl and an archenemy named Bluto. They may also know that he has a friend named Wimpy who loves hamburgers and an adopted son named Swee'pea. They may not know that he starred in both a comic strip as well as over 200 short cartoons from the 1930s to the 1950s, much less be able to name any of them or tell you what happens in them outside of "he gets into fights".
  • Steamboat Willie: Most people know this is Mickey Mouse's first sound cartoon and the film that launched the Disney empire. The opening scene with Mickey whistling and steering the boat has since become the ident for Walt Disney Feature Animation early in the 21st century, but how many are familiar with the rest of the plot?
  • Woody Woodpecker: Everyone recognizes the character and can mimic his iconic laugh, but actually being able to name any of the side characters or stories is less easy. Many kids today seem to know him more from his association with the Universal Studios theme parks than from having watched his short films.
  • Yogi Bear: He is a bear who is smarter than the average bears, has a friend named Boo Boo and steals pick-a-nick baskets. That's about all the general public of today knows about these cartoons, and they know even less about his fellow Hanna-Barbera TV stars of The '60s onward such as Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, etc.
  • The Pink Panther: Once a very famous cartoon character thanks to the film franchise around Inspector Clouseau, but since no new movies in this vein are made and the old Pink Panther cartoons aren't shown on TV anymore (nor is his short-lived 1993 reboot), he is probably better known as some vague advertising character.
  • The number of people who've actually watched Donkey Kong Country for its plot likely pales in comparison to the number of people who know about the show due to its Fountain of Memes status, courtesy of its bizarre animation, zany quotes, and surprisingly catchy songs.
  • While Friendship is Magic is a worldwide phenomenon, good luck finding a non-My Little Pony fan who can name any pre-Fim characters.

    Other Media 
  • You could find fifty people with opinions about Roe v. Wade strong enough to provoke violence before you met a single one who'd actually read it. Or know what the ruling was actually about besides just "abortion". Or that there was a companion decision the same day called Doe v. Bolton which was just as influential if not more so.Summary 
  • Almost every single journal article about autism references Leo Kanner's original description of autism. Many of them go on to summarize his paper with comments that make it obvious that they haven't read it, such as claiming that he described low functioning autism (in reality, his subjects showed a wide range of ability, with one being clearly high functioning). Hans Asperger's article gets this a bit too, since no one seems to notice that modern criteria for Asperger Syndrome are noticeably different from his conception of the condition.
  • Unless you're talking to an actual Constitutional Law scholar, odds are that most people who talk about the Constitution and what different Amendments mean in different contexts have not actually read the entire document or can tell you what all the different Amendments are. This is also true for many European constitutions; you'd be lucky to find an average person on a German street who knows at least 3 articles on the Grundgesetz (the first and most important of them being "Human dignity is untouchable.")
  • Among language-learning circles, this trope tends to go for languages without a large speaker pool but that are tied to an oppressed or otherwise romanticized population. On language-learning websites, many users have languages like Basque, Irish, Ainu, Catalan, Icelandic, and Navajo in their "wanted" lists, or claim a low degree of proficiency, but never get any further because it's so difficult to find materials and, well, they don't really care that much.
    Navajo has less to do with the Navajo being romanticized—they're not, they essentially have no real presence to the rest of the world's consciousnessnote —and more to do with Navajo being a sampler of "weird" linguistic features. Learning Navajo is linguistics on Legendary, so people pursue knowledge of it for the sake of bragging rights.note 
  • A few historical figures are household names to everyone, despite nobody knowing much about them, save for historians.
    • A lot of Egyptian pharaohs are nothing more than names to the general public, also because all of them look exactly the same on wall paintings and in statues. Even the more iconic ones, like Cheops, Hatsjepsut and Nefertete are names.
    • Cyrus The Great: Legendary king and the first conqueror in history. Thus ends what most people can tell you about him.
    • Attila the Hun: Everybody knows that he was a notorious conqueror who plundered and ravaged entire regions with his tribe. Some may be able to tell you that he was king of the Huns and that his nickname was The Scourge of God, but that's about we can tell. There's not even a universally accepted image of him, nor much details about his life that everybody knows about. Many people will often confuse him with Genghis Khan, about whom we know a whole lot more.
    • Amerigo Vespucci: An Italian explorer, who lent his first name to America. That's all he is remembered for.
    • Giacomo Casanova: Legendary seducer of women, but that's all most people know about him. That he didn't actually look that handsome or the amount of women he claimed to have conquered wasn't extraordinarily high is mostly unknown. That he did some other remarkable stuff besides skirt chasing is only known to historians.
    • George III: In the USA he is known for being "the king who didn't want our country to become independent". He's barely a blip on the radar in British history. In the rest of the world he rings a bell as a monarch suffering from mental illness. Explaining more things about him is virtually impossible without consulting an encyclopaedia.
    • Thomas Jefferson: Most people can associate him with the 1776 American War of Independence, vaguely remember he wrote the Declaration of Independence and that he was once President.
      • ... and that he had sex with his slave, Sally Hemings, who is another example of this trope: even in the connection through which she is known, her relationship with Jefferson, most people are unaware he may have begun having sex with her when she was 14 and impregnated her when she was 16.
    • General Blücher: If people remember his name it's only because he came to rescue in defeating Napoleon during the Battle of Waterloo. Apparently all other things he did have faded away in obscurity.
    • Calamity Jane: A woman from The Wild West who dressed up and behaved like a man. Virtually everything else about her is the product of fantasy, without much basis in real life.
    • Neil Armstrong: First men on the moon, said: "It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" and returned back safely to Earth. That's all the general public knows about him. Can you tell what he looked like underneath that helmet? Photos exist, but he was an extraordinary example of a world famous and historically important man who nobody would have recognized on the street if he passed by. And still he was more famous than all the other astronauts, Yuri Gagarin included.
  • In universe example: Superhero RPF is set in the Marvel Universe, this trope is still in effect for less well known heroes/villains/teams/etc.. So for example, name an Asgardian! Thor... and Thor? Maybe Loki? Actually most people from the myths!
  • There are many celebrities out there who often appear in tabloids, media, and TV shows, and whose faces and names will be recognized by many, despite most people not being able to actually explain why they are exactly famous. Socialites like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Paris Hilton and people who became well known due to just appearing a lot in the media without actually doing something for it are a good example. But the phenomenon can also be observed with other celebrities. Often people will recognize somebody and want an autograph or take a picture with him, despite the fact that they don't really know who this person is or what he is famous for. They just know him from somewhere. In some cases, they even confuse them with other celebrities.
    • "Celebrities" especially prone to this are ones who became famous only for donning iconic masks or makeup in some of the greatest pop-culture hits (or at least cult hits) of all time. Most people don't know their names or even what they look like, but once they find out about them, they're dying to meet them. Take actor Jeremy Bulloch, for example. Not a household name, and could probably walk down Hollywood Boulevard without being mobbed...but very much in demand at comic and other fan conventions, since he was the man behind the mask of Boba Fett (one of the most legendary Ensemble Darkhorse characters ever) in the Star Wars films. Or Kevin Peter Hall, whose name and face are likewise unknown to many. But...remember the title character in Predator? Yeah, that was him.
    • Salvador Dalí once told a reporter that he didn't really feel like "the most famous painter in the world", because most people who encountered him did recognize him, but weren't sure "whether he was a singer, a film star, a madman or an author."
    • If you follow the news regularly, there are many people whom you might recognize as "a politician", but if they're not the head of state, it can often be tough to recall precisely who they are and what their official function is. For example, the only member of Barack Obama's cabinet that most people can name is John Kerry; the only nationally known governors are Chris Christie, Andrew Cuomo, Nikki Haley, Lincoln Chafee, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker; nationally recognized senators are limited to Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Elizabeth Warren, Kristen Gillibrand, Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Al Franken, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, and Tim Kaine; and nationally known representatives are Nancy Pelosi, Mark Sanford, and Paul Ryan. It only gets worse the farther back in history you go, with most legislators and non-federal executives from as recently as the 1980s having been all but forgotten; the exceptions are ones who went on to become President or Vice-President (or at least high-profile candidates for the [usually former] office) or contributed a word or catchphrase or meme of some kind to popular culture (the most famous example being Joseph McCarthy). This was spoofed by Mad Magazine when they were doing rhyming spoofs of various semi-celebrities and confessed that neither they nor anyone else actually knew who Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) was, figuring he must be "a pro wrestler, a spy, or an actor who's on HBO?"
    • Anna Nicole Smith could have been an exception to the "socialite" stereotype above. Many forget that she was famous from the very beginning of her career, and not for showing up in the tabloids for no reason. She was Miss May for Playboy Magazine in 1992 and Playmate of the Year after that, and then became a model for Guess Jeans - despite being nearly 6 feet tall and weighing 150 pounds (making her the single tallest and heaviest Playmate in the magazine's 60+ -year history), and thus totally anathema to the "waif" models so popular in the 1990s. These were noteworthy accomplishments, relatively small though they were. But then her (much older) husband died, and the court battle for his estate overshadowed everything else...and then came the grotesque weight gain, and the reality show...
    • The average American's perception on Donald Trump before his presidential campaign began was that he was a businessman and reality show host that said "you're fired" a lot, asked Obama to reveal his birth certificate, has a daughter named Ivanka, Orange-ish skin, and a unique hairstyle. That's about all most people knew about him. His campaign and election drastically changed his public image, and now, people know him for his controversial comments about women, Muslims, and Mexicans, his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border, the "grab her by the pussy" video, the sexual assault allegations against him, the Trump University case, his wife Melania and the controversy surrounding her speech at the Republican National Convention, and pretty much every single aspect of Trump's career.
  • Lenny Bruce is universally acknowledged as the ur-figure of modern stand-up comedy. Every comedian points to him as the original "transgressive," anything-goes humorist whose seminal routines begat Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, and everything else that differentiates modern stand-up from the days of Bob Hope & Danny Thomas. Now, show of hands: who's ever heard or seen a single, momentary snippet of anything Bruce ever did? Huh.
  • La muette de Portici is one of the most recognizable opera's in Belgium ever due to its influence on the Belgian fight for independence. During the 20th and 21st century it was rarely performed there. Now pretty much everyone knows what it accomplished, but no one can tell what was in the opera to begin with.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MainstreamObscurity