Pop culture references were invented in 1989 by Seth Brundle, when working in his lab, late one night. He was writing up his findings to an experiment on the influence of synthesiser music on coked-up rats, when he accidentally drew a crude comparison to the scene in Back to The Future, when Marty McFly steals rock n’ roll from black people, then tells a room full of white people they aren’t ready for it yet. In suggesting the rats were similarly unprepared, the scientific paper went whatever the 80s equivalent of viral was (no, not that) and thus the first pop culture reference was born into the world.
Okay, so here’s my question. There were a couple of pop culture references in that paragraph, but did they make it better or worse? Are pop culture references entertaining in and of themselves, or do they need to be making a comment on the subject of the reference? Pop culture references are the poor-man’s metaphor. They provide an easy, immediate comparison to something, in order to illuminate it and draw satisfying parallels, like Abed in Community seeing his world through the prism of TV and movies, and commenting on the tropes of those media as rules by which to live his life. But whereas metaphor is only used to illuminate, pop culture references can either additionally, or exclusively, have the surreptitious motive of displaying your particular taste, or bragging about your pop culture knowledge/nerd credentials.
Sure, we’ve all slipped the odd The Office quote into conversation (if that’s true, excellent) but what is the allure of doing it? Is it the feeling of a shared experience, the idea that you can relate to someone on the most basic level of ‘I’ve enjoyed this thing, let’s see if you have too’? Because if that’s true, why not just insert the names of universally enjoyed foodstuffs into conversation? ‘Yeah I’m having a great weekend, a real Red Velvet Cake of a time. ‘ ‘How’s the weather? It’s warmer than that pasta we had once!’ Is it because pop culture gives a low-level, accessible opportunity for artistic critical analysis, where you can slag off an episode of Game of Thrones with no prerequisite of intelligence or education. You just have to have watched it and have an opinion, even if that opinion is ‘dragons + tits = great TV’.
But what about elements of pop culture which require a decent level of knowledge of pop culture itself in order to enjoy it? Metatextual or post-modern pieces, such as parody, satire or homage. You couldn’t enjoy an episode of Community or the movie Hot Shots in a vacuum. A lot of alternative comedy subverts traditional forms, and so relies on some knowledge of the genre to understand what’s being commented on. And not even for comedy. Just take a look at the trailer for Ready Player One, which basically looks like the most expensive fan film ever made, The Phantom Menace notwithstanding. At first glance, I couldn’t glean any information about the story from the trailer. It seems like it’s being marketed on nostalgia and plain old recognition of existing properties – “Did you like Star Wars? Well it looks like this film does too!” Could it just be a ploy to use an overly familiar set of logos and references as packaging for a mediocre story? Basically ‘The Big Bang Theory: The Movie’, or the commercial equivalent of ‘you had to be there’.
To make up my own mind, I read the book Ready Player One to see if there was a substantive basis of a story. I wanted to see if the the pop culture references were a garish accoutrement, like putting googly eyes on the Mona Lisa. Or if, as the trailer suggested, the references themselves were the whole point; a movie built on a house of cards, specifically a game of Top Trumps where the only category you’re allowed to play is ‘brand recognition’.
To be honest, it’s a little of both. The story requires the main character to educate himself on 80s pop culture in order to complete his hero’s journey, so they are presented as necessary for the chosen narrative, but equally the entire time you’re reading it, it feels like the author is peering over your shoulder, waiting for another ostensibly obscure reference to crop up, so he can elbow you in the ribs and bark, ‘Remember? From before!?’
But it’s still enjoyable. And if you pretend this is a singular problem with this book/movie then I’d suggest that it just seems like the logical end point of a culture obsessed with self-referencing, and increasingly scared to venture money or intellectual effort in a new idea. We shouldn’t chastise a child for saying a swear word if they’ve grown up hearing their parents use that language, we should tell them why swearing is lazy and unimaginative, even if it is hugely fun. If we didn’t want Dr. Frankenstein to make that monster, we should have disposed of our corpses more carefully.
Just to clarify, that was a metaphor, and then a pop culture reference, both used to illuminate the same idea. Which did you prefer? I liked the one with the thing from a movie in it.
Commenting on pop culture can be fun and interesting (and not commenting in the Gogglebox way, where you just say ‘that’s sad’ or ‘that was funny’, like an audio description service for psychopaths), because it’s still culture, but with a qualifier of assumed familiarity. And if we’ve got a problem with that, then we should stop constantly watching reboots like some sort of robot. Robocop for example. Which is a robot, and was a reboot. And is a pop culture reference.
Next time on the bandwagon, I listened closely to all of The Beatles’ back catalogue on Spotify to listen for hidden messages, and it turns out that Paul McCartney isn’t dead, but physical media is.