All Persons, Living or Dead, Are Purely Referential

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.
How funny.


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.


All Roads Lead to Home

The phrase ‘you can’t go home again’ was originated by Ella Winter, and popularised by Tom Wolfe as the title of a novel. It’s a phrase that comes back to me regularly with regards to thoughts of moving away from my home town, moving house on an almost annual basis since, growing up and becoming a different person etc. I’m not always sure how ‘at home’ I feel, but maybe I’m just chasing a feeling that I can never recapture. It doesn’t matter what I do to recreate my old bedroom; amassing a new key ring collection, a new assortment of baseball caps I would never wear, or a new hockey trophy for a tournament I never played in. I was a weird kid.

In a very literal sense, I can never go back to my childhood bedroom, because my parents don’t live in that house anymore. Sure, I could knock on the front door, greet the confused inhabitants, and convince them that it’s worth letting a stranger into their house just so he can prove Ella Winter wrong. But even if I could, I’d go into that room, possibly still a child’s bedroom, and all I would feel is a gut-wrenching pang of lost time. Maybe I’d lament the missing Matrix Revolutions poster, (with the appropriate tag line, ‘everything that has a beginning has an end’) the lack of a tiny grey cathode ray television in the corner, and the absence of a singular smell of adolescence. But what I’d miss most is not the objects, or the geography of it, but the feeling of being a pedantic, insufferable sixteen-year-old, yet to decide whether to dedicate his life to any one thing in particular, aside from making sneering corrective remarks at every opportunity.

One reasoning for the direction in which we view time, past into present into future, is the gradual increase in entropy the universe undergoes. The past has already happened, it is set, we agree that these things cannot be changed. They have a lower entropy, a lower level of disorder than the future, in which a greater number of possible versions of reality exist. But there’s comfort in remembering the past. It’s safe. Just ask fans of Peter Kay’s stand up. We know what happened, we know who we were back then, but we can’t say the same about the future. You can never be who you were, and while we should be okay with that, and happy to grow and progress, it’s just another reminder of the inexorable march of time, just like sitting through Peter Kay’s stand up.

Would I really want to be the version of myself I was when I lived in that bedroom? Where I wrote a bucket-list in which I somehow expressed an equal desire to ‘fall in love’, ‘see the Mona Lisa up close’, ‘go to New York’ and ‘con McDonald’s into giving me a free meal’. Where I would paint my Warhammer figurines. Where I lost my virginity (those last two were necessarily many years apart). I want to go back to my old self and tell them that writing a list like that is bullshit. Pointless. What you want will change, and you shouldn’t feel beholden to a promise you made to yourself in the past. Plus McDonald’s really isn’t that expensive. I want to encourage myself to be more in the moment. I’d say not to look forward to the completion of a stupid list, only done so for its own sake. And maybe I’d give some tips regarding losing my virginity. Maybe I’d even get it right.

I used to fantasise about going back in time to my twelve-year-old body with the mind I have now, and being even more of a know-it-all irritant at school, but having the foresight to not worry about the little things. Also knowing which of my classmates would turn out to be followers of the BNP on Facebook, making me feel a touch less rueful of their lack of approval. But what would that do? Realising that nothing I did mattered until I turned eighteen? I’d become a tiny nihilist, accosting teachers and classmates for the tiniest of transgressions, using my knowledge of the future for personal gain and generally being a fucking nuisance. I’d be Biff from Back to the Future.

What’s the point in looking back unless it’s to learn something? I know I was a little shit. I also know that what I wanted then doesn’t matter. I’ve been in love, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa up close (if you want to know what that was like, just Google ‘Mona Lisa’) and I’m going to New York soon. Not because my sixteen-year-do self told me to. Frankly I’d rather not do what that idiot told me to, he had a fucking Matrix Revolutions poster on his wall. Don’t worry McDonald’s, you’re safe.

Next time on the Bandwagon, I’ll be discussing my new fad diet, wherein I eat what I want for a week, then eat nothing for three weeks, fake my death, move to Italy and gradually work back up to my ideal weight using pasta and wine.