Pop Culture References in Writing
Do pop culture references create a common reading experience, or make a story inaccessible? In my novel, the narrator’s mother has a “fabulous plastic hoopla” where the saleslady extols the virtues of Tupperware to fawning women drinking vodka-spiked punch with a scum-like foam of quivering pastel sherbet. The point of the scene is not the burping storage containers, but the daughter’s uncanny observations of the women in the 60’s, and how, “with fixed smiles and rustling nylons, they preen like faded parrots with a tug of the sweater or reassuring touch to their glossy pearls, as if a plasticware party was the biggest social even in town, bringing about a compulsion to brag about their wall-to-wall carpeting or new dishwasher, or gossip about someone else’s life, each story more sordid than the last.” And so on. I wonder what will happen ten, twenty or thirty years from publication, however? Will the references lose their punch? Beyond the presumption that 1. it will be published, and 2. any story will be around for eternity, I do think it’s something, as writers, we need to keep in mind. “Memories of my Father Watching Television” by Curtis White is a novel about family life in the 50s and 60s, and has plenty of popular culture references where the father sits in front of the TV eating uncooked Spam and aerosol Cheez Whiz from the can while watching “Combat” and “Bonanza.” One of the reader reviewers writes: “I am 26 years old and have no memory of ANY of the TV shows White is spoofing. I also have no memory whatsoever of my father. However, this book’s critique of American values and the complex and worldview of the Velveeta-eating, armchair-inhabiting American male is relevant beyond the scope of its irreverent title.” For this reader, the references have apparently done their job. That’s the trick, I think. When using references, it’s important to consider if it will engage the reader. Can it create a common reading experience, or will it make the story inaccessible? When considering the use of a reference to a certain brand or a pop star, ask yourself: 1. does it make sense in the context? Does it play a large part in the scene or is it just wallpaper? If you have a story about a loser who sits in his basement and watches television, you don’t ever have to show the reader what’s on the television. 2. Is the reference from the narrator or the author? Beware of the author trying to be clever. 3. consider the tone of the piece. Is it comedic or of a world view? Don’t let the reference derail the scene. 4. if the reference is unknown, would it make a difference? Another consideration is that certain pop culture icons are still evolving. For example, Britney Spears is unstable (as a cultural reference, that is!) Twenty years from now, who knows what she’ll be up to? It could be tragic, comedic or comeback. Frank Sinatra was a teen idol in the 50s but my daughter knows him as a long gone, fat Italian singer in Vegas. Specific name brands also lose relevance, such as Jordache or Sassoon. However, even after American Idol is gone, there will still be talent competitions, so the name itself, even if the show is forgotten one day, will remain relevant. Also, what a character likes in popular culture can negatively define the character, so it’s never a good idea to put an unwanted reference in the reader’s head. It’s like a comedian who walks on stage wearing a Rodney Dangerfield tie—the audience will automatically compare him to Rodney Dangerfield. Is that a good or bad thing? This kind of negativity can work in your favor, though. Consider the difference between having a character who is a fan of Kiss than one who idolizes Kiss. The degree in which a character is invested in pop culture can say a lot. When a story is in a particular time period, the atmosphere doesn’t need to be dependent on references to work. Titles of TV shows, rock bands or brands can be fictionalized and they will work just as well, or even better.

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