Thursday, March 3, 2011

Everything's Something

Pop culture references. They're in songs, books, films, vocabulary. I have friends who quote television shows to the degree that the sayings have entered our vernacular. When there's a lull in the conversation someone undoubtedly pipes up "Is that gum?" or "Dust? Dust, anyone?" (100 points for anyone who can name those two television shows.)

Cultural references can be used for parody or homage. They allow a creator to create parallels between their own work and the work they are referencing. They borrow credibility from something that is trendy or well established in the (apologies for sounding like I'm writing a uni paper here) collective consciousness. The audience gets to feel clever at having identified the thing that the creator is referencing and perhaps in turn identify with it.

I love a good pop culture reference. Two that have caught my attention recently are in (and I'm going to lose all my hardened street cred here) Kesha's "Blow" and Lady Gaga's "Dance in the Dark". The first goes something like this:

Drink that Kool-Aid
Follow my lead
Now you're one of us
You're coming with me

Did you get that one? I've been researching cults recently so it jumped out at me right away. On November 18, 1978 Jim Jones orchestrated the mass suicide of 900 of his followers at Jonestown, Guyana. The cause of death was a cyanide-laced drink popularly believed to be Kool-Aid. (It was actually Flavor Aid.)

In Lady Gaga's Dance in the Dark, a song she states is about a young woman uncomfortable with her sexuality (surely it's not autobiographical?) the bridge goes:

Work your blonde (Jean) Benet Ramsey
We’ll haunt like Liberace
Find your freedom in the music
Find your Jesus
Find your Kubrick
You will never fall apart
Diana, you’re still in our hearts
Never let you fall apart
Together we’ll dance in the dark

Jean Benet Ramsey, Liberace, Jesus and (Princess) Diana all met tragic ends. Kubrick ... well, he was a brilliant film director who lived to a ripe old age. No tragedy there, he died in his sleep. But could Gaga be comparing herself to all these famous figures?

Even just the vaguest allusion to something can stuff a whole lot of meaning into something as seemingly meaningless as a pop song. I have to say I enjoy the cultural "borrowing", despite the fact that, in the examples above, it seems to be borrowing for the sake of credibility rather than for something important the artist wanted to say. You could interpret, I suppose, that Kesha was saying something snide about her fans ...

Do you enjoy a pop culture reference, or do you find them tacky and derivative?


  1. Ooh! Shiny new blog!

    I think the dust line is from Little Britain. Where ever it's from, Husband says it all the time. Not irritating at all.

    And I love pop culture!!

  2. Yup, I decided I needed to make the transition to something a bit different...I don't like the
    orange though. It's a bit yuck.

    50 points young lady! It is indeed Little Britain. Who knows the other one---and for bonus points, who said it.

  3. Now you hit a spot.

    I would enjoy those references. With you explaining them to, I really feel more passionate about the art that is was found in. Unfortunately, I don't always see them. I mean in films, I might get more reference, but still I seem to not concentrate enough to get everything.

    I'm using it for my writing, if I can, though.
    Nahno ∗ McLein

  4. I don't like pop culture references in fiction. If a character listens to a band whose music I don't like, chances are I don't like the character. That, and it ages the book.

  5. I really love pop culture references, although in fiction I don't like it when it goes as far as "product placement". I do like it in music and occasionally in fiction though :) It makes things more relatable and believable.

  6. I suppose it's my age and background (along with my almost complete ignorance of pop culture post 1976), but I love literary allusions, particularly poetry and plays.

    A nod to Chaucer and Marlowe, a wave at Coleridge, Cohen or Tennyson, a wink at Catullus, Virgil, Cocteau, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Schiller or Heine and I feel at home: my worldview and tastes validated by the writer as we move closer in our shared world of their creation.

    More importantly references and allusions allow writers to provide additional depth through an almost emotional shorthand as such allusions drag in their wake multitudinous, subtle tinges that shade and transfigure characters and actions.

    The downside is of course when the reader misses the allusion or - worse - sees it as pretentious.

  7. I think if it's done well, it doesn't matter if the reader misses the reference.

    My FAVOURITE BOOKS OF ALL TIME, the Martian Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, have a central character named Arkady Bogdanov. The books are obviously about Mars, but they are also about revolutionary changes in society. I didn't realise this until recently, but Bogdanov was the name of a Russian communist who wrote a science fiction novel called "Red Star" - and the "red star" of the title is, of course, Mars. But it goes a bit deeper as well, because Arkady (whose name sounds like "Anarchy"...) is a politically revolutionary character, and he is overly concerned with the cultural assumptions we grow up with, although we never learn much of his own background. Now the book goes into some detail about the influence that culture and family have had on the other two major Russian characters in the book (both women, affected in opposite ways by traditional Russian babushka-matriarchy), but when you consider that in Robinson's universe, Arkady is probably supposed to be a great-grandson of the (real-life) author of Red Star, you start to wonder if there's some deeper implied character background in there. But the point is, I didn't need to know it to "get" the character.

    I've never read "Of Mice and Men", and watching an season 3 episode of Lost the other night, there's a conversation between Sawyer and Ben where meaningful narrative and character information is revealed using quotations from that book. The quotes chosen where relevant to the plotline, and I'm sure i'd have a deeper appreciation of it if i actually read the book, but i didn't feel like i needed to. The context and the way the characters were written/performed made the significance obvious (and it resonated well). It wasn't alienating - and while Lost definitely sometimes comes off as pretentious in it's referencing of many things (sometimes it just looks like one of the writers is making an irrelevant list of their favourite canon books), in that case it didn't.

    And it's not just about dropping a reference to place the text in a particular time and place - in some cases the medium is the message. I once read a short essay where someone dissected a Midnight Oil song; this person said that the line "It's better to die on your feet than live on your knees" was a clever line, until they discovered that the band had just "ripped it off" from Emiliano Zapata. Which is obviously missing the point; they didn't pick that line *just* because it sounded cool (or because they wanted to take credit!), the choice of Zapata as somebody to quote is actually relevant to the message of the song.

    Tez said it can "age" the book; i have to disagree personally. Everything in art/literature exists in a context, and stories that are "timeless" aren't timeless because they avoid referencing things, they're timeless because they can discuss things that resonate with audiences that don't necessarily understand the references (like Shakespeare!). While other stories don't need to reference anything to become dated (like Portrait of a Lady...). Actually, you know what? You could use Star Trek for examples of both sides of the coin...

  8. Hey it's David E posting as Anonymous again (that was me above...); just thinking about the Lady GaGa lyrics you posted Rhiannon.

    I wonder if she's drawing a division between Jean Benet Ramsey & Liberace, and Jesus & Kubrick. Jean Benet Ramsay was part of the dubious (and, according to some, semi-paedophilic) world of American beauty pageants, and Liberace was persecuted by crappy British tabloids over his apparent homosexuality. (And in the song, he's "haunting".) Then Jesus and Kubrick - both inspirational figures (though i think of Kubrick as a bit anti-human) - are only mentioned after "Find your freedom in the music"?

    But then i've got no idea what Diana would be doing in my interpretation.