Pop culture references can be useful shortcuts — cutting straight to the chase OR they can be off-putting, confusing and alienating phrases that make a reader feel uncomfortable and out-of-the-loop.
In fiction, they are often used to give the reader information about a character or a place with a minimum of descriptive paragraphs. This assumes the reader will be able to paint a picture of the kind of person because the references are familiar and specific. Here are two very different descriptions:
One: He was drinking Sanity IPA at the Dive Bar on Amsterdam Avenue when Germany beat Argentina in the World Cup. I noticed that he was carrying a hardcover copy of “The Psychopath Test” in one of those messenger bags you get as a premium when you pay for your WNYC membership.
Two: He once hosted a blind beer tasting and tried to fool his friends into thinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and Bud Lite were local micro brews. It didn’t work. But he was an optimist. He rooted for the Jets.
The references in the first example, paint a very specific picture of an Upper West Side Manhattan sport fans with interesting taste in reading material and a membership in the local NPR station. The second describes a New York Metropolitan area beer-drinking trickster with a penchant for a team that has not won the Superbowl since 1968.
Fully understanding ALL the popular culture references requires the reader to know a little bit about a lot of general, regional and very local things. A couple of years ago one of my characters referred to a “thumb drive” when she was talking about a small flash drive and my Dad nearly threw away his copy-editing pencil. The novella had many contemporary references and the mini data storage unit was the last straw for him. He simply didn’t know the phrase and felt alienated but its use.
There is another risk inherent pop culture references — things get dated quickly. Like the fashionable clothes of another era, pop culture can turn your story into a period piece. Some contemporary authors rely on pop culture and others avoid it entirely. I try to find a balance and use a mix of easily accessible, almost universally accessible, and narrowly specific references that can be understood in the context of the story. It’s tricky, but once in a while I test my references on readers. I’m admitting here — I don’t always get a perfect score.