Pop Culture References

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.


    • Candy Korman

      I think it’s about making judicious choices. The right pop culture reference — like the right reference to a classic novel or a other work of art — brings the reader to the right place quickly and efficiently. The problems come when in when the reference limits the reader’s imagination instead of firing it. It’s like an old song on the radio. It can set a perfect mood or kill it quickly.

  1. As a Jets fan, just one correction: Gang Green’s only Super Bowl win (and appearance, for that matter) was Jan 12, 1969. Not 1968. Of course it was the Super Bowl for the 1968 season so I’m splitting hairs. But 1969 sounds so much more recent than 1968 :). Great piece!

    • Candy Korman

      I stand corrected. Yes, 1969 sounds and entire 12 months more recent than 1968!

      Popular sports references in social media can date an event, i.e. Germany beating Argentina in the World Cup or lend credibility to a character description by using the reputation of the team as a short-cut to the character’s passion. A Cubs fan is not a Yankees fan is not a Mets fan is not a Braves fan… And here I am revealing my inherited focus on Baseball in my personal sports references. LOL!

  2. I try to keep pop culture out of much of what I write. But then with what I write it would be very odd to see such things within the story anyway.

    I am reminded of an old Doc Savage story I once read. In the story there was a reference to rubber soled shoes which were new at the time. Now they’re so common we can’t picture shoes without rubber soles.

    This is also an interesting conundrum with science fiction. With the rate that technology is changing it can be hard to figure out what might actually be futuristic still. Even worse if what you picked becomes dated shortly after its use.