Pop Culture

Perhaps this will end up in GD or the pit, but I think it can be a polite discussion over here in the Cafe. The matter I wish to discuss is that of Pop Culture references as a valid form of communication. Often around here on the SDMB, when people start talking about definintions of words and how they may change based on context, the conversation quickly spirals into personal insults (believe me). I would like to avoid personal attacks and discuss the practice on it’s merits.

I am 25 years old. Most of my childhood was in the 80’s and my teen years were in the 90’s. Having grown up during this time as an American I have experienced many movies, television shows, and a ton of popular music. I share these common experiences with millions of others who grew up at the same time. Now, when I meet someone, we can joke around about all the old tv shows and movies, and it is a common ground. This “relating to each other through pop culture” has been going on for a while, and has advanced to the point that saying certain words or phrases instantly references a certain film/tv show and the context that it was used in. Like “D’oh!!!” instantly references the Simpsons and behaving in a Homer-ish manner.

I went to Catholic school, and in about the 7th Grade, alot of kids were beginning to question the religious texts we were reading, so they brought in a local priest who was better equipped to answer our questions. The question came up “Why did Jesus say “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?””. The answer, according to the priest, was not that he meant it as a literal question of God. Instead he was invoking a particular Psalm (Unfortunately I forget which one and I don’t have a bible handy). By using it’s first line he referenced the entire Psalm, which turns out to be offering praises to God. The priest said that people knew the Psalms so well in those days, all you had to do was say the first line, and they knew what you were talking about.

Religion aside, this is an old example of the phenomenon I speak of. Once a meme has moved into the collective consiousness, it can be used to show certain ideas or emotions that it might not without the referenced context.

I say this is totally valid. If I use a word or phrase as a pop-culture reference, it’s meaning becomes only that of the context I use it in, without reference to what the word/phrase may have meant in the past. If there is confusion as to the meaning/context, and a person is able to reference Pop Culture as the source, it is then up to the listener to check out (or ask about) the source material so as to understand the context.

I think language is more of an art than a science. It is fluid and does provide the opportunity for creativity and new meanings of old words. There are some suggested rules, but the important thing about language is that it allows people to communicate thoughts and ideas. It is a wonderful tool in that sense. People are always coming up with new ways of speaking (read relating) to each other. I find this very cool, and do not think there is anything wrong with it.

How do you feel about Pop Culture references as valid communication?


A man goes to visit his father at the Old Folk’s Home. He finds a bunch of old guys sitting on the front porch in their rocking chairs.
One of the guys says, “Fifteen.” All the old guys laugh.
Another says, “21!” The other guys laugh, but obviously just out of politeness.
The younger man turns to his dad and asks what’s going on.
“Well, see, son, we all know each other’s jokes so well, and we’re not getting any younger, you know, so in order to save some time we just numbered them all.”
“What was wrong with the guy who told the 21 joke?”
“Oh, him? He can’t do a Jewish accent.”
Suddenly a man at the end of the porch stands up. Silence falls. “147!” he roars. And the crowd goes wild! They’re laughing, and crying, and knocking over their little tripod canes, and falling out of their chairs.
“Dad! Dad! Why’s that one so funny?”
“Never heard it before!”

Yep. Shortcuts can be useful, but they can be limiting, as well. I myself have never seen a full episode of the Simpsons, so I miss a great many references. Never saw Beavis & Butthead, don’t have cable, don’t watch MTV.


Granted, you risk people who have not experienced the reference not understanding your meaning. But if I then go on to explain the meaning, and where I got it from, so that now you DO understand what I mean, then it should be a done deal. Instead of arguing with me that it’s not the “right” way to use the word. It is A way to use a word/phrase and it is just as valid as other ways that may exist.


The problem with such references is that they can quickly date something. A lot of people howled over Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin, despite the fact that half of what he said won’t be understood at all in twenty years.

I don’t have a problem with it per se, but I do think it’s used too often as a substitute for true wit. Take, for example, the current trend of ska-punk bands doing sped up covers of 80s songs. 99% of these are just dumb, just speeding up the song and yelling the lyrics. It’s not interesting, it’s not funny, but because they’re referencing an 80s song, it’s supposed to be high wit. Sitcoms and movies will reference current catch phrases without there being any meaning behind them. It’s the catch phrase itself that is supposed to be clever - or the fact that they said it.

I think they can be used well, though I’m hard pressed at the moment to come up with a really good example. And I certainly don’t think people shouldn’t use and contemporary references at all. But all too often it’s more of a trivia contest than actual references. Everyone wants the most obscure kids’ cereal mascot on their t-shirt, so you get people tromping around in Quisp t-shirts who have never even seen the cereal available for purchase.

My theory is that in 20 years or so people will communicate entirely via quotes from old Simpsons episodes.

The problem with communicating in pop-culture, aside from potentially alienating people who aren’t in the know, is that people who use this as a major part of the communication process are often completely confused by an original thought. I have often been talking with someone and been struck down with:

“Where’s that from?”

“I just made that up.”

“No, really, where’s that from? Where’d you get that idea from?”

It’s like creating something new that doesn’t reference something else is a completely unknown thing.