When You Don’t Get a Pop Culture Reference

How pop culture references seed inclusion, exclusion, nostalgia, and more when writers use them.

I’m working on a YA novel set in 2010. Why 2010? Short answer: because I was a teenager in 2010. Long answer: because it was an interesting cultural moment if you think about it.

In 2010, flip phones were slowly getting replaced by smartphones. Most people hadn’t heard of Instagram yet, but we were all on Facebook. 2010 also saw the continued rise of YouTube filmmakers, influencers, and other content creators. People were still learning that you could actually make it rich online.

In 2010, I had discovered a treasure-trove of brilliantly edited, beautiful longboarding videos on YouTube. And because my teen protagonists make skateboarding videos and post them online, I think 2010 is a brilliant time to put them.

A DIY-style longboarding edit I was obsessed with around 10 years ago. I wanted to make videos like these…if only I could skateboard half as well! (Credit: Original Skateboards — Jake Shore on YouTube)

So, how do you successfully ground your story in a specific year with specific characteristics? You use pop culture references.

Which should have been a simple endeavour. But pop culture references are more complex in their impact than one might think.

The Ups and Downs of Using Pop Culture in Writing

Pop culture references can help or hinder a story. When used right, they make a time period come alive. If they’re recognized, the reader experiences an immediate sense of connection with the story. (That’s powerful.) At the very least, they give people an interesting thing to Google.

But done wrong, and pop culture references will look like you’re trying too hard to be cool. Cue Ted Cruz embarrassing himself with badly done Star Trek references to connect with people. (He tried to sort Star Trek characters into Republicans and Democrats and it did not go down well.)

Reddit comment by Wil Wheaton: So speaking as someone who served under Picard: Ted Cruz is a jackass who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Wil Wheaton (who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek) shades Ted Cruz. (Source: Reddit)

As for how popular a pop reference in a novel should be…this is a real balancing act.

See, if you choose a pop culture reference that is super popular, you avoid alienating readers. But an overly generic pop culture reference doesn’t say much about a character. If you’re a 90s kid who loves Pokémon, what makes you different from all the other 90s kids who love Pokémon?

Worse, your character may be labelled a tasteless, basic philistine for liking something so ubiquitous.

Here’s an example.

If you grew up in the late 2000s, you might remember that dreaded Black Eyed Peas song that starts like: “Tonight’s gonna be a good night…tonight’s gonna be a good, good ni-i-ight…” Here’s a music video to jog your memory if you don’t remember:

Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling.” (Source: official Vevo YouTube channel)

When that song came out, I absolutely loathed it. It represented to me everything wrong with Top 40 music — cheap lyrics, repetitiveness, no originality. For a long time, whenever someone referenced “I Gotta Feeling” or (god forbid) chose to play it, I would immediately judge them for being a boring person.

This leads to the main thing I want to discuss with regard to pop culture references: their ability to include, exclude, and stoke judgement.

The Awkward Moment When You Don’t Get a Pop Culture Reference

Pop culture references are all around us, and if you are not getting them, then it is the WORST. When you do get one though, it is somehow the best feeling ever. Seriously, the best . . . All of a sudden, you and that random person are now bonded together like two little girls who have spit in their palms and clasped hands in an act of lifelong friendship. — Grace Pushman, HelloGiggles in the hilariously titled essay “Read This, You Ignorant Slut: A Guide to Pop Culture References”

As a kid, I had many knowledge gaps (hell, I still do). Because my parents only listened to the Chinese-language radio station, I rarely got exposed to the hits of the day. Whenever other kids burst into the latest Britney Spears hit or whatever, I would feel left out.

Caption: An amalgamation of so-called 2000s nostalgia, some of which I don’t recognize because I’m not American. (Source: YouTube — clips are obviously copyrighted, but I’m invoking fair use — satire/parody & commentary/criticism here)

I didn’t have it the worst. My peers who are Mainland Chinese, their parents grew up under the Communist regime where Western pop culture was outright shunned. At least my parents (Hong Kongers) introduced me to The Sound of Music and Les Miserables. I pity kids who don’t recognize do, a deer, a female deer!

The feeling of exclusion when other people know a reference and you don’t is super real and super frustrating. It creates in-groups and out-groups and separates people based on things like age, gender, and even race. No wonder I tried to get in with the cool kids by knowing their cool references.

The Times I’ve Tried to School Myself in Pop Culture References

In high school, I embarked on a quest to intentionally teach myself pop culture so I could feel less left out. I forced myself to listen to Top 40 music and music videos until I physically couldn’t stand them anymore.

This didn’t last. You can only listen to something you dislike for so long. Besides, the magic of pop culture references comes from their spontaneity, their organic inclusion into everyday life.

English-speaking people who grew up in the 2000s should know this reference. (Source: GIPHY. Copyright: Lorne Michaels Productions & uploaded by Paramount Pictures)

At some point, I discovered that within the dominant mainstream of pop culture, there are segments, namely: high-brow pop culture and low-brow pop culture.

Low-brow pop culture is whatever teen girls are listening to. When I was a kid, this was emo bands, Jesse McCartney (remember him?!), that “Baby” music video where Justin Bieber dances in a bowling alley…

Justin Bieber’s “Baby” was at one time the #1 video on YouTube. (Source: Official Justin Bieber Vevo channel on YouTube)

High-brow pop culture, on the other hand, is often consumed by older white males. Like classic rock. If you know classic rock, you’re considered a step-up from a cookie-cutter pop lover. You’re sophisticated, you know good music, you might even play an instrument yourself.

When I was around fourteen, I got into playing guitar and, concurrently, classic rock. I studied classic rock in a way that would make my Asian parents proud (lol), memorizing big hits from Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, et. al. And to be honest, I genuinely do enjoy classic rock.

The feeling of exclusion when other people know a reference and you don’t is super real and super frustrating. It creates in-groups and out-groups and separates people based on things like age, gender, and even race.

But my intentional studying still left knowledge gaps. I remember one school assembly when a teacher brought a guitar to the front of the room and asked everyone to name “any pop song from the 60s or the 70s” and everyone shouted, “Yellow Submarine!” I was familiar with the Beatles, but for some reason, “Yellow Submarine” flew over my head.

I felt so, so left out when everyone started singing along to“Yellow Submarine” and I didn’t know the lyrics. People thought I lived under a rock when I told them I didn’t know the song. “But I know this stuff!!!” I screamed back. “I know Led Zeppelin! Don’t you know Led Zeppelin? Ha! YOU DON’T KNOW LED ZEPPELIN.”

When I Learned White People Pop Culture References and Got Called a Hipster

I went through a hipster phase in my first few years of university. Or, wait — was I really a hipster if I self-identified as a hipster? Hmmmm…

Anyway. I got really into Fleetwood Mac and 60s and 70s counterculture, and I started collecting records. I’d visit the flea market, haggle with old, bald dudes and feel proud when they seemed impressed by my choices. (“Really? You kids these days listen to The Kinks?”)

I watched and re-watched Dazed and Confused and Pulp Fiction, and I felt an odd kinship with Wes Anderson films. I wrote for the campus radio magazine, which covers local underground music, and went to cheap concerts played by obscure bands. I bought an oversized denim jacket from the thrift store, pinned it full of feminist buttons, and wore it everywhere.

One of my favourite videos by Levni Yilmaz, “Times I Tried To Be a Hipster?” (Source: YouTube)

To me, I was Peak Cool. But to my peers — especially my non-white peers — I was a snobby, hipster mess who’d scoff at them for not getting a pop culture reference.

When You Don’t Know If You Genuinely Like Something Anymore

Sometimes, I don’t know if I truly like the thing I like, or if I’m just liking it because doing so tells other people I am a certain type of person.

I do like Moonrise Kingdom. I do like Dazed and Confused. But many of my friends and family, the people I grew up with, don’t know what these things are. They just didn’t grow up in that culture, and it sucks that I can’t share Moonrise Kingdom and Dazed and Confused with them.

Sometimes, I forget the power of sub-cultures — particularly of my own, largely Asian-Canadian community of peers in 2010s Vancouver.

Asian Canadians my age voraciously watched Inuyasha and Naruto. Spirited Away changed our lives. We listened to BoA and then, later, Big Bang and Girls Generation, while the edgier ones of us had Visual Kei. We lapped up anime-adjacent shows like Teen Titans, Martin Mystery, and The Last Airbender.

Just writing the names of these shows puts a smile on my face because the nostalgia is lovely =)

Zooming out to the larger picture: anyone in Canada who watched kids’ TV in the 2000s can recall the notorious PSAs that took over our commercial breaks. Americans have no idea how weird these are, but we Canadians immediately connect over House Hippos and Heritage Minutes.

A collage of Canadian nostalgia my fellow 2000s Canadians should get. (Source: YouTube — once again invoking fair use: commentary/criticism/satire/parody)

Side note: Canada wages a constant battle with the U.S. competing for pop culture eyeballs. We have Canadian content quotas to help our homegrown media survive alongside American dominance. These days, I see Schitt’s Creek on CBC News multiple times a week because it’s Canadian and Canadian media desperately wants us to buy, watch, and listen Canadian.

Anyway, that’s a rant for another time. What fascinates me is that, to an extent, pop culture references have such connective power because they don’t include everybody. When you and someone else share an obscure pop culture reference, it’s like you both join some exclusive club that makes you feel special and like the other person more.

My fellow Asian-Canadians and I have similar experiences — we grew up hearing our elders share traditional stories (I fondly remember Journey to the West as a fundamental part of my heritage) and then we sought out entertainment that affirmed our unique life experiences.

I think this is a shared experience among minorities. As The Only Black Guy in the Office says, “[S]ometimes we just want some shit for ourselves — without interference from the White gaze.”

Towards an Authentic Taste…and Authentic References

Sometimes, I re-listen to the songs I liked as a teenager and almost cry because I remember how obsessed I was with them at the time. When you’re a teenager, music and movies are everything. Which makes pop culture references all the more powerful in a YA novel, all the more necessary, and all the more challenging to include well.

To make a pop culture reference in real life and have it go down well, there are two requirements you have to meet:

  1. The reference must fit the situation, feel natural, and be funny.
  2. The other individual(s) must get the reference.

You can memorize as many witty lines as you want, listen to as many culturally-important pop songs as you want, but if other people don’t get your references or find them funny, what’s the point? And if you’re slipping in references just to look well-read, well-watched, or whatever, you stink of inauthenticity.

And you should genuinely like the things you reference. Otherwise, how will you remember them? You can memorize lines like you would study for an exam, but that’s a poor use of time, in my opinion.

Usually, people who understand our references are similar to us: they grew up around the same time or have similar tastes in entertainment.

So, you have to know who you are. And find your people.

When you’re a teenager, music and movies are everything.

You should also like things because you like them, not to prove a point. Doing so will help you find your people. Yet we should also be open to other tastes, other people. Don’t stay in your own pop culture echo chamber — it’ll get boring, trust me.

As for referencing pop culture in my 2010s YA novel, I’ll quote “I Gotta Feeling” when my teen protagonist goes to a school dance and feels like a fish out of water. And in scenes when she’s having a good time, I’ll quote a song I liked when I was her age.

And frankly, I don’t care if other people like—or even know—that song.

Li Charmaine Anne (she/they) is a Canadian author and freelance writer on unceded Coast Salish territories (aka Vancouver, Canada). Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines and she is at work on her first novel, a contemporary YA about queer Asian skater girls. To read Charmaine’s articles for free (no subscription required), sign up for her newsletter.

(She/They) Author on unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver, Canada). At work on first novel. Get links to read my stuff for free: https://bit.ly/2MleRqJ

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