Pop goes the culture

Cultural references can be stylish shorthand for getting a point across. The trouble is, they work only when the writer and the reader are both familiar with the reference.

People who studied the classics in school will instantly recognize “he crossed his Rubicon” as meaning that someone has made a life-altering decision that can’t be undone. Those who never learned about Julius Caesar will be left scratching their heads. (“Hmmm. Rubicon … Isn’t that some kind of sandwich?”)

Likewise someone who has been immersed in the “Game of Thrones” TV series for the past five years will get it if you say somebody pays his debts like a Lannister. People who don’t watch the show will wonder if a Lannister is a thing or a person, and won’t know if the comparison is a complaint or a compliment.

You can’t count on someone today getting either reference, let alone both. Our popular culture has never been homogenous, but in recent decades it has fragmented into smaller and smaller parts. That means it is less and less likely that a reader is going to know the fragment you are writing about.

Referencing a popular television show made sense when there were only three commercial networks. In the 1950s, “I Love Lucy” regularly got 30 million to 40 million viewers for each episode. Today, even though the United States has twice the population, the audience is split among more than 100 broadcast and cable channels. The most popular new TV series in the past year? “Empire,” with about 9 million viewers. In other words, most people don’t watch your favorite TV show.

Likewise, most people don’t listen to your favorite music or play your favorite videogame. Most people don’t go to church at all, let along your denomination. A huge percentage of people visit Facebook, but my mix of Facebook friends creates a different online experience than your mix.

Even when a bit of cultural flotsam seems inescapable for a while, we forget about it with amazing speed. (Sic transit gloria mundi if you are a student of the classics; 15 minutes of fame if you are an Andy Warhol fan.)

That doesn’t mean you have to give up all cultural references. It does mean that you should choose your references carefully. The more homogenous your audience, the more likely they’ll get your reference. It also means you should give some kind of context. Even if you think everyone should remember Left Shark, it helps a lot to add, “from last year’s Super Bowl halftime show.”

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