Attack of the pop culture references

Ransom Riggs

At some point in the mid-nineties, I noticed it. In everything from TV shows to music and movies, pop culture seemed to be folding in on itself; more and more referring only to other TV shows, music and movies. Rather than a dialogue, it seemed like mass media had been busy transforming itself into an echo chamber, culminating with phenomena like I Love the 80s (literally 100% pop culture references), bands like The Darkness and Chromeo who trade on sending up the musical cliches of the past and tee-shirt based attempts at humor that consist of nothing more than a silhouette of Fat Albert. (Which isn't to say that Chromeo doesn't rock my booty; they do.)

I'm not immune from pop culture reference disease, of course -- heck, my "Attack of the Parasites" video for mental_floss is constructed entirely of Mystery Science Theater-worthy clips from old movies -- but more and more it seems like artists who are really trying to say something new and profound are being hampered by their dependence on -- nay, addiction to -- pop culture. Take the new Richard Kelly film Southland Tales, for instance. I won't ruin it for you if you haven't seen it, but it's a story that purports to take on such heady subject matter as the breakdown of modern society and the end of the world, and yet it's so hyper-concerned with making too-cool in-crowd pop references with everything from its casting (why else would you cast Kevin Smith, The Rock and John Larroquette?) to its soundtrack (Blur, the Pixies, Radiohead) and even its tagline ("This is the way the world ends ...") that the film never ends up making enough sense to make a point at all!

Whew. (Rant over!) For the record, I loved Kelly's previous film, Donnie Darko -- also full of pop culture references -- so no harm, no foul. I suppose what I'm getting at is that pop culture references certainly have their place, but they often become a substitute for actual (or at least original) communication. It peeved me so much that a few years ago I wrote a bizarre little comedy sketch called "Pop Culture Reference," and this is it:

What pop culture references get under your skin?