When, if ever, is it okay to make pop culture references in fiction? And does that rule change when you’re writing for children or teens?
This much-debated topic has no easy answer. First, an overview of the debate, then we’ll discuss how the dynamics shift when your target audience skews younger, and how to make your references work if you do decide to use them.
The Changing of the Old MFA Guard
According to Electric Literature, the question picked up steam in the 1980s at MFA workshops. The professors had grown up in a world largely devoid of corporate branding slapped onto every aspect of their lives, but their students had come up surrounded by brand name cereals, trademarked products, and a wider common culture made possible by the spread of national TV and radio. To the young writers it was normal to say Kleenex or Hoover, instead of tissue or vacuum: the brand was the item.
Their teachers objected, essentially claiming that all these brands and pop culture touchstones were ephemera, that they were fads that would fade as easily as they had come. After all, there was no MTV when they were kids! These professors said literature should seek to be “timeless” rather than products of their era.
That’s the theory, anyway.
What actually happened is that while specific pop icons like Davy Jones and Bananarama faded from popular consciousness, a lot of things haven’t. Coca-Cola is a prime example, a brand that’s been around since 1886 and keeps reinventing itself to stay relevant. Their product is so ubiquitous that many people don’t say “I’ll have a soda” or “pop,” they say, “Gimme a Coke.” Brands are absolutely everywhere (we’re all encouraged to even have personal brands to compete). The Internet has been divided up between Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other massive conglomerates. “To google” is now a verb. We now communicate through pop culture using GIFs taken from popular shows and movies. The zeitgeist has zeitgeisted itself. It’s all very meta.
All that to say: this is how we live now. So, can contemporary fiction that doesn’t incorporate or refer to the ubiquity of pop culture and big brands really call itself realistic fiction?
What Readers and Other Writers Think
Both readers and writers are split, but they tend to have strong feelings about their preference. Discussions on Reddit are illuminating, from both the writers’ perspective and the readers’. Here are some highlights.
Don’t use references when they’re… cheesy, overdone, exist ‘just to appeal to readers’, are used as a prop, can be ‘distracting filler’, look like showing off, or come over like Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do, fellow kids?” when not used correctly.
Do use references when you want to… flesh out worldbuilding, anchor your story firmly in time and/or place, add in-jokes and layers of additional meaning, or quickly communicate something about a character through the references used.
Most readers agree that if it’s done well, it can work. We’ll get into how to use pop culture references well in a moment.
Pop Culture 4 Kidz
The same Do’s and Don’ts provided above still apply to writing for kids. However, age does make a difference when it comes to how specific and far-reaching your references can be.
When writing kidlit, your first responsibility is always, always, to the intended audience: young readers. You want to depict a reality (be it historical, fantasy, or the future) that current young readers can understand and relate to. That means that when you’re writing about right now, you have to reckon with the influence of pop culture on our everyday lives.
You also want to be careful about seeming to promote or endorse something you have no control over (people and brands can make mistakes!), and looking like you’re selling to kids. The opposite won’t save you–if you’re too harsh, you might have to deal with a legal team alleging that your work is insulting and damaging.
In works for younger readers (picture books through some Middle Grade), it’s safest to steer clear of specifics. Generic terms can still get the point across, like tablet instead of iPad. (Besides which, iPad implies the money to acquire one, that the family uses Macs vs. PCs, and so on. Word choice matters!) Because younger kids have less experience, their frame of reference is limited. Today’s ten year olds were born when the 6th Harry Potter movie debuted, so Harry Potter means something different to them, if it means anything at all.
Older readers (some Middle Grade and Young Adult) are more likely to be aware of pop culture and history, but they’re also extremely discerning. They can tell when an author is dropping names and slang they’re not comfortable with. You can use specific references for this age group so long as you don’t overdo it.
How To Make References That Work
Think of pop culture or historical references like uncommon or “fancy” words: the reader should be able to get the gist from the surrounding text. The Writer magazine has a great piece on how to make references, and the linked New Yorker piece has a lot of examples.
The Writer provides this example:
[In his essay “Frame of Reference” in the New Yorker, John] McPhee cites a reference in the book Captured by Aliens [by Joel Achenbach], in which a professor supposedly looks like Gene Wilder, with “some of the same manic energy.” Readers who are familiar with Wilder are immediately treated to a vision of blond curls and bright blue eyes; readers who aren’t are still clued into the key reason for the comparison (the “manic energy”).
Try to anticipate frame of reference
…but don’t drive yourself to distraction. You can’t anticipate what every reader will or won’t be familiar with, but you can make assumptions based on their cohort.
Every year since 1998, Beloit College circulates the “Mindset List” which “reflect[s] the world view of 18 year-old entering college students each fall”. For instance, the class of 2022, born around 2001, has “always been able to refer to Wikipedia” and “Oprah has always been a magazine.” College professors need to keep their references current if they want to reach students, but we as kidlit writers can glean important insights from them, too. Historical writers can refer to the book The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal.
Aim for popular or universal references, where possible
…but remember that you can’t cover every frame of reference.
Keep in mind that with the Internet all knowledge can be searched for (and usually found), so if a reader really wants to know they can find it. But no one knows everything, and we increasingly occupy siloed communities which have their own subcultures. A political wonk will know things that a K-POP fan has never heard of, and vice versa. (Don’t forget the person who follows both! Crossovers happen because people contain multitudes.)
Try to use enduring references
There’s a conversation to be had about historical works that make pop culture references. They do! Some we recognize, some we don’t. Electric Lit points out that these are often considered references to “high art”, which means the item is still recognized because it’s become an enduring “classic”. Often we confuse “enduring” with “superior”. Just because the Odyssey has survived to the present doesn’t mean a play written in the same year was a worse play.
It’s impossible to say in 2019 whose legacy will endure (BTS, Adele, or Beyonce?), so we just have to use what will be meaningful to current readers, and our best guess for future readers.
If you really want to play it safe, stick to references that are safely in the past. THE HATE U GIVE’s title refers to Tupac Shakur lyrics, and it works because time has passed since his death and his legacy is now relatively stable. The same book also references current pop stars, prompting a reddit user to say:
Some of the references already aren’t aging well, like the am I Beyonce or Taylor Swift today reference since now T Swift is seen as a problematic white pseudo-feminist that causes drama instead of a broken hearted girl anthem queen. Even Beyonce’s image, while still positive, now has changed to a woman who stayed strong through a betrayal. So the reference has a completely different meaning already which confused me (Did Chris cheat? Is that why she’s Beyonce?) etc.
Make your reference serve more than one purpose
Why are you using a given reference? Does a character’s favorite TV show say something about their taste, and what we can expect of them later in the book? Will naming the band playing at prom flesh out the worldbuilding? If the reference adds something to your story, it’s often worth leaving in.
Next time you pick up a new book, ask yourself what hallmarks of the era are included, and what’s left out.
There is so much more I could say about this topic. (Thank you to Rachel for suggesting it!) Ultimately, using pop culture references is a choice for each writer and each project. Hopefully these tips and resources will help you make that call.
Bronwen Fleetwood writes fiction for young adults, and nonfiction for writers. Bronwen studied creative writing at Eugene Lang,The New School for Liberal Arts, has acted as leader of the Princeton Writing Group, and as a Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month. Bronwen currently lives on the Whale Coast of South Africa, between the mountains, the sea, and a lake. You can connect with her at bronwenfleetwood.com.