By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.
Pop Culture references don’t age well. I think about this, from time to time, when I am teaching an essay that refers to outdated celebrities. The example that comes to mind is from William Raspberry’s essay “The Handicap of Definition,” an insightful and broad-minded exploration of racial stereotypes. The piece was published in 1982 and features rather unfortunately outdated Pop Culture references (Tom Jones and Teena Marie). These no longer function as pertinent examples since I have to explain them to students. This doesn’t mean the examples are no longer valid, but much of their impact is lost.
This past Sunday, I encountered the rather disturbing truth that my examples are only as current as I am. I have to imagine that this is true for the rest of people, too, which is probably why people striving to stay “young” and “hip” and “cool” always look so tired (is anyone else conjuring images of Madonna at Super Bowl XLVI?). Staying relevant must be exhausting. I have never labored under the impression that I am now or ever have been “cool”; I am content to be quirky, unusual in a way that seems generally pleasing, if not downright laughable. Still, I was awfully surprised when, during conversation with (ok, ok, considerably younger) friends at Sunday brunch, I had to explain not one but four Pop Culture references that I just assumed everyone would “get”. The references are, in my mind, neither obscure nor specialized. The following are the names I dropped, which no one picked up: Jessica Lange, Sam Sheppard (convinced that he would help my friends remember Jessica Lange), Henry Rollins, Bobcat Goldthwaite and Alpana Singh. The first three, certainly, are quite well-known and still actively working in the public eye. I must conclude, then, that I need to consider my audience. Or, at the very least, it reminds us to think carefully about the examples we use.
Over time, Pop Culture references aren’t worth much, which is a much more pertinent lesson. What makes us laugh today makes us cringe tomorrow, but confused the day after. It is somewhat akin to watching old comedy (of course, here, too, the definition of “old” is rather fluid). Many jokes that once got enormous laughs are so topical that their meaning is lost. Still, I can locate a reassuring thought: in the not-too-distant future, none of my students will have ever heard of Snooki.