Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Psychology of Pop-Culture References

First of all, I’m not against pop culture references on principle—in movies, in slam poetry, in music, there ARE ways to make them work. A good writer can use them to lend a certain immediacy to his/her work, a specificity that grounds the work in the real world. The fact that American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman can rattle off facts about Phil Collins makes him extra creepy. The Michael Bolton reference in Office Space is a pretty great piece of absurdist humor that actually adds to the film’s characterizations. Erykah Badu’s frustration over missing the Wu-Tang show--not just “the show,” but the Wu-Tang show--situates her as a down-to-earth hip hop head and not just a neo-soul bohemian queen.

I could go on; there are plenty of good examples out there of artists using the pop culture reference as a tool, as another literary device intended to add to the impact of the work. Hell, I have a whole song entitled “Harry Potter.” I LIKE pop culture references, when they’re done well.

But the problem here is that in the hands of lesser wordsmiths (or even great artists having lapses in judgment), the pop culture reference can be the cheapest, most inexcusable form of hackery. And it seems like that sort of laziness is becoming increasingly common. No pun intended.

Exhibit A would have to be films like Epic Movie and the forthcoming Meet the Spartans, films that masquerade as satire while really just presenting an endless string of disconnected pop culture references and the occasional gross-out gag. Rather than using the reference to advance a plotline, develop a character or tell a joke, these films simply present the reference AS the joke, like: “Hey, I’ve seen Borat. That movie was funny and now this guy is dressed like Borat and talking like him so that’s funny too. I’m going to laugh now.” These films are NOT the descendants of spoofs like Airplane or The Naked Gun, they’re something much more sinister and insipid.

Another example would be Common, especially in recent years, spitting lines like “it’s kinda like the Breakup, with Jen and Vince Vaughn” or “she on the treadmill like OK Go” or when he talks about “the dude from N’Sync” being gay. None of these lines add anything significant to his songs. Rappers can usually get away with making throwaway pop culture references if they’re part of a clever punchline or wordplay-oriented metaphor, but these are just pointless similes, lazy songwriting. I'm guilty of this at times too (we all are), but Common is particularly bad.

As a slam poet, I see this phenomenon all the time. A poet will be talking about the war in Iraq, and then for no reason say something like “George Bush and war is like Michael Jackson and pre-teen boys!” Unfortunately, the audience will usually respond favorably to nonsense like that, which brings me to the point of all this.

Why are pop culture references so powerful? Audiences absolutely eat them up, which encourages artists to go out of their way to use them more often. Why?

I noticed something the other night while watching I Am Legend. There’s a scene where Will Smith is watching (and reciting lines from) Shrek on DVD. Now I think this is a good pop culture reference—it shows how his character has used the film to escape the horrors of his life, and it is kind of funny to hear him reciting the lines. The audience, however, laughed before any of this was made clear, at the exact moment you see a TV playing the movie, as if the simple recognition was the interesting part.

That’s how these awful Epic Movie movies work as well. Their appeal isn’t in the writing or the performances or the jokes built around the references—it’s in the split-second of excitement that happens when the viewer recognizes something he or she has seen before. It reminds me a lot of performing at hip hop shows and seeing the audience respond to a jacked beat. The moment they hear the “Deep Cover” instrumental or whatever, no matter what’s being rapped over it, no matter how dope the original beats played up to that point had been, they go crazy.

And I’m not trying to be on some elitist “stupid peasants and their pop culture references” steez. Okay, well maybe a little bit. But I’m really trying to figure out the psychology behind this phenomenon. Why is the recognition of a reference as exciting, if not more exciting, than the meaning behind the reference?

It seems to be something very primal, very instinctual. Like how when apes are presented with a task they can’t complete, they go do something they know they can do well, like eat a banana or swing on a tire. Or how when my printer stops working, I punch holes in the drywall. It’s comforting. Maybe recognizing pop culture references and getting pleasure solely from that recognition serves a similar psychological purpose in some sense?

Because most people don’t go to the movies or listen to music to be challenged. Some of us do, but I doubt it’s a very significant fraction. Instead, the bulk of us prefer escapism or pure entertainment or whatever can make us feel good for a few moments. Maybe pop culture references are like sprinkles on some giant art-cake, adding sweetness to something that doesn’t always taste great.

But do those sprinkles rot our teeth? Should art be saccharine escapism or should it be a higher form of communication? Obviously, that’s an entirely different conversation.

In the meantime, I’ve been making a point to discuss this phenomenon in the writing workshops I lead, hearing what other people think and starting some kind of dialogue around this. I think it’s important. This whole pop-culture reference thing may seem like an insignificant pet peeve of mine, but I really think it points to something larger. As American culture gets faster and faster, this sort of thing is only going to become more prevalent, and the dumbing-down effect that accompanies it is a real danger to the future growth of, specifically, the spoken-word movement, but also hip hop, film and other media.

But maybe I’m way off-base. Any of you readers psych majors?


Molly said...

I'm not a psych major....

but I think it has to do with the comfort of recognition. This isn't only unique to pop culture references in rap songs...The more you see something the more it becomes "normalized" in your brain, and there's some type of comfort that is associated with familiarity. Just like if I saw you walking down the street I would probably smile because I recognized you, I wouldn't make you do a trick or prove to me first that you deserved the smile.

this might be a ridiculous analogy...but what I'm getting at is that I agree with your one paragraph that says it's somewhat instinctual...
but roots always run deep, so do more research and get back to us.

el guante said...

i'm too busy being famous to do research, but interesting thoughts.

serenity (who is supposed to blog here as well but hasn't yet) also talked about in-group/out-group dynamics. when you recognize something it means you're "in on the joke" in a sense, it means you're accepted into a kind of community and you're not an outsider. there's comfort in that as well.

That Girl said...

I agree with Molly, I think people respond well to the refrences because it helps them latch on to the artist/poet/actor. Basically, it gets the audience more involved. Example:In the stupid epic movie everyone kinda becomes obssessed with catching all the references, they compare notes with their friends and might go back and watch the movie again which I'm sure makes the hack of a writer incredibly happy.
The point is, those references make ppl feel like they get what the artist is trying to say even when most of the time they miss the point of the whole work and only remember one cheesy line.

P.S: You r so right about Common...I hadn't noticed before but he's a "habitual line stepper"