A few months ago I read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a science fiction/humor novel. I had been meaning to read it for quite some time because of its fame and because of countless recommendations from people whose literary opinion I respect. And as I went through the pages, I noticed the amount of cultural references this book has spawned just about everywhere: music, movies, TV shows, famous quotes, you name it. I started to understand the meaning of many references that had been previously hidden to me. I began filling in the blanks and completing all the conversations I had been missing out in.
This led me to think about pop culture and where resides its relevance, if any. Why is it important to know who Superman is? Why is it advisable to listen to the most famous Beatles songs or to read George Orwell’s 1984?
Pop culture is not really important as a media generator but as a concept generator. Pop culture is relevant to its contemporaries because its concepts feed our daily communication. If we fail to grasp them, we are missing a part of the conversation.
A pop culture concept is any reference to an artifact of contemporary media that, because of its iconic signification, can be mentioned in a context other than its own to represent a situation, mood or a given group of characteristics. For example, if I say: “My boss is the Darth Vader of the third floor” I am taking a character from a movie and using it in an office environment. If the majority of the people reading this sentence understands its meaning, then we can safely assume that Darth Vader is a pop culture icon. And as superficial and irrelevant as it appears to be, knowing who this fellow is, matters because Darth Vader is, as a pop culture icon, a block that our society uses in its language structure. If you don´t know who this character is, you are missing out on a part of the conversation. To set another example, if you are a journalist and someone says “You are the Superman of journalism” but you don’t know who Superman is, you won’t know if you have just been insulted or praised.
If you have never seen Star Wars I strongly recommend doing so. Not because of the quality of the movie itself -which is great- but because of the sheer number of references to it that are constantly made everywhere. The same thing happens if you learn who Albert Einstein was, if you read JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, if you listen to Chuck Berry´s Jhonny B. Goode, if you watch Jaws and countless more examples. Once these pop culture concepts enter your conscience, you start catching the references to it that are just about everywhere.
This does not mean that we need to immerse ourselves in the neanderthal world of trash celebrities, reality television, pop music and sports in order to properly understand the current zeitgeist of our culture. Even within the world of pop culture there is high culture -the one that spawns pop culture icons and concepts into our daily existence- and low culture -the one where most of the current media resides and one that has an expiration date. There is a reason why Kim Kardashian will never become a pop culture icon: putting aside the media exposure she has, there is nothing special, meaningful or worth remembering about her, even from a pop culture perspective. Very similar characters from the past didn’t survive either for these same reason. And those past characters had the added bonus of existing in a world with far less competition and far more patience than the ones we have today.
The Simpsons TV series is a great compass of what constitutes a pop culture icon. In its vast catalogue of episodes we can find references to many pop culture concepts. A person who is steeped in pop culture will enjoy a Simpsons episode more than someone who isn´t. For example, on the Simpsons episode “Treehouse of Horror V” the family has to stay in an lonely house in the mountain. The whole story references “The Shining”, a classic movie by Stanley Kubrick. The episode is good and it will provide a few good laughs regardless of the viewers knowledge of “The Shining”. But if you have seen the movie, then the episode reaches a whole different level and the gags become much funnier. If it appeared in The Simpsons -specially in the first twenty seasons- then it’s most likely pop culture material.
Most pop culture icons are tied to the boundaries of their original language. Although many pop icons transcend idiomatic barriers -as the English language is the most universal language of the world, its own pop culture is often interlaced with the universal pop culture- most of them remain within the boundaries of the language they were created in.
Sometimes it is hard to assume which pop culture references are universal and which ones aren´t. A huge number of people know who Darth Vader is. But not everyone. I don’t think my mother knows who Darth Vader is. Almost everybody in the world knows who Albert Einstein, Gandhi and Adolf Hitler are. But what about David Bowie? He is extremely famous, but, is that enough to make him an universal pop icon? I’m quite sure most north-koreans don’t know who Bowie is. But, likely, most of them have heard of, or at least can recognize a picture of Albert Einstein. A pop culture icon is something that can be used depending on the circumstances.
There are three different levels of pop culture terms: universal, regional/local and tribal. A universal pop culture concept is one we can use in a communication with anybody in the entire world and safely assume that it will be understood. Also, it is the one with the most longevity of the three. Very few icons belong to this category. With a few exceptions, we will find mostly religious and political figures here.
A regional/local pop culture icon is one we can use within a certain region where we can find similar cultural characteristics. General arts, sports, politics, and assorted personalities are to be found here.
A tribal pop culture icon is one we can use with like minded people with whom we share a common language and cultural codes. Lesser known figures populate this category.
The more pop culture you absorb, the more references you will catch. The more references you catch, the more conversations you will understand. Depending on your personal interests you will become more steeped in certain areas while leaving others unattended. This is inevitable: no one can absorb all the pop culture out there and it’s not even advisable to try doing so. However, it is always advisable to know a few basic pop culture icons that are referenced everywhere in our world. Therefore, to set a few examples, I will name a couple of the pop culture “classics” that are constantly referenced around us:
People: Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon
Books: The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien), 1984 (George Orwell)
Movies: Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, The Godfather, Back to the future, 2001 A Space Odyssey
Musicians: W. A. Mozart, Ludwig Van Beethoven, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson
Music: Johnny B Goode (Chuck Berry), Imagine (John Lennon), Hey Jude (The Beatles), Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones)