Why I Love Pop Culture References

Pop culture references in books has been something that’s been on my mind for quite a while now, and it’s something I’m starting to pay a lot more attention to than I used to. As contemporary is my favourite genre, most of the books I read have at least some references to things in popular culture, whether that be TV shows, music, or social media. What I love most about these references is that it so clearly ties a book to a time period, and I think that’s a good thing. However, some people don’t feel the same.

I was recently on Goodreads, looking at reviews for a book I can’t even remember now. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Goodreads is often regarded as the cesspool of bloggers and reviewers, where people are hated on for disliking books, liking books, and even just thinking they were average. You can’t have your own opinion on Goodreads, apparently.

But anyway, I saw that one reader disliked a book because it had pop culture references. And that reason for disliking something puzzled me. I can understand that sometimes these references aren’t seamlessly inserted into the narrative or they feel forced, like the author’s trying to appear ‘cool’ in the eyes of teens. But most of the references I’ve come across felt authentic and definitely improved the novel in my eyes, giving it a depth in ways that books devoid of any links to specific time periods don’t have.

What I often dislike is reading a contemporary YA novel devoid of any pop culture references, or anything that could tie it to a particular year, or decade, because that’s just not authentic. I can’t imagine the world today without social media, or where music, movies, and TV shows come up into daily conversations. To me, it would just be really unrealistic to avoid mentioning these things in a contemporary novel if its set in a place that facilities those conversations. Authors shouldn’t be afraid of connecting their novels to a particular time.

I once was listening to an author speak at her book launch and she was talking about the pop culture references in her books and how she initially tried to remove them so that her novel could transcend time periods and be a piece of literature that people could still enjoy fifty years from now. But to me, what makes art so beautiful is that it is a snapshot of the world we’re living in when it’s created. Even if writers avoid including pop culture references, the way the book is written and the language that’s used will inevitably point to a period of time. Being tied to a year or a decade isn’t something that authors should shy away from when writing – they should embrace it.

What makes art so wonderful is that it provides a glimpse into the time it was made. That’s why we love it and preserve it. So, to me, books without pop culture references or references to the world at the time the book was written in just seem bland. Of course, these references have to fit in with the type of story the book is telling and they can’t just be forcefully inserted, but when done well, these types of books become my favourites. The way to my heart is through pop culture references.

Facetime | Pretty Girls Don’t Eat

But what got me thinking about the whole conversation on pop culture references in books was these two novels by Winnie Salamon – both of which incorporate references into the narrative seamlessly and in a way that benefits the story, as well as providing a snapshot into the time they were written in. While they’re both really enjoyable stories with a great range of vibrant characters, undeniably what I loved most about them was these references.

The first of these novels I picked up was Facetime, which was published in 2002. Because so many of the YA contemporary novels I read are set this decade, most of them within the past couple of years, I’ve never really read anything like Facetime before. There’s talk of geek references that would have been popular back then, online chat rooms, getting your dreams interpreted over the phone, and wow, it was just overwhelmingly 2000s – but in a good way. I wasn’t old enough then to appreciate that time in the world, but Facetime gave me a glimpse into what that society was like for young Australians with the internet. The friendship in this novel was also really well-written, and I loved the way their lives seemed to gravitate around pop culture references and ‘geek culture’. It was wonderful.

While the pop culture references in Pretty Girls Don’t Eat don’t take centerstage like they did in Facetime, I still loved the way they were included in the narrative to make this story one that was all the more authentic and genuine. Pretty Girls Don’t Eat is ultimately a story about an aspiring fashion designer with negative body image, and her road to becoming body positive. I’ve read a few YA books with similar subject matter in the past couple of years, but I loved what a short, sweet read Pretty Girls Don’t Eat was. I read it in one sitting. Again, I loved reading about a trio of friends and I’m always a sucker for #LoveOzYA. Trigger warnings for mentions of anorexia, bulimia, body shaming, and suicide.

Ultimately, these two #LoveOzYA novels are the perfect examples of how books can provide a snapshot into the world at the time they were written in and I thoroughly enjoyed the use of pop culture references to enhance the stories. These two were quick, fun reads with vibrant casts and great character development, despite them being so short. If you’re looking for an Aussie book to devour in one sitting, then I recommend picking up either of these ones!

My top picks for YA with pop culture references…

Let's Talk

Do you read many YA contemporaries? What are your favourite books with pop culture references? What’s one book you think does this really well? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks to Winnie Salamon for providing me with copies of both Facetime and Pretty Girls Don’t Eat in exchange for an honest review!

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Graphics used in header sourced from ArtCreationsDesign and Dainty Doll Art.

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19 thoughts on “Why I Love Pop Culture References

  1. YES. I love pop culture references in books! It actually makes them way more relatable, I think, and also puts history/culture in! Like if we read a book set in the ’80s, we WANT to see the ’80s culture and how they dressed and how they spoke and what the phones/computers were like. So in 30 years time people are going ot feel that way about 2017 as well!

    My only hesitation is describing things with TOO much detail. Like I literally read a book where the girl was describing where the settings option was on instagram, and literally it had updated the week I was reading it so the whole thing was out. 😂 It was a bit over the top anyway haha. I do love when books talk about instagram or twitter or youtube though. Tash Hearts Tolstoy is AMAZING and I love Radio Silence for doing the podcasts!!

    • EXACTLY! I want to be completely immersed in the era the story is set in, and it just feels so much more authentic when there are pop culture references and mentions of things that are actually happening at that time. But when teens in novels set in 2017 love music that was popular when the author was growing up, like obscure songs from the 80s? Sometimes that’s done well, but other times it just doesn’t mesh with the story.

      Ahh yes, I love both those books so much! ESPECIALLY RADIO SILENCE. All those Welcome to Night Vale references omg 😍 FOREVER FLAILING OVER THAT BOOK 💜

  2. I really enjoy a book where we find pop culture references…even those that fly by me (age gap and all) It makes the story more relatable…and it gives more “body” to the characters…Plus they are hilarious sometimes

  3. You voiced exactly what I’ve been thinking about for a while too! I can see where the author is coming from on creating a timeless story, but in the case of contemporary novels, I don’t think they can get away without pop references. Part of the reason I read contemporary is to be able to relate to a modern character or storyline, and pop references help build the bridge between our world and theirs. It’s so satisfying to read about contemporary characters using smartphones and social media or fangirling about things I currently enjoy.
    I’ll definitely check out the books you mentioned! The most recent contemporary books I read with pop references are Geekerella and Eliza and Her Monsters, and both used them well. Great post 😊.

    • Ahh yay, I’m glad we’ve been having the same thoughts about this! I honestly couldn’t agree more. Pop culture is such a massive part of the world we live in, and to read a story completely devoid of mentioning particular things just feels so unauthentic. I really need to read GEEKERELLA soon, but yes, I adored ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS! Thank you so much 💕

  4. I might be a little backwards on this, but I don’t read a lot of contemporary books because I find the pop culture references wind up pulling me OUT of the book instead of drawing me in! Maybe I’m just not reading the right ones? Maybe I just getting old (because I’m super ancient now), but then I remember than even when I was in high school I didn’t like contemporaries for the same reason. Hmm, and yet for some reason I still keep trying to read them! I think it’s because there’s just TOO many good books out there to write off a whole genre because of a few bad eggs!

  5. I don’t mind pop culture references in my books. Like you mentioned, I like the idea that the work reflects the time it is written in. Pop culture is a part of history so I think it often helps enhance the setting in a way.

    I really only remember one time where I didn’t enjoy the pop culture references and that would be the Ruby Red Trilogy. It’s a series originally written in German and then translated into English (though the books take place in England–slightly confusing yes). Anyways, when I was reading it, it felt distinctly American because of the pop culture references and not necessarily something that would be “British”. I’m assuming it was the publisher who changed things up when translating it to make it appeal to the American market but it just caused the series to loose some of its charm.

    • Exactly! I’m glad you feel the same way. Ahh I haven’t read that one, but that’s really interesting to hear. I hate it when books have to sacrifice originality or references to appeal to a certain market, like when things are changed from Aussie YA books to better suit an American market. Part of what makes these books so amazing is how representative of the place in which they were written, or where and when the characters are growing up.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 💛

  6. Sarah!
    I absolutely love pop culture references. It’s really a nice way to ground the story in a sense of community and reality. I feel like it gives the culture in the novel more depth. When I first moved to the US with my family, reading things was strange, because I wouldn’t get the references in books or movies. But, Google, and then actually getting to experience these references, it enriches my reading of stories. Also: I was nodding along when you were talking about Goodreads. I gave away so many books because I was ashamed of liking them just based on Goodreads users’ feedback.

    • EXACTLY! I couldn’t agree more 🙌🏼 And yes, that’s so interesting! It’s fascinating to see how the pop culture references differ from country to country, and how a lot of the references we read in YA are so Americanised. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 💛

  7. I love me a good reference! From a writing point view, I may start using them less perhaps opt to use a kind of descriptive reference that would create a in-joke from people of that era. In my first novel I had to cut them down because only a few people would actually catch ‘em all.

    • Oh wow, that’s so interesting! It’s great to have the occasional in-joke for people that grew up in the same era or place as you, but I understand how broader references are sometimes the way to go 👌🏼 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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