Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Does Your Pop Culture Date Your Story?

I guess the short answer, is that of course, yes, it does.

A teen who listens to New Kids on the Block would be retro, not hip.

But a story that can reference Lady Gaga and the newest hottest TV shows, is going to sound hip and trendy and who doesn't want that in dealing with teens.

The problem of course is that generally several years will pass between the time a novel is first written and the time it is available for sale. That teen star that everyone loved when you started writing might be on their third trip to rehab by the time the book comes out.

What's an author to do?

Some people (and perhaps they know they will have shorter leave time, or are tapped into the newest trends that will be around awhile) are able to pull off the hip and trendy. I can't do that. I wasn't particularly sensitive to trends when I was a teen, and that really hasn't improved over time. And my kids are seriously retro, (seriously: Calvin and Hobbs, Peanuts, Archie, 40s Jazz, Beatles, Broadway music, M*A*S*H and Gilligan's Island) so I can't get clues from what they are watching or listening to.

If I use a real band or book or person as a reference when I write I try to make it be someone who is so "out" as to be "in" again. People or things that have already stood the test of time and aren't likely to fade into complete oblivion anytime soon.

But for the most part, I make up my own pop culture for my books. The songs or stars they are talking about are of my own invention. Sure, they won't be immediately recognizable to anyone, but they also won't have done a stint in rehab.

I think it is impossible to be truly timeless. Something is always going to date the manuscript. Technology is a big one. I got my first cell phone only eleven years ago, but kids these days can't imagine not having them. TiVo and other services mean that you don't have to watch a particular show at a particular time anymore. Netflix means people aren't running out to rent movies at a store someplace. And who knows what other changes will be in store in the next couple of years.

Even political or geographical things don't stay the same. I risk dating myself with this example, but when I was a teenager I wrote a story where the main characters visited the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall had been a constant since before I was born. I couldn't imagine it ever not existing. But if I ever wanted to keep that scene in a story, it would have to be historical now, since the Berlin Wall is long gone.

So, when it comes right down to it I guess it's impossible not to date your story in some way. What are some ways you try to work around that?


  1. Being that my YA books are all set in fantasy worlds, I can invent away and never have a concern about pop culture. Your way seems the best. I was updating a book several years ago that was ocntemporary and had to add things like cell phones and change the station wagons. Hopefully I found all the dating the heroine and made her a bit more modern.

  2. I can see why fantasy worlds would be so appealing to write. With all invented technology or cultural things, nothing needs to feel out of date.
    And it's not just adding the cell phone. Any plot that involved not being able to get in touch with someone requires more tweaking when it's assumed everyone has a cell phone with them all the time.

  3. I remember when one person in my UCI extension writing class had her chick lit book picked up by an agent and got a big deal. Her book was filled with pop references. I thought it was fun. Then I noticed others books coming out that were similar to her book. After a while this so-called trend of mentioning tons of current pop references grew very stale.

    With EARRINGS I originially mentioned Britney Spears as the pop idol Lupe loved and wanted to be like. I saw this as a bilingual teacher. Britney was hot. My editor though told me not to use her name but make one up. Boy was I glad I did! Right when EARRINGS came out is when Britney had her 'mental' moments.

    I did use the Cure in CROSSED OUT but this is in the haunted coffee house. The posters and music are 80/90s. Interesting though that I did get a couple comments from reviewers that this 'dated' my story or wasn't correct. I laughed as it was meant to be dated.

    For my upcoming book NO GODDESSES ALLOWED Jordan loves Audrey Hepburn. I did end up 'making up' an AH flick but other than that I do use references to her movies and clothing throughout.

  4. Kim, that's funny that someone would complain that a blatantly dated item - something meant to be retro - would date the story.

    And Audrey Hepburn is timeless.

  5. Yes, I thought that was funny too. I felt like saying, didn't you get the hint that the past is involved here? But I don't say anything. Best that way.

    You know my mother loved Marilyn Monroe so I grew up watching all her movies. My mother doesn't get the whole AH thing. I just know after doing all my research--which included watching almost all her movies--I fell in love with her. I also have been noticing more teen movies and books using her too.

  6. Most of the time I invent songs, musicians,and stuff that will be outdated soon. In my current WIP however, I'm using music by Elvis. Since most kids today probably aren't familiar with him, I have the CDs coming from the boy's Grandmother, who was a big fan and he likes Elvis too. This idea came from when I was teaching and a student loved Elvis because his grandma did. I hope it works. :)

  7. Bev, my mother is a huge Elvis fan! I grew up listening to all his records. I still know some of the lyrics.

    In my book NO GODDESSES, Jordan finds out her favorite AH movie was based on a mysterious great-aunt's life.

  8. Bev, I think Elvis is definitely timeless enough to include.

    Also, I think people forget that kids don't exist in a vacuum. Just because something existed or was popular before they were born, or when they were small, doesn't mean they don't like it now. My kids are perfect examples of that. And I'm sure they're not the only ones.

  9. Oh yes! My daughter reads my stuff and betas some other authors I've given her and she calls out what sounds 'old' quickly - even with dialogue, haircut, cliche's

  10. Yeah, I mentioned Johnny Cash a few times, but I think "Ring of Fire" is timeless enough. (At least, I hope!)

  11. This is a great topic. By the time my first book went to print, I removed some of the pop culture from it--like the names of songs at prom. Now I write with fewer allusions to pop culture.