Get ready for a blast of crazy pop-culture nostalgia: Remember when pop culture references weren’t considered a creative cheap shot? There was a time when a well-timed zinger about an old TV show or a recent movie was considered refreshing, rather than about on par with the band name-checking the town that they’re playing in. Of course, plenty of people remember this time and even maybe still live in it; the recent success of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, adapted from the beloved/derided novel by Ernest Cline, suggests that for many viewers, adjacent shout-outs to The Iron Giant, Harley Quinn, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, and Child’s Play provide the intended hits of delighted recognition. But in the critical community, this go-to move doesn’t get as much respect. The run-up to the movie’s release was fraught, and plenty of people who actually saw the movie are ready to make the case that it fails geek culture by overusing, misusing, and/or lionizing its litany of pop culture references.
The specific merits and problems of the Ready Player One movie aside, it seems like this movement against pop culture references (or at least a diminished enjoyment of them) has been building for a while. It represents a substantial turnaround. Not to get all remember-the-’90s, but back when Buffy and the Gilmore Girls spoke in pop-literate quips and The Simpsons was upping its game to the point of making reference to “non-Brazilian” time-travelers that the writers now can’t explain and may actually have been a non sequitur, pop culture references were often perceived as a mark of sophistication, not creative bankruptcy. What changed?
It could have to do with sheer volume. In 1999, there were fewer than 250 Simpsons episodes; now, there are almost 650, and another 300-plus episodes of Family Guy for anyone who wishes The Simpsons had more overt and frequent references to ’80s sitcoms (and The Simpsons itself, once quaintly obsessed with nodding to Citizen Kane, is its own endless reference generator). Gilmore Girls ran for seven seasons, then came back on Netflix, and the number of old shows and movies have been similarly revived or sequelized creates additional pop culture references even in places where they didn’t necessarily exist before, in different shades and tones. Ryan Gosling doesn’t spend any of Blade Runner 2049 lobbing zings about upgrading Sean Young into a more popular Michelle Pfeiffer model, but the movie doesn’t need him to be robo-Deadpool to deliver its non-comedic references to a decades-old predecessor.
Intense competition in the nostalgia-overload sweepstakes—something else fueling some understandable, if knee-jerk resistance to Ready Player One—illustrates another problem for the traditional pop culture reference: the difficulty of hitting them exactly right even in the best of circumstances. (As with so many things, The Simpsons makes it look easier than it really is.) Even movies and TV shows where references are expected and theoretically desirable given their tone or genre can struggle with this. Take, for example, two recent teen shows, Everything Sucks! and Riverdale. The relatively grounded Everything Sucks! clearly wants to do for ’90s culture what Freaks And Geeks did for its own ’80s touchstones; it even brings in another teen-show classic by using a My So-Called Life font for its opening Netflix credit. But the 1996-set series splits the difference between verisimilitude and pandering.
As someone who was just barely older than the show’s protagonists in ’96, I spent a good deal of Everything Sucks! oscillating between nostalgic wonder at, say, the video-store scene that near-perfectly nails what posters would be hanging in the background during that very particular sliver of time (early fall 1996), and fuming over the fact that Surge soda was not on the market until early 1997. Granted, that’s a ridiculous nitpick on my end, but the show invites it with an equally ridiculous, context-free zoom in on a Surge can, the visual equivalent of dialogue that says “Hey, it’s Surge!” As someone who would be an easy mark for references to Surge, The Verve Pipe, or The Crow: City Of Angels (that last one’s free if you get a second season, Everything Sucks!), even I know the references need a little more supporting material than an excited zoom or expensive music cue (especially if they’re highlighting an anachronism that only seems like a period detail).
Anachronisms aren’t precisely the problem for the more heightened Riverdale, which wants to traffic in the kinds of self-conscious references that dotted soaps like Dawson’s Creek, and why shouldn’t it? The show itself springs from the long-running, often-innocuous Archie comics, and as such is already playing with pop iconography. Maybe it’s fandom for Dawson’s (as well as the oft-stated Twin Peaks influence) that makes the Riverdale writers prone to have their characters reach way outside a realistic frame of reference for their dialogue. A particularly egregious example comes in the first season, where Veronica—the character most prone to pop culture-inspired quips—compares another character to a “mean girl out of a ’90s teen movie.”
The movies she’s describing are about two decades old, and if Veronica is supposed to be a pop culture sponge who has absorbed all kinds of media from before she was born, wouldn’t she also know that most of those ’90s movies are just glosses on ’80s teen-movie characters to begin with? (Or wouldn’t she just refer to that 2004 movie… what was it called again? The Girls Who Weren’t Very Nice?) It’s entirely possible that Veronica has seen Can’t Hardly Wait but not Sixteen Candles, but it’s hard to make a satisfying pop culture reference when it mostly prompts older audience members to start doing match. Veronica’s line sounds like a vague reference to something like She’s All That, but it’s actually a specific reference to the age of whoever wrote that line.
As you may have noticed, I’m especially picky, perhaps even downright pedantic, about cultural references that target my supposed areas of expertise, which points straight to another problem with reference saturation. Ultra-specific pop references can target little pleasure centers of recognition, a sort of simultaneous good memory and self-satisfaction over getting a joke. But they can also activate a strong sense of self-loathing. “Self-loathing” may not seem like the right way to describe pans of Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, a heavily movie-referential YA dramedy that received some truly vitriolic reactions back in 2015. But even allowing that some people just pure, straight hated Me And Earl, it’s hard not to look askance at a bunch of cineastes complaining that references to the Criterion Collection (which inform the story without clouding it) are too cutesy. It was easy to read some of these reactions as: “How dare this movie mention things that I like?!” Then again, plenty of Ready Player One acolytes could probably use a stronger dose of this pique; the people most likely to get a reference to “the Zemeckis Cube” should probably have more self-respect than to be delighted by such an easy joke. Either way, it’s another potential reference pitfall: the exact people targeted by a reference might feel most irritated or distracted by it.
The internet brings all of those problems together in one place, and in a signature move for a pop culture writer well over 30, it’s the internet that can probably take most of the blame for the diminished reputation of pop culture references. The wonderful, horrible internet has made it easier to make, point out, catalog, and consume these references than ever before. If your shows or movies or books or Twitter feeds aren’t making enough references, you can look up articles pointing out references you may have missed in past shows, movies, books, or Twitter feeds (although, spoiler: you probably didn’t miss that many of them). The internet did not create cultural saturation, poorly conceived references, or even self-loathing. But it is adept at metastasizing things that seem relatively harmless until they’re overgrown, toxic, or all-consuming.
That’s a side of the internet that Ready Player One sometimes soft-pedals, couching these concerns in broader points about whether living in a constant state of virtual reality is healthy. The cynical read would be that RPO goes relatively easy on the internet because it’s such a product of it, and I confess I arrived at the movie prepared to cringe at the I-love-the-’80s obviousness of it at all. So it was a pleasure to discover that, for the most part, references do not particularly drive the story or even always shove themselves into the foreground of the frame—and that moreover, for every smirk at a “Cocktails & Dreams” neon sign, I felt corresponding moments of pleasing bafflement over what were most likely famous avatars from video games I’d never played, from eras well outside the ’80s childhood that was supposed to be cannibalized by this mindless referencing. In other words, I was a little bit relieved not to get all the references I noticed, let alone notice all the references in the movie. (A friend of mine swears he spotted a couple of toydarians, but I think I may have just warped his eyes with my own ceaseless pop culture references.)
Maybe the movie version of Ready Player One achieves such critical mass of references—some obvious, some obscure, and many nigh-impossible to catch in a single viewing—that it wipes the slate clean. Or maybe it just helps push pop culture references back into scene-setting and throwaway-joke territory. This new/old/new world might look more like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird; one of that movie’s pleasures was sinking fully into the subtly recreated world of 2002 and 2003, where the well-placed music references (even to songs not released during that period) felt as specific and well-observed as the rugby shirts and the depictions of musical-theater culture. It’s probably not a coincidence that a lot of these references, good and bad, throw back to times where the internet was less prominent in our lives. Its near-ubiquity helped popular culture become its own language—and really, there’s nothing inherently wrong with continuing to acknowledge that, especially if some healthy skepticism keeps reference-overload in check. Jolts of recognition and momentary head-cocked confusion both have their place, as long as they don’t grow into their own virtual-reality echo chamber.