It’s a tricky thing to score with a good pop culture reference in a song. It’s easy to toss off an allusion, but considerably harder to make it mean something. A jumble of references that mean nothing will only lead to this:
So today, I’m going to present five pop-culture references that add to the songs they’re in. I’m not talking about songs dedicated to TV shows or movies, although that’s certainly a possible topic for a future list. None of these songs is about the item or person being alluded to. In all five cases, allusions help make a specific point about the song’s larger theme.
“Black’s got respect, and white’s got his Soul Train”
In his epic, vicious indictment of American life circa Watergate, Bowie invokes everything from the lack of emotionally moving music to the handiness of having a razor “in case of depression.” But one undercurrent that runs throughout the song is the state of race relations at the time, which reaches its peak in the bridge, when he implies that in the end, all it really achieved was a TV show.
1980: “Play It All Night Long” by Warren Zevon, from the album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School
“Sweet Home Alabama, play that dead band’s song . . .”
Unlike David Bowie, the late Warren Zevon wasn’t railing against all of America – just the South. In “Play It All Night Long,” he paints a bleak picture of a staggeringly dysfunctional, disgustingly stereotypical and, in his view, apparently just plain typical Southern family. He mocks them for their backwards ways, bringing up incest, incontinent grandparents, and failed ranching endeavors. It’s all wrapped around the chorus, which claims just three years after Ronnie Van Zandt's death that perhaps this is the type of person who listened to Lynard Skynard. Necessary? Probably not. But it certainly stings.
1985: “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements, from the album Tim
“Elvis in the ground – no way he’ll appear tonight.”
The Replacements carry out an indictment of their own, as they “trash that Baby Boom” for four minutes. In reaction to the protest songs and movements of the 60s, they proudly announce that their generation can’t be summed up like the previous one. They don’t have a cause. They don’t unite around an issue. There’s “no war to name [them]”, and the song gives the sense that even if there was, they wouldn’t care anyway. Getting involved is a thing of past, and Baby Boomers were silly to ever try. Nowhere is this sentiment clearer than in the line I quoted, where with a sneer they dismiss the false hopes of a generation who won’t let their time pass gracefully.
2004: “Damn Good Times” by TMBG, from the album The Spine
“She acts like David Lee Roth when he turned twenty-one.”
This song is much more upbeat than the previous three (or, indeed, the next one), but it uses its allusion to equally profound effect. The song focuses on a girl who is described at various times as a “natural dancer” and “a jumping bean”. Nothing puts across her crazy style of dancing better than when it nods to the man who a hit song of the same title. Honestly, can you even imagine what he must have been like on that occasion?
2005: “Stevie Nix” by The Hold Steady, from the album Separation Sunday
“And when we hit the Twin Cities, I didn’t know that much about it. I knew Mary Tyler Moore, and I knew Profane Existence.”
Like most Hold Steady songs, “Stevie Nix” is part of the larger tapestry of the album which contains it. In this case, the album is about two girls who transition from Catholic upbringings to drug-fueled lives in Minneapolis. Craig Finn often weaves in pop culture references, as he does a number of times in this very song. None of them work quite as well as this one, where the reality of the drug-addled world we hear about (and indeed, could read about in Profane Existence ‘zine) is contrasted with expectations engendered by watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
You know what? That ended up a lot darker than I thought it would be when I started.