14 Pop Culture References Everyone Understands
In a world where social media rules and everyone has an opinion on something, pop culture references are the one thing everybody can understand. Driven by the media, pop culture encompasses everything from movies and television to sports and fashion. Pretty much anything that is part of the modern media and given a spotlight can come under the umbrella of pop culture.
Pop culture references lean toward these major moments or events that occur and are constantly discussed and hinted at not only by the media but in conversations with friends and family. It might be a line from a movie or a character from a TV show that’s got people talking.
Each generation has its own pop culture moments, so there are plenty that won’t resonate with Gen Z, but we’ve tried our best to find pop culture references that everyone will appreciate from all decades.
14 Pop Culture References Everyone Understands
1. “No Soup For You!”
The greatest sitcom of all time provided plenty of pop culture references throughout its nine-year season, but none are quite as memorable as the character of Yev Kassem from the episode “The Soup Nazi.”
Kassem makes the most delicious soup in New York but is a tyrannical owner who demands respect from his customers. When someone annoys or displeases him, he bans them from his store, uttering the famous line, “No soup for you!”
Kassem, based on real-life cook Al Yeganeh, is one of the great TV characters who is played masterfully by actor Larry Thomas. After banning Jerry’s girlfriend and then Elaine, the Soup Nazi gets his comeuppance when Elaine discovers his recipes and puts him out of business.
2. Star Wars
Star Wars is a pop culture behemoth that continues to be the talk of water coolers in offices around the world. Beginning with George Lucas’ original trilogy, the science fiction epic has been present in the media for over 45 years and crossed generations. The adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and co. have wowed audiences for decades.
After the original trilogy was a massive success in the late 70s and early 80s, Lucas followed this up with the prequel trilogy in the 90s. Turning the franchise into a profitable property that includes books, video games, toys, and more, Lucas cashed out in 2012, reportedly making a tidy $4.1 billion from the sale of Star Wars to Disney.
Since then Disney has released the sequel trilogy (to mixed reviews) along with several critically acclaimed television series, including Andor and The Mandalorian. With more shows and movies on the horizon, Star Wars fandom doesn’t look like slowing down anytime soon.
3. Gay Fish
Kanye West is constantly in the media, although lately it’s been for negative reasons concerning some of his outlandish statements. He will continue to be part of modern pop culture for years to come thanks to his behavior, but it’s hard to forget the moment he was immortalized in South Park.
In the episode “Fishsticks,” West, who proclaims himself to be “the voice of a generation,” doesn’t understand a joke about gay fish, eventually thinking it means he is a gay fish. The episode ends with West jumping into the ocean and chasing after fish while his new song, “Gay Fish,” plays.
It’s a ridiculous episode of television but one that is still funny almost 20 years later. The fact that West’s ego has only grown and some of the ridiculous situations he’s gotten himself into (such as interrupting Taylor Swift while she was making a speech at the VMAs) only makes this moment in television history more poignant.
4. “Bond. James Bond.”
With those three words, British Secret Service agent James Bond announced himself to the world in the spy thriller Dr. No. Based on the novel by Ian Fleming, the character of Bond became a pop culture mainstay, featuring in 25 films and played by six different actors. In his first outing as Bond, Sean Connery utters the now-famous, “Bond, James Bond,” while sitting down to a game of Baccarat.
Since then everyone Bond movie has featured the character saying his name as the classic theme song comes to life in the background. A pop culture reference for the ages.
5. Who Shot J.R.?
The younger readers might be puzzled by this question, but for anyone who grew up in the 80s or 90s, “who shot J.R.?” was one of the biggest TV mysteries. In the season finale of season three of the hit show Dallas, someone shot oil mogul J. R. Ewing, leaving the show on a cliffhanger.
For the next year, all people could talk about was “who shot J.R.” and what the consequences would be. It was one of the first real major cliffhanger moments in television history and set the standard for future shows.
When the first episode of season four finally aired, 90 million viewers tuned in to discover it was Kristin Shepard, J.R.’s ex-mistress and wife’s sister who pulled the trigger. It was a dramatic twist in the tale and one not many saw coming and helped Dallas continue its hit ratings run.
6. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon
Thought up by three college students, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a riff on Six Degrees of Separation and proclaims that every actor in Hollywood can be linked to Kevin Bacon within six movie roles. The lads got the idea for the game after Bacon claimed, “he had worked with everybody in Hollywood or someone who’s worked with them.”
The game is not only a pop culture moment but has been referenced in a slew of movies and TV shows. While Bacon wasn’t overly enamored with the game at first, thinking it was taking the piss, he soon understood it was done in a fun and respectful way and endorsed it. There is even been a board game and book, while the name of Bacon’s charity, SixDegrees.org, also takes its name from the game.
7. Michael Jackson
Slightly controversial due to the revelations about his personal life, there is still no denying that Michael Jackson is the King of Pop. Although no longer with us and with a tarnished reputation, nobody has come close to achieving the success and impact on music that Jackson had.
Starting out as a member of the Jackson 5, it didn’t take long for Jacko to outshine his brothers and take center stage. His 1979 debut, Off the Wall, produced the hit “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” but it was the follow-up album, Thriller, that turned Jackson into a megastar.
The album changed the course of music history and took Jackson to another level of stardom. His music continues to sell well after all these years and with a biopic in the works, Jackson is sure to be a pop culture mainstay for years to come.
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8. “You Can’t Handle the Truth!”
Even if you haven’t seen A Few Good Men, you are probably aware of this quote. It’s become something of a catchphrase since the movie hit cinemas in 1992. On the stand during the murder trial of a young soldier, Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessep is egged on by up-and-coming lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) to admit what really happened. When asked to tell the truth he explodes with anger, yelling “You can’t handle the truth!”
It’s a tour de force of acting from Nicholson while Cruise more than holds his own against the veteran. The line itself has been parodied in movies, TV shows, and late-night talk show hosts. It continues to be used by people in everyday conversation, giving this movie reference an enduring pop culture legacy.
9. La La Land Wins Best Picture
The 2017 Academy Awards will live on in infamy after Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway incorrectly announced La La Land as the Best Picture winner. It wasn’t until one of the La La Land producers was beginning to make his speech that he realized the actual winner was Moonlight and had to embarrassingly hand the award over to the real winners and leave the stage. Awkward.
Apparently, there was a mix-up with the envelopes, and Beatty was handed the wrong one. It doesn’t make what happened any less uncomfortable to watch and resulted in one of the biggest talking points in Oscars history until Will Smith slapped the shit out of Chris Rock.
10. “Life Is Like a Box of Chocolates…”
Forrest Gump is a hilarious drama about the title character, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), a slow-witted American whose life intersects with several major events throughout history. As he sits on a bench waiting for his bus, Gump recounts his life story to anyone who will listen, telling them about his time in Vietnam, meeting President JFK, influencing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and exposing the Watergate scandal.
The film opens with Gump sitting on a bench waiting for his bus. Offering the young woman next to him a chocolate, he explains that his mother told him, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” This phrase quickly endeared itself to the public and became part of the English language and a favorite pop culture saying.
11. Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera Share a Kiss
Madonna is never too far away from controversy, so when things got all hot and steamy on stage during the 2003 VMAs it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Fellow pop stars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, wearing sexy white lace numbers, were performing “Like a Virgin” when Madge, dressed in black, suddenly appeared on stage.
The three of them sang together and at the conclusion of the song, Madonna shared a kiss with both of them. It sent the internet into meltdown and had males all around the world salivating. It’s still one of the biggest moments in VMA history and makes for an unforgettable pop culture moment.
12. Kim Kardashian Breaks the Internet
Ever present in the world of pop culture, Kim Kardashian went viral in 2014 when she appeared naked on the cover of Paper. Oiled up and wearing only a pair of gloves and a pearl necklace, the cover depicts Kardashian with her face turned to the camera and her naked rear in full view for all to see.
The image coined the term “breaking the internet,” with the Paper website recording 50 million hits the day the issue was released. That’s 1% of the United States’ entire internet traffic in one day, which is truly remarkable.
13. “Say Hello To My Little Friend!”
Brian De Palma’s reimagining of the Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster epic Scarface is a blood-soaked, cocaine-driven tale about the rise and fall of Cuban drug dealer Tony Montana (a fearfully brilliant Al Pacino). The movie became something of an inspiration for many 90s rappers, who saw Montana’s quest for power and money as similar to their path toward hip-hop glory.
The movie is chock full of quotable lines, from “All I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break ’em for no one!” and “Every dog has his day,” but you can’t go past “Say hello to my little friend.”
As Bolivian drug lord Alejandro Sosa’s men infiltrate Montana’s mansion to take him out for his botched hit, the high-as-a-kite Cuban buries his face in a pile of cocaine, grabs his machine gun, and introduces his enemies to his “little friend” with the iconic line.
14. Marilyn Monroe’s White Dress
The image of Marilyn Monroe standing over an air vent as her white dress exposes her long legs is a moment in cinema history everybody remembers. A homage to the 1901 movie What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City, the scene from The Seven Year Itch had conservative folk ready to grab their pitchforks.
It’s one of the first signs of sexuality on film that tantalized audiences who were not used to seeing so much skin being shown. The film was a huge success and helped further position Monroe’s status as a sex symbol.
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