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Silver Threads: Pop culture references of the past

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

The other day, I saw a small, bottom-of-the-page headline in the newspaper that used a phrase that’s so out-dated I wondered if today’s readers would understand it. If I could remember exactly what the phrase was, this column would be a lot better, and I wouldn’t sometimes tax your patience by writing other things that I’ve already told you.

But my failing memory’s not the point, which is this: Section editors often like to play on cultural references that are familiar (to them) when writing heads, and that can be a mistake, given that younger readers might not be in tune with the times that produced it. My favorite example of this is a 50-something man’s use of “Bewitched,” “Bothered” and “Bewildered” separately underneath each of three photos on a page layout, and the disastrous removal — before print — of one of the pictures by a clueless 30-something but more senior editor.

B-B&B comes from a Rodgers and Hart tune from the 1940 show Pal Joey, and the sprout didn’t know it. I sympathized with the angst of the layout man because bewitched and bothered don’t make much sense when they’re under just two photos.

After I saw that little head the other day, I got to thinking about some that I wrote during my working days. I used “House Divided” — from the Bible and later Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — over a story about a big plantation house owned by a feuding family. Then there was “Amazing Graceland” over an article on the late Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, and I guess the hymn is still being sung, so that one must have covered all bases.

Sunday’s delivery of The New Orleans Advocate brought me “Cane Mutiny” about the failing crops near Vacherie due to this year’s excessive rain; it's a take-off on The Caine Mutiny, a novel and then movie of the early ‘50s. That was 25 years before the headline writer was born, but, like most journalists, she obviously can reach back a far piece into popular culture.

The question is whether the reader can, but popular ignorance doesn’t keep one from feeling triumphant when producing that kind of headline. And the head still works — think of another example, the caption “All the King’s Men” under a photo of the Rex dukes. It isn’t significant — except to a few — that the line came from a 1947 novel by Robert Penn Warren.

I Googled “outdated popular cultural references” and found them so recent that there very few that I even recognized excerpt “We’re not in Kansas anymore” late ‘30s film The Wizard of Oz. (I suppose it could go over a travel story.) Most of the stuff wasn’t any older than Justin Bieber, and to be sure I wasn’t up on any of the musical references the websites deemed OPCRs today.

Which reminds me of an incident in the T-P Living section that took place in the latter days of the last century: A reporter used a PCR in one of his stories, and I — clueless — asked for an explanation.

“It’s from a Beatles song,” he said, rolling his eyes, and most of the staffers within earshot did the same.

I think that an expertise in making and recognizing popular culture references depends a lot on what you’ve liked and how much attention you’ve paid to it. And it could be said that PC was superior when I first tuned in. But don’t let a senior get started on that.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]