Who ARE These People And Why Don’t I Recognize Them?

Well, this is profoundly depressing.

I work hard at keeping current on all aspects of the culture, including the popular culture. I believe, and have written here frequently, that cultural illiteracy is a crippling problem in a democracy, and that citizens have an ethical obligation to avoid it by proactively informing themselves. I also agree with the thesis of E.D. Hirsch, who posited in his best-seller “Cultural Literacy” that the generations becoming estranged and unable to communicate with each other was a formula for societal disaster.

There has been an explosion of the use of a cheap joke at the expense of rising generations in TV and movie dramas: an older character will use a cultural reference to John Wayne, the Beatles, a Rockefeller or someone similarly significant, and a younger character, usually 20-ish, will reply, “Who’s that?” I managed never to be that kid, even as a preteen. The reverse gag is also common: a teen will mention Taylor Swift at the dinner table and a clueless parent will reply, “Oh, is that one of your new friends in school, dear?” I vowed when my son arrived never to be that boob either.

And yet today I ran one of my periodic spot checks on my pop culture literacy, and flunked. Perusing the stories in WeSmirch, a celebrity gossip aggregator, I found the names of 26 current celebrities, and endeavored to identify them (without cheating, of course). Here they are:

Olivia Wilde,

 Harry Styles

Florence Pugh

Jordana Brewster

The Weeknd

Christina Haack

 Joshua Hall

Maude Apatow

Jennifer Lopez

 Ben Affleck

Chloe Madeley

James Haskell

John Legend

Chadwick Boseman

Spencer Pratt

Lisa Kudrow

Heidi Montag

Laura Whitmore

Brendan Fraser


Kate Middleton

Prince William

Kelsea Ballerini

Patrick Wayne Stay


Dave Grohl

I measured my awareness by two standards. By the “I’ve heard of these people” standard, the easier one, I scored a 12, or 46%. With the more difficult standard, “Could I pick him or her out of a line-up or explain anything substantive about them?” I scored a pathetic 9, or 34%.

I didn’t even know that Patrick Wayne Stay was dead, much less that he was a rapper. (I did know that Chadwick Boseman is dead, though.)

I refuse to end up living in the past, rendered slowly irrelevant, useless and laughable as events, tastes, trend, fads and more pass me by. But jeez...I spend more time on this stuff than most people and always have, and look where I am! If I can’t keep up, what chance do normal people have? Or is there some secret I have missed?

How did you do, by the way?

14 thoughts on “Who ARE These People And Why Don’t I Recognize Them?

  1. Let’s just say I did worse than you. The problem for me in keeping up with this stuff is that these people frequently pop up suddenly and have their fifteen minutes of fame and then disappear just as quickly, before they can really register with those of us not fully immersed in the pop culture 24/7 (a process which would preclude many of the more productive activities I usually busy myself with.
    However, unlike the younger folks who faithfully keep up with pop culture minutiae, I can identify all fifty states on a map, explain the three branches of government, solve a quadratic equation, bake a cake, tell you when WWII was fought, gut a deer, change the oil in my truck, grow a vegetable garden, explain the exclusionary rule, and shoot my rifle accurate to one minute of angle at 500 yards (on an average day). We all have our talents!

    • Ah, but can you solve a cubic equation or a quartic equation? (I can’t do the latter myself, not without looking up the technique or deriving it from first principles – and nobody can solve a quintic or higher order equation, using only roots). Oh, and there are only six states, as far as I am concerned (think about it). The issues with that last mean that this whole test doesn’t quite fit testing me, but I’m sure I would fail too even if it were adapted. My own personal trick for appearing to know everything is to know my limits, so I can keep quiet and listen when I’m out of my depth.

      • The quartic formual is very long. I once wrote it down on a long strip of paper.

        Sone quintics can actually be solved by a construction technique called neusis. It has been shown that some quintic equations not solvable by radicals can be solved by neusis; it is not known if neusis can solve all quintics and sextics over the rationals.

        Neusis can not solve a general septic equation. More broadly, neusis can not solve irreducible polynomial equations over the rationals whose degree has a prime factor of seven or higher. (Neusis can not solve any irredicible polynomal of degree 22, but may solve some irreducible polynomials of degree 24.)

  2. For good or bad, I believe the internet has spawned an age based cultural stratification. There’s much less common culture when family no longer gathers around the TV, doesn’t watch movies together, and doesn’t listen to the radio together in the car. It also has led to the rise of “influencers” (I think I threw up a little in my mouth) aimed at specific interests. Everyone can customize what they watch and listen to, and entertainment media often slants toward what is popular with the 15 – 28 crowd (especially with music).

    • “There’s much less common culture when family no longer gathers around the TV, doesn’t watch movies together, and doesn’t listen to the radio together in the car.”… among other activities that strengthen the family bond and provide more time for parents to influence their offspring.

      I blame the parents. If you cannot or will not take the time to raise your kids, do not have them.
      It isn’t rocket science.

    • Not just the factor you mention. As the population gets bigger, as more of the population gets access to the internet and social media, and as new avenues of fame appear (I wonder if Jack can name even three YouTubers or influencers, EXCLUDING THE KARDASHIANS, who aren’t famous for anything except YouTube and social media), it will get harder and harder to follow this kind of thing.

      And frankly, I disagree with Jack’s argument that it’s an ethical duty to follow along with pop culture. The fewer people paying attention to Pokimane or Ryan’s World or other blights on our collective dignity, the better!

  3. I second Jim’s statement that many of these people are flashes in the pan. Some have established careers that make them better known across multiple generations, but most will fade from the public consciousness until they die early; at which point their memory will evaporate among the most hard-core pop culture fetishest.

    The question to me is what is cultural literacy? Does this mean that I need to be able interpret some language stylings as parodied in Airplane with June Cleaver as the translator or does this mean something more akin to my understanding of American culture in general? I can associate the term dough boy with WW1 soldiers and Pop N’ Fresh. What exactly do these temporal pop icons add to social cohesion? Does it matter that I know that Brendan Frasier is beginning to look like a whale rather than his action hero image in the The Mummy series. Why should I care about Kate Middleton and the royals when none are actually distinguishing themselves today like Diana did a generation or two ago? If I had to choose among Kate’s, Kate Beckinsdale would win hands down despite her relationship with the bad boy of tennis.

    Being in tune with pop culture may help in marketing to those with a limited grasp of the world around them but I see nothing to promote social cohesion by being in tune with it.

  4. I have heard of at least 16 of them.

    Of those, I could recall at least one relevant fact about them.

    Heidi Montag? Yeah, I’ve heard of her, but that’s about it.

    Laura Whittier and Spencer Pratt? Maybe, but I am not sure.

    Kate Middleton and Prince William? Would that I could avoid the royals!


  5. I only recognized 11 names off the bat, and out of those, only 7 I knew WHY I recognized them.

    As others have said, pop culture has become a bit more culturally stratified, and more celebrities are arising with mere transitory fame. On the other hand, it’s easier than ever to at least stay partially in the know. thanks to Google. Don’t recognize a meme or celebrity name, look it up online, and you’ll at least get the gist.

  6. I recognized 12 of them. I wonder if it’s the same ones. I don’t think I could pick more than a handful out of a lineup. I have never been good at matching actors’ names with faces. To me, they are whatever character they are playing. I have no interest in them outside of that. I have no interest in sportsball people, on or off the field. I also have no interest in royals, but they’re even harder to avoid hearing about.

  7. I was stunned to learn that “The Weeknd” misspelled weekend and that The Weeknd is a singular performer, not the name of a rock n roll band.
    He had to cancel a performance in front of tens of thousands concert attendants due to his voice taking a powder.
    Taking to the stage to announce the cancellation was unethical; I doubt that he was ignorant of his voice failing until taking to the stage. It would’ve been better to cancel the show hours before the venue reached capacity. I hope he gets better soon.

  8. Including Christina Haack isn’t really sporting. She’s going by Christina Hall now, since she’s now on her third husband (and fourth last name) in the past five years.

  9. 10 0n name recognition but lower on being able to identify their positive contribution to humanity or society. I do know of Esmonoglu, a young African teacher with YOU tubes teaching math skills, I do know the Hasselback equation, I can factor an equation, I can name all 50 states and their captitals, and I know how our government is meant to work. I know the symbols of the periodic table, the books of the bible, the works of renaissance artists, and the lyrics to the American songbook. Most importantly in today’s culture, I can differentiate between a man and a woman and identify bullshit.

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