Thursday, September 29, 2011

Background knowledge required

I saw this xkcd a few days ago and found it funny:

Mark Lieberman at Language Log pointed out how many things you need to know to get the comic: can't understand why this is strip is funny unless you know that Piaget was a psychologist who developed a theory of the stages of children's cognitive development, that the NHC is the National Hurricane Center, and that the APA is the American Psychological Association [or the American Psychiatric Association, or the American Pediatric Association].
That reminded me of something I noticed about the Rolling stones song "Sympathy for the Devil" when I wrote about it earlier this year. Of course you can enjoy the music without understanding the lyrics, but to really get the song, you have to know something about

The New Testament:
And I was round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
The Russian Revolution:
Stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
World War II:
I rode a tank
Held a general's rank
When the Blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank
European religious wars:
I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made
The Kennedy assassinations (although they were more news than history at the time):
I shouted out
"Who killed the Kennedys?"
When after all
It was you and me
And Thuggee (apparently; this one's pretty obscure; I had to Google it):
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reached Bombay
Not to mention that you have to know what "politesse" means.

Obviously, it's possible to write things that require more esoteric knowledge (I once wrote a song parody that only people who have been Mormon missionaries in Japan can understand), but I'd say that both the xkcd comic and "Sympathy" are on the high end of required general knowledge in pop culture.

Can you think of any other good (or better) examples of comics and songs and so on that require a similar amount of general knowledge?

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  1. I have found that knowing the background between the Neil Young and Lynard Skynard feud makes those songs more interesting. It's not general knowledge so much as getting the inside jokes.

  2. I only know about "Southern Man" and the response in "Sweet Home Alabama." Did their feud go beyond that?

  3. A Bloom County comic from the 1980s made a reference to the Grand Unification Theory, and the comic strip in general was peppered with political references from the time period.

  4. Bloom County was a smart comic.


What do you think?