I'm working on a modern fiction drama in an urban setting. I'm trying to be real in terms of conversation threads--music, movies, drugs, etc. Here's my problem: I've never done a realistic modern drama before. By and large, I'm glowingly positive of the references the characters make (and yet trying hard not appearing to be obviously doing so), but I was wondering if anyone has experience with this. Of course, I'm a poor-as-dirt artist, so I'm not so worried about getting sued as I am about a publisher not being interested without massive revisions. If you have experience, do you think there are taboo subjects? For instance, I'm staying away from anything "Star Wars" because I'm sure George Lucas would show up at my house with a collection box. I live in the U.S., and I'm not really looking for legal advice.
As others have mentioned, the more current a reference, the quicker it goes stale. But that isn't necessarily a reason not to do it. Plato's work is crammed with pop-culture references, and people still read him 2000 years later.
I'm not a lawyer, but I see no reason you would get in trouble via pop culture references unless you're libeling someone, using someone else's character in your work, or quoting a significant portion of someone's else's writing (i.e more than one quick phrase).
In general, lawyers follow the money. In practice, you most likely wouldn't get sued unless you wrote a best-seller or if you were referencing a property that gets misappropriated so often that it's worth having someone on retainer to seek out unauthorized usages.
Legally, short quotes from someone else's work are almost always "fair use" and shouldn't cause you copyright trouble. If you are quoting an entire song, or many pages out of a book, then you can get into trouble. But having a character say "Wow, he looks like Darth Vader" is almost certainly not something you can be sued over.
As you and others note, having characters make pop culture references can certainly make a story sound more "real". And it can be a convenient shorthand. A reference to a well-known song or movie can bring all sorts of images to the reader's mind with one sentence or even a couple of words.
On the other hand, there are at least three drawbacks:
One: As others have mentioned, pop culture references get dated very quickly. Ten years ago Britney Spears was a huge sensation. Do kids today know who she is?
Two: References that are instantly recognizable to you and your friends will be totally unfamiliar to other people. I'm an old man. I have no idea what singers are popular with teenagers today. Rap fans probably couldn't name top country stars and vice versa. Etc. Maybe your potential readers will all be people with musical, cinematic, whatever tastes the same as yours. But you could be shutting out a lot of people who could have enjoyed your story, but who will give it up in frustration because the culture references make no sense to them.
Three: Personally, I find large numbers of cultural references tedious. I quickly find myself saying, "Yeah, yeah, I get it, you like horror movies. Are you trying to tell a story or just drop a bunch of lines from your favorite movies?" I don't know how many others feel the same way, maybe that's just me.
I get it... that's the way people talk! especially movie quotes. if someone doesn't 'get' one of my Patrick Bateman quotes or Silence of the Lambs quotes/references, they have no business hanging out with me (being close to Halloween ... these examples come to mind)
"Do you like Huey Lewis & The News?"
"[Fredericka Bimmel] ... oh yeah...was she like ... a big fat chick?"
these sort of quotes are so tightly bound to popular culture; as you've assumed there is no real legal risk in having your characters drop quotes or lines from songs in their dialogue.
they aren't "significant enough in comparison to the body of the original work," to be legitimately actionable; ok that's the only phrase in legal-ese in this answer.
if you'll recall, Silvio Dante aka The Soprano Family Consigliere aka the bass player from The E-Street Band was constantly dropping quotes from "*The Godfather" trilogy in the script. My assumption is that David Chase wrote in Steven Van Zant's over-referencing of the film because Van Zant dropped these lines all the time to amuse himself and Chase picked on its organic useful-ness in the writing of this series. At no time would Chase Films or HBO be under any threat of litigation for this... if anything the copyright holders probably saw revenue off the "modern references," bringing a whole new generation into the fold of people who love (and quote) the films, especially the 1st two.
By definition; nothing should ever be "off-limits" to a writer. Topics are bounded only by the writer (and editor/mktg/publisher/legal/proofreader as appl) only limits I have for myself is that the idea of kids getting hurt really bothers me, so it's rare that a fictional character in one of my stories would do this; even one designed to be despicable.
This, of course, doesn't stop me in my non-fiction work from attacking what we call "blue-banders" or "cho-mo's" in the LA/OC Metro area.
I hope that I define the "progressive, open-minded thinker" that is only an extreme conservative when it comes to The Constitution. Therefore; taboo subjects do not exist.
the more your characters speak like real people do, on the street, in the present, the more understandishable your dialogs be...and the more your audience connect with your characters on a realistic/emotional level. if any of this makes sense you're on the right track, Stu.
Another way of thinking is that many writers avoid references to pop culture for fear of dating their work.
If you were watching a Humphrey Bogart movie and it referred to President Roosevelt, you would go, "Wow! That's a long time ago!" Because their is no such reference in Casablanca, it is a timeless classic, despite being set in word war II.
My $.02 worth.