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Pop Culture References, Good and Bad:

I read and liked Alex Long's [Insert Song Lyrics Here]: The Uses and Misuses of Popular Music Lyrics in Legal Writing — it's fun, informative (see here and here for my past quotes from it), and insightful. One particular passage from it has especially stuck in my head, because it's instructive about effective and less effective uses of pop culture references more generally:

Take ... the following passage from an unpublished federal opinion:

The Beatles once sang about the long and winding road. This 1992 case has definitely walked down it, but at the end of the day, the plaintiffs and their counsel were singing the Pink Floyd anthem "Another Brick in the Wall" after consistently banging their collective heads against a popular procedural wall-Northern District of Illinois Local Rule 12 governing the briefing and submission of summary judgment motions.

The court's use of the "Long and Winding Road" and "procedural wall" metaphors coupled with the reference to Pink Floyd in this instance is counterproductive [among other things, because] ... the court's use of metaphor does little to assist the reader in understanding the court's meaning in any meaningful way. If one of the purposes of metaphors is to allow people "to understand one phenomenon in relationship to another and to illuminate some salient details while shading others," the "Long and Winding Road" metaphor just barely serves this purpose. Litigation often takes a lot of twists and turns and may take a long time. We get it. There is nothing particularly wrong with The Beatles metaphor; however, if one assumes that one of the purposes of metaphors is to make a point in a more concise manner, then the inclusion of the metaphor fails this purpose....

Contrast that example with the California courts' use of the "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" metaphor used to explain under what circumstances expert testimony is required. [This observation has become almost boilerplate included in the deci-sions of the California appellate courts when ruling on when an expert testimony before a jury is required. According to a California appellate court, Dylan states "the correct rule," and the California courts are simply in harmony with his statement of the law.] The metaphor is effective in that it serves the purpose of metaphors by "making abstract concepts more concrete" and aids in understanding; the court's use of it is also pretty darn funny. Both the inherent truthfulness and applicability of Dylan's statement are so spot-on that even one who dislikes or is ambivalent toward Dylan would be hard pressed to quibble about a court's use of the phrase.

ReaderY:
In general, I'd allow people a little leeway over these sorts of things. People used to quote Shakespeare and the Bible; some still do; the metaphors there often aren't perfect either.
6.8.2007 6:59pm
Roy Lofquist (mail):
Dear Sirs,

I have always thought that this reference was somewhat ambiguous as there was a radical organization called "The Weathermen" that was prominent at that time.

Regards,
Roy
6.8.2007 7:32pm
CEB:
...plaintiffs and their counsel were singing the Pink Floyd anthem "Another Brick in the Wall"

I'm assuming the Court meant "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II." The only thing lamer than an inappropriate pop-culture reference is an inappropriate and incorrect one.
6.8.2007 7:50pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Wikipedia (which I'm happy to consult when little is at stake) reports that the Weathermen drew their name from the Dylan song and not vice versa.
6.8.2007 7:53pm
TheGoodReverend (mail) (www):
Right, the song came first. In fact I believe one of the Weathermen's manifestos was titled "You DO Need a Weatherman."
6.8.2007 8:03pm
Can't find a good name:
Besides, saying that someone was singing "Another Brick in the Wall" (at least if the reference is to Part II, as CEB suggests) implies that they were singing, "We don't need no education/We don't need no thought control." So unless the case had to do with schools, the reference to that song was unhelpful.
6.9.2007 12:32am
b.:
"In the courtroom of honor,
the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all's equal
and that the courts are on the level
...
And that even the nobles
get properly handled"

rock royalty included, it appears from excerpt of the court's opinion in the post above.

that said, however, as a a general principal, it's better to quote dylan as regards matters of american jurisprudence than it to quote floyd or the fab four.
6.9.2007 8:28am