I truly don’t know where I’d be today if I didn’t have my love of pop culture to escape into, and nothing has been more true in the flaming garbage dump that has been 2020. Predictably, finding the focus to read for pleasure this year has been most challenging, and almost by accident, I found myself only being able to read nonfiction about the things I love most: movies, TV, music, and books. It’s called mastering the art of distraction, dahling; look it up! (He says as he pauses momentarily during every task, staring into the abyss and wondering if this living nightmare will ever end.)
In times of darkness and sorrow, I have always been immensely thankful of my passion for pop culture since despite everything, it’s one thing that has yet to let me down. Indeed, after countless months of reading literally nothing but nonfiction about pop culture and convincing myself that time isn’t real (we’ve all become the embodiment of the lyrics from that Lifehouse song from Grey’s Anatomy: “What day is it? And in what month? This clock never seemed so alive”), I have compiled this list of 14 books about pop culture to both entertain and distract you from the growing realization that Phoebe Robinson was right: everything is in fact trash, but it’s okay. I guess.
Books About Pop Culture
Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson
In this immensely fascinating journey behind Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the woman in the little black dress who became an instant icon in Paramount’s film adaptation, Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. shines a spotlight on all of the people who contributed to the film and the story’s everlasting success and relevancy: Givenchy, “Moon River” composer Henry Mancini, producers Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd (who shot down Capote’s pleas for Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Golightly), and Audrey Hepburn herself, who needed constant reassurance that she wasn’t out of her league in the shoes of what would become her most iconic performance. Wasson takes us behind the scenes of late ’50s America, at a time before birth control and Woodstock, when a young lady named Holly Golightly—long before Mary Richards or Carrie Bradshaw—told women they could have it all. Be sure to check out my own article exploring the sordid history of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, inspired by this very book!
I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy by Erin Carlson
In I’ll Have What She’s Having, entertainment journalist Erin Carlson paints a portrait of Nora Ephron’s most iconic contributions to film (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail) and how, in the late ’80s, the beloved writer and director revolutionized what was becoming a dying genre: the romantic comedy. Along the way, Carlson draws parallels to Ephron’s own personal life and how her work may have been influenced by real life, as well as stories from behind the scenes of romcoms that defined a generation.
The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
In this very much necessary feminist analysis of some of pop culture’s most well known stories, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas creates an engaging and provocative narrative of race, representation, and imagination. In The Dark Fantastic, Thomas considers four Black girl protagonists from some of the most popular stories of the early 21st century: Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries, Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen from Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from Harry Potter. Analyzing their narratives and audience reactions to them reveals how these characters mirror the violence against Black and Brown people in our own world. As the author powerfully asserts, “We dark girls deserve more, because we are more.”
In Last Night at the Viper Room, author and journalist Gavin Edwards tells the story of the life and tragic death of actor River Phoenix—a teen idol who died of a drug overdose at the age of 23 in front of a Hollywood club owned by Johnny Depp called the Viper Room. Through in-depth research, the author provides a minute-by-minute account of the night Phoenix died and explores the world the young actor lived in, painting a vivid picture of a talented and dedicated yet troubled young man. This biography turned cultural analysis also explores the somewhat controversial aspects of Phoenix’s upbringing, including his childhood in Venezuela growing up under the cultish Children of God, and traces the Academy Award nominee’s rise in the context of an examination of the popular culture of the 1990s.
The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy
The Chateau Marmont, located at the heart of Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, has spent the better part of nine decades serving as a home away from home for countless stars and personalities, many of whom revel in the hotel’s modest qualities and “off the beaten path” vibes. Originally an apartment building, the Marmont has predictably become a host to generations of Hollywood folklore and gossip: from the exploits of Jean Harlow in the 1930s to Lindsay Lohan’s less than commendable behavior in the 2000s, it has long appealed to the rich and famous for its ability to conceal and seclude. In The Castle on Sunset, Shawn Levy walks us through an illustrative history of the Chateau Marmont, from its initial conception to the role it occupies today in celebrity culture—scarcely skipping over any scandalous details that Hollywood royalty have attempted to keep hidden from the public eye within the Marmont’s walls.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
In this collection of essays, Hanif Abdurraqib recalls his own cultural upbringing and ponders if the next generation of Muslim kids will be awarded the same freedom and expression that he was. From the liberating queerness of a Carly Rae Jepsen concert to the threat on the lives of Black Americans made by police, the author creates a narrative of resilience and rebellion. Using music and popular culture as a key analytical device, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us provides a space through which to better understand ourselves—how far we have come, and how far left we have to go.
Movies (and Other Things) by Shea Serrano
In Movies (and Other Things), Shea Serrano asks us to consider how we would perceive some of our most favorite films if we changed the smallest of details: one chapter answers which race Kevin Costner was able to white savior the best, because did you know that he white saviors Mexicans in McFarland, USA, and white saviors Native Americans in Dances with Wolves, and white saviors Black people in Black or White, and white saviors the Cleveland Browns in Draft Day? Another chapter answers what other high school movie characters would be in Regina George’s circle of friends if we opened up the Mean Girls universe to include other movies: Johnny Lawrence is temporarily in, Claire from The Breakfast Club is in, Ferris Bueller is out, Isis from Bring It On is out… Ultimately, Serrano’s Movies (and Other Things) forces us to consider the fact that not only do our lives need to be more diverse, but the media we consume needs to be more diverse as well.
Without a doubt, Meryl Streep is the most celebrated actress of our time. In Erin Carlson’s follow-up to I’ll Have What She’s Having, she takes a glorious look back at the storied life and career of the woman who has stepped in the shoes of everyone from Miranda Priestly to Margaret Thatcher. Tracing her upbringing and coming of age during the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s, followed by her refusal to let ageist Hollywood standards convince her that she was past her prime after 40, Queen Meryl is part biography and part bible for anyone who has ever been in awe of Streep’s abilities, remarkable endurance, and enormous impact she’s had on pop culture. It also features impressive illustrations by artist Justin Teodoro as well as Streep trivia, roundups, and more.
In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life by Soraya Roberts
The sixth installment in the Pop Classics series by Canada’s ECW Press, author Soraya Roberts looks back at pop culture force that was My So-Called Life, the short-lived teen drama that proved to be a bit too real for ’90s network television. However, its impact and influence has lived on far beyond the series’ first and only season, with its themes of teenage angst, rebellion, and romance becoming the unspoken inspiration for everything from Felicity to Glee. Analyzing My So-Called Life through the rise of third-wave feminism and the depiction of female anger, Roberts creates a compelling case for why characters like Angela Chase, Jordan Catalano, and Rickie Vasquez are still speaking to viewers a quarter of a century later.
Practically overnight, hip-hop became a generation-defining genre and movement, symbols of youth rebellion and cultural representation. In a post–civil rights era defined by deindustrialization and globalization, hip-hop crystallized a multiracial and multicultural generation’s worldview and transformed American politics and culture. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is a comprehensive portrait of hip-hop’s rise and reign, featuring original interviews with rappers, DJs, music writers, graffiti artists, and everyone in between—bringing a new overview to the music, art, and ideas that have shaped a transformative and ever-changing genre.
Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn
Popular culture and America remembers Jackie O as JFK’s dutiful wife and a vision of beloved style and grace, but another important element of her life that is scarcely told is her career as a book editor for Viking and later Doubleday. In Reading Jackie, William Kuhn combines interviews and analysis to weave a fascinating tale of Jackie’s other life, the one she worked tirelessly to keep private so that the literary world, and society at large, might take her more seriously and see her as something more than a wife and mother. Despite the fact that she ruthlessly avoided publicity, Jackie famously pushed boundaries and courted controversy through the books she chose to associate herself with, such as explorations into the myths of female beauty or the story of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman. Chronicling her life through the books she read and left her mark on, Reading Jackie reveals the former First Lady’s true legacy as a tasteful, independent woman.
The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History by Nathalia Holt
No one should be shocked to learn that the world of Walt Disney Studios in the early 20th century was a horrific “little boys’ club,” but in The Queens of Animation, Nathalia Holt tells the stories of the women who worked their way up through the halls of America’s most treasured animation company—dodging workplace patriarchy, sexism, harassment, and discrimination at every turn. Any Disney fan can recite the studio’s classic tales, but what might not be so readily known is how its female employees fought for how female characters were represented and how their stories were told, often at the expense of their creative freedom or even their jobs. Creating compelling biographical accounts of the female employees’ lives and careers, The Queens of Animation is sure to fascinate anyone interested in Disney, pop culture, and feminism.
African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor by Robin R. Means Coleman
In this academic account, author Robin R. Means Coleman provides new insight into timeless debates surrounding the depiction and representation of Black people on American network television, specifically that of the beloved family sitcom. Analyzing everything from the ’50s radio series Beulah to Living Single, Coleman asks us to consider how we might all perceive each other differently if the window through which we see our world, the television, worked a little harder to unite us than divide us.
Gentlemen of the Shade: My Own Private Idaho by Jen Sookfong Lee
Another entry in ECW’s Pop Classics series, Jen Sookfong Lee’s Gentleman of the Shade takes a deep dive into one of the most beloved and celebrated cult classics of the ’90s, My Own Private Idaho. The film inspired as much as it provoked, and provided a new ethos for a new generation: being different is better than being good. Analyzing My Own Private Idaho’s philosophies and depictions of same-sex love and masculinity, Gentleman of the Shade also takes a look at how the film ended up indirectly influencing popular culture and media in an indelible way, pinpointing it everywhere from R.E.M. to James Franco.
What are your favorite books about pop culture?