Cultural Conversation Starters

It’s almost time for Freshers’ Week, when groups of gangly 18 year olds gather for uncomfortably repetitious greetings, fancy dress parties and a wholly disappointing number of sexual liaisons. Those first few conversations will be some of the worst of your life, full of inane details about your school career and desperate attempts to find some mutual interests. Here, for the delectation of zealously researching freshers and older sharks looking for the ‘trending topics’ of Fresher’s Week 2012, is a Guide to How to Appear More Interesting Than You Actually Are Through the Medium of Culture.

Music

Dr Dre- It’s important that you pretend to like at least one conventionally popular artist. Even the weird music students can get behind Coolio or Snoop Dogg at Baby Love. After years of fruitlessly attempting to make a hoe a housewife, I finally had the situation explained to me by Dr Dre. Once you’re sufficiently familiar with his works you can even drop the formal title and just call him ‘Dre’, although you should try and make sure you’re not wearing chinos if/when this happens. If you can’t respect a rapper with a PhD then there’s really very little hope for you.

Sigur Rós- I’d never heard of this Icelandic band until I was searching for some suitably dramatic background music to my Prelims crises. Even Wikipedia describes them as ‘ambient’ so they don’t require much active listening, but they’ll make you seem knowledgeable and alternative (both good things, in case you were wondering). I even managed to use them as an example on my Literary Theory paper (which I passed!) so there are plenty of curricular uses for this band too.

 TV

Game of Thrones- Nobody likes someone who’s too self-consciously highbrow and brings the entire 7-season collection of The West Wing with them. Game of Thrones is the perfect lowbrow conversation piece- violent enough to appeal to people who consider rugby to be ‘fun’, political enough to replace arguments about the Middle East with ones about the Lannister/Stark conflict, and containing more naked breasts than a holiday with Kate Middleton. If this doesn’t get you through a few awkward freshers’ barbecues then I don’t know what will.

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Breaking Bad- I’ve only seen one episode of it, but the pedantic insistence of everyone I know that ‘you really need to watch this’ has assured me that I’d have been much happier if I’d watched it all and been on the side of the pedantic insisters. So, watch this series and then bond with people as you knowingly declare that it’s ‘even better than Mad Men’ and repeatedly inform me that Bryan Cranston is ‘the dad from Malcolm in the Middle’. (WARNING: The side effects of this might include an exceedingly dull friendship group.)

Books

Fifty Shades of Grey- I think we’ve all toyed with ironically reading this book. Because we’re better than it, right? Aren’t we all cleverer than this EL James? Well, her bank balance might beg to differ but this will be sure to spark up some lively conversations about boring things like literature and the publishing industry, as well as interesting things like sex and typesetting. And, who knows, with enough alcohol and duct tape, this might just lead to the most interesting pre-drinking session since the discovery of beer pong.

Beowulf- I’d highly recommend that all non-English students read this so that they can smile knowingly when their English student friends are freaking out about it and then declare how much they enjoyed it and how they ‘didn’t find it too difficult, even in the original Anglo-Saxon’. The second reason for this recommendation is slightly more masochistic and I’m sure that, after a few lines of this epic poem, you’ll understand it. There’s a reason why this doesn’t come with the Richard and Judy stamp of approval that it so desperately deserves.

Movies

The Ring- Make of this American remake of a classic Japanese horror movie what you will, nothing sorts the corn from the chaff like a good scary movie. Be wary of anyone who desperately avoids watching it with you (like my friend who ran out of the cinema during the Breaking Dawn trailer before Paranormal Activity 3) and, if you play your cards right, nothing brings a timid boy and girl closer than getting frightened under the same blanket. That said, nothing spoils the moment faster than the smell of urine.

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The Godfather II- You’ll want to seem intelligent and cultured when people inevitably ask you what your favourite movie is. Don’t pick anything too obvious (Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and The Shawshank Redemption are all no-go areas) so why not go fractionally beyond the obvious with the greatest sequel ever made? It’ll make you look fairly cultured, whilst also not being so off-the-wall that it frightens people. In addition, it allows you to consistently recommend that people watch ‘the first Godfather’ so you can watch your favourite film together. Quickly people will assume that you’re very clever and slightly Italian.

Art

Rosa Barba- I Googled ‘cool contemporary artists’ in order to try and find a good artist for this section. The point of that wasn’t to try and unearth a genuine recommendation (although I’m sure that Barba’s video installations are fantastic) but so that you can see how easy it is to find an area of knowledge that makes you appear interesting. Honestly, if you can be bothered to put in a couple of hours of research, you can make yourself an Oxford-wide expert in modern art. Just make sure that you don’t go overboard and end up spending any significant time at Modern Art Oxford, with their boring murals and incredibly expensive pastries.

Édouard Manet- Real suggestion here. Who doesn’t love the father of impressionism? And, trust me, a reproduction of one of his celebrated scenes of Parisian life is going to look a lot better on your wall than Lucy Pinder (please, for God’s sake, leave that at home) or that bloke from Twilight (I know his name…). It’s not going to be a surefire hit and it might all be a bit too much if you’ve already got Cath Kidson bedding, but, if you’re willing to be a self-confessed connoisseur then this’ll make you look cleverer than a goggle wearing lab technician.