The 8 Best Pop Culture Moments of 2020 (A Midterm Report Card)

I’ve never complained about writer’s block in my life. I haven’t always loved the jumbled rhythm of words that sometimes result from halfheartedly stabbing at my keyboard, but the point is that the words have nevertheless consistently come out. Like a scratch card game where everyone’s a winner, even if sometimes “winning” just means one or two dollars. 

Since embarking on my journey as a blogger, however, I have discovered that I am prone to severe cases of poster’s block. The words might be there, but the necessary assurance that they’re worth reading is often not; particularly in this upside down year, with all its chaos and scrapped plans and upheaval. Words sometimes don’t seem to be enough. 

To that end, I’ve found myself more on the receiving end of content these days, which has meant a lot of listening, and a lot of watching. Towards the end of last year, I naively wrote about pop culture being our last unifying force, and the important bonds we could forge from these shared experiences. I think we can all agree that 2020 has given us a greater number of experiences to share than anybody ever wanted– particularly since they’ve tended to involve more video conference calls and anxiety attacks than blockbuster movie premieres. Still, in the absence of plenty of life’s other trappings, this year pop culture has taken on an outsized role in how we have connected with each other, and I believe many of these pop culture moments will be what stand out, decades from now, when we can finally bring ourselves to reflect upon 2020. I thought maybe that made them worth writing about, worth reading about, worth remembering. 

{A couple of caveats: though I titled this piece “The Best Pop Culture Moments of 2020”, I have made zero attempts to be thorough or objective in my choices. In fact, some of this year’s most memeable content– Tiger King, for instance, or Animal Crossing– are items I haven’t gotten around to quite yet. So you may find the experience of perusing this list to be akin to being shown around Rome by a tour guide who neglects to take you to the Colosseum or The Vatican. 

Or, considering we’re dealing with 2020, a tour guide fashioned after the Charlize Theron character in Mad Max: Fury Road, if instead of ferrying women to safety she chose to use her war rig for sightseeing. “Look at this desert wasteland!” I cry, rapturously pointing out sandstorms and salt flats while ignoring the din of war drums growing louder. “Isn’t the apocalypse grand?”}     

8. Sam Hunt releases his sophomore album, Southside

Sam Hunt (@samhuntmusic) on Instagram: “Kansas bound.” | Sam hunt ...

Six years have passed since Montevallo, the ludicrously successful debut album by Sam Hunt that radically reimagined what it meant to make country music in the 21st century. This was a cruel drought to impose upon ardent fans like myself who were captivated by the singular way he threw off genre purists, borrowing pop hooks and hip hop beats to enhance the hyper-specific lyrics of a traditional country storyteller. Thankfully the rain returned, and Sam released his long awaited follow-up, Southside, in early April of this year. 

That kind of prolonged build-up could well have led to nothing but disappointment, but as soon as I heard the honky tonk warble of a Webb Pierce sample give way to a beatbox loop in the promotional single Hard To Forget (a string of words that would be unfathomable in any other universe) I knew that my patience was being justly rewarded. The rest of the album offers up more fascinating studies in contrast: steel guitar laid over 808’s, confessional Drake-esque lyrics that peter out into a piano hymn, lighthearted songs that transition into songs full of reflection and self-recrimination. Reviews have not been universally positive, but isn’t that always the case whenever anyone tries something interesting?

The one downside to the Sam Hunt renaissance is that, since the album dropped right around the onset of our global pandemic, any kind of tour or live performance of the music is surely far in the offing. And while I long for the concert experience of hearing “Young Once”, and all the other songs I have quickly grown to love, if there’s one thing being loyal to Sam Hunt has taught me, and which has coincidentally prepared me well for life in 2020, it’s patience. 

7. HBO Sunday & Monday Nights

HBO Celebrating Insecure Season 4 Premiere With Virtual Block ...

Life on earth has long been governed and organized by its rhythms: lunar cycles, the shifting seasons, the circadian clocks that tell plants and animals and humans alike when to flower and when to rest. Any scientific mind observing North American society over the past quarter century would be derelict in omitting HBO’s Sunday night programming from the rest of these natural patterns. This is of course the platform that launched cultural cornerstones like Sex & the City, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, and while our collective conversation continues to fracture and segment, to the point where it’s likely that no singular show will ever dominate our exchanges the way Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons once did, the premium channel can still be counted on to deliver high quality, original television which showcases voices that are exciting and often vital– so much so that they’ve expanded their tiny empire to now include Monday nights as well. 

Over the past few months alone, these timeslots have featured disparate titles like, Curb Your Enthusiasm, still chugging along nearly twenty years after it premiered; another staggeringly expensive season of Westworld; Issa Rae’s best work to date in the fourth season of Insecure; and I May Destroy You, a show that’s been described by rapturous journalists as “sublimely upsetting”. None of these shows have dominated meme culture the way some of Netflix’s recent offerings have done so thoroughly, but then none of them are aiming for that kind of broad appeal. 

Netflix appeals to us because of its endless library, resulting in a seemingly limitless level of choice. The draw of tuning into HBO on Sunday and Monday nights is the chance to pass that choice off to someone else, someone you can trust to pick out material that is always interesting and often challenging. Two of my favorite surprises in television this year– the Philip Roth adaptation The Plot Against America and the ebullient skater girl-centric Betty— came from clicking play when I knew nothing about the shows in question, but had faith in HBO’s ability to take the wheel. If nothing else, it’s a comforting rhythm to set your clocks by.

6. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women 

Movie Review: Little Women (2019) | The Nerd Daily

I am almost certainly cheating with this selection, considering this film was released around last Christmas, but if there was ever a year that needed an especially generous accounting for what good it’s wrought, it is 2020. Also I didn’t have the opportunity to see it until January was nearly over, so for the purposes of this list, it counts. 

As soon as this project was announced I was prepared to call it one of my favorite movies ever made, so I can’t claim to have any objectivity when it comes to the flaws and merits of the latest Little Women. Like any young girl you might have euphemistically referred to as “an indoor cat”, Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale of the March sisters meant a lot to me as a child, and I would often rewatch the 1994 film version with the patient devotion that could only be expressed by a zealot, or someone with a deep and reverent love for Laurie as portrayed by Christian Bale. While passionate fans of other beloved works like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings are often guarded when it comes to remakes or additions to their canon, I’ve always had a borderline gluttonous attitude towards Little Women, and believed the more versions of the story anyone wants to give me the better. When the version in question is being directed by the same creative force that brought us Lady Bird— easily the most my heart has ever simultaneously ached and warmed inside a movie theatre– my excitement only multiplies. 

Watching Greta Gerwig’s rendition of Little Women back in January was like listening to Ruston Kelly’s cover of the Taylor Swift song All Too Well— reimaginings that can only come about when the artist is as in love with the source material as the most devoted of fans. From her decision to splice and shuffle the novel’s timeline, to the incorporation of Alcott’s real life experiences as an artist attempting to convert her art into commerce, all of Gerwig’s choices felt fresh and confident, capably conveying the themes of the original work while also bringing in ideas entirely new. Actual tears streamed silently down my face more than once while I sat in a crowded theatre for what would turn out to be the last time in 2020– my own cherished sister to my left, and a complete stranger to my right– and I believe any work that evokes emotion like that is worth bending the rules for. 

5. The Last Dance   

Michael Jordan is the GOAT – and rappers have proved it on record ...

Remember professional sports? Those most exhilarating of diversions, those most vicarious of thrills? Remember going about the business of your day while the excitement of sitting down to watch a big game later builds in the back of your mind,? Remember knowing with mathematical certainty which direction your favorite team was trending in the standings, remember keeping up with injuries, trade deadlines, and win-loss records? Yeah, totally me neither. 

It’s been almost four months since the NBA and NHL each decided to abruptly call off their seasons; since Major League Baseball cautiously decided to postpone their own; and since the NFL bravely chose to close their eyes, stick fingers in their ears and pretend that nothing at all was happening. The lengthy absence of sports on TV has been difficult, torturous, even, but the deprivation was made slightly more bearable when ESPN expedited the release The Last Dance, their documentary miniseries on Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls. 

As far as documentaries go, this one is hardly the most impartial or equitable. In many ways The Last Dance functions as a pure Jordan propaganda piece, allowing the man in question to burnish his own legend without any kind of pushback for nearly a full 500 minutes. Did he truly have no input in excluding Isiah Thomas from the ‘92 Dream Team? Was Jerry Krause really such an unredeemable villain? And are we genuinely supposed to believe that a ragtag bunch of Utah delivery boys had the access and ability to poison the pizza of the most famous athlete in America? 

Honestly, the real answers to those questions matter about as much to me as ascertaining whether or not King Arthur ever actually sat at a round table. It’s much more entertaining to uncritically accept Michael Jordan’s folkloric rendering of himself, especially when he’s willing to be so otherwise unguarded. Beyond the magnificence of its subject, this series stood out to me as being structurally impressive, allowing the story of the 1998 season to unfold while also zooming out to look at all the narratives that led us here. Supporting characters are introduced with a sense of pacing that would impress the most seasoned novelist, and considering that interviews with ninety different individuals were conducted, there is no shortage of perspectives to balance. 

Most importantly, The Last Dance’s ten week run filled the societal vacuum that was left when arenas across the continent shuttered their doors, even if it was fleeting. That uniquely human need we have to gather, to watch individuals or teams work towards greatness will be unfulfilled for much of 2020 (can you tell I’m not precisely optimistic about any of the upcoming so-called league bubbles) –but at least for a little while we all got to bask in reliving the legend of one of the best to ever do it. 

4. Alt Girl Revival: new, perfect albums from Waxahatchee, Fiona Apple & Phoebe Bridgers 

Pin on Fiona Apple

If you’ve noticed the recent proliferation of tie-dye, scrunchies, crimped hair and bike shorts, you know that the nineties are back in a big way, and if we can’t recreate the economic prosperity of that decade we can at least have one of its next best things– a surge of women making brilliant music. 

Three of this year’s finest releases were created by artists who were each unafraid to be vulnerable, emotional and specific. Katie Crutchfield, who styles herself as Waxahatchee, put out Saint Cloud in March, where it served as an incongruously sunny soundtrack to the early days of the pandemic, full of twang and acoustic guitar and lilacs. Only a few weeks later, the patron saint of unapologetic women, Fiona Apple, astonished everyone with Fetch the Boltcutters, her first album in nearly a decade, which functions as a wild, genius experiment with percussion and also with gathering enough propulsive force to gleefully spin off one’s axis– it earned universal praise from critics, including one of Pitchfork’s rare and coveted perfect 10’s. Most recently, Phoebe Bridgers dropped Punisher, the follow-up to her revelatory debut, deftly avoiding any kind of sophomore slump and continuing to showcase her delicate, haunting vocals with lyrics that are patently blunt and bracing.

Around and between these, there was also new music from the Haim sisters, from King Princess, and Halsey. Billie Eilish swept the major four categories at the Grammys. Alanis Morisette celebrated the 25th anniversary of Jagged Little Pill by releasing a remastered version, though the accompanying victory lap of a tour has been postponed. All in all, for a year that has given us so much extra time to be alone with our thoughts, it has been cathartic to hear from so many women willing to candidly express theirs, no matter how messy or painful or chaotic. Women who are willing to cast themselves as both the heroes and the villains of their personal stories, to rage and lament and confess and roll their eyes a bit before crying out to an indifferent universe. Though there are no longer any Lilith Fairs at which they might gather, in 2020 a virtual community is as meaningful a community as anything, and listening to all of these albums right now feels like more than a trend that will come and go with the decades, but communal, revealing, and important.                 

3. Tiktok

This is a cool Tiktok logo to use as your new logo for Tiktok ...

Andy Warhol once declared that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Now that we’ve arrived in that future, I think it’s safe to say he overestimated a little– as it turns out, everyone gets to be famous for a mere 15 seconds, and the primary method of achieving this level of micro-renown is the increasingly popular app known as TikTok. I will now proceed to describe the app and its user experience with the voice of someone who is very clearly a foreign observer and not a native speaker because I’m a millennial, which for the purposes of TikTok means that I’m only a few ragged breaths away from forever shuffling off this mortal coil. 

There’s no denying that TikTok culture is primarily dominated by teens and tweens and college students, but especially since lockdowns began to be enforced around the world ,and more people sought out novel ways to stave off boredom and monotony, the user base has expanded and grown. TikTok is different from most other social networking apps in that it brings me joy, instead of rage or envy or the constant desire to consume. It’s a form of escapism that is absolute, a vast and infinite universe where you’re always one upward swipe of a thumb away from finding something either delightfully absurd or absurdly delightful. The app’s algorithm, optimized to target users with content personalized to their interests is frighteningly accurate, as evidenced by the number of golden retriever puppies that are presented to me on a daily basis.

The happiness that TikTok brings me is not entirely uncomplicated, however. I’ve yet to actually watch an episode of Black Mirror, but I’m familiar with its themes, with how technology that seems benign and beneficial can corrupt human behavior. Is it actually a good thing, to burrow into this online world where everyone appears to be beautiful, smiling and dancing and willingly packaging themselves up as memes to be devoured by an ambivalent audience in search of a dopamine hit? Or is it an understandable course of distraction from everything else? Is it okay to turn your brain off every once in a while as long as you don’t forget to turn it back on? TikTok might very well be a concentrated manifestation of the human id– impulsive, superficial, and oriented towards fantasy, but surely it’s okay to indulge these primitive parts of our psyche, so long as we keep it to increments of 15 seconds. 

2. All-star Television Competitions, aka the only sports we’ve had

Survivor' Season 41 Delayed Due to Coronavirus Outbreak — Jeff ...

Though the pandemic deprived us all from watching the Bruins steamroll towards the President’s Trophy, or witness Jayson Tatum’s continued emergence as a super star, or the simple pleasure of baseball’s Opening Day, 2020 has not been wholly without opportunities to vicariously experience the thrills of victory and the sting of defeat. The first part of this year saw three separate storied institutions of television bring back some of their best contestants to face off in their own kind of battle royale. 

Jeopardy! was the first to bring its competitors to the arena, staging a tournament they rightly called “The Greatest of All Time.” Standing behind the iconic podiums were Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer, the three highest-earning contestants in the game show’s history, each the holder of various records and distinctions. I am a devoted Jeopardy! viewer, because I consider myself to be a retiree in training and also because knowing more things faster than anybody else is one of my chief pleasures, so I was heavily, irrationally invested in the tournament’s outcome. If anyone had been selling Ken Jennings-themed merchandise (hats, pompoms, etcetera) I would’ve gladly purchased the full set. 

Survivor embarked on their 40th season a few weeks later, and to celebrate that milestone they had their first all-winners season, bringing back contestants both infamous and beloved. I wouldn’t describe myself as a Survivor historian– I was an avid fan as a kid during the first few seasons, then lost interest for nearly a decade before returning to find that the game had dramatically changed. This evolution turned out to be a major factor in the all-winners season, as legendary players who had dominated back in the show’s early days struggled to adapt to a competition that was played with greater fluidity and at a much faster pace. As a viewer, it was disappointing to watch titans like Boston Rob, Parvati, Tyson and Sandra get taken out early, but the lesser known personalities who emerged in their absence proved to be entertaining in their own right. Survivor: Winners At War came to its crescendo just as all professional sports began to disappear, and the chance it provided to yell at the tv, to root passionately for and against various individuals while they competed for glory was a most welcome reprieve. 

Also stepping in to fill the void, albeit in a somewhat more refined manner, was Top Chef All Stars LA. I had actually never watched a season of the celebrated reality show before– I’ve always been more of a Masterchef kind of girl– but when one of my favorite NBA podcasters said this show was the only thing getting him through quarantine, I knew I had to give it a shot. A big part of the appeal of watching sports is to follow the pursuit of excellence, and that was more than the case with this competition. The precise technique exhibited by the chefs, the creativity, and the passion for and knowledge of food was as remarkable to behold as any Steph Curry long range shot or David Pastrňák hat trick.   

1. Hamilton released on Disney+

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I spent significant portions of 2015 and 2016 taking Wallace on long walks while the soundtrack of Hamilton played in my earbuds and tears of varying sizes rolled down my cheeks, probably to the considerable confusion of most passersby. I think that’s the best way to introduce my deep, abiding and enduring love for this musical that quickly became a cultural phenomenon, and to illustrate exactly how elated I’ve been ever since a filmed version of the stage production was made available on Disney+ only a few weeks ago.

Pages and pages of esteemed publications have already been devoted to rhapsodizing about the brilliance of Hamilton and its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Michelle Obama called it “the greatest piece of art in any form that I have seen in my life.” The show’s critical and commercial success have both been staggering, and the surrounding hype unprecedented. I would argue that there are no original accolades to bestow on it, except that even after listening to the soundtrack literally hundreds of times, I’m still finding new layers and references that upend my entire listening experience and leave me awestruck. 

There are so many elements of Hamilton to marvel over: the intricate interior rhyming schemes, the allusions to Rogers & Hammerstein juxtaposed against lyrics borrowed from Biggie Smalls, the themes and motifs that repeat and collide in such a way that they simultaneously reveal character and advance the plot, the mere fact that Miranda was able to transpose an archetypal hip-hop narrative on the first Treasury Secretary of the United States. With the Disney+ release, all of these things can be appreciated by a much wider audience, as the service’s subscription fee is significantly less of a barrier than the thousands of dollars audience members once paid to see the original cast. 

With greater accessibility, of course, comes greater accountability, and there has been no shortage of criticism levelled against my beloved Hamilton lately. Part of this is just the basic nature of the internet, where people balk at popular things and spout off their hottest takes in a never ending quest for retweets. But there is some truth to the fact that Hamilton in 2020 hits a tad differently than when it debuted in Obama’s America. The vision it offers is unabashedly optimistic, even idealistic, and that can seem discordant at a time when so many people have been moved to march in the streets to demand the justice and equality they’ve yet to see. Just as the best works of art should challenge us, a responsible audience should also challenge the art right back, to pick at its flaws and view it in an ever-evolving context. Watching Hamilton in 2020 isn’t the same as listening to it back in 2016, but the experience still leaves my cheeks tearstained.       

5 thoughts on “The 8 Best Pop Culture Moments of 2020 (A Midterm Report Card)

  1. Excellent blog as always Ainsley!
    Re: Hamilton. Setting aside the criticism re: optimism and failure to address slavery and plight of Indigenous peoples, not since watching “The Fellowship of the Ring” have I had such a visceral reaction to a piece of art. At moments, it felt too much like I am about the burst out of myself. Knowing soundtrack by heart and finally getting to see it come alive was a … bucket list moment…
    Looking forward to reading your next piece Ainsley!


    1. I definitely agree that finally being able to attach visuals to the songs that have played only in our heads for so long was at times an overwhelming experience, which is why many inevitable re-watches are definitely in order! Being able to see Daveed Diggs perform as Lafayette alone is something I’d consider a bucket list moment. Thank you so very much for reading 🙂


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