The Ten Best Pop Culture Moments of 2021 (A Midterm Report Card) 10-6

I’ll admit that I’m a little nervous about posting this one. Not because my summary of pop culture as it has unfolded in 2021 thus far promises to be shocking or even mildly controversial– I have zero fears that I’ll get cancelled over benignly declaring that Movies Are Good. No, my trepidation can be better traced back to what happened last year.

Less than 365 days ago, a much younger Ainsley– an Ainsley with considerably less trauma-induced wisdom but significantly better posture– attempted to write up the 2020 edition of this list. It wasn’t a terrible list. I stand by my exaltations when it comes to The Last Dance, and the fourth season of Insecure, and the albums released by Fiona Apple, Phoebe Bridgers, and Waxahatchee. Was it a blatant circumvention of the rules to include the 2019 film Little Women? Probably. Do I expect that many were baffled by my esteem for Sam Hunt’s Southside, an album that peaked at 5 on the Billboard 200 and barely made an impact with its true singles? It would be more baffling if they weren’t, to be honest. But overall, at the time I thought it was a valiant-enough, comprehensive-enough effort to account for what was great about a year that gave me very little to relish in.

Four days later, Taylor Swift released folklore.

Immediately, my list felt like it was the equivalent of a horseshoe maker on the same morning Henry Ford first unveiled his Model T: Primitive. Obsolete. Redundant. Because what was even the point of commemorating other bright spots when they all dimmed in comparison with the album I instantly understood would be the beacon of my 2020, and perhaps one of the most important artistic experiences of my entire life? True, I had no way of knowing that such a seismic event was in the offing, and folklore‘s release date was also technically outside of my “midterm” scope, but still. I cannot help but feel some regrets.

So that’s the kind of inspiring confidence I’m bringing to this 2021 midterm recap. Are these the ten cultural moments that have brought me the most joy thus far? Sure. Have they each fuelled their share of viral moments, trending topics, and real life conversations? These are all certainly data points I considered. Will I continue to stand by this ranking in the coming weeks and months? Or will the items on it get eclipsed once again by an unexpected and singularly brilliant achievement?

I hope not. But check back with me again in about four days.

10. The return of movies in theatres

I love watching movies, and I especially love watching them in the theatre, just as God intended us to (obviously, or he wouldn’t have made the act of mixing Reeses Pieces into your popcorn such a soul-affirming experience). Plenty of people were unbothered, satisfied, even, when a handful of major releases from last year were put out on streaming services because of the pandemic, to be enjoyed from the comfort of one’s own couch, but I for one have missed the melodic sounds of other people laughing, other people screaming, other people chewing (perhaps not so much that last one).

Thankfully, that signature cacophony has been returned to us. I mean, not an “us” that includes me, because Ontario has embraced vaccinated life with the enthusiasm of a cautious turtle, but it’s true for other people– for people in provinces like BC, and Alberta, and most of the Maritimes, and for everybody down in the United States. So congratulations, everyone else, on living the dream. Whether you made your triumphant return to the theatre to see A Quiet Place 2, or Fast 9, or if you made the rare and iconoclastic choice to watch a non-sequel like In the Heights, you were able to participate in restoring the art form’s natural order. Like Michael Scott appreciating inside jokes from afar, I very much hope that this thing that I love– sitting in a dark room full of strangers to watch a story unfold– is something I too can one day participate in, hopefully soon.

9. Fearless (Taylor’s Version)

I mean, after all of the handwringing I did up there over folklore, I can’t not take the very first opportunity to celebrate Taylor Swift that 2021 gave me. Especially this version of Taylor Swift, now at the peak of her artistic powers, full of industry clout, and on a determined quest to regain control over her life’s work. Said quest will eventually involve re-recording all six of the albums that were lost to her when she walked away from her exploitative first record company. It is a project that is unprecedented in its scale, scope, publicity, and visibility, and it officially kicked off on April 9th of this year with the release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version).

Fearless, originally released in 2008, was not Taylor’s first record, but it’s often viewed as her breakthrough, the album that established her in the public consciousness and put her on the path that led to the kind of twin commercial and critical success that comes along maybe once in a generation, and only if that generation is particularly lucky. She was 18 years old. It was an album that felt fit to burst with optimism and sincerity, with exuberance and melodrama. At a time when other women in pop music were being treated like interchangeable subject lines (see: Britney, further down on this list) Fearless was the work of somebody who refused to be anything other than the sole author of her experience. Whether she was calling out toxic ex-boyfriends, reminiscing about high school, or describing the best first date she could imagine, it was evident in every song that she was in charge of her own narrative, that she was the one who got to decide how the characters in her life would be remembered.

That level of autonomy was remarkable then, and it seems even more profound now. I wish Taylor was able to revisit her earlier work under more pleasant circumstances, that she could bask in the nostalgic glow of her catalogue instead of having to work so furiously to reclaim it. Completing all of the (Taylor’s Version)s will require a unique blend of focus and vision– but this is exactly the same force that originally propelled all the music I’ve loved so much in the first place. 13 years have passed since the original version of Fearless debuted, and the artist who sings those songs now seems just as determined to write her own story, to call her own shots. Probably more so. When a now-31 year old Taylor sings lyrics like “I’ve found time can heal most anything, and you just might find who you’re supposed to be,” she’s not just repeating the insights of her teenage self, not just harmonizing with it. She’s using those 13 interim years of life experience to make the melody her own again, turning it into something that sounds familiar but feels brand new.

8. The highs and lows of award shows

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I continue to believe that award shows are important. While this feels a little like forming an affectionate attachment to a dinosaur in the days before the astroid hit, I can’t help myself. I like watching people win stuff. I like pretending that those wins say something illuminating about our society; that years from now we will look back and think that the question of who won what actually mattered. As far as I can tell however, not all of the individuals responsible for producing these award shows feel the same way.

Let’s start with the good: this year’s Grammys. While I have been very clear about the changes I would make to the show should the Grammys ever return my calls, even I will admit that Music’s Biggest Night did a decent job of actually being about music, for once. The show was structured like an extended concert, and there was an obvious effort made to ensure that all of the acts (Silk Sonic, HAIM, Harry Styles, H.E.R, DaBaby, etc) were actually relevant to the musical year being celebrated. Demi Lovato was not inexplicably involved in multiple inexplicable tribute numbers. A solid show all around.

The 2021 Golden Globes were more of a mixed bag, but I’m willing to cut them some slack, considering they occurred during those darker pandemic days that belonged to the dominion of Zoom. There were technical difficulties, and the chemistry between bi-coastal hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey consequently fell a little flat, and truthfully my most vivid memory of the night remains Jason Sudeikis accepting his win in a tie-dye hoodie, but I know that everybody was just trying their best. We all were back then.

The Oscars I have less patience before, mostly because they were terrible. True, the film industry had considerably less to celebrate after a year that decimated both its release schedule and business model, but that’s no excuse for being so dull. These entertainment business people are supposed to be in the business of entertaining people, and this was a prime opportunity to remind the audience of all there is to love about the movies, and the experience of going to see them. Instead, they chose to eliminate all of the montages. In my eyes, this was a sin, because I hold montages up on the same level as tulle or Chantilly cream– if you see a chance to add some, you should. Instead, we got uncomfortably sincere spoken word performances, and a ceremony we’re all better off forgetting.

7. Oprah interviews the Sussexes

As a Canadian, I’ve always had a fairly moderate relationship with the Royal Family. My people never fought a dramatic war to be rid of them, but they’re also no longer an especially integral part of our government or society. Technically the Queen does have to provide Royal Assent to any bills passed by Parliament, but this role is largely vestigial and ceremonial, like an heirloom you might not have practical use for but for whatever reason can’t get rid of. Maybe this is why my primary reaction to Oprah’s “explosive” interview with Harry and Meghan, the estranged Duke & Duchess of Sussex, was indifference.

I don’t mean to sound cold. Obviously I felt basic human compassion when Meghan alluded to having suicidal thoughts during her first pregnancy, and I think it’s generally regrettable whenever there’s estrangement within a family, especially between brothers who once seemed close. The racism that Meghan Markle was subjected to by both the institution (allegedly) and the press (very plainly) is unconscionable, and something that sadly still requires a reckoning on both sides of the Atlantic. But I don’t quite understand what this interview with Oprah was meant to accomplish. Beneath the incendiary headlines, there was very little specificity in what was said. No names were attached to most of the allegations, and so the public was left with rumors and conjecture instead of specific individuals they might hold accountable. One takeaway from the special might be just that the monarchy is outdated and bad, but considering the couple have maintained their royal titles and that one of their more contentious issues with “the Firm” is whether or not their son would be entitled to the security that comes with being a Prince, I find it difficult to believe that conclusion was their aim.

Maybe they just wanted to hang out with Oprah in Santa Barbara, to take advantage of her preternatural quasi-therapist abilities and vent a little, hopefully over some wine. I certainly wouldn’t say no to the invitation, should her O-ness ever ask. Or maybe, having spent the early part of their self-induced exile on Vancouver Island, Harry and Meghan just developed a very Canadian attitude towards the Royal Family. That as much as they’d like to leave it behind forever, there’s at least a part of them that knows they won’t.

6. The Friends reunion

With very few exceptions, remakes, remixes, and revivals tend to be disappointing. Occasionally something beautiful can happen, like Joni Mitchell’s 2000 rendition of Both Sides Now, where her age-worn and weary vocals underscored the wisdom in her words. More often you get did we really need this? head scratchers like Fuller House or the 2021 reboots of Gossip Girl and Saved By The Bell; stories that only exist on nostalgic fumes and which are propagated largely because of Hollywood’s aversion to untested IP. Occasionally you get travesties like the Veronica Mars reboot, which undermine anything that was good about the original idea and kind of make you want to tear your own hair out. But regardless of quality, things that were once popular tend to get remade because remakes are profitable. This is why I have always admired the Friends cast for walking away and staying away as long as they did.

Of course, they couldn’t stay gone forever, not in this media landscape, where fledgling streaming services try to lure in viewers by offering up clickable comfort food, where the people in power are always eager to retrace the same steps that took them to a mountaintop before. Friends is almost certainly one of the three most iconic sitcoms of all time; its 236 episodes are so valuable the Netflix paid $100 million just to retain them for an extra year. A remake of any kind would be guaranteed to capture the world’s attention in the engrossing kind of way that rarely happens anymore. But somehow they didn’t swing at that softball. Instead, six people who used to be among the most famous on the planet (one of whom still kind of is) were able to revisit the work that turned them into icons without having to attempt to rebuild a cheap facsimile. And to me, at least, the result was worth remembering.

Critics and naysayers have dismissed the Friends reunion as nothing but an easy paycheque, a sequence of undeserved pats on the back where the principals involved did nothing to reflect on the show’s shortcomings, particularly when it came to diversity. I’ll admit that none of this bothered me, mainly because I understood that the event was meant to function as an ad for HBO Max, and advertisements rarely invite you to look under the hood. I was more than willing to trade a critical lens for something more rose-colored, something that allowed me to get swept up in the swelling emotion of each of the Friends arriving at their old set again, to go along with the extended bits, to look fondly upon Joey & Chandler seated once again in their his & his LazyBoy chairs. When people from around the world were shown testifying about how much this simple sitcom has meant to them, all the ways it has made them feel less alone, I’ll admit I got misty-eyed. And Friends isn’t even my personal comfort show.

There’s a lot to knock about the way the entertainment industry continuously returns to the same well– I’ve done a lot of it in these very paragraphs. But sometimes it’s worth it instead to celebrate that once upon a time there was something that genuinely satisfied people, that whatever its flaws, came to matter to its audience a lot. Sometimes it’s enough just to be able to look at a beloved television show from both sides now.

3 thoughts on “The Ten Best Pop Culture Moments of 2021 (A Midterm Report Card) 10-6

  1. Completely agree re: Meghan and Harry. Full sympathy for Meghan, in terms of her depression and what English press has put her through. She must have felt so out of her depts (I mean, who wouldn’t ?!?), like living on another planet.
    Everything else? Not to be harsh, but it sounded so entitled. We want our privacy, but Hi Oprah! We don’t want to work as Royals, but where’s my money and title and security? We know full well why Archi doesn’t have Pronce title (for now), but let’s pretend that’s not the case and sprinkle the whole issue with racism. There are real issues that royal family needs to address, for sure, and racism is systematic, institutional and rampant, but this whole thing sound so … whiney.
    Great article as always Ainsley 🙂 !


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