Arts·Year in Review

10 moments in pop culture that helped define an otherwise undefinable 2021

From Lil Nas X to Shang-Chi to #FreeBritney, this is how we'll remember the zeitgeist of this chaotic year.

From Lil Nas X to Shang-Chi to #FreeBritney, this is how we'll remember the zeitgeist of this chaotic year

Lil Nas X performs on stage during Audacy Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park on December 05, 2021 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Jason Koerner/Getty Images for Audacy)

When we get some distance, what will be the pop culture will come define a year that seemed so undefinable as we experienced it? That was top of mind for the team here at CBC Arts when we compiled this list, which highlights the moments from the 2021 cultural zeitgeist that stood out as most representative of... whatever this year was supposed to represent.

Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X knew you thought he was destined to be a one hit wonder — and in 2021, he finally got to prove everyone wrong.

When he followed up the longest-running number one single in the world with an EP of material best described as aggressively mid, it started to seem like maybe music wasn't his end game; maybe the natural star power and virtuosic command of the internet that helped blow up "Old Town Road" would lead him elsewhere. But his debut full-length Montero completely shattered expectations. On the surface, it's just a great listen: it's full of absolute bangers, low on filler, and impressively cohesive (all of which is a feat for any record, but especially a 15-track pop-adjacent one). But by the second track, he's singing with complete, disarming honesty about family trauma and suicidal ideation. Even the songs with less heavy subject matter have a defiant energy and are often fearlessly queer. The amount of care that went into the record is obvious, and the end result has cemented his staying power and artistic legitimacy beyond a doubt.

But 2021 wasn't Lil Nas X's year just because he put out a good album. That same defiance, fearlessness, and unapologetic queerness were present in every single thing he did, from igniting a full-on Satanic Panic revival (hey, it is the era of reboots) with the "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" music video to making out with his boyfriend onstage at the BET Awards to staging a maternity shoot for his "baby," aka his album. Everything that happened to him became a marketing opportunity: he turned getting sued by Nike into the rollout for the "Industry Baby" music video and even managed to laugh off the gross homophobia aimed at him by rapper DaBaby — in a video of himself "giving birth" to the aforementioned baby album, no less. Hell, he had his entire own episode of Maury. There simply is no one else doing it like he's doing it.

In interviews, Lil Nas X is surprisingly demure for someone who has turned shitposting into an art form. Hearing him speak, it's clear that his IDGAF attitude acts as an armour and that he himself actually cares a lot. And this is what makes him, in my opinion, the definitive artist of this era. We, especially young people, have spent the last few years watching everything we thought our lives would be collapsing around us. When everything is going to hell, what else is there to do but try to get the last laugh— Eleanor Knowles, producer

Meghan and Harry

Most of us will never forget that March that changed the world. Not the 2020 COVID March that sucked — I'm talking about the 2021 March that gifted us the Oprah, Meghan and Harry interview.  Listen, I have never ever cared about the royal family, but if this was a PPV event, they could've just taken all my money. The fallout from the cultural reckoning of 2020 across institutions has been swift and far reaching, but the one historic gate I never imagined would fall was the one leading straight to Buckingham Palace.  A supremely focused Oprah, in prime form and Afrofuturistic eyewear, sat down with a Prince, a Duchess and 17 million witnesses to speak truth to power — holding a candid conversation on race, mental health and discrimination at one of the most colonial workplaces in the world. It was raw, with Meghan detailing the ways in which deep-seeded racism within her new extended family diminished her mental health, leaving her abandoned in a world that many supporters of the monarchy have always dreamed of being a part of. It was an awakening of how people like Meghan and Harry have been used to sell the fantasy of the monarchy in the past — and a sobering reminder of the ways in which racialized people in positions of power can still be powerless. — Lucius Dechausay, senior producer

#FreeBritney

A supporter of pop star Britney Spears participates in a #FreeBritney rally at the Lincoln memorial on July 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Less than three weeks shy of her 40th birthday, Britney Spears became a free woman. It's a nearly impossible thought considering her status as one of the most famous people on the planet, but one that had been willfully forgotten by the general public for nearly 14 years. Since 2008, every decision regarding Spears's life and $60 million US estate had been overseen by court-appointed guardians, chiefly her father, James "Jamie" Spears. But in November of 2021, a Los Angeles judge put an end to the arrangement. It marked a victory for the younger Spears, certainly. But also claiming the win? A mobilized faction of her diehard fanbase: the true believers of the #FreeBritney movement.

Early in the year, Google searches for "Free Britney" spiked after the New York Times released a documentary in February outlining the details of Spears's long conservatorship alongside the history of the #FreeBritney cause. And though Spears herself did not participate in the making of the film, her absence seemed to confirm many of the troubling allegations it raised. Was she truly choosing to keep silent, or was she, in fact, being controlled against her will? She had not made a public comment about the conservatorship since shortly after it was instituted — or a comment about much at all, really — despite her continued presence as a touring act and Las Vegas fixture. And that made the events of a June conservatorship hearing all the more revelatory. Spears herself actually said something, and in 40 minutes of emotionally charged testimony, she described her life under the conservatorship, giving an account that could not have been predicted: forced to perform and subjected to medication and sterilization against her will.

As a star who emerged pre-social media, there's always been a certain mystery about Spears's private life, and the way we understand her place within pop culture has long been read through her silences. She has been an avatar upon which any fan or detractor — equally rabid in their interest — might project the way they see the world and her place within it. We've never known Britney Spears, but the way her story's been told has revealed plenty about the mob that made her famous. And even now that she's free to post what she pleases on Instagram, that still remains the case. In 2008, a ravenous public saw headlines about a 26-year-old superstar having a meltdown, and understood it as the cautionary tale of a girl gone wild. In 2021, the details are being read differently. Maybe the culture's gained some greater enlightenment regarding discussions of mental health or feminist theory. Perhaps it's a sign of social media's influence on mainstream thought; a grassroots movement now has the power to change long-held narratives. All of that feels like good news — a kinder, better step forward. As Spears herself told her supporters in a since-deleted Instagram video, "My voice was muted and threatened for so long, and I wasn't able to speak up or say anything. And because of you, I honestly think you guys saved my life in a way, 100 per cent." — Leah Collins, senior writer

Taylor's Red scarf

Should you be a person who listens to music of any variety, you are likely well-versed in the (alleged) Jake Gyllenhaal/Taylor Swift romance of 2010. Captured in the iconic, heartbreaking, and perfect track "All Too Well," the relationship was as doomed as the release of The Prince of Persia and culminated in the universal understanding that Jake is (probably) a terrible boyfriend, and that T-Swift will burn all enemies via the art of song.

But that's old news. Nine years after the release of Red, Swift re-recorded her own version of the album this year and included a ten-minute version of "All Too Well," resulting in the shock and awe of anyone who'd spent most of the 2010s yelling about why Jake hadn't returned the scarf he kept from Taylor. Or why he wouldn't pick it up since it was left at sister Maggie Gyllenhaal's house. Or whether he really held onto it because it smelled of his younger, curly-haired ex-girlfriend. Or how much that scarf witnessed while casually strewn about apartments over two months a decade ago.

These questions (plus many more, like: who was the actress who confronted Taylor Swift in the bathroom, and is there a 15-minute version of the song that will eventually allow us more insight?) rejuvenated us all long enough to emotionally sustain us over the late fall and whatever-season-we-happen-to-be-in now. The scarf and its legacy certainly wasn't the hero we asked for, but it was the one we needed right now. Because as the world burns down around me, I am more than content to spend these days surmising that maybe Taylor and Jake never really talked about the logistics of their relationship and both expected the wrong things. — Anne T. Donahue, writer

The iceberg that sank the Titanic sketch on SNL

109 years after it was involved in sinking the Titanic, the world's most infamous iceberg finally got to throw some shade at those of us too quick to judge when Bowen Yang embodied it in on Saturday Night Live. "Everyone's talking about me," they said. "No one's talking about the water! What did the autopsy say? They iceberged? No! They drowned, bitch! That's not me. That's water. But nobody's cancelling the ocean." The April 10th sketch was instantly iconic, helping further propel Yang to MVP status on a season of SNL that would go on to earn him an Emmy nomination (the first ever for a featured performer). It also gave many of us (certainly this writer) a much needed, deep LOL during a month where COVID chaos reigned particularly supreme. — Peter Knegt, producer

Kid A Mnesia 

The last few years have seen a tidal wave of special edition album reissues designed to jack into the nostalgia of Gen Xers and elder millennials. And at first glance, Radiohead's Kid A Mnesia, which packages 2000's Kid A and 2001's Amnesiac together with a handful of bonus tracks, doesn't particularly stand out from that wave. That is, until you boot up the companion "virtual exhibit" on your PS5 or computer, and find yourself immersed in a ghostly, contemplative stroll through an audiovisual deconstruction of the two albums. Fragments of each song — an electronic squawk here, a disembodied vocal there — fade in and out as you peruse different rooms of the melancholy virtual museum. Meanwhile various stick figures and demons scuttle past, presumably taking in the otherworldly sounds and scenes.

As a work of interactive art, it's an impressive accomplishment. And if, like me, you have every bass line, drum break and vocal warble burned into your unconscious, the effect is haunting. In some ways, it's a throwback to the era of CD-ROMs and '90s video games that boasted "full motion video." But 2021 was the year that assorted tech giants tried, mightily, to make the metaverse happen. (Or to convince us that it was at the very least imminent — give it a couple of years! Maybe five! A decade, tops!) And while it's easy to poke fun at virtual meetings where legless avatars cavort in bland conference centres, works like Kid A Mnesia give us a glimpse of what a more imaginative virtual world could be. — Andrew D'Cruz, managing editor

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Labour Day weekend is not typically a box office smasher, even in a non-pandemic year. But after avoiding the theatres for nearly two years, I'd wager that the film that would warrant me leaving my home, sharing a space with strangers and keeping my mask on for over two hours straight had to be worth it. 

And Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was — not just for the CGI spectacle, though it had that in spades, but for that young Asian girl who grew up in the 80's and 90's, never seeing herself reflected in mainstream media.

While on the red carpet for the L.A. premiere of the film, comedian and actor Ronny Chieng told Variety, "This isn't diversity for the sake of diversity. This is diversity for the sake of authenticity." It was a response to acknowledging the diversity present both onscreen and behind the camera. And when you see a close-up shot of someone removing their shoes before entering a home (in IMAX, no less), the impact of that authenticity really does matter.

I don't need to go to the movies. Disney and Marvel do not need my money. But it certainly was the perfect way to return — and I wasn't the only one who thought so. With an impressive $130M global box office opening weekend and a sequel on the horizon, there's clearly a thirst for more underrepresented-led stories. Black Panther opened the door and Shang-Chi walked through it; I can't wait to see who follows next. (And if Simu Liu can manifest Shang-Chi into existence, then perhaps there's hope for this Filipina and an Ari Agbayani solo film.) — Michelle Villagracia, producer

Beeple's $69M JPG

In March 2021, a 40-year-old graphic designer who goes by the alias Beeple became one of the highest-paid living artists overnight when a collage of his artwork, packaged as a JPG file and offered as an NFT, auctioned for an astounding $69.3 million U.S. The artist born Mike Winkelmann has been completing one piece of art every day since May 2007, and Everydays: The First 5000 Days collects much of the series. Beeple was little-known outside sci-fi art circles prior to the record-breaking gavel, and since, he's unwittingly and — let's be honest — undeservedly become a DaVinci for this new age in digital art, assets and speculation. It's not that Beeple is untalented (though his art is as politically and socially incisive as late-era Green Day). He's just lucky is all. Plucked from the timeline and benefitting handsomely from this wild vortex of hype kicked up by tech investors, crypto fanatics, old art-world institutions vying for new relevance and new money as well as a raft of starving digital artists desperate to cash in. That sure feels like 2021. — Chris Hampton, writer

Yuh-jung Youn's Oscar speech

To put it kindly, this year's Oscars were a bit of a mess. After months of speculation as to whether they'd happen at all, the show finally went on — two months later than usual — inside a downtown Los Angeles train station. And the result was mostly a trainwreck, with bizarre pacing, bad acoustics and... the lowest ratings in the awards' history. But there were some saving graces, in particular thanks to speeches given by winners who had in many cases gone to great lengths to make their way to said train station. One of those was the certainly very deserving winner of best supporting actress, Yuh-jung Youn, who had traveled from South Korea (during a still thriving pandemic) to become the first Korean performer and second Asian female to ever win an acting Oscar for her performance in Minari. Accepting the award for her performance in Minari from Brad Pitt, who had actually produced the film, Yuh-jung threw some playful shade about the fact that he hadn't exactly been active on set. "Mr. Brad Pitt, finally... nice to meet you. Where were you while we were filming in person?" The joke landed better than most comedians' best attempts that night, and the entire speech was by far the night's most endearing moment. — Peter Knegt, producer

Yellowjackets

A disaster goes on much longer than expected. People turn on each other and eventually begin eating each other. A sort of bland lady you went to school with who posts Minions memes on Facebook is low-key a profoundly unhinged monster. Everyone is breaking down and the effects will be with us for the rest of our lives. 

The only difference between the year 2021 and Showtime's 2021 horror/psychodrama Yellowjackets is that the cannibalism in Yellowjackets is literal rather than figurative.

If you're unfamiliar with Yellowjackets, the elevator pitch is "What if Lord of the Flies, but girls?" In actuality, it's a little deeper than that. In 1996, a plane containing a girls' high school soccer team from New Jersey — the titular Yellowjackets — goes down over Northern Ontario. (In a weird twist on the "Toronto plays every other city imaginable in movies" trope, Northern Ontario is actually played by British Columbia here. It does a great job.) Rescue takes MUCH longer than expected, cults are formed, social structures are turned upside down, people are eaten. In the present day, four of the survivors are being taunted with postcards reminding them of their time in the woods, questioned by a reporter, and generally cracking as their pasts catch up with them.

The best — or worst, but definitely realest — part of Yellowjackets is the tale of Misty Quigley, played as a teen by Sammi Hanratty and as an adult by Christina Ricci. As a teen, she's the equipment manager: terminally uncool, occasionally bullied, usually just ignored. But when the team is stranded in the woods, her wilderness skills and unblinking willingness to do what others won't suddenly put her at the top of the pyramid — a status she'll go to great lengths to maintain. 25 years later, back in civilization, Misty has kind of reverted to type. She's forgotten and overlooked, struggling with online dating, occasionally lightly torturing the residents at the long term care home she works at, and doting on her parrot Caligula.

Misty may be the character that sums up our era more than anyone. She could be your cousin or your aunt or a vague social media acquaintance you went to high school with: she seems mild-mannered enough, but just below the surface is a cauldron of seething rage just looking for an excuse to come out. After years of being shoved to the sideline, she wants to feel important and in charge, and if she has to hurt someone else along the way, frankly, that's even better. In a time where every single one of us has seen someone we knew who seemed completely rational go sliding off the rails into wild-eyed internet-induced paranoid delusion and gleeful destructiveness, it's suddenly very clear that Misty is not an outlier — she's everywhere. — Chris Dart, producer

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