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Top 10 Pop-culture memorable moments in 2021

The pandemic was in its second year, and political and societal turmoil over vaccines and vaccine access dominated the news. In some ways, that residual weight only served to make pop culture—the celebrities, athletes, TV series, and internet phenomena we chat and text about—feel more welcome and, dare I say, valuable. Here’s a look back at some of the year’s most memorable pop culture moments.

Oprah Winfrey’s blockbuster interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry

There hasn’t been a member of the royal family who has spoken so honestly about the inner workings of the Firm since Princess Diana’s 1992 tell-all with Martin Bashir, in which she declared “there were three of us” in her marriage to Prince Charles. Meghan and Prince Harry defied the monarchy’s “never complain, never explain” press policy by telling the storey of an unsupportive royal family, even while Meghan was pregnant and had suicidal thoughts. When Meghan stated that an unidentified relative had raised concerns about the colour of their son Archie’s skin before he was born, there was a shock—but perhaps not really?

The event featured Oprah’s master class in interviewing (“Were you mute or were you silent?” will live in my memory forever), a devastating moment for the British monarchy, and two riveting hours of television that drew 17 million viewers along for the emotional roller-coaster.

The #FreeBritney campaign

Die-hard admirers have been protesting the pop star’s 13-year conservatorship for years, but #FreeBritney eventually went mainstream in 2021. In June, Spears finally broke her imposed silence with a horrifying court declaration detailing how her father’s conservatorship controlled her work, income, and even—in a particularly disturbing detail—her reproductive rights.

The New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears documentary, released 20 years after Spears initially rose to popularity, offered a fresh perspective on how she was sexualized, controlled, and reduced in the early aughts—a fun-house mirror for how our culture treated and still treats, young female stars. However, #FreeBritney came full circle in 2021, with the conservatorship formally ending in November. “I just want my life back,” Spears testified in June. This was the year when Spears’ “long-denied dreams…finally became a reality,” as Vogue’s Liam Hess put it.

The Reunion Tour of Bennifer 2.0

With the reemergence of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s long-dormant romance and a subsequent world tour of touching, 2021 became a doorway to 2002 in certain ways.

The controversial statements about mental health made by Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka

When the most decorated American gymnast of all time withdrew from the women’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics in July, she had the eyes and pressure of the entire world on her. Biles’ mental troubles were exacerbated by the fact that she was one of more than 150 women and kids who had been sexually abused by former team doctor Larry Nassar, and USA Gymnastics had yet to strike a settlement with the victims. “I’m actually not surprised how everything played out,” Biles remarked, referring to the year’s events.

Naomi Osaka, the Grand Slam-winning tennis player, took a similar risk in May when she withdrew from the French Open because officials refused to let her opt out of post-match press conferences.

Biles and Osaka’s decision to prioritise mental health, especially as Black and Asian women, delivered a powerful message not only to athletes and overachievers but to everyone who watched them compete. “At the end of the day, we’re all human,” Biles said, “so we have to protect our minds in our bodies rather than just go out and do what the world wants us to do.” They reinvented what it meant to be a champion as a team.

Squid Game’s crossover in the United States

The watch-between-your-fingers drama acquired full cultural permeation from its very first moments—a game of Red Light, Green Light for survival. Squid Game, created by Hwang Dong-hyuk and inspired by his own socioeconomic hardships, immediately rose to the top of Netflix’s most-watched shows, becoming the first Korean show to do so. Squid Game was entertainment (and terror) that touched a chord, arriving at a time of widespread economic worry, sparking an SNL parody and innumerable Halloween costumes. “I wanted to write a storey that was an allegory…about current capitalist society, something that depicted tremendous competitiveness, almost like the extreme competition of life,” Hwang told Variety.

Olivia Rodrigo’s rise to power

We were all devastated teenagers again, casually driving by our ex’s house when we heard Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License,” written when he was 17 years old. The song, which went viral in January and was streamed over a billion times, has everything: soul-crushing lyrics, powerful vocals, and possible real-life inspiration. (It’s said to be about Rodrigo’s ex, Joshua Bassett, her former Disney Channel costar.) Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, was released in May, and it shot her even higher into the stratosphere, channelling the angst of Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, as well as Taylor Swift’s lyrical prowess (who made her Rodrigo fandom known). Rodrigo was selected as an advocate by the White House to promote vaccines for young adults aged 12 and above, lest there be any doubt that he was America’s first teen. Rodrigo was dressed in a Cher Horowitz–Esque Chanel suit and platforms.

The summer of The White Lotus

The HBO series took over summer with a group of irredeemable, seductive individuals mingling and ministering to one another at a five-star Hawaiian resort-like Succession meets Saved by the Bell Malibu Sands episodes. Armond (the magnificent Murray Bartlett), the White Lotus’s fast unravelling manager; Shane (Jake Lacy), an overgrown frat boy on an ill-fated honeymoon; and Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya, who dumps her mother’s ashes (and her own issues) at the hotel bar The White Lotus provided visual candy and escapism, but it also gave viewers something more, addressing class tensions between guests and employees, capitalism, and colonialism, as did the best shows of 2021. The hauntingly seductive melody is still ringing in my ears months later.

The multimedia release of Red (Taylor’s Version)

A long-awaited 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” along with a short film adaptation, as well as the Easter-egg-filled “I Bet You Think About Me” video created by Blake Lively and starring Miles Teller—all perfectly timed to Sad Girl Fall! Nobody does album releases (or rereleases!) like Swift.

The Beatles: All 7.8 Hours Return the favour

Director Peter Jackson’s Disney+ docuseries provided one of the most intimate portraits ever of the Beatles’ creative process, unfolding while they were making Let It Be and preparing to perform atop their Apple Corps headquarters in London in January 1969, making it the binge-watch to end all 2021 binge-watches. They parted up a year later. The Beatles: Get Back is a myth-busting exercise: While there is some tension—George Harrison briefly quits—the legendary foursome never come to blows. They’re civilised, communicative, and, most importantly, fraternal.

Get Back also shows that Yoko Ono was not responsible for the band’s disbandment. While she was always by Lennon’s side, she was a “benign presence” in recording sessions, quietly reading the newspaper while rock history was being produced, as Jackson put it. It’s fascinating to witness Paul McCartney’s spontaneous improvisation blossom into the title track, much alone the groovy clothes, in footage restored like a modern-day reality show.

Sex and the City’ Comeback

One of television’s most renowned and influential shows has lasted much past its 2004 series conclusion and even its mixed-review sequels. The internet never really got over it, with socially conscious Instagram profiles like Woke Charlotte and would-be Sex and the City 3 Twitter feeds speculating where the girls are now. We didn’t have to wonder any longer in 2021: HBO Max’s And Just Like That…, which premiered December 9, was a streaming sequel to SATC. From Kim Cattrall’s decision not to reprise her role as Samantha to rumours about Big and Carrie’s new podcasting employment, the film’s production alone was a pop-cultural phenomenon. Not to mention the costumes, which were documented with zeal on @everyoutfitonsatc. And Just Like That was without a doubt the most anticipated of many franchise reimaginings (apologies to The Sopranos).

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