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2016 in Five Pop Culture Moments

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2016 was, um, something, wasn’t it? (By which I mean that 2016 was a dumpster fire: it stank, it’s taking forever to end, and if we’re not careful, it’s awfulness could spread, causing untold damage.*)

Through it all, pop culture kept on keepin’ on, however, and it certainly gave us some moments to tweet home about. In my humble (oh, who am I kidding?) opinion, here were the 5 most meaningful moments, events, happenings, or other plural synonym for a time when something happened of 2016.

1. Beyoncé ruled the Super Bowl

The world’s biggest musical star + America’s most-watched televised event = that fire emoji a bunch of times in a row. Getting Bey to join animatronic amusement park robots Coldplay during the Super Bowl halftime show was a no-brainer. Most artists play it safe, using the opportunity to revisit their biggest hits and generally please their audience. This was not that. Instead, Beyoncé stole the show, kicking off her performance with a song – “Formation” – she’d released just 24 hours earlier, a song that wears its feminism on its sleeve and claims unequivocally that black lives matter.

A lot of (sexist, racist) people were pissed (because they’re sexist and/or racist), and they blasted Beyoncé for “being political” and making the performance about something besides the crazy-eyed consumerist frenzy that is the Super Bowl broadcast. As if all art isn’t political (even, or especially, when it intentionally ignores politics), and the Super Bowl halftime show is an English drawing room where potentially uncomfortable subjects must be avoided at all costs.

In retrospect, the performance looms even larger. It kicked open a door that artists like D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar had laid their shoulders against the year prior, and brought black experience to the forefront of popular music in a way we haven’t seen since the Stevie Wonder/Marvin Gaye heyday of the late 60s and early 70s.

2. Everyone died

OK, so, not everyone died, but it sure felt that way. Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, and what felt like a hundred other celebrated pop culture-type folks all passed away this year, and with each successive loss, the feeling that 2016 was especially sinister intensified. Bad news never seemed far away, and almost as soon as we finished processing the death and appreciating the life of one all-timer, another crappy headline would appear on our feeds or scroll across the bottom of our TVs.

In a weird way, though, the deaths of so many popular figures had a weirdly comforting effect. Fact is, our increasingly fractured media landscape makes it harder and harder to have experiences that feel truly shared with the culture at large. But as figures we’d sung along to, laughed at, and told stories about for generations passed away, millions were able to revel in those memories together, even if the revelry was more bitter than sweet.

3. Music officially made the streaming leap

CDs are dead, vinyl is weirdly resurgent, and cassette tapes (I swear) are still a thing. But Mp3s? They don’t look long for the world, and even though streaming services had emerged as the dominant source for music fans, it wasn’t until this year that they became indispensable. When Chance the Rapper released his third mixtape, Coloring Book, and Kanye “Make America Great Again” West released his latest, The Life of Pablo exclusively on Tidal and Apple Music, respectively, it seemed clear that the idea of “owned” music, even in a non-physical form, was maybe drawing its last breaths.

There will, of course, still be fetishists who savor the crackle of vinyl, and weirdos like me who favor CDs. But even months after their initial releases, there’s no hint that either Chance or Yeezy are ever going to put out physical versions of their 2016 records. If this becomes the norm rather than the exception, and, say, Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Adele goes the all-streaming route, then we might see the final nails driven into the coffin of personal music ownership. Whenever that happens, we’ll be able to point back to 2016 as the tipping point.

4. SNL mocked Trump; Trump tweeted his unending displeasure

Where Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impression ranks among SNL’s all-time greats isn’t for me to say (I know of at least one person who really hates it). But what’s undeniable is that, because of Baldwin’s take on the President-elect, there’s never been a more captivating time in the show’s entire history. If that sounds crazy, remember that no other sketch, character, host, or impression has elicited a direct response from one of the most powerful people on the planet just about every time it hits the air.

For a show that’s been declared dead more times than I can count, it’s remarkable how frequently SNL claws its way back to must-watch status over and over again. And now that Baldwin and the show’s writers know that the PEOTUS is watching (and tweeting about) the show, he’s the only audience they really have to worry about. As a result, we all end up watching the show in anticipation of what button it’s going to push and how Trump will react, which is a fascinating dynamic. Imagine if Vietnam-era military leaders had issued bitter press releases after every episode of M*A*S*H.

Each tweet confirms how thin-skinned Donald Trump is. Though every president has been raked over the coals by SNL, none of them have ever expressed much more than mild chagrin at their treatment. George H.W. Bush even invited Dana Carvey to the White House back in the day to make light of Carvey’s impression. But now we’ve got a leader who can’t take ribbing from the guy who voiced a devious lion in Madagascar 2. Sad!

5. Mike Pence visited Hamilton

In general, I don’t have a lot of love for the theater. It’s not because I don’t appreciate the stories or the skill of the performers involved; it’s just that the center of that universe is so far away from my physical location that it’s difficult to feel invested. In the same way that I don’t blame people in Mexico for not caring about hockey, I don’t blame people who live outside New York for spending their pop culture attention on other things.

But Hamilton is something different. Not only is the music from the show groundbreaking and incredible and all that, but it’s actually seeped into the culture to a degree beyond that of any Broadway production I can think of. How do I know? Two reasons.

  1. The Vice President-elect went out of his way to attend the show, in what I can only assume was an attempt to come across as “with it,” “cool,” and “happening.”
  2. When the crowd booed the Vice President-elect, and the cast prepared and read from stage an open plea to his administration to remember the kinds of marginalized people that he has at best ignored and at worst openly targeted for persecution during his political career, it made national headlines for a week straight.

In the days following Pence’s visit, Hamilton became a stand-in for immigrants (they get the job done, you know), racial and religious minorities, and the LGBTQ community at-large, all of whom have expressed serious concern about their place in Trump’s America. The cast’s statement was an invitation to the rest of the country to speak truth to power. Maybe I should give Broadway more of a chance.

*I wrote this before the Louisville game. My bad, guys. Shoulda known better.

Article written by Josh Corman

Josh Corman is a marketing writer and Contributing Editor at bookriot.com. He lives in Central Kentucky.