Entertainment

VICE Staffers on the Pop Culture That Got Them Through a Cursed Year

From the 'Real Housewives' franchise to books about the Black Death, here's what we read, listened to and watched in 2020.
December 21, 2020, 9:30am
Pop Culture Real Housewives Reality TV Lockdown Boredom Binge
Screenshot: Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

If somebody had told me a few years back that there was going to be a deadly pandemic in 2020, I wouldn’t have imagined it like this. I’d have imagined something like the film Contagion, probably, or a zombie-type apocalypse. Not weeks upon weeks of being locked in the house, shuffling from room to room in my pants, staring slack-jawed out the window and sigh-muttering “what shall we do?” to whoever was nearest.

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For many, 2020 could sometimes be a very boring, empty year. No socialising. No travelling. No partying into the night. Instead, we had endless time, stretched out in front of us. Which is probably why so many of us leant so heavily into pop culture. This was the year in which we could actually read books all weekend, binge reality shows without feeling guilty, listen to albums from start to finish from the comfort of our rooms. There were no interruptions, and there was plenty we wished to escape.

Every person, it seems, has had their own private pop culture crutch, whether that was a low budget podcast they kept returning to during sleepless lockdown nights to a TV series franchise they binged from March through to June. With that in mind, here’s all the stuff that VICE UK staffers turned to in an effort to get through this cursed year.

‘THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF BEVERLY HILLS’

I have many ladies in my life: each of them possess entirely frozen faces, beautiful large breasts, a flair for the dramatic and a streak spiteful enough to poison a small lake. I met them all during lockdown number one. We courted for a couple of episodes before I became completely obsessed with them all season after season after season.

First there was anxious Kyle Richards, then came mouthy Brandi Glanville and before I knew it I had stinking rich Dorit and dancing and singing Erika on each arm. Now I barely go a day without channelling Queen Bee Lisa Vanderpump and her little dog Giggy (RIP). Anyway: what I’m trying to say is Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is the very best of the Housewives franchise, which is the absolutely pinnacle of the reality TV form. There is nothing better – nothing better – than any of the 220 episodes of this trashy, glamorous mess. – Hannah Ewens

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SPARKLE DIVISION’S ‘TO FEEL EMBRACED’

William Basinski is usually the guy to go to when you want to hear slow and decadent ambience. His best album The Disintegration Loops came about after he tried (and failed) to digitise a tape recording and is the literal sound of cassette tapes decomposing and disintegrating into nothing. It’s very soothing.

Sparkle Division, the new project he released during lockdown this year with co-collaborator Preston Wendel, is similarly calming. Crucially though, it’s also fabulous and fun. It’s Basinski at his campest – if you hear him in interviews, he’s very funny – and features track names like “You Go Girl” and “You Ain’t Takin’ My Man”. The artwork is pink. There’s lots of sexxxxxxxxxxy instrumention (Basinski lets his hair down and romps through lounge, jazz and disco via the clarinet, saxophone and celestial-style production). It sounds loving, much like the name of the album (To Feel Embraced) and listening to it is like a warm hug from someone you adore. In a shit year, a carefree record like this felt very necessary. Thank you Mr. Basinski, you sexy man. – Ryan Bassil

‘DISTANT MIRROR: THE CALAMITOUS 14TH CENTURY’

I was on the brink of doing an MA in medieval culture 12 years ago. Instead I wrote a book about the drug world, and that was that. But my obsession with the medieval world came back to help me during lockdown, in the shape of a massive book about life in Europe in the 1300s called Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Written in the 1970s by Barbara Tuchman, it was my secret pass out of the pandemic mess and being stuck at home.

As more news came in about COVID-19, I was reading about medieval battles, courtly intrigue and children playing with "doll carriages harnessed by mice". It’s basically a huge, sweeping real-life Game of Thrones, a fascinating period when half the population was under 21. It transported me away to another era, but it also put the pandemic into perspective. The Black Death killed one in every three people in Europe. But once it passed, people carried on living their lives, wearing pointy shoes. – Max Daly

EVERY SINGLE DAVID LYNCH MOVIE

Like a lot of gays, I have a longstanding obsession with Laura Dern. I wouldn’t describe it as a “crush”, necessarily. It’s more like an ASMR reaction to her acting abilities. Her expressions. Her voice. The way she spits “I will not not be rich,” in the TV show Big Little Lies, the words springing from between her teeth. 

My favourite “version” of Laura Dern, however, is in every David Lynch movie she’s ever appeared in: Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Inland Empire. This year, during lockdown, I ended up rewatching them all multiple times, back to back, followed by all the other Lynch movies, then back to the Dern ones. This might sound like a bleak and confusing way to spend the pandemic months, but it was – and is – a bleak and confusing time. I found these rewatches comforting. 

Inland Empire, in particular, is peak David Lynch and peak Laura Dern (alongside Lynch, she also co-produced it). Dern spends the whole time looking bewildered, confused, her mouth forming a perennially open “shocked” shape. The world is constantly moving from beneath her while she tries to keep up, changes characters, remains looped inside a surreal nightmare that sometimes makes sense until it doesn’t (kind of like 2020?). It’s stylish, ridiculous, humorous and tragic and was the one world I kept returning to when I wasn’t so sure about this one. – Daisy Jones

‘QUICKLY KEVIN, WILL HE SCORE?’ PODCAST

I’d subscribed to Quickly Kevin, a 90s football podcast, prior to 2020, but this was the year when I really relied on it for warming bursts of nostalgia.

With almost all professional sport suspended because of COVID, the affable hosts – comedian Josh Widdicombe, Chris Scull and Michael Marden – became a reassuring and essential presence during lockdown. Listening to an episode before I went to bed became as much as part of my routine, and a tactic to beat the lockdown sleep struggles that most people experienced, as reading a chapter of a book. There was something undeniably comforting about hearing voices that became familiar, at a time when everything was so bleak.

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They had a bunch of interviews with 90s footballers and comedians recorded prior to everything shutting down, and then just carried on over Zoom making new episodes as if nothing had changed. It was, as co-host Chris Scull noted, their moment to shine: a complete lack of live sport made no difference to them, they had a wealth of material in the back catalogue of events between January 1st, 1990 and December 31st, 1999 to get through.

But by far the greatest treat was re-listening to older episodes with comedian Ivo Graham reviewing Steve Bruce’s trilogy of murder mystery books, which I genuinely cannot recommend enough, whether you’re a fan of the 90s or football or not. – Matthew Champion

‘SCHITT’S CREEK’  

Before this year, I thought I knew everything about crying. Heaving sobs, silent tears, even wailing at times: I had done them all. Then I discovered Schitt’s Creek

I’d tried previously to “get into” Schitt’s Creek – the Canadian culture clash sitcom which sees a wealthy family losing all of their money, and transplanted into the only asset they have left: the titular small town that they bought as a joke – but it didn’t stick. Locked inside with little else to do earlier this year, however, I gave it another try, and soon enough, it had me. The crying followed very quickly. 

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I found myself crying at people hugging; crying at the mere mention of the song “Simply the Best”; crying, even, at a man playing acoustic guitar at one point. By the time I reached the final season, I was crying once per episode – not because it’s sad, but because it’s so unbelievably happy.

I think, fundamentally, Schitt’s Creek became a sort of conduit for all the pent up emotion that had built up in my brain and body after months of not seeing my family, or indeed much of anyone at all, but which was too complicated to properly process or express. Schitt’s Creek, in its straightforward loveliness, gave me something simple and warm to cry about instead. I needed it! – Lauren O’Neil

LITERALLY ANY BOOK ABOUT OBSESSION

The only thing that gets me through being sick in bed, or being made to live through a global pandemic, is ignoring my own life and fully turning my attention to someone else's. 

During the first lockdown, I spent weekends staring out of my window at my neighbours having the luxury of sitting out in their gardens and then I graduated to watching US reality TV shows and alternating between non-stop scrolling on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.

But then the pang of knowing that I had achieved nothing over the past few months hit me hard and I set myself a challenge of reading as many books as I could get through. My favourites, unsurprisingly, were books about other people being overly involved in the lives of strangers. 

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I started with the Looker by Laura Sims – a novel about a woman who becomes increasingly obsessed with her glamorous neighbour. Then a creepy 1963 thriller, The Collector by John Fowels, which follows the story of a man who becomes so obsessed with a woman he’s never met that he ends up kidnapping her. Finally, Sympathy, a novel about social media obsession and the false intimacy it creates, that someone somewhere has probably described as being like an episode of Black Mirror. – Nana Baah

WHITNEY PORT’S YOUTUBE REACTION VIDEOS TO ‘THE HILLS’

It's hard to know why The Hills was so successful when it launched in 2006. Nothing really happened, a lot of it was staged and the dialogue could hardly be described as scintillating. And yet, for the four years it ran, it was many teens' favourite TV show, mine included. I moved to Denmark aged 12, and with MTV being one of the only English-speaking channels, I watched every episode of The Hills religiously.

Over lockdown I discovered that the show's resident good-girl Whitney Port was re-watching old episodes of The City (her New York spin-off show) and The Hills on her YouTube channel. Twice a week since summer I've watched her react to another episode. It's nostalgic and strangely soothing; in a way, these shows were an important part of both our childhoods. Whitney is joined by her husband, Timmy, who was a producer for The City. The pair's laughter and love for each other is palpable and charming. The videos have even brought me out of dissociative moments when my anxiety has been really bad. Just as Whitney was the sensible, consistent foil to the Spencer-Lauren-Heidi drama in 2007, so has she been the cure to my weird 2020. – Helen Thomas

@daisythejones