Illustration for essay on pop culture and time in 2020
Illustration: Esme Blegvad

This Is the Year That Time Lost All Meaning

How our relationship to time in 2020 has affected the way we consume pop culture.
Emma Garland
London, GB
illustrated by Esme Blegvad

Contestants on Love Island often talk about the concept of “island time”. Cut off from the rest of the world, days collapse into one another to create an indistinguishable blur of tanning and drama that seems to revolve on a totally different axis to the rest of the world. These conditions, they say, completely alter the way they relate to themselves and to others. Hyper-focused on their immediate environment without the usual day-to-day distractions, relationships develop faster than they would “on the outside” (and often fall apart once relocated there); issues laying dormant suddenly lurch to the front of the mind, minor slights cut deep.


This is basically what life has been like since March: isolated from our loved ones, beefing with housemates over “that mug that’s been in the bathroom for over a week now x”, simultaneously feeling like Love Is Blind came out about three years ago while swearing it was only yesterday you were rounding up your friends (remember those?) and drunkenly staggering to the nearest body of water during one of the hottest days on record.

In 2020, we have lost time. Whether it’s being separated from family or blocked from slinging it around town during your hottest years, every act of living – no matter how weighty or how frivolous – has been pulled out from under us by circumstance (and, depending on where you live, gross incompetence). Unable to make new memories, we spend more time feeling crushed by the present or dwelling in the past. Never have my dreams been so heavily populated by people I had a one night stand with eight years ago.

In smaller ways, though, we have gained time too. Life is necessarily slower. A sharp drop-off in commuting has seen people claw weeks of their life back. Event-less evenings yawn out in front of us, and we plug the gaps with tactile things: cooking, gardening, installing beer taps and a dart board in the shed. Pet adoption skyrocketed and Duolingo saw their traffic spike to “all time highs” as people actively looked for new meaning, the previous routine of “work, shovel in some pasta while not really watching a 2/5 Netflix drama, bed” having lost its shine. As a result, the way we consumed pop culture this year completely changed. 


It’s been different for everyone, but broadly speaking 2020 has provided a break from the constant barrage of “essential” watching / listening / reading that, over the last decade, has both expanded and strengthened monoculture as the default experience. This has been especially true of film and TV, as production delays and pushed-back release dates have left enormous gaps that would previously have been overflowing with Hollywood franchises and streaming service originals.

While there have been some captivating milestones – Tiger King, an interest in Animal Crossing so fanatical it temporarily inflated the price of the Nintendo Switch, that episode of Reply All about tracking down a song entirely from memory – they have been fewer and farther between, and often largely disconnected from our lived reality. As we attempt to process the year’s traumatic events on a global scale, our relationship to pop culture has never been more individualised and nonlinear.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been definitive pop culture in 2020, it’s just that it hasn’t necessarily come from this year – or from the places we’ve come to expect. The Sopranos was one of the most talked about shows, alongside Normal People and I May Destroy You, Ottessa Moshfegh’s self-isolation novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation enjoyed a thematic second wind, and TikTok flipped listening habits on their head, creating an entirely new musical ecosystem comprised of past hits, cult references and chaotic mash-ups. Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” re-entered the charts, Bicep’s “Glue” defined the mood of the year for listless teenagers almost as much as “WAP” did for everyone else, and for every album that appeared on a big publication’s end of year list, there were a thousand people doing the “Caretaker challenge” (which involves listening to underground electronic artist The Caretaker, whose early releases have been described by critic Simon Reynolds as “the haunted ballroom trilogy”, for up to six hours at a time).


What’s interesting about these disparate trends is how clearly they speak to a desire for shared experiences. Not necessarily ones which help us understand or process what we’re going through, but those that make us feel as though our daily lives are tethered to a reality in which other people exist. It’s hard to feel like you’re a part of the world when most of your time is spent shuffling between the bed and the couch, or queuing in the Big Sainsbury’s behind someone in a full hazmat suit. To strengthen those connecting threads, most people don’t need hard-hitting art that touches on the themes of the day – they need intimacy and laughter. Not in a “haha look at all these celebrities singing John Lennon” kind of way, but in a “haha this feels like an inside joke I can participate in” kind of way. Unsurprisingly, much of the pop culture that has defined 2020 has been organically driven; people reaching into the dark in response to their circumstances, when everyone we’re supposed to rely on – whether it’s politicians, journalists or celebrities – is failing.

It’s also unsurprising that the stuff that has cut through traditional channels has been the result of either happenstance or anger. Think: Death Stranding, the BAFTA-winning PC game of the year in which you’re essentially a post-apocalyptic Deliveroo driver tasked with reconnecting a fractured America. Or: Dave Chappelle’s short videos, which have arrived sporadically throughout the year and wrangled the tempest of a moment into intimate, immediate “standup” sets that feel much more like sermons. Chief among them is his Netflix special “8:46”, which covers George Floyd’s death and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, and was the most viewed video on YouTube in 2020. Intentionally undermining the expected pizazz and polish of a modern comedy special in favour of sitting on a stool, chain smoking and speaking with real pain in his voice, Chappelle’s videos are peerless within pop culture in terms of articulating what 2020 has felt like for so many. Whether that falls into the realm of entertainment is debatable, but if it’s honesty you’re looking for then you’ll certainly find it there.

Ultimately, I’m not sure there can be “entertainment” yet that properly reflects the particular events of 2020, because we’re still living through them, and will be for a while. As far as this year goes, the most valuable contributions to pop culture have been those which truthfully grapple with the states of mind, both ambient and acute, of the time we’re living through. Which can, incidentally, come from any time at all.