The year began with great cultural moments worthy of celebration. Remember that soul-warming Cheer docu-series? There was the Grimes album released around the time of her having her baby X Æ A-12 with Elon Musk. Then Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars and Harvey Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison. But only those paying meticulous attention to world news could have predicted how the rest of our year would played out.
In 2020 we spent more hours spent consuming culture than ever before in our lives, and from a limited cultural palette: anything transmitted through a laptop or television, on an audio streaming service. For everything we lost – gigs, theatre, cinema, stand up, reading in libraries, laughing or crying at any of the above with our friends – we gained in streaming TV before work until a little lunchtime break of TV and post-work solid five hours of wind-down TV. Even key workers on the front lines of the pandemic came home to weekends locked in during the height of summer.
In every moment we didn’t want to feel alone, there was culture to turn to. It came to replace so many of our daily activities, our entertainment, comfort, zoning out, zoning in; it let us feel something, feel nothing. It was only an acceptable click away the time. It often took the place of other people entirely.
There was the time everyone decided to watch cult classic The Sopranos for some reason, the month we became obsessed with Michael Jordan thanks to basketball docu-romp The Last Dance, and the summer that women of a certain age and temperament all listened to Fiona Apple’s insular, homely album Fetch The Bolt Cutters, which was recorded over five years but made to soundtrack only one.
While being apart from loved ones, these felt like some of the only chances for connection many of us had. Culture in 2020 provided concrete things to discuss, indisputable in their nature and facts. It not only brought joy but harmless topics to theorise and gossip about.
It was difficult to single out the most important cultural moments of 2020 but here are five that we wanted to celebrate; what we think we’ll collectively remember existing alongside the stagnancy, pain and anxiety of this year. - Hannah Ewens
Trapped inside with flatmates we’d hoped we’d never have to spend time with and partners we’d never planned to share every waking minute with, 34.3 million of us found ourselves watching the implausibly charismatic Joe Exotic, his flower-crown wearing, husband-murdering nemesis Carole Baskin, and the rest of the absolutely fucking wild extended universe of Big Cat kingpins.
Tiger King was popular not only because it arrived seemingly by divine intervention to entertain and distract us from our boring new normal, but because it was filled with chaos – jet ski assassins, exploding alligators, mysteriously disappearing husbands, internet beef, libellous and obviously mimed country-rock music videos, lost limbs, trucks filled with rotting meat, harems formed around illegal tiger cub petting. This was a documentary in which when confronted with the news that one of his trainers has been attacked by a tiger, the protagonist runs inside to fling on an EMS jacket to make sure he’s suitably dressed for the occasion.
Tiger King taught us anew how important it is to have the benefit of likability on your side. Despite the fact that he (probably) killed his precious animals for personal gain and lured troubled, straight young men into his bed with meth, and is quite obviously probably not a Good Guy, it was impossible not to root for Joe Exotic against the malignant force that was Carole Baskin, her petty lawsuits and her fraudulent “sanctuary”.
One of my hopes for 2021 is that Kim Kardashian, famous Tiger King fan, Carole Baskin Halloween costume-wearer and lawyer, will use her powers to free our anti-hero. Does he deserve it? Probably not. Do we deserve to be deprived of the delicious chaos he would be causing in his little corner of Florida if he were allowed to return home? Definitely not. – Nilu Haidari
Read our essay on how ‘Tiger King’ and Cameo defined depressing celebrity culture in 2020 here.
Given we couldn’t actually get to the club, I can’t tell if it’s been a cruel joke or a desperate desire for joy that’s meant one of 2020’s biggest sounds has been disco. While Jessie Ware, Kylie and Róisín Murphy all merit a shout-out for this, there’s something about Dua Lipa’s second album, Future Nostalgia, that’s felt particularly vibrant; from TikTok dances back in January through to Christmas ads, it’s a record that has been ubiquitous through the year.
Future Nostalgia is an ode to the music that the 25-year-old pop-star grew up on. Working with some of pop's biggest producers, she channels dance sounds from the 80s, 90s and early 00s. Sticking it on gives me tantalising flashbacks to sugary-sweet lipgloss, sequins and the gals loudly yelling along to, like, Spice Girls beneath glittering lights. The remixed version, Future Club Nostalgia, saw the Blessed Madonna help turn up the heat, hinting at the full potential of what our summer could have been.
The playful spoken-word opening lines alone – “You wanna timeless song? I wanna change the game!” – are an intoxicatingly self-assured statement of intent. Dua invited us into her party, serving up celebratory magic: the taut bass on “Don’t Start Now”, the shiny, spandex propulsion of “Physical”, the synths shimmying around her through the phenomenal “Levitate” (extra points for the version with DaBaby whose happy bars bounce on top of it all). There are deft little nods to the past that go beyond just channelling Chic: “Break My Heart” toys with that INXS riff, while, amidst careening strings, “Love Again” samples a spooky 1932 trumpet recording, known best via White Town’s “Your Woman”.
In short, Future Nostalgia was a needed reminder of the boundless, exuberant possibility of the nights we used to have. Or, even better: a hopeful beacon of the stupid fun that awaits us on the other side. – Tara Joshi
Read our roundtable on how Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’ soundtracked the UK’s first lockdown here.
This year, the BBC adapted Sally Rooney’s ultra-hit novel Normal People, to wild critical acclaim. Tenderly directed by Lenny Abrahamson and co-written by Rooney and Alice Birch, it brought the story of two young lovers whose relationship is buffeted by the winds of growing up, moving away and moving on to the small screen, where we watched it while weeping grotesquely in the privacy of our own homes.
And how we wept. Not just for Marianne and for Connell, for their hearts broken, repaired and broken afresh, but for the ever-dwindling flame of our own youth; for love lost and squandered, and for the uncertainty, this year more than ever, of all our futures.
Also, the main guy was hot.
How hot? Hot enough to sustain hotness while being really quite embarrassing in a Rolling Stones video. Hot enough to make the GAA itself a signifier of hotness, even to people who had no idea what the GAA is. Hot enough to bring the internet to its knees simply by holding a pink tinned beverage and wearing what were, undeniably, a regular pair of shorts. I saw him once on Hackney Marshes, just talking to someone on the phone like – yes – a normal person, and I felt overwhelmed by the warm, beatific glow of his presence. I’m joking, but only a bit, because we were all so indoors-addled as a nation when Normal People aired that our emotional responses to things as unremarkable as a good-looking man on the television were violently out of proportion.
It came out in the dark heart of lockdown, at the end of April this year. I am listening to the original score to the series as I write this and experiencing a Pavlovian desire to bake something that skirts the edges of inedibility and/or cry for no reason. For want of anything else to do, it was watched by, seemingly, everybody on the British Isles. – Imogen West-Knights
Read our feature about what mums thought of ‘Normal People’ here.
This year’s hottest club night wasn’t hosted in some Tottenham warehouse or Dalston basement. You wouldn’t find it in the mega-clubs of Las Vegas or in the back of a bijou bar in Brooklyn. During 2020 you’re lucky if you’ve managed to set foot in any of the above establishments. For obvious reasons, clubbing as we know it (for the moment at least) has been all but obliterated.
At least IRL. In the URL, club culture is fairly healthy and that’s thanks, mainly, to Club Quarantine. Founded by four queer friends from Toronto, Canada as a way for all of their whole friendship group to hang out together during the pandemic, their nightly Zoom parties quickly began to snowball. Within a few weeks, there were 1000 people logging in, as news of the hottest party in the world spread through word-of-mouth and social media. Its popularity was understandable: sitting somewhere between a queer clubbing fantasia and a digital LGBTQ+ community space, Club Q became a forum for escapism in a year that has felt so oppressive, an opportunity for people to express themselves creatively, be it through serving racy looks, performances, dancing, DJ sets or imaginative Zoom backgrounds and set pieces.
While the parties began to draw big names like Laverne Cox, Charli XCX and Lady Gaga, who hosted the launch party for her Chromatica album at Club Quarantine, there was a community of regulars, many of whom still, despite the changes in global pandemic restrictions, attend each party. At the heart of it are the organisers, founders Casey MQ, Brad Allen, Ceréna Sierra, Mingus New, and later addition Akosua Adasi, all of whom fostered an inclusive, safe and beautiful digital world for people when they needed it most. – Alim Kheraj
Read our interview with the creators of Club Quarantine about the craziest moments of the URL club’s existence here.
As mid-June rolled around, lockdown talk on Twitter quickly went from discussions about the perfect loaf of sourdough to feverish episode-by-episode analysis of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. As the 12-part-comedy drama – drip-fed to UK viewers twice a week on BBC iPlayer – unfolded, so did conversations about consent, friendship and processing sexual assault.
The series centres around Arabella (played by Coel), a British-Ghanaian writer grappling with the aftermath of her sexual assault. We follow Arabella and best friends Terry (Waruche Opia) and Kwame (Papaa Essiedu) as she processes what happened to her, while trying to finish writing a book.
I May Destroy You is based on Coel’s own sexual assault. In 2018, she disclosed that she had been drugged and assaulted while filming her Channel 4 series, Chewing Gum. In an interview with Vulture, she explained that the series we see today is a result of 191 drafts that came before it, and viewers praised Coel’s candidness and vulnerability.
Not only were we touched by the honesty in Coel’s writing, I May Destroy You tackled problems that had never been addressed by a TV show before. Coel blew up the myth that Black people don’t take class-A drugs, explored Black queerness and, with a sex scene that featured a blood clot, tackling menstruation wasn’t off the cards either.
So it’s no surprise that I May Destroy You received nothing but five-star reviews. The Guardian hailed it as “the best drama of the year”; The Independent described it as “honest and unparalleled” and Vox commended the series on its “searing emotion and dry wit”. It’s undeniable that Coel’s impact with I May Destroy You is set to change the future of TV for the better. – Nana Baah
Read our untold, behind-the-scenes look at the making of “I May Destroy You” here.