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13 pop culture events that defined 2016

From Trump to Beyoncé, pop culture played a huge role in shaping this year.

2016’s major players, for better and for worse.
Javier Zarracina / Vox

Years from now, when we look back at 2016, what will we remember it for? Every year has its fair share of upheaval, but 2016 seemed to bring more than most. The Western political sphere was rocked to its core by Brexit and Donald Trump becoming America’s president-elect. An Orlando gay club was the site of the most devastating mass shooting in modern American history. A worldwide refugee crisis kept getting worse as Aleppo burned.

Still, the machine that is pop culture continued to chug along as it always has. Though it’s sometimes dismissed as a frivolous distraction that diverts attention from more significant issues, what we see on TV, the people we idolize, and the movies in our theaters all inform the way we think. It would be foolish to pretend pop culture doesn’t matter or inform the way our world functions, and in a year where Donald Trump — a businessman turned reality show host turned politician — won the presidency, pop culture matters more than ever.

Below, we’ve listed the 13 most significant (American) pop culture events and news stories that help explain 2016, for better and for worse.

1) The world mourns pop icons

Tributes Are Made After The Death Of Music Icon David Bowie
Bowie fans mourn the starman’s death.
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

We lost far too many vaunted pop culture icons in 2016 — including Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, Alan Thicke, George Michael, and Carrie Fisher, to name a few. But the first couple losses to make huge impacts worldwide were those of music legends David Bowie and Prince. Bowie’s death on January 10 set off tidal waves of grief all over the world, and gave new context to Lazarus, his contemplative final album and stage play. The mourning cycle started all over again when Prince died on April 21, inspiring countless tributes. Both musicians were trailblazers, fearless examples of what it means to live life to the fullest, even if it meant breaking tradition or ignoring others’ expectations. These two otherworldly talents — now drifted off to other worlds — touched millions of lives and forever changed the definition of “icon.”

2) Hamilton becomes a sensation both on and off Broadway

2016 Tony Awards - Show
The cast of Hamilton takes a victory lap at the Tonys.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Though Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Founding Father musical debuted on Broadway in late 2015, it wasn’t until 2016 that it fully permeated the national consciousness. Enthusiastic word of mouth and love for the original recording spread far beyond New York City. Miranda and his cast performed at the White House, and won 11 Tony awards. They confronted Vice President-elect Mike Pence when he went to see the musical after the election, championing the diversity and inclusivity the musical stands for and drawing the ire of President-elect Donald Trump. Miranda even collaborated with some of the musical’s most famous fans to release The Hamilton Mixtape, featuring a collection of artists from Kelly Clarkson to Busta Rhymes putting their own spin on the numbers that spoke to them.

Few Broadway musicals have achieved even half as much; perhaps none have inspired so many people to study America’s history, their place in it, and the true potential of its founding promises.

3) Hulk Hogan — and Peter Thiel — take down Gawker Media

Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, Testifies In Gawker Media Lawsuit
Photo by John Pendygraft-Pool/Getty Images

At the end of a year when it became a campaign tactic to deride “The Media” as a bumbling, faceless mass, it’s impossible to overlook the significance of Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit against Gawker Media for publishing a sex tape featuring Hogan in 2012. The enormous $140 million verdict, handed down in March, ultimately bankrupted the company and led to the permanent closure of its flagship property, — a controversial site that famously made no apologies for its coverage of celebrities and pop culture.

But the case took a shocking turn when Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel revealed that he’d helped finance Hogan’s lawsuit to squash “a singularly unique bully,” because Gawker had published speculation about his sexuality in 2007. The free speech implications of a billionaire helping to shut down a media outlet he didn’t agree with are troubling — especially now that Thiel has joined Trump’s transition team as an adviser, causing many to worry even further over the president-elect’s already tense relationship with the press at large.

4) Batman v Superman vs. Deadpool vs. Suicide Squad vs. Captain America vs. Doctor Strange

Batman v Superman
Aw. It’s almost sweet.
Warner Bros.

Superheroes have been a part of American entertainment for decades, but surveying their prevalence in Hollywood in 2016 makes it clear they aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re getting bigger, bloodier, and sometimes a little stranger with each new blockbuster. In DC Comics’ corner of the ring, 2016 saw the release of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, both grim and cynical adaptations of beloved characters. In Marvel’s corner, there was Deadpool (the studio’s first R-rated feature), the great if depressing Captain America: Civil War, and the visually trippy Doctor Strange.

And that’s before you consider TV series like The Flash and Arrow and Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Daredevil and Luke Cage and oh God, we are so tired.

5) Harambe the gorilla becomes an unlikely meme stalwart

On May 28, the Cincinnati Zoo shot and killed Harambe, its western lowland gorilla who grabbed a young boy who fell into his enclosure, one day after celebrating the primate’s 17th birthday. The incident made headlines all over the world and was the subject of heated debate.

But no one expected Harambe strike such a resounding chord on the internet and find new life as an inescapable meme, as happened when his visage began popping up everywhere online, via Reddit threads and Twitter mentions and petitions. People joked about him on Vine, Instagram, and on shirts at the Republican National Convention. As my colleague Aja Romano painstakingly chronicled for Vox, Harambe became a convenient flashpoint for progressives and conservatives alike, which each side adopting him for their own purposes. As Romano wrote: Harambe is “Schrödinger’s meme, both ironic and sincere.”

6) The “alt-right” remixes popular memes for political gain

We can’t discuss memes in 2016 without addressing the disturbing online proliferation of white nationalist talking points via seemingly harmless memes shared by members of the self-described alt-right. Many such memes starred a dour-faced Pepe the Frog — a benign cartoon character originally created in 2008, newly remixed in 2016 and appropriated as a symbol of hate. While many were quick to dismiss these memes and their creators as part of a fringe movement, the alt-right now has a white nationalist advocate in the president-elect’s pocket in Trump adviser and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon. That’s about as mainstream as it gets.

7) An all-female Ghostbusters debuts amidst controversy

Ghostbusters Sony Pictures

The furor over Sony’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot started nearly the instant the project was announced in 2014, and it hit fever pitch in the months before the film hit theaters on July 15. Much of the outrage stemmed from bitterness over a long-rumored sequel that never materialized, as some fans of the original movie started bombarding reboot director Paul Feig and his cast with hateful messages and overwhelming disapproval well before the movie’s release. It all obscured the fact that the movie itself ended up being pretty okay, especially because of a scene-stealing performance from Kate McKinnon. But no matter how much angry men on the internet tried to keep it down, Ghostbusters (2016) still put women at the forefront of the action, and still inspired plenty of would-be Ghostbusters girls.

8) Pokémon Go briefly takes over everyone’s social life

Pokemon Go Craze Hits New York City
Look familiar?
Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

The world’s chemistry shifted on July 6, the day Nintendo released Pokémon Go. Tapping into the nostalgia shared by adult ’90s kids, their parents, and a new generation of Pokémon trainers alike, the new mobile game became a bonafide sensation within hours of its first downloads.

For an entire month, people scoured actual, literal streets in search of for Pikachu and Onyx, Volpix and Oddish, taking pride in their gym scores and voicing prejudice against Rattata. The game’s real-life scavenger hunt led to a few, err, awkward encounters, like the Holocaust Museum asking visitors to please stop playing while inside, and a player looking for Pokémon and stumbling across a body instead. Hillary Clinton even famously tried to capitalize on the craze, encouraging people to “Pokémon Go to the polls,” which, uh, may not have been as inspiring as it may have seemed in stump speech drafts.

As is inevitable with any true sensation, the initially overwhelming allure of Pokémon Go has since faded. But we — or okay, I — will always have the memory of trudging up hills alongside dozens of fellow Pokémon trainers in pursuit of an elusive Dratini.

9) The Harry Potter universe expands, shows no signs of stopping

eddie redmayne fantastic beasts
Eddie Redmayne has perhaps unwittingly joined a whole new Harry Potter franchise.
Warner Bros.

Firm though J.K. Rowling was in 2007, when she published the seventh and then-final installment in her Harry Potter book series and said that she would likely never write another, here we are in 2016 with a new abundance of Harry Potter content on our hands.

Rowling herself spent the year adding new content to Pottermore, the official Harry Potter website, filling in gaps in the history of her wizarding world. This proved especially controversial in February, when the British author announced several new wizarding schools, including one for the entire continent of Africa and another whose origins turned out to involve some problematic dabbling in American folklore. Then, in July, Jack Thorne’s play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — about the next generation of witches and wizards, as descended from Harry and his peers — bowed on the London stage. And in November, the spinoff film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, starring Eddie Redmayne with a screenplay by Rowling, made its debut. As Fantastic Beasts is the first installment of a reported five-film franchise(?!), it looks as though the Harry Potter universes truly has no limits.

10) Ready or not, the summer Olympics hit Rio

Swimming - Olympics: Day 7
Pictured: Katie Ledecky dominating.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The 2016 Rio games got off to a rough start, thanks to numerous reports of frantic, unfinished preparations and disregard for local Brazilian communities that just so happened to be in the way of Olympic construction. But once the games were underway, dramatic sporting events — along with NBC’s routinely shoddy coverage thereof — took center stage.

The always highly anticipated women’s gymnastics events didn’t disappoint, with Simone Biles and the US women’s team, a.k.a. the “Final Five,” handily sweeping the all-around competition. Swimmer Katie Ledecky smashed her own astonishing world records in the 800 meter freestyle and 400 meter freestyle events. Swimmer Ryan Lochte lied about Brazilian robbers holding him up at gunpoint and became of source of American embarrassment and international outrage, but eventually used the incident to land a spot on Dancing with the Stars. However, the most surprising pop culture highlight of the games came courtesy of Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones, who managed to turn her hilarious live-tweeting into a steady commentator gig that kept millions entertained.

11) Beyoncé makes Lemonade

Beyoncé made headlines just about every other month in 2016. In February, she released the video for her fierce protest song, “Formation,” then performed it during the Super Bowl halftime show in one of the event’s most political performances to date. In April, she released Lemonade, a brilliant and wrenching visual album that no one saw coming. In July, she released a moving statement on police brutality against unarmed black citizens. In August, she tore down the VMAs with an unrivaled medley. And in November, she and the Dixie Chicks took the CMAs by storm, days before she endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

Beyoncé, a meticulous and forward-thinking icon, never strayed far from our thoughts in 2016 — which, given her carefully crafted image, is exactly how she wanted it.

12) The Chicago Cubs actually, for real, win the World Series

Chicago Cubs Victory Celebration Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

On November 7, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series at the end of a stunning seven-game contest against the Cleveland Indians, clinching a title that had eluded the franchise since 1908. In fact, the last time the Cubs reached the World Series at all was in 1945 — meaning that 2016 not only marked the team’s first World Series win in over 100 years, but its first appearance in a World Series that fans could even watch on TV.

It was an incredible moment, one that Cubs fans had been waiting for — and pop culture had been joking would never come — for decades. It didn’t quite fulfill Back to the Future’s 1985 prophecy that the Cubs would win it all in 2015 (albeit against the fictional Miami Gators), but we’re confident that millions of Cubs fans don’t mind that technicality one bit.

13) Donald Trump makes, breaks, overwhelms late-night comedy


The ways in which Donald Trump alternately used and decried the media to win the 2016 US presidential election will be studied for years to come. And one facet of that analysis will undoubtedly examine how late-night comedy shows — America’s historical court jesters — struggled to cover the election as it unfolded in increasingly ridiculous waves.

Saturday Night Live pulled a distinct 180 from letting Trump host the show in late 2015 to enlisting Alec Baldwin to perform a simpering impression of him in 2016 — an impression that the president-elect openly despises.

On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver lambasted America’s many broken systems in painstakingly detailed monologues.

On The Daily Show, Trevor Noah settled into Jon Stewart’s vacated seat by expressing baffled disbelief at his adopted country.

On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert — no longer playing the Colbert Report character of his Comedy Central days — earnestly pummeled Trump until election night. Then he watched Trump win while hosting a live Showtime special, and crumbled just a little more with every passing minute.

On Late Night, Seth Meyers cemented his reputation as a thoughtful, surprisingly intersectional news explainer.

And there was Samantha Bee, anchoring her own new show, Full Frontal, with fire and fury, dismantling Trump and company’s arguments with incisive wit, unbridled rage, and meticulous fact-checking.

Of course, the one-late night moment that will live in perpetuity belongs to The Tonight Show and Jimmy Fallon — late-night’s resident advocate for the school of “why can’t we all just get along and have a good time?” In September, Fallon conducted a softball interview with Trump during which he ruffled the candidate’s signature orange hair as if he was meeting an adorable new puppy instead of chatting with a man who’d spent his entire campaign lying and stoking many Americans’ latent anger for his own gain.

As we look ahead to 2017 and the era of President Trump, the media — and the pop culture that helped birth Trump as a public figure in first place — will play a crucial role in covering, translating, and responding to the new administration. Who will hold his feet to the fire when necessary, and who will be content to muss his hair with a grin?

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