The Pop Culture Winners of 2018

Another categorically awful year is coming to a close. Somehow, 2018 seemed even more nonsensical and absurd than 2017 was. Still, amidst the daily geopolitical crises, absolutely horrid songs flooding the music charts, and celebrities needing to be cancelled, there were some people guiding the way, offering some hope that the cultural zeitgeist wasn’t a complete wasteland. These are some of the people worthy of notice.

Cardi B

Credit: Vogue

It didn’t seem possible that Cardi B could have a better year than last, but it was just the beginning. In 2018, Cardi scored two more #1 singles, summer smash “I Like It” and Maroon 5 collaboration “Girls Like You, released her chart-topping, well-received debut album Invasion of Privacy, performed on every important televised stage, released a sold-out fashion collection with FashionNova, appeared in Amazon’s Super Bowl commercial as an Alexa understudy, and, released a new contender for music video of the year, the NSFW, sex-positive “Money“. The relative messiness of her off-stage life only made her more endearing and likable. After marrying rapper Offset and having a daughter Kulture, the public quickly jumped to her defense when they broke up and he made an ill-advised attempt at reconciliation during her performance at the Rolling Loud Festival. And then there was the drama with Nicki Minaj: a high-profile altercation during a NYFW party could’ve derailed her high-speed shmoney train, but she walked away largely unscathed (minus a head knot and a shoe). Cardi has reached levels of success that absolutely no one could’ve anticipated, and 2019 will be fascinating just to see how much further she could go. Perhaps a Grammy?

Milo Ventimiglia

You know you’re having a phenomenal year when you have to convince your television show’s rabid fanbase not to blame your character’s death on a relatively harmless kitchen appliance. The power of Jack Pearson was never more apparent when Milo appeared on Ellen imploring This is Us viewers to let the Crock Pot be after a fault version of it unwittingly led to the beloved patriarch’s untimely (yet endlessly teased) death. More than abating irrational anger, Ventimiglia continued his forward march towards pop culture deification, with a second consecutive Emmy nomination for Best Actor, marquee episodes of This is Us that featured career-best performances that will surely secure him a third (and possibly a win), and two high-profile big-screen appearances in Creed II and the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Second Act. Another way to know you’re having a phenomenal year? Jennifer Lopez insists you play her love interest in her comeback film.

Ronan Farrow

If there was one name that struck fear into the hearts of Hollywood’s trashbag elite this year, it was Ronan Farrow. After his New Yorker investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault claims changed the entertainment industry forever last year, whispers about his next subjects had the worst of the worst on edge. In July, Farrow published allegations of sexual misconduct against Weinstein’s TV equivalent, CBS President and CEO Les Moonves, leading to his unceremonious firing just a few weeks ago. Farrow’s efforts thus far have earned him a Pulitzer, a place on TIME’s Most 100 Influential People list, and the knowledge that, in a time where the press is truly under siege, he is truly speaking truth to power.

Michael B. Jordan

Halfway through the highest-grossing domestic film of the year, you begin wondering whether or not the guy you’re supposed to root against is actually right. That is the power of Erik Killmonger, played with seething rage, breathless swagger and heart-tugging vulnerability by Michael B. Jordan. Already one of the most exciting young actors in Hollywood, 2018 saw him break out huge. He nearly walked away with Black Panther, starred with Michael Shannon in HBO’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, and closed out the year with Creed II, the well-received hit sequel to Creed. When he wasn’t packing theaters, he was thirst-trapping his way into the hearts of millions, whether it be British pop star Cheryl Cole or US Open champion Naomi Osaka (by way of Ellen Degeneres). Now firmly on the A-List, all eyes should be on Jordan and what his next move will be.

Serena Williams

By some measures, Serena Williams lost quite a bit this year. But any perceived failures on her part instead highlighted both her incredible gifts as an athlete and the intense difficulties she overcomes as a black woman in tennis, and sports overall. After giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian last year, Williams returned to the court this year. Alongside some losses, Williams also contended with criticism of her dress (with French Open banning her “Black Panther” catsuit) and her postpartum abilities. Arguably the most egregious moment in sports this year was her match against Naomi Osaka at the US Open, where Williams was docked points by umpire Carlos Ramos for coaching and behavioral violations. The event was a shambles, and people quickly pointed out that Williams’ “bad behavior” is regularly tolerated, if not celebrated, by her white male counterparts. Off the court, Williams participated in a searing HBO miniseries, where she revealed her struggles with pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum depression, adding remarkably intimate context to her sports comeback. While she may not have been at the top this season, Williams’ humanizing efforts to return to the game only made her appear more exceptional.

Ariana Grande

Ariana Grande is another star who’s had a tough year. Simply put, her personal life was a public mess, with a breakup, a whirlwind courtship and engagement, an ex-lover’s suicide, and a broken engagement all playing out for millions of Instagram followers. Despite the personal upheaval, Grande’s career reached new heights. Sweetener, her first album following last year’s horrifying Manchester terrorist attack, garnered her her best reviews to date. Her singles “No Tears Left to Cry” and “God is a Woman” were bonafide smashes, but they were appetizers for the main course that would be “Thank u, next“. Grande’s self-aware bookend to her Pete Davidson chapter became her first #1 single and helped make her the most successful female streaming artist of the year. Grande’s persistence in the midst of public personal trauma is truly remarkable, and a bellwether for a long, thriving career.


Credit: Billboard

If success is the best form of revenge, then Drake was on the warpath in the wake of Pusha T’s infamous “The Story of Adidon” diss. Yes, “Adidon” was a pipe bomb that landed straight in Drake’s face and left him in tatters, but he rebounded with Scorpion, the year’s most streamed album by a country mile. Scorpion not only addressed the hidden-child controversy (the “I hid the world from my child” line became a meme), it housed three number-one hits: “God’s Plan”, “Nice for What” and “In My Feelings”, the undisputed song of the summer. Accompanying his bevy of hits were instantly iconic music videos (directed by Karena Evans), none more so than “I’m Upset“, where he elevated a mediocre track by staging a high school reunion with his castmates from Degrassi, winning the hearts of nostalgic millennials everywhere. Did Pusha T embarrass Drake? Yes, but when you’re on top of the charts for nearly half the year, and can get samples cleared by Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson, does it really matter? Not to him, or us.

Emily Blunt and John Krasinski

Credit: The Hollywood Reporter

To be clear from the offset, John Krasinski and Emily Blunt had more than enough individual success to be considered separately. But together, there were an inescapable force in Hollywood, not that we would want to escape them at all. They started off this remarkable year together with the blockbuster horror film A Quiet Place, which transformed Krasinski into a bankable director overnight and reinforced Blunt’s sizable acting talents, no more evident than in that bathtub scene. The film’s release also afforded us multiple opportunities to see them on the promotional circuit, charming the money out of our wallets with their irresistible cuteness and palpable chemistry. The time they spent apart was also successful, both landing Golden Globe nominations for their lead roles in high-profile reboots and sequels: Krasinski for Amazon’s Jack Ryan, and Blunt for Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns. This year saw the Krasinskis (or Blunts) ascend to become Hollywood royalty. Long may they reign (or love may well and truly be dead).

Noah Centineo

Peter Kavinsky. Literally overnight, the lead male character from Netflix’s rom-com hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before became a household name, as did his portrayer Noah Centineo. His charismatic performance as the kind-hearted jock of Lara Jean’s dreams won him the title of the Internet’s Boyfriend before the film’s release weekend was over. His popularity was buoyed by another Netflix rom-com, the risible (except for him) Sierra Burgess is a Loser. The back-to-back success of those films made Centineo inescapable, with him scoring millions of Instagram followers, magazine profiles, late-night guest spots, social media art projects, and BuzzFeed puppy videos in rapid succession. To his credit, he has managed the intense interest in him with aplomb, deploying his effortless charm and likability to keep the overexposure claims at bay. He’s also been smart with his newfound fame, landing a role in Elizabeth Banks’ upcoming Charlie’s Angels reboot. While the Peter Kavinsky hype has inevitably died down, Centineo seems to be here to stay.

Lady Gaga

It all began with a wail. That wail, the vocal centerpiece of the trailer for A Star is Born, officially relaunched Lady Gaga into the stratosphere where she belongs. The transition from singer to actress is a precarious one, and it was a reasonable expectation that Gaga would flop as the lead in Bradley Cooper’s remake of the classic Hollywood story. Instead, she soared, earning rave reviews that have led to a boatload of pre-Oscar accolades, including nominations from the Golden Globes, the SAG, and a win with the National Board of Review. At this point, the question isn’t if Gaga will won an Oscar, it’s how many, as she is the front runner for Best Actress and Best Original Song. “Shallow”, her likely-to-be-nominated song (and source of that aforementioned wail) became a cultural phenomenon on its own. Her duet with Cooper returned her to the top 5 of the Hot 100, and landed on the top of charts throughout the world (including the U.K.). Watching her at Oscar roundtables alongside Glenn Close and Nicole Kidman is an admittedly bizarre sight, but it is well deserved. With a highly-anticipated Vegas residency and a presumably successful awards season on the way, 2019 is looking to continue Gaga’s incredible comeback.

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex

A wedding and a baby on the way would mark a successful year for any person. It was much more for Meghan Markle; it was history-making. The Duchess’ wedding to Prince Harry was a global event, remarkable and boundary-pushing for its embrace of African-American traditions (I may be wrong, but I don’t believe a black choir has ever performed at Windsor Castle before). Almost immediately, Meghan became a royal sensation, commanding magazine covers on both sides of the pond with ease. Anyone vaguely familiar with the story of Meghan’s mother-in-law Princess Diana knows the ugly side of such popularity. Her half-sister and father constantly embarrass her (her mother, the regal Doria Ragland, stays far above the fray) to the glee of the British tabloids. The press have been especially difficult on Meghan in recent months due to a perceived rift with Kate, with some questioning the racial motivations of such scrutiny. Whatever the pressure, Meghan is handling it with incredible grace. Her surprise appearance at this month’s British Fashion Awards, dressed in a stunning black gown and cradling her baby bump, was a page ripped from the Diana playbook: change the narrative and claim the front page with an absolutely killer look. Meghan is only at the beginning of her royal life, but she’s been a resounding success, breathing new life (figuratively and literally) into the House of Windsor.

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