The Pop Culture Winners of 2020

2020 sucked.

There’s no reason to dress it up in adjectives. We weathered: a pandemic that shut down the globe; the continued murder of Black people with impunity; a presidential campaign and election that was perilously close to a constitutional crisis; the loss of titans of the public sphere. Any one of these would be cause to declare the last twelve months a wash. That they all occurred in 2020 feels like a harbinger for some kind of apocalypse. 

It should be counterintuitive to describe anything or anyone a “winner” this year given what I just laid out. However, there were some individuals who somehow didn’t make 2020 worse. There were plenty who did, but this group actually offered glimpses that there could be a path out of the overwhelming darkness that was this year, by demonstrating perseverance, joy, compassion, humor, or even by just keeping their mouths shut (a lesson I hope many celebrities learned this year).

Alas, here are the winners of one of the worst years of my lifetime:

Of all the people on this list, Megan Thee Stallion has had the most volatile year, with incredible peaks and a shocking valley. First, the good things. The Houston rapper broke out big this year, her raunchy lyrics and unapologetically powerful presence landing her atop the Billboard Hot 100 twice. Her first smash was the “Savage” remix, featuring fellow Houston native Beyoncé, while “WAP’, her delightfully filthy collaboration with Cardi B, became a cultural phenomenon. She released her debut album, landed several Grammy nominations, and became a household name. In the midst of her incredible success, Megan was involved in an altercation with rapper Tory Lanez, resulting in her being shot in the foot. After a period of silence, she confirmed that Lanez was the shooter. Facing heaps of speculation, accusation, and criticism of the event, Megan persevered. While her musical impact is undeniable, Megan’s greatest contribution to 2020 might be  proof that an act of violence perpetrated against you doesn’t have to define you.

Mariah Carey doesn’t recognize the passage of time, but even the immortal pop diva had to take pause to acknowledge this particular anniversary. Thirty years ago, she released her self-titled debut album, and launched one of the most spectacular careers in pop music history. Instead of letting the occasion pass with minor fanfare, Carey kicked off a full-blown social media campaign, where every week she released long-lost performances, full EPs of her singles, and juicy tidbits from her three decades in the business. Capping off the celebration was the releases of her long-awaited autobiography, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, which re-contextualized her career in stunningly resonant new ways, and The Rarities, an album of B-sides and unreleased tracks. After successfully rebranding herself the Queen of Christmas, Carey used this year to remind us why she is much more than that. But speaking of, she will end this year at the top of the Hot 100, again, with her legendary festive track “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

I remember the first time I heard of Schitt’s Creek: I saw it on my TV guide as part of the Pop network, which I had known primarily for airing re-runs of The Young and The Restless. I thought the name was weird and kept scrolling. Six years later, thanks to a Netflix-driven surge, the hilarious comedy series spearheaded by the father-son duo of Eugene and Dan Levy dominated the television conversation, winning over more and more people with its heartfelt humor and irresistible cast of characters. So impactful was Schitt’s Creek that it clean-swept the Emmys in September, a first for a comedy series. Taking the lion’s share of trophies that night was Dan, winning for Best Directing, Best Writing, Best Supporting Actor, and, of course, Best Comedy Series. In a year of binge-worthy, zeitgeist-capturing television, Schitt’s Creek felt truly deserving of the delayed attention, and one can only salivate over what Dan will come up with next.

Arguably the last good thing to happen this year, Parasite stunned Hollywood and the world when it deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as three other awards. At the center of the joyous occasion was director Bong Joon-ho, who amidst the cyclone that is awards season seemed just happy to be along for the ride. The director proved to be an unflappable presence as he promoted his brilliant film. So charming, and immensely talented, was he that Academy voters clearly didn’t mind that he famously declared the Oscars “local.” Parasite’s win was not just a triumph for Joon-ho personally; as the first foreign language film to ever win Best Picture, it was a long-overdue affirmation of global cinema’s capacity to break through, regardless of language barrier. Joon-ho makes for a compelling bearer of that achievement.

There’s always been something about Harry Styles that stood out amongst One Direction, a latent charisma and star power that suggested a career far bigger than his days in a pop group (see Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Diana Ross). This year saw Harry Styles convert that potential into unqualified success. After releasing his sophomore album Fine Line in December last year, the singer scored his two biggest hits thus far: the shimmering pop-funk gem “Adore You” and the near-inescapable California pop smash “Watermelon Sugar,” which became his first number-one single. After being snubbed for his debut, Styles also scored two Grammy nominations. Outside of music, Styles further cemented his status as a fashion icon with his gender-fluid clothing choices that landed him on the cover of Vogue wearing a dress. His cover ruffled some bigoted feathers, but Styles has taken it all in remarkable stride, focusing on securing his transition into the kind of fully-formed pop star we don’t see much of anymore. 

Once a Disney star, Zendaya has established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Even though her 2019 was more eventful project-wise – she starred in Spider-Man: Far From Home and the HBO series Euphoria – this year felt especially transformative. The actress surprised Emmy watchers when she scored a Best Drama Actress nomination alongside heavy hitters like Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Colman, and Sandra Oh. She then scored the biggest upset of the night by winning, making history as the youngest woman, and second Black woman, to claim the trophy. Anyone who dared to question her win needed only to look to her performance in Euphoria’s recently-released Christmas special to be proven wrong. More than a fashion darling, Zendaya has proven to be one of the most compelling young actresses working today. 

What do you do after retiring from the biggest movie franchise in cinematic history? Instead of resting on his Disney+ residuals, Chris Evans – everyone’s favorite Hollywood Chris – pivoted to a secondary career as a civics educator by way of A Starting Point, his website encouraging visitors to directly engage with their elected congresspeople. In the midst of the rollout, Evans found himself in a good old-fashioned nude photo scandal, accidentally leaking a picture via his Instagram Stories. Instead of going into social media exile, Evans leaned into the embarrassing moment and used it to encourage his fanbase to register to vote ahead of the election. In a year filled with cringe-worthy viral moments, he proved to be a pleasant exception. Aside from his dip into the political pool, Evans kept his acting chops sharp with Defending Jacob, an Apple TV+ limited series about a middle school student accused of killing his classmate.

Taylor Swift put a pandemic spin on the surprise album drop with the July release of folklore, using the forced isolation to completely remake her sound. Gone was the candy-coated power pop of Lover; in its place was the flannel-wearing indie alternative of songs like “cardigan” and “exile”. The slower tempo and stripped-back production allowed her songwriting to take center stage, with both fans and critics lauding it as her strongest to date. Just when it seemed like she might be satisfied with the eight weeks at the top of the charts or the five Grammy nominations, Swift shocked fans again just a week ago with another album, evermore. Described as a sister album to folklore, evermore is looking to be as critically and commercially successful as its predecessor. Just in case you thought you were being productive in quarantine, let pop music’s greatest A student put a kibosh on your achievements.

You have to be some kind of talent to be Emmy-nominated for your first major role ever. Watch the tenth episode of the Hulu series Normal People and you’ll see why the virtually-unknown Paul Mescal slotted into the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie category with the likes of Jeremy Irons, Hugh Jackman, and Mark Ruffalo. His performance as Connell in the steamy miniseries was uniformly great, but his portrayal of his character’s mental health struggles was absolutely shattering, so raw that you might think he wasn’t acting at all. So impactful was his role in Normal People that he was quickly elevated to “Internet Boyfriend” status, with paparazzi snaps of him wearing rugby shorts while on quarantine runs swarming social media, and whole Instagram accounts dedicated to his character’s iconic silver chain. Mescal is already lining up post-Emmy gigs, ensuring that his name will be on audiences’ lips into 2021 and beyond. 

If you wanted a number-one single in 2020, you tapped Ariana Grande. The diminutive pop diva made history by scoring more number-one debut singles than any other artist, including three this year alone. Two of them were collaborations: Grande teamed up with Justin Bieber on the lo-fi quarantine anthem “Stuck With U,” and kicked up the tempo with fellow Italian Lady Gaga on the Grammy-nominated “Rain on Me.” On her own, Grande reached the top with “Positions”, the lead title track from her sixth album. To cap off a banner year, Grande can finally say that her idol Mariah Carey knows her, after the legendary diva invited her and Jennifer Hudson to join the remix of “Oh Santa.” Given Grande’s string of number-ones, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the festive track found its way to the summit.

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