The pop culture moments of 2020: Everything’s fine!

A still from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's single "WAP"
(Atlantic Records / YouTube)

Last year, in a roundup of my favorite pop culture moments of 2019, I wrote: “Another year has come and gone and as we get ready to bid it farewell, we reflect on the tumultuous year known as 2019.” Then 2020 came along and asked 2019 to hold its beer — and here we are a year later, reflecting on what the word “tumultuous” truly means.

Let’s start with the basics: In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic shut the world down. and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, an economic collapse and millions of people out of work and confined to their homes in order to “flatten the curve.”

Pop culture was no exception: filming shut down, talk shows switched to a virtual format, TikTok exploded, awards shows went audience-less and we got a closer look at our favorite celebrities’ living rooms as they conducted interviews via Zoom.

So now, as we prepare for a socially distant holiday season, let’s take a moment to regroup and reflect on the dumpster fire that was 2020 through a pop culture lens.

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston attend the 26th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 19: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston attend the 26th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. 721313 (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Turner)
(Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Turner)

January 2020: Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt reunite at the SAG Awards

Back in January, the world was preoccupied with simpler things, like an impromptu reunion of Brad Pitt and ex-wife Jennifer Aniston backstage at the Screen Actors Guild awards, a photo of which sparked breathless commentary about whether the two would ever get back together.

The image of the two of them was a sweet, nostalgic reminder of the way things were back in the early 2000s, when Brad Pitt was one of the hottest box office stars around and Jennifer Aniston was the wildly popular sitcom star who nabbed the sexiest man alive. The public loved this couple, so when the actors split in January 2005, following reports that Pitt was having an affair with his “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” costar, Angelina Jolie, hearts were shattered. The scandal that erupted has followed the two celebrities ever since. It was a messy breakup that divided people: You were either Team Aniston or Team Jolie. There was no in-between.

The 2020 photo of them backstage at the SAG awards immediately earned a place in the pop culture canon.

It was analyzed for body language, unspoken chemistry and the way his hand was gently gripping her wrist. The photo was shot immediately after Aniston’s win for lead actress for her role in “The Morning Show.” Pitt had already won best supporting actor for his work in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” They both look a little surprised to be caught in this moment, but they’re beaming. You can tell that they’re genuinely happy for each other.

It was a sweet reminder that, despite everything they’d been through, they still liked each other as people and were able to celebrate each others’ successes. In other words, they were still friends.

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez perform during halftime Super Bowl 54 between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.
Shakira and Jennifer Lopez perform during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
(Seth Wenig/AP)

February 2020: Jennifer Lopez and Shakira shake up the Super Bowl halftime show

Sports are not my strong suit. I can’t tell you who won the 2020 Super Bowl, or even who played. But what I can tell you is that Jennifer Lopez and Shakira put on a spectacular halftime show that set pulses racing and compelled about 1,300 “Karens” to complain to the FCC.

For 15 minutes in the middle of the biggest sporting event of the year, two Latin women over the age of 40 entertained the masses, set to a medley of their combined greatest hits. Was it suggestive? Yes. Was it indecent? No.

Yes, they were twerking, gyrating and writhing around on poles, but they did it in in a way that showed they were unashamed of their bodies and unashamed of their sexuality. Frankly, I’ve seen more suggestive performances on “Dancing with the Stars.” This was PG-13, at best.

And what is so wrong with female bodies anyway? These two talented women did more with their toned bodies in 15 minutes than I’ve done all year.

Because I’m a serious journalist, I re-watched this opus before including it on this list. I got chills all over again. This is what America is all about: a celebration of diversity and pop music on the world’s biggest stage during America’s favorite pastime. Sports and celebrity go hand in hand, and if the Karens of the world don’t like it, they are free to change the channel.

Another thought that came to mind is how gross it was to see all of those fans crammed together on the field, breathing on each other and spreading germs. How bizarre it is, through the coronavirus lens, to see these types of scenes. Which brings me to my next pop culture moment ...

Cardi B attends "The Road to F9" Global Fan Extravaganza at Maurice A. Ferre Park on January 31, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JANUARY 31: Cardi B attends “The Road to F9” Global Fan Extravaganza at Maurice A. Ferre Park on January 31, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
(Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

March 2020: Cardi B’s coronavirus rant

On March 11, Cardi B posted a 46-second video clip to her Instagram and her 60 million followers. For many (or maybe just me?), this viral video marked one of the first times they’d ever heard the word “coronavirus,” or at least one of the first times that a major figure in pop culture acknowledged the virus and acknowledged that it was scary and was probably a bigger deal than what any of us had imagined. She ends the clip with these ominous words: “Coronavirus! Coronavirus! I’m telling you, s**t is real! S**t is gettin’ real!”

Cardi’s Instagram video did what it was supposed to do: it was liked and shared and meme’d and then eventually remixed into a viral song by a DJ known as iMarkkeyz. The remix, cleverly titled “Coronavirus (Remix),” has been viewed nearly four million times on YouTube. The New York Times called the remix a “coronavirus anthem.” The rant itself has since been viewed over 36 million times on Instagram.

Today, Cardi’s coronavirus Instagram rant serves as a prescient reminder of the days just before the international lockdowns, when the public consciousness was perhaps a little naïve and the uncertainty of the situation weighed heavily on our minds.

Because I prefer to get my news from celebrities, I appreciated Cardi’s rant. There she is, in all of her gold fishnet bodysuit glory, warning us of what was to come. “A b***h is scared,” she said. “I’m a little scared, you know what I’m saying? S**t got me panicking.” Same, Cardi, same.

In this Feb. 9, 2020 file photo, Tom Hanks, left, and Rita Wilson arrive at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2020 file photo, Tom Hanks, left, and Rita Wilson arrive at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. The couple have tested positive for the coronavirus, the actor said in a statement Wednesday, March 11. The 63-year-old actor said they will be “tested, observed and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires.” (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
(Jordan Strauss/Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

March 2020: Tom Hanks has coronavirus

Turns out, March 11 was an important day, at least in terms of this roundup: On March 11, the same day that Cardi’s viral rant was unleashed to the world, news broke that one of America’s most beloved celebrities, actor Tom Hanks and his wife, the equally beloved Rita Wilson, had tested positive for coronavirus in Australia.

Back in March, the announcement shook us to our cores. Questions followed: What is this virus? Are they going to be okay? What does this mean? Is Tom Hanks going to die??

As America panicked, America’s sweethearts did the opposite: Tom and Rita were calm, cool and collected as they explained that yes, they had minor symptoms, and yes, they had both tested positive for the novel coronavirus, but everything was going to be fine. Tom and Rita acted like the practical, steadfast parents everyone needed at that time, a soothing force in the face of chaos.

That day, Tom shared the following message to his Instagram account: “Hello, folks. @ritawilson and I are down here in Australia. We felt a bit tired, like we had colds, and some body aches. Rita had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too. To play things right, as is needed in the world right now, we were tested for the Coronavirus, and were found to be positive. Well, now. What to do next? The Medical Officials have protocols that must be followed. We Hanks’ will be tested, observed, and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires. Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no? We’ll keep the world posted and updated. Take care of yourselves! - Hanx!”

No need to panic, folks. Everything’s going to be fine. Tom Hanks said so.

March 2020: Gal Gadot and friends attempt to comfort the nation through song

March was a busy month for pop culture. Perhaps taking a cue from the comforting and delicate way Tom Hanks handled his coronavirus diagnosis, actress Gal Gadot gathered up a few celebrity friends and took to Instagram for an earnest attempt at providing comfort to a shell-shocked nation. The result was not so much comforting as it was confusing.

Gal begins the video, taking the first line of the classic John Lennon song, and then passing it off to a long list of random celebrities, singing a verse of the song from their quarantine. There’s Kristen Wiig in a hat from what appears to be her backyard. Jamie Dornan pops in with wet hair, perhaps just out of the shower? James Marsden chips in, with a surprisingly lovely singing voice. Sarah Silverman sings off-key.

It goes on and on. In fact, it actually feels like it’s never going to end.

What was it about this video that rubbed people so wrong? Maybe it was because it appeared to trivialize this very serious situation. Or maybe it was the few unenthusiastic celebs who appeared to be phoning in their part (looking at you, Zoë Kravitz). Maybe because it was so earnest in its attempt to provide comfort, when really the idea of a bunch of celebrities singing from their mansions does the opposite of provide comfort. Or maybe the attempt felt half-hearted, and the general public knows that the real way for these fortunate people to provide relief would be through donating money to relief funds, not singing in their bathrooms.

All in all, this attempt fell flat — just like a lot of these celebrity’s singing voices.

Joe Exotic poses with one of his wild cats in "Tiger King."

March 2020: Tiger King captivates a nation in lockdown

It will be difficult to look back on 2020 and the early stages of quarantine without acknowledging a breakout star by the name of Joe Exotic. As if 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, Netflix released a true crime documentary entitled “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” The title tells you nothing about the documentary, but that didn’t stop millions of people from streaming the documentary, sparking conversation on social media and making famous everyone involved, like eccentric zoo owner Joe Exotic and his arch enemy, Carole Baskin, who are rival big cat conservationists entangled in a web of, well, murder, mayhem and madness.

It’s a peek into a world few people knew existed: the world of big cat conservation and the scandals and drama within. Every episode twists and turns so wildly, it kept viewers glued to their seats (as if they had anywhere else to be during quarantine).

The show left us with many unanswered questions: Who burned down the crocodile house? Did Carole Baskin really murder her husband and feed him to the tigers? Will Donald Trump pardon Joe Exotic, who is currently serving a 22 year sentence in federal prison for animal abuse and the attempted murder of Baskin?

The popularity of the series served as a reminder that, during these times, we rely on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Apple TV to provide us with a steady diet of mindless entertainment to get us through quarantine.

March 2020: Vanessa Hudgens’ embarrassing Covid gaffe

Celebrities are public figures, and as such, they are under the watchful eyes of the people. Because the coronavirus pandemic is uncharted territory, a few celebrities who have exhibited an embarrassing, tone deaf response to the pandemic came under fire. But none came under fire so spectacularly as “High School Musical” and locally-bred star Vanessa Hudgens.

To be fair, the day Hudgens decided to go live on her Instagram was March 16, a mere few days into lockdown. Again, this was uncharted territory, but Hudgens took a different route when she cluelessly explained that, while she “respects” the virus, she also feels that people dying is “inevitable.”

Her full quote: “But, like, it’s a virus, I get it. I respect it. But at the same time, I’m like, even if everybody gets it, yeah, people are gonna die. Which is terrible, but like, inevitable? I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this right now.” She wisely cuts the video at this point.

Understandably, people were upset to see a privileged celebrity, twirling her hair on camera, casually talking about how the deaths of millions of people is “inevitable.”

Hudgens took to her stories again amidst the backlash. She apologized and explained that she was taking the virus seriously, while encouraging her followers to stay home to help flatten the curve. She also released a full apology on Twitter: “I realize my words were insensitive and not at all appropriate for the situation our country and the world are in right now. This has been a huge wake up call to the significance my words have, now more than ever. I’m sending safe wishes to everyone to stay safe and healthy during this crazy time.” Crazy times indeed.

A still from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's single "WAP"
(Atlantic Records / YouTube)

August 2020: ‘WAP’ is released

As we trudged through the summer in quarantine, few things were able to lift our spirits and bring a smile to our faces. That is, until Cardi B (making her second appearance on this list) and Megan Thee Stallion debuted “WAP,” the feminist anthem wrapped in a naughty pop song.

“WAP,” which stands for something I can’t print here, had all the earmarks of a raunchy hit: Two chart-toppers joining forces, a clever title, lyrics that made you blush, a sexy music video featuring surprise cameos (hello, Kylie Jenner) and a fierce, unapologetic attitude that propelled the song to number one.

Of course, conservatives cried foul, saying the filthy song targeted kids and was sexually inappropriate. The controversy only seemed to make the song more popular, with an edited version playing on repeat on the radio and the song getting more and more play on Instagram and TikTok. For a while there, “WAP” was everywhere: in memes and videos, on “Saturday Night Live” and at the top of the Spotify charts.

How many times have we heard male artists sing about sex in much more salacious terms? In my opinion, the song was silly, irreverent and fun — which was much needed in 2020.

Harry Styles
Singer-songwriter Harry Styles is the first man ever to grace a Vogue cover solo.
(Tyler Mitchell / Vogue)

December 2020: Harry Styles becomes the first solo man on the cover of American Vogue

Remember when Harry Styles was just the sweet, fluffy-haired kid from One Direction? How far Mr. Styles has come since those days. Nowadays, he’s the subversive, gender-bending artist who’s crafted such hits like “Sign of the Times,” “Watermelon Sugar” and “Golden” in his days since leaving the boy band.

Styles regularly appears on red carpets in gender-fluid apparel, like dresses and jewels. He’s pushing the boundaries for what is acceptable in men’s fashions today and tearing down gender stereotypes. This earned him the spot on Vogue’s December cover, the first solo man to do so, which is a very big deal. Styles posed in a blue Gucci ballgown on the cover, which was mostly applauded for its progressive ethos.

Conservative activist Candace Owens decried Styles’ cover, tweeting that we needed to “bring back manly men.” Styles responded with a cheeky snap on his Instagram: him in a pale blue suit with a ruffled shirt, a banana planted firmly in his mouth, with the caption “Bring back manly men.”