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Looking back at 2021’s top moments in pop culture

Britney Spears arrives at the 29th annual GLAAD Media Awards
Britney Spears arrives at the 29th annual GLAAD Media Awards on April 12, 2018, in Beverly Hills.
(Invision)

2021 was uncharted territory in so many ways. After a tumultuous 2020, many were hopeful that 2021 would bring with it more stability and a return to normalcy. And it did! For a little while anyway.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage, there were glimpses of “normal” in 2021. Live events started to come back. The Oscars were held in person. Talk shows slowly brought back live audiences and in-person guests. Sporting events continued. We had a Met Gala.

And while we’re clearly not out of the woods yet — and we may be headed back into them — 2021 did manage to bring us some entertaining moments in celebrity pop culture.

Big Breakups

A big celebrity breakup is always a moment. Whether a high-profile couple splits through carefully-scripted and coordinated Instagram posts or the good old statement from their publicists, a celebrity breakup is a deft social maneuver that requires foresight and planning.

Kim Kardashian West
(Hector Retamal / AFP/Getty Images)

Kim Kardashian is no stranger to high-profile breakups. She and estranged husband Kanye West filed for divorce in February, after months of rumors. Another celeb who’s no stranger to break-ups? Jennifer Lopez, who split from fiancé Alex Rodriguez in April, also following months of speculation regarding the status of the power couple.

Unlikely Couples

From big breakups to unlikely unions, 2021 gave us a few whoppers. In January, photos leaked of a freshly-single Olivia Wilde holding hands with her wedding plus-one: none other than Harry Styles.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Kardashian healed her broken heart through pizza dates with Staten Island’s most famous bachelor, Pete Davidson. Photos of the two holding hands at a Six Flags date appeared in October. Her older sister Kourtney Kardashian shocked fans when she debuted her own unlikely relationship with blink-182 drummer Travis Barker in February. After many months of TMI Instagram posts, the couple announced their engagement in October.

Travis Barker, left, and Kourtney Kardashian on a red carpet
FILE - Travis Barker, left, and Kourtney Kardashian arrive at the MTV Video Music Awards at Barclays Center on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in New York.
(Evan Agostini/ Invision/AP)

Fans experienced massive déjà vu when rumors began flying over the summer that Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were together again — nearly 20 years after their first ill-fated relationship became tabloid fodder. Lopez confirmed the rumors by posting a steamy Insta pic of the two in July.

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck in 2003.
(KIM D JOHNSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Pop Music Drama

In 2021, pop music had us all in our feels — and sometimes correlated with real-life drama. Olivia Rodrigo burst onto the scene in January with her instant high school break-up classic, “Driver’s License.” The song was a hit, but the story behind it was even juicier: It was rumored to be about her breakup with “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” (and San Diego-bred) costar Joshua Bassett — and his new girlfriend Sabrina Carpenter.

Olivia Rodrigo performing onstage, holding a guitar
Olivia Rodrigo performs onstage during the 2021 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 21, 2021.
(Kevin Winter/Getty Images for MRC)

In November, Taylor Swift partied like it was 2008 again with the re-release of her album, “Red.” Following a high-profile dispute with producer Scooter Braun, Taylor’s Version of the album contained new re-recordings of songs like “Red,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” and an all-new 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” the song that made us remember why we don’t trust Jake Gyllenhaal.

Also released in November, Adele’s long-awaited next album, “30,” caused happy couples to call it quits, just so they could experience the album the way it was meant to be enjoyed: from the depths of a soul-crushing breakup that changes your very core. Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but Adele’s latest album proves she’s still the break-up queen.

Beloved Reboots and Reunions

In May, a long-anticipated reunion for a certain momentous ‘90s sitcom was released on HBO Max. All six original “Friends” cast members sat down with host James Corden for a retrospective of their time on the couch at Central Perk. It was an emotional special, with cameos from famous guest stars, a set reunion, poignant Q&A’s with the cast and more. Even Justin Bieber showed up.

Friends Reunion Special - Photography by Terence Patrick
(Terence Patrick/HBO Max)

Another beloved 90s staple burst back on the scene with all-new episodes. In December, “And Just Like That,” a reboot of “Sex and the City,” dropped on HBO Max. Our four leading ladies have shrunk to three following the departure of Kim Cattrall’s Samantha, and while the show has had a mixed reception, diehard fans of the original will enjoy continuing the adventures of Carrie and pals in the city.

Met Gala Fashions

The Met Gala is fashion’s biggest night; it’s the Super Bowl of red carpet appearances and the hottest and most exclusive ticket of the year. Normally held the first Monday in May, the party was moved to September — and as usual, attendees dominated the headlines with their fierce looks embodying this year’s theme: “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” And nobody dominated more headlines than Kim Kardashian, who showed up in a head-to-toe black Balenciaga look that covered her entire face — and launched a thousand memes.

A Pop Princess is Free

In perhaps the biggest pop culture story of the year, Britney Spears was finally released from a 13-year conservatorship under which she was fully controlled by her father, Jamie Spears, and others under his employ. Spears’ had been living in fear and under duress since it had been put into place following a public meltdown in 2008.

Rumors began circulating in April of 2019 that Spears’ much-publicized conservatorship might actually be detrimental to the singer, despite the fact that it had been presented to the public as a positive force in Spears’ life. The #FreeBritney movement initially started as a vague sort of conspiracy theory, but in the end, its ardent supporters helped free Spears, after she finally was allowed to choose her own legal representation.

The unprecedented case’s most powerful moment came in June, when audio of a terrified Spears testifying in court was released. Her voice quivered at times, but her impassioned message was clear: She was fully capable of managing her own life. The conservatorship had traumatized her. She wanted her father out, and she wanted it now.

And that’s just what happened. In September, Jamie Spears was removed from the conservatorship and the world celebrated the fact that Britney was finally free.


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