The 10 pop culture moments that affected me most in 2021
I didn’t have a best movie, book, or album this year, but these small moments changed my soul
Only now do I realize how much energy I exerted by simply living through 2020. I imagine it was similar to the feeling of being hunted, but by, like, a really slow and persistent killer. The feeling of fight-or-flight was constant—just a year-long drip of anxiety and adrenaline. When you’re in that situation, you’re hyper aware of the world around you, and every piece of art seems like a miracle. A good song becomes a lifesaver; a decent movie transforms into something revelatory.
Then 2021 happened. It was supposed to be a year of recovery, and things... didn’t get better. We had a magic potion that could’ve stopped COVID, and people refused to take it. Political policy really didn’t change, it just became quieter. We no longer had the immediate threat of 2020 looming over us, but the exhaustion set in. The year wasn’t about swimming, but keeping our heads above water.
It was difficult for me to pay attention to pop culture this year. I don’t have a favorite book, album, or movie—not because of the quality of material released—but simply because I felt too worn down to effectively consume, think about, and analyze art. Existentially, I felt like a balloon that had been inflated too many times, a wan little husk of a man. This could also be due to the fact that I had to use my brain academically for the first time in 14 years and rediscovered that thinking hurts.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments that deeply affected me. I’ve always been more drawn to specifics anyway—the intimate ways in which moments, scenes, parts can leave emotional scars even if/when the whole piece doesn’t work.
So, here are the top pop-culture moments that affected me most in 2021.
Kendall Roy’s narrative arc on Succession
The third season of Succession was a game changer in many ways. When I saw episode six in which the Roys pretty much determine the next Republican presidential candidate—I promptly declared it was one of the best hours of television I had ever seen. And then I said that about the next episode. Same thing for the one after that. Frankly the show hit a fever pitch and didn’t stop until the breathless final scene of the season. But no one affected me more than Kendall. At the beginning of the season, we found him going toe-to-toe with his father, and for a moment, it actually seemed like he was making Logan sweat. But as the facade of his self-righteousness crumbled, and past demons returned, Ken lost control. Watching his gradual breakdown was like watching someone slowly suck the meat out of an oyster until there’s nothing left but a shell. Make no mistake: it’s hard to empathize with anyone on Succession, but Ken’s emotional breakdown hit hard for anyone who ever felt trapped in an identity that’s intrinsically tied to their cage.
Manchester Orchestra “Obstacle” at 2:30
Manchester Orchestra singer Andy Hull has the voice of an angel. I don’t mean that it’s beautiful (although it undoubtedly is), but that it’s got a balance of emotive power and delicacy that would be a fitting soundtrack to the end of the world. Admittedly, I’m a latecomer to Manchester Orchestra, but when I heard Hull’s guest appearance on Touché Amoré’s “Limelight”—off their 2020 masterpiece Lament—I was immediately taken. Manchester Orchestra’s The Million Masks of God is an easy contender for my favorite album this year, but no other moment in music this year gave me chills like 2:30 of “Obstacle.” Much like the rest of the album, the song rides a quiet intensity. We’re not sure what it’s building up to, but we know it’s going to be big. “Where did you end when it was beginning?” Hull sings as he’s joined by a driving bassline, and just before we can process this trajectory, he busts our knees out with a line that seems to rise above this mortal coil: “Finalized, an immaculate ghost.” Still get choked up after listening to it for the hundredth time.
Face of bees in Candyman (SPOILER ALERT)
Nia DaCosta’s reimagining of Candyman was the only movie I saw in the theaters this year, and I left thinking, welp, guess I don’t really need to see any more movies after that. The movie is a stylish dissertation that makes bold choices in its retelling of a horror classic, but often feels overstuffed for its quick 90 minutes. However, the final scene when he emerges with his face obscured by bees is a vision that I’ll never forget. The revenge he enacts on a group of corrupt white cops is why we have the term “mic drop.”
The end of Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch (SPOILER ALERT)
Shortly into Rachel Yoder’s novel Nightbitch, I thought, This book is not for me. I didn’t think that in a dismissive way—like how some people describe things they don’t like as “not for me”—but in a literal way. What right did I—a cisgendered, straight white man—have reading a book about unacknowledged feminine/motherly rage, which manifests in a werewolf-like transformation? I felt like an intruder trying to Good Guy my way into a space not intended for me.
But the power of Nightbitch slowly took hold, and I couldn’t stop reading. Yoder’s writing is immaculate throughout, culminating in a staggering scene where the Mother unveils her new, beastly self to an audience of other mothers:
They all watched. They were drunk and brazen and horny and rude, but they were also all quiet. Reverent, even. They were perhaps the best mothers they had ever been.
“Queen,” one of the mothers murmured as the beast strode past her.
Another, deeply moved, fell to her knees, then crawled behind the animal.
Stunning, I tell you.
Sax solo on Japanese Breakfast’s “Slide Tackle”
Listening to Japanese Breakfast’s fantastic album Jubilee this year was like picking through a box of chocolates: each song is a new flavor. It’d feel haphazard in less talented hands, but singer/songwriter Michelle Zauner’s singular artistry and willingness to get vulnerable turns the album into a masterpiece of emotional heft. However, no track hit me as hard as “Slide Tackle,” Zauner’s self-admitted attempt to write a Future Islands song. Essentially, the song’s about willing your brain to feel joy even when it doesn’t want to, and when laid on top of a smooth dance, the effect is like an aural Zoloft. But if you somehow miss this underlying sadness, don’t worry: the most warm yet melancholy sax solo will let you know exactly how to feel, reminding us that there’s comfort in feeling sad.
The At the Drive-In chapter in Dan Ozzi’s Sellout
I had just started tenth grade when At the Drive-In put out Relationship of Command, an album that unequivocally changed my life. I was tired of Epitaph and Fat Wreck-style mall punk, and needed something fiercer, more complex, and abrasive, and Relationship of Command checked all those boxes. My obsession was solidified after watching their unhinged David Letterman appearance, which I taped (oh VHS) and later showed to friends like it was a found porno (I still think it’s one of the wildest things I’ve seen on TV).
But by the time I finished tenth grade, At the Drive-In had broken up. Six months after blasting a hole in the Earth, and the band decided to call it quits?? How dare they.
This year, music journalist Dan Ozzi put out Sellout, a book that was seemingly written for me. In it, Ozzi chronicles 11 punk/emo bands (including Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, and Thursday) and the repercussions they faced after signing to a major label. The most affecting, though, is the chapter on At the Drive-In, who called it quits after witnessing an increasingly violent audience embrace their music. After finishing the chapter, I was filled with a whole new respect for the band: At the Drive-In saw people mistreating their art, so they took it back. It’s definitely not the happiest ending, but it’s pretty fucking punk.
Fingering the kitten-birthing hole in Brand New Cherry Flavor
Okay, so get this. Brand New Cherry Flavor. The show’s about a woman who moves to LA after her short film garners the attention of a Hollywood producer who—surprise, surprise—turns out to be a predatory sleaze. So the filmmaker enlists the help of a [checks notes] witch to cast a life-ruining spell on the producer. However, in return for this deed, the witch requires the filmmaker to, uh, produce kittens for her. Which she does. By barfing them up.
At one point, the filmmaker gets tired of puking up kittens, so the witch somehow creates a birthing hole in the filmmaker’s torso, from which kittens can emerge. Then a little later, the filmmaker is getting down with a dude, and he puts his fingers in the hole. And—good lord—she gets off on it?
I watched the entire scene with my mouth agape. Like, my mouth literally hung open. I had so many questions: How did they get this onto Netflix? Does this count as porn? Is this sort of hot? And is there something wrong with me if I think it is?
So, thank you, Brand New Cherry Flavor, for giving me a new, disturbing kink.
(Bonus mouth-agape moment for 2021: The twist in Malignant. I had actually been dozing off up until that point, but then it happened and I shot straight up as if someone did one of those Pulp Fiction/needle in the heart-type of things).
Julien Baker’s song and accompanying video for “Hardline”
With this year’s album, Little Oblivions, Baker proved that her songs can somehow be even more devastating with the addition of drums, but I was not emotionally ready to see the claymation tragedy that accompanied the first single, “Hardline.” Sort of like a horror version of Wallace and Gromit, the video follows an alien-looking scientist and its loyal dog, who—through good intentions—gathers the materials that will assuredly lead to their demise. The human tendency toward self-destruction is a major theme that runs throughout Baker’s music, but seeing it enacted upon these little clay figures made it a little too real.
Paul McCartney writing “Get Back” on the fly
I really didn’t want to like the Get Back documentary. I mean, just the concept: Eight hours of watching The Beatles fucking around in the studio? No thank you. The Beatles were a great band, but the cottage industry of corporate interests that keeps them in the public’s mind as the greatest thing to happen to music is pretty shameless (and very much a product of white supremacy—Little Richard did more to innovate rock ‘n’ roll than The Beatles did, but I digress).
That said, I fucking loved Get Back. Regardless of your opinion on the Beatles, it’s unreal to watch intimate footage of the most recognizable band in the world doing regular band stuff. Like, there’s a certain satisfaction—or schadenfreude?—of watching Paul trying to convince his bandmates to care about “Let It Be,” one of the most recognizable ballads in the history of ballads. But if there’s one point in the documentary that will forever remain with me, it’ll be the scene when we see Paul write “Get Back” pretty much off the top of his head. It’s a testament to the creative process: art is often a boring and frustrating search for inspiration, but real artists never quit mining, and true beauty can exist when they strike gold.
The last 60 seconds on Deafheaven’s “Great Mass of Color”
I spent a long time analyzing how I feel about Deafheaven’s newest album Infinite Granite. I can say without hesitation that they were my favorite band in the 2010s for redefining my concept of what music could sound like. To this day, I still don’t know if they’re metal, or shoegaze, or emo—but whatever the case, it was singularly Deafheaven. Infinite Granite found the band mostly ditching their distinct black metal vocals in favor of actual singing, and it just didn’t feel like the same band. Frankly, it sounded like any other shoegaze band. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t Deafheaven. Is this brilliant? Is it a step forward in their music evolution? Do I just not get it? After asking myself these questions, I realized that I just don’t really care. If this is the way the band is going, at least they left us with three untouchable albums. But it still makes me a little sad to listen to the final, vicious minute of “Great Mass of Color” which feels like a haunting reminder of what the band used to be.
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Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.