It was an unusual year marked by unusual events: an unprecedented global pandemic, youth-led protest movements, impassioned Black Lives Matter demonstrations, a divisive US Election. The list goes on.
Amid all the negative news, and just when we needed nourishment and escape the most, Covid-19 devastated the creative industries: Broadway lights went out, the Met Gala and Glastonbury were canceled, galleries and theaters closed.
Yet despite all this, culture still managed to thrive in unexpected and innovative ways. Take, for example, the group of resilient Spanish musicians who serenaded an opera house full of plants instead of a live audience, or the Emmy Award ambassadors who delivered trophies to winners while wearing Hazmat tuxedos.
Below are some of the cultural moments that offered hope and distraction in an otherwise tough 2020.
Harry and Meghan retired as working royals
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced on Instagram that they would be “stepping back” as senior members of the British royal family in January. (Yes, this happened in 2020).
Instead of being granted the hybrid role they originally pitched for, Prince Harry and Meghan gave up their royal titles and subsequent duties entirely as they packed up and moved to California. Far from shrinking into the shadows, their post-royal lives have been highly visible.
They urged Americans to vote in the US presidential election (a move criticized for breaching the British royal family’s tradition of political neutrality). Then, in an op-ed for the New York Times, Meghan revealed she had suffered a miscarriage earlier in the year, another example of high-profile figures helping to break the taboo around pregnancy loss. And, like the Obamas, the pair is set to become Hollywood producers, closing a multi-year deal with Netflix that will see them create scripted series, docu-series, documentaries, features and children’s programming.
‘Parasite’ made history at the Oscars
Director Bong Joon-ho’s widely-acclaimed South Korean thriller, “Parasite,” made history at the 92nd Academy Awards in February, becoming the first non-English language film to win best picture. Bong also picked up the award for best director, and ended his gracious acceptance speech with the meme-worthy, “I will drink until next morning.”
The wins were significant in an industry heavily criticized for its lack of recognition of non-white talent, as well as exclusionary casting choices.
‘Tiger King’ reigned
In March, as countries throughout the West went into strict lockdown, a self-described “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet,” called Joe Exotic provided the ultimate escape, in the form of docu-series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” The big cat owner and his arch nemesis, animal rights advocate Carole Baskin, re-ignited our love for animal prints (which inspired many Halloween outfits) and provided hours of much needed entertainment as they waged war against each other.
China put on the world’s first completely digital fashion week
China had a first crack at a completely digital fashion week in March, with most of its official schedule playing out on Alibaba’s TMall shopping platform. Designers engaged in various virtual formats, allowing consumers to ask questions and shop in real-time during live-streamed shows.
The result at times felt chaotic — the busy interface, for instance, presented a stark contrast to traditional, often sleek, runway productions — but the readiness of brands’ to experiment virtually, and at the last minute, also put forth innovative ideas (the use of avatar models and QR codes) that would also play out in the West and other parts of the world as the pandemic continued to hamper other international fashion weeks.
Madonna, awkwardly, bathed in milk
While we love to see celebrities taking a stand, there are times when we just don’t want to hear from them at all. None more so than during a global pandemic.
Social media backlash ensued when Gal Gadot and her famous friends sung a cringe-worthy rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” many from the comfort of their spacious homes. Failing to read the room, Madonna then posted a bizarre video on Instagram, where she called Covid-19, “the great equalizer,” and claimed that “what’s terrible about it is what’s great about it.” This epiphany came to her, naturally, while soaking in a milky tub of rose petals, piano music tinkling in the background.
Artists came out for BLM
Though much of our year was spent indoors, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May drove millions in the US — and across the world — out onto the streets to join Black Lives Matter protests.
Artists created powerful imagery, responding with works that sought to memorialize, to provoke and to heal. Posting this illustration, just a day after Floyd was killed, Shirien Damra’s “Justice for George” was liked over three million times on Instagram and widely shared. “I know the power of color and the emotion it can implicitly evoke,” she told CNN. “I hope that my colors and imagery help the viewers process difficult emotions and events and come out of it with some hope and inspiration.”
People recreated iconic artworks at home
With most art exhibitions and galleries shut down, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles launched a social media challenge, inviting people to recreate their favorite artworks with three household objects. Among our favorites: swirling cloud formations of “Starry Night” (1889) recreated with spaghetti; a woman and bulldog posing as “Madonna and Child” (1290-1295), and two rows of colorful Xanex boxes, nodding to Warhol’s famous soup cans.
Beyonce’s visual album ‘Black is King’ celebrated Black talent
Beyonce’s visual feast “Black is King” debuted on Disney+ in August. A celebration of “the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry,” it traced a young man’s journey to self-discovery, with a focus on Black history and African traditions. Bold costumes were created both by big name labels and independent African brands, and the likes of Naomi Campbell, Adut Akech, Lupita Nyong’o and Pharrell Williams appear in the film.
Queen Bey acknowledged how the events of 2020 made the film’s vision and message even more relevant. “I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books,” she wrote on Instagram.
Barcelona musicians performed to over 2,000 plants
A string quartet serenaded a full house — of plants — at Barcelona’s famed Gran Teatre de Liceu. Playing Puccini’s moving “Cristantemi” to mark Spain’s lifting of a three-month lockdown in June, the livestreamed event was meant as a “highly symbolic act that defends the value of art, music and nature as a letter of introduction to our return to activity,” said the opera house.
Harry Styles’ cardigan sparked a viral knitting challenge
TikTok reigned as a hub for culture and connectivity during periods of isolation. Users on the app set off viral social media challenges, inspiring everything from recreating Harry Styles’ checkboard cardigan, to driving DIY beauty trends — bangs, buzz cuts and controversial “fox eyes.” Styles’ multi-colored garment will join the V&A’s vast fashion collection in London, after it sparked a crocheting craze.
Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt flirted on Zoom
The exes reunited for a charity virtual reading of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and the internet, and Julia Roberts, grinned uncontrollably. “Hi Brad … I think you’re so sexy, will you come to me?” Aniston crooned. Pitt blushed. And for a brief moment, we forgot about all the bad news in the world and burrowed into a safe cocoon of nostalgia.
‘The Crown’ blurred the line between fact and fiction
Audiences devoured the fourth season of “The Crown,” with many younger viewers introduced to the ill-fated marriage, and drama, between Prince Charles and Princess Diana for the first time.
Concerns arose over the portrayal of royal members and its casting of future king Prince Charles in an unflattering light. (Charles, played by Josh O’Connor, is depicted as a petulant, selfish serial-cheater who eventually drives the sacrificial lamb-like Princess Diana, played by Emma Corrin, to bulimia and depression.)
The series’ creative license — especially in its re-imagining of private conversations — has drawn criticism from some quarters, leading the UK’s Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to demand that Netflix include a disclaimer clarifying to viewers that they are watching a work of fiction. Netflix hasn’t balked.
Kim threw a 40th birthday bash on a private island
Undeterred by the raging pandemic, which at the time had already killed over one million people, Kim Kardashian West threw a party on a private island, swapping social distancing for dancing, bike-riding and swimming with whales.
“After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal for just a brief moment in time,” Kardashian West tweeted. Cue the memes.
TikTok crowdsourced a musical
TikTok not only sent a 1977 Fleetwood Mac track back onto the charts with a viral skateboarding video, but also manifested a show worthy of 42nd Street. The latter started with Gen Z imagining what Disney-Pixar’s 2007 “Ratatouille” could look and sound like … as a musical.
Everything from rousing musical numbers, to choreography, set design, costumes and marketing materials, was crowdsourced and presented, in truly creative ways. The so-called “Ratousical” proved so popular, that in December, a production company announced it would present “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” on January 1, a one-off charity show that would star Broadway actors and benefit the Actors Fund.
The internet went monolith mad
In late November, a 10-foot-tall silver structure appeared in the Utah desert. Its rectangular form resembled the otherworldly monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Discovered during a routine helicopter mission by the state’s Department of Public Safety, the mysterious object went viral as people debated whether it was the work of artists or aliens. It wasn’t long until curious online sleuths geo-mapped its coordinates, and a wave of visitors soon arrived to pose with (and in some cases crudely mount) the sculpture. Then, it suddenly disappeared, only to have imitations spring up in places as far afield as Romania, Australia and Britain’s Isle of Wight.