From break-ups, make-ups, surprising revelations and serious allegations.
Just when we all thought nothing could outdo 2020’s dramatic twists and turns, along came 2021. There were scandals, tragedies, high-profile interviews, break-ups and make-ups, memes and milestones—and, we don’t know how, but Seth Rogen, Pete Davidson and Ben Affleck seemed to be involved in almost everything.
This year also saw the passing of entertainment heavyweights like Stephen Sondheim, Norm MacDonald, Charlie Watts, Christopher Plummer, Cicely Tyson and DMX. But there was cause for celebration, too from the return of in-person red carpets to a little Spider-Man movie to surprising revelations and serious allegations.
Here’s a rundown of the most memorable pop culture moments from 2021 that we’re still thinking about.
Amanda Gorman & Bernie Sanders at the U.S. presidential inauguration
January saw Joe Biden sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America. The star-studded ceremony featured many familiar faces but it was former National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, reading her poem “The Hill We Climb”, who stole the show. Her poise, her talent, and even her keen fashion sense received international attention, and it led to her achieving best-seller status, a professional management contract, and a profile in TIME written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The inauguration also blessed us with a socially-distanced Bernie Sanders, his parka and hand-made mittens. Within minutes, the image (by photographer Brendan Smialowski) was trending and memes, Snapchat filters, parody accounts and even an App soon followed. That’s how you kick off a year.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle get real with Oprah
In March, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex sat down for their very first post-royal life interview and they had a lot to say about their time with the Windsors—very little of it good. Harry talked candidly about his strained relationship with his father and brother, Meghan revealed she had suicidal thoughts, and together they dropped the bombshell that someone in the palace had raised “concerns” about how dark their son Archie’s skin could be. That particular revelation made global headlines, sparking important conversations around mental health and the royal family’s colonial past.
Chloé Zhao and Beyoncé make history
After winning two more Grammys in March, Queen B became the most decorated singer in the history of the awards, with a total of 28 wins over her 20-year career. Then in April, filmmaker Chloé Zhao became the first woman of colour (and only the second woman, full stop) to win the Oscar for Best Director for her film Nomadland.
The One Where the Friends Reunited
We travelled back to Central Perk in May, as HBO Max gave audiences the reunion they’d been breathlessly awaiting after multiple delays. The ‘90s nostalgia was dialed up to pre-Y2K levels as Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc took to the stage for Friends: The Reunion (stream now on Crave). There were celebrity guests, table reads of favourite scenes, and yes, even a fashion show. The highly-anticipated show had it all, including big reveals like Aniston and Schwimmer having mutual crushes going on during production but never letting on and Aniston even admitting later the the show was so emotional, she had to walk off-set multiple times. Could the reunion have been any more beloved?
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka champion mental health
These two amazing athletes sparked an international conversation this year around stress, expectation and mental health in sports after sharing their personal struggles. Biles, the most decorated American gymnast of all time, withdrew from the team final at the Tokyo Olympics, stating that she wasn’t in the right mental space to compete safely. Biles was one of over 150 women and girls who had been abused by former team doctor Larry Nassar and teafully told Hoda Kotb during an interview on the Today Show that the effects were long-lasting; “I don’t think people understand the magnitude of what I go through.”
Osaka similarly put her mental health first and withdrew from the French Open after the organization refused to exempt her from post-match press conferences. The top-ranked tennis player explained in an Instagram post that she’d been battling anxiety and depression since her 2018 U.S. Open win. Biles and Osaka sent a clear message to the world that mental health is as important as physical health and there’s no shame in prioritzing it, earning praise for using their massive platforms to amplify the conversation.
Armie Hammer scandal
In January, leaked DMs between Hammer and an unidentified woman showed him saying he wanted to “drink her blood” and admitting to being “100% a cannibal” and other women soon came forward with similar claims about his penchant for rape fantasies and dark sexual preferences that also included sexual abuse allegations. Vanity Fair published a damning feature entitled “The Fall of Armie Hammer” that covered the ensuing fallout and the darker legacy of a family fraught with problematic behaviour. He had several movies already in the can when the news broke but was let go from all of his upcoming projects, his agency dropped him and he entered a rehab facility in May for drugs, alcohol and sex issues.
Sony teases Spider-man: No Way Home
Fans of the friendly neighbourhood web-head had been waiting (somewhat patiently) for a first look at Peter Parker’s latest chapter. Given the cliffhanger at the end of the last film, you can’t blame them for being a little eager to get a peek. After an apparently legit trailer was leaked in late August, Sony released the real thing a day later. In its first 24 hours, the preview earned 355.5 million views, setting a new record and more than doubling the views for its predecessor. The rest of the internet was just as excited, as chatter around the trailer made it the biggest one-day social media conversation in history, with 4.5 million mentions, eclipsing the record set a few years ago by Avengers: Endgame. With great cinematic power comes intense social scrutiny.
After an ugly, 13-year-long court battle, Britney Spears was finally freed from her legal conservatorship. Her fight for autonomy gained worldwide attention, as did her dedicated, vocal fanbase. The hashtag #FreeBritney trended throughout the year as supporters campaigned, marched, and even created merch to draw attention to her legal struggles., which intensified after the New York Times’ doc, Framing Britney Spears brought her cause into the spotlight. Britney herself even got in on the fan support, wearing one of the shirts in an Instagram Story posted by her fiance Sam Asghari, the day before the final hearing. “I just want my life back,” Spears stated as part of her June testimony and by November, she had it.
Lil Nas X’s bloody shoes
The rapper was everywhere this year, releasing a children’s book, dropping a new album, partnering with Elton John in ads, making the TIME100 list and, back in March, releasing his own shoes. His “Satan Shoes”, a limited edition version of Nike Air Max 97s featured in the promotion for his first 2021 single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” caused a stir. The 666 pairs of sneakers were black and red, with a bronze pentagram, 60cc and 1 drop of human blood, and a price tag of $1,018. Parents were apoplectic and one politician State-side went so far as to tweet that the release of the shoes meant we were “in a fight for the soul of our nation.” Nike even filed a trademark lawsuit against the MSCHF and denied any involvement with the creation of the shoes. Lil Nas X took to Twitter to point out that skating legend Tony Hawk’s blood-infused skateboards didn’t provoke the same reaction. Not that there’s any bad blood (we couldn’t resist) between the two creators—they even went skateboarding together in August to prove everything was a-okay. You can say a lot about the musician, but he is a savvy self-marketer.
now that tony hawk has released skateboards with his blood painted on them, and there was no public outrage, are y’all ready to admit y’all were never actually upset over the blood in the shoes? and maybe u were mad for some other reason?— MONTERO (@LilNasX) August 25, 2021
Olivia Rodrigo makes 2021 her own
The 18-year-old singer kicked off the year with her single “Driver’s License”, which went viral almost immediately, going on to be streamed over a billion times. She followed that up with the release of her debut album, Sour, in May. With lyrics full of relatable teen angst, the former Disney Channel star made unfamiliar music fans sit up and take notice of her obvious talents—and a dramatic adolescent love triangle at the centre of it all certainly didn’t hurt. She was the It girl of a wild year, even turning up at the White House to help Joe Biden promote vaccines for young adults. If you somehow missed all of that, you’ve still got time to jump on the bandwagon of this talented teen, who’s been compared to Taylor Swift and even had the wherewithal to give Swift a writing credit on Sour for her inspiration.
putting drivers license on the jukebox one more time before the show tonight 😍 pic.twitter.com/vEhTuDrKPw— Saturday Night Live – SNL (@nbcsnl) May 15, 2021
Dave Chappelle faces backlash after Netflix special
The controversial comedy icon released The Closer this past October and the reaction to his new Netflix special was instantaneous and negative. Trans advocates were vocal in their criticism of his comments about the transgender community, which they saw as harmful and reductive, and Netflix employees, other comedians and even students at his former high school rose up in solidarity with them. The fact that the comedian had come out in support of J.K. Rowling’s recent comments conflating gender with sex didn’t help things. The special reignited the debate on boundaries within comedy, with many pointing to the idea of “punching up” vs. “punching down” and how to decide who and what are fair comedy targets. Despite the wave of condemnation, the comedian refused to back down, posting a 5-minute Instagram video response that included the statement: “I said what I said”.
Lizzo and Chris Evans: A DM Love Story
Hands up if you’ve made questionable decisions after one too many? Okay, so Lizzo is not alone and we love that she decided to shoot her shot by sliding into Captain America’s DMs. The best part? His response (complete with emojis): “No shame in a drunk DM 😘 god knows I’ve done worse on this app lol 🤦🏻” Lizzo documented the whole encounter in two hilarious TikToks, advising “Don’t drink and DM, kids!” She may have a point but on the other hand, Evans is now following her on Instagram so she came out ahead in this game. To quote the Great One: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Wishes for 2022: For these two to get together IRL.
Don’t drink and DM, kids…. for legal porpoises this is a joke♬ original sound – HI I’M TATI 💕
Squid Game is everything
We’ll never see “Red Light, Green Light” the same way again. One of the most popular shows of the year was South Korean import Squid Game—everybody watched—and it quickly became Netflix’s most streamed show by a landslide. There were debates around the dubbing/translation of the show, whole groups dedicated to dissecting the ending, and bets around the various outrageous challenges, with some brave/misguided viewers trying some themselves and posting their results on social. If you weren’t streaming or posting about the show itself, you were reading about it, watching YouTube extras, SNL parodies, designing your Squid Game Halloween costume and following the cast on Instagram.
Better play by the rules because she’s always watching. Will you make it past the first round of Squid Game? 🦑 pic.twitter.com/qvTlHddqsr— Netflix Philippines (@Netflix_PH) September 22, 2021
Taylor Swift breaks the internet…again
The singer/songwriter released a highly-anticipated 10-minute version of “All Too Well” in November, complete with a short film written, directed by and featuring the mega-star, along with Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien. This heart-breaking number returned to remind us all that no one breaks Taylor Swift’s heart and gets away with it. The whole thing was in support of a re-release of her album Red (Taylor’s Version) and the short film gave Swifties enough Easter eggs and clues to keep them occupied until the next momentous release.
The Rust shooting
In a year of seemingly endless bad news, the tragedy of the on-set shooting that left cinematographer Halyna Hutchins dead and director Joel Souza in hospital, still stunned. Movie sets are supposed to be safe, well-regulated spaces so how did a live round end up in Alec Baldwin’s prop gun on the set of indie Western Rust? That’s the question police are still attempting to answer. It’s not the first time on-set firearms have led to fatalities but the October accident has many, including Baldwin, calling for an increase in gun safety rules in film and television production with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson going so far as to say he was banning all real guns from his movie productions going forward.
Travis Scott’s annual Astroworld concert in Houston turned tragic in November when a crowd surge led to 10 deaths and hundreds of injured concertgoers. The city’s police chief had expressed safety concerns prior to the event’s kick-off but his warnings went unheeded and the show continued even as music fans were crushed and trampled. Scott himself was criticized for encouraging rowdy crowds and for continuing to perform amid the danger, with videos uploaded by members of the crowd showing the chaos on the ground. Scott denies being the villain of the event, explaining to Charlamagne Tha God that “I’ve shown through actions that’s not my character.” Over 140 lawsuits have been filed and Scott has denied all legal liability.https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
The Return of Bennifer
JLo made headlines when she split from fiance Alex Rodriguez, but those were nothing compared to the notices she got when the world found out she had rekindled a romance with Ben Affleck. Affleck had gone through his own break-up with Ana de Armas (and her cardboard cut-out) and the timing just seemed right. This was no secret romance, with the couple going public thanks to a truly epic series of pap-worthy PDA sessions. From basketball games to walks in L.A. and from the Met gala to Cannes, you couldn’t miss these two even if you tried and they’re still going strong. What will 2022 hold for Bennifer 2.0? Only time will tell.
Adele drops and gives us 30
In October, iconic landmarks the world over were spotted with the number 30 on them. Astute music fans immediately began to speculate that a new album from the one and only Adele was on the way, given the artist’s tendency to name her releases after her age. She confirmed the news not long after, sharing that 30 would deal primarily with her recent divorce, and the resulting turbulence. The first single “Easy on Me” broke all kinds of streaming records (and launched a thousand instances of people saying she did not go easy on us) and the album itself quickly became the top-selling release of 2021. An intimate interview with Oprah followed and then we were all treated to celeb-filled one-night-only special (Hi Seth Rogen!). When we weren’t busy watching and rewatching that, we were belting out our favourite tunes and wondering just how long we’ll have to wait for Adele’s next album.
The Bachelor scandal
After casting its first Black lead, Matt James, The Bachelor franchise nearly imploded with accusations of racism and problematic behaviour from host Chris Harrison and one of the reality show’s front-runners. Midway through the season, photos of contestant Rachael Kirkconnell attending an ante-bellum fraternity party emerged along with claims of past racially-motivated bullying. #BachelorNation was appalled, but host Harrison came to Kirkconnell’s defence in a cringe-worthy interview with Extra’s Rachel Lindsay. Both Kirkconnell and Harrison came out with subsequent apologies but it was too little, too late. Michelle Young, one of the season’s other contestants posted a statement on behalf of the 25 BIPOC women featured in Season 25, condemning Harrison’s defence of their fellow contestant and supporting Lindsay’s call for accountability and transparency from the production. In the end, Harrison exited the show, Matt picked Rachael (and then they broke up, and then got back together) and fans turned their thoughts to the new season of The Bachelorette. Here’s hoping the lessons learned won’t be forgotten.