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Goodbye, Westeros. Hello, “Old Town Road”: The year in pop culture news

Written by on January 1, 2020

Nothing quite reveals the fecund nature of pop culture than combing through a year’s worth of news while repeatedly gasping, “That happened this year?!” It’s nearly impossible to find a single through-line that summarily captures 2019 in entertainment stories, but the year certainly wasn’t without its cultural markers, like the ceaseless Scorsese-led Film Discourse, or our fight to survive the crushing weight of Peak TV. We said goodbye to creative titans like John Singleton, Toni Morrison, Sulli, Gloria Vanderbilt, John Witherspoon, Daniel Johnston, Luke Perry, and others embedded in the fabric of the art we love. The year marked the ends of Game Of Thrones and a defining phase in Marvel cinema, while ushering in new beginnings for old favorites like Steven Universe and The L Word. Most importantly, it cemented the impending totalitarian rule of Baby Yoda. Let’s revisit some notable moments of the year in pop culture, month by month.


January: R. Kelly finally met his reckoning

Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

After decades of sexual abuse allegations and predatory behavior, R. Kelly finally began to experience consequences outside of a few jokes and a tainted reputation. Over the course of six specials, courageous women shared their harrowing stories of abuse in the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. In return, the Illinois state attorney launched a full investigation of the singer. Kelly was arrested on federal sex trafficking charges and soon after was dropped by his longtime label, Sony Records. Even Lady Gaga apologized for a 2014 collaboration with Kelly, the unfortunately titled “Do What U Want (With My Body),” which she later removed from future copies of her album ARTPOP. Kelly would go on to incur a litany of additional charges and lawsuits, in addition to sitting for a bizarre interview with Gayle King. And the story is far from over: Part II of Surviving R. Kelly will premiere on Lifetime January 2.


February: The potential host of the Oscars nearly overshadowed the ceremony

Photo: Matt Petit (Getty Images)

To the naïve viewer, a host-less Oscars ceremony might have looked like a trendy play at minimalism, or a weird call from a production team that forgot how poorly things went the last time it tried as much. But by February, everyone was well-aware of the Ballad Of Kevin Hart, a man who stepped down from his one-time hosting gig after he was forced to take accountability for past homophobic remarks. There was also the unfortunate—then quickly rescindeddecision to remove the Best Cinematography, Film Editing, Live Action Short, and Makeup And Hairstyling categories from the live telecast in an effort to conserve time. But the big night came and went with all necessary categories intact, a ratings bump, a few cool wins for Black Panther, and an egregious Best Film trophy for Green Book, which nearly undid all the good will.


March: Two celebrities became the face of a corrupt educational system

A story about two privileged women gaming the system in order to get their kids into college wouldn’t normally hold our attention for so long. But when Full House’s Aunt Becky and Desperate Housewives’ Lynette Scavo got busted for their reported involvement in a large-scale college admissions scandal, along with 50 other parents, we couldn’t help but ask, “I’m sorry, what?” Emmy-winner Felicity Huffman and former Hallmark Channel staple Lori Loughlin became the faces of a winding scam that involved being brought up on a list of federal crimes, including racketeering, mail fraud, and bribery. Huffman pled guilty soon after and suffered a grueling 11-day prison sentence. Loughlin, who was summarily removed from Hallmark’s active programming, has maintained her innocence as the bribery charges have continued to pile up. The story was quickly fashioned into a slapped-together Lifetime movie, but the detail that continued to inspire subdued chuckles was the fact that “Aunt Becky” trended on Twitter nearly the entire day of the initial news break.


April: A disappointing decision by Billboard led to the rise of Lil Nas X

If you can believe it, there was a moment in 2019 when Lil Nas X was actually considered an underdog. When Billboard declared that “Old Town Road”—once a hit almost exclusively among TikTok-ing youths—did not display enough overt country influences to qualify for its country charts, the industry quickly rallied around the young meme machine in support and protest. Country icon Billy Ray Cyrus publicly offered to collaborate on what would ultimately be one of many, many, many high-profile remixes that would cement the tune’s residency on the charts for a record-breaking 19 weeks. Eight months, an EP, seven Grammy nominations, and one immensely ironic Country Music Award win later, Lil Nas X has asserted that he can ride with the best of them.


May: Millions said farewell to Westeros

Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

After eight seasons, Game Of Thrones came to a polarizing end in May, leaving throngs of debating fans in its wake. The final, six-episode stretch was a touchy topic, and members of the cast still occasionally find themselves defending David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’ efforts. But the enduring legacy of one of HBO’s most successful series of all time cannot be tanked with a few last-minute, head-scratching artistic choices. Although HBO Max’s forthcoming spin-off will attempt to bottle some of the magic of its predecessor, Game Of Thrones will always soar among the dragons as an epic of world-building and political intrigue. And we were there, a full month before the finale, charting the show’s best and most memorable moments.


June: Cardi B turned her day in court into marketing for her single “Press”

An indictment for assault and reckless endangerment could very well have jeopardized her career, but superstar Cardi B turned a harrowing moment into a savvy media spin. After getting charged on June 21 for her alleged role in a strip-club brawl, the Bronx-made artist released her single “Press” on the same day as her highly publicized follow-up court appearance. By linking her art and her legal troubles, Cardi took full control of the narrative, making it impossible to talk about one element without the other. She followed the seamless stunt with the track’s violent music video, released one day after entering a not-guilty plea. “Press” resonated as an impressive flex from a woman whose star continues to rise.


July: Marvel lost its mind at San Diego Comic-Con

Image: Marvel

With the conclusion of Phase Three in the rear view, all eyes were on Marvel during its first major Comic-Con appearance since Endgame. The state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the obvious point of concern, but the arrival of streaming giant Disney+ added another element of mystery to the packed event. Some of the announcements like The Eternals, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, and Black Widow were long predicted or previously reported. But the revelations of a Mahershala Ali-helmed Blade reboot, Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu stepping in as Shang-Chi, or Natalie Portman returning to the MCU as a Mjölnir-weilding Jane Foster were surprises.


August: Missy Elliott dropped a surprise release, received overdue MTV Video Vanguard honor

Missy Elliott owned the month of August thanks to an overdue honor from MTV and a surprise release. In 2019, MTV finally bestowed the hip-hop icon with the Video Vanguard Award for her decades-long contributions to popular music. As if that weren’t enough, the “Get Ur Freak On” artist took to Twitter days before her awards-show appearance to announce the surprise midnight arrival of Iconology, her first collection of songs in 14 years, featuring the slow-thumping hit “Throw It Back.” Both the honor and the new EP culminated in a show-stopping medley of her greatest hits that put a reverent audience on its feet.


September: The 2019 Emmys came through with some historic wins

Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

Following in the Oscars’ footsteps, the Emmys also ditched its host in 2019. Ratings-wise, it wasn’t met with quite the same success, which is a shame because it was a historic night. When They See Us’ Jharrel Jerome was the first Afro-Latino to win an acting award, while Pose’s Billy Porter became the first openly gay man of color to snag the Best Actor In A Drama trophy. Also of note was who didn’t take home a statue that night. Phoebe Waller-Bridge pulled one of the biggest upsets of the evening with her Lead Actress In A Comedy Series win, ending Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ seven-year streak in her final year of eligibility for Veep.


October: Kanye leaned into his Jesus Is King era

Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

After declaring himself done with his secular ways, Kanye West committed to traveling the country with his dedicated gospel choir to perform his Sunday Service shows. He also took great pains to dangle a brand-new album in front of eager fans for a number of months, delays naturally included. Jesus Is King finally arrived on October 25, and upon hearing the first few soul-rousing tracks, fans were quick to forgive. The album would mark the beginning of the Jesus Is King era, which now includes operas, soon-to-be-re-recorded, profanity-free music, and a Kanye dipped in silver.


November: The Stream-pocalypse officially began

Image: Top: Disney+, Bottom: Stephen Lam / Stringer

HBO Max, Peacock, and even Quibi are getting ready to battle an already crowded streaming market in the coming months, but it was Disney+ and, try as it might, Apple TV+ that took the first swings when they launched their services in November. It was a bit cutthroat for a minute, with Apple TV+ previewing some of its launch-day slate after Disney individually (and sadistically) tweeted each and every item in its library a month before launch. Apple TV+ debuted November 1, but it couldn’t muster enough excitement to rival its biggest competition. Disney+ launched 11 days later with almost every vault-dwelling classic, all of the nostalgia one could possibly handle, and, of course, Baby Yoda. Spring 2020 will bring the remaining platforms, providing exactly what an already overwhelmed, cable cord-cutting population needs: more options.


December: Somehow, we ended the year knowing what a Peloton is

Screenshot: YouTube

All eyes were on a stationary bike after social media got ahold of an oddly executed commercial. The commercial follows a woman who is gifted an unsolicited Peloton exercise bike by her husband—a man clearly attuned to his already-fit wife’s needs. She then spends the following year vlogging all the ways the bike has consumed her waking moments. The backlash was swift and heavy, with many calling out the sexist undertones of the gesture as well as the overt desperation of the woman’s daily video log. The controversy was robust enough to catch the attention of Ryan Reynolds, who hired the same actress to presumably revive her character in an ad for his gin company. Good thing her friends were there to provide a safe space and a stiff drink.

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