The 10 Best Pop-Culture Moments of 2021

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The most decorated American gymnast of all time had the eyes, and the pressure, of the world on her in July when she withdrew from the women’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics. Her struggles on the mat were underscored by a heavy mental toll: Biles was among the 150-plus women and girls who had been sexually abused by former team doctor Larry Nassar, and USA Gymnastics still hadn’t reached a settlement with the victims. “With the year that it’s been,” Biles said, “I’m really not surprised how it played out.”

In May, the Grand Slam–winning tennis player Naomi Osaka made a similarly brave move, withdrawing from the French Open after organizers refused to allow her to opt out of post-match press briefings. On Instagram, Osaka revealed that she has experienced “huge waves of anxiety” addressing the tennis press and battled bouts of depression since the 2018 U.S. Open. “I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she added.

Biles and Osaka choosing to protect their mental health, especially as Black and Asian women, sent a potent message, not only to athletes and overachievers but to every single person watching them. “At the end of the day, we’re human too, so we have to protect our mind in our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles said. Together, they redefined what it means to be a champion.

Squid Game’s U.S. crossover

From its very first moments—a game of Red Light, Green Light for survival—the watch-between-your-fingers drama achieved full cultural permeation. Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk and inspired by his own socioeconomic struggles, Squid Game quickly shot to the number one spot on Netflix—and became the platform’s most watched show ever)—the first Korean show to do so. Sparking an SNL parody and untold Halloween costumes, Squid Game was entertainment (and horror) that touched a nerve, arriving at a moment of widespread economic insecurity. “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory…about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition,” Hwang told Variety, “somewhat like the extreme competition of life.”

The ascendance of Olivia Rodrigo

We were all heartbroken teens again, casually driving by our ex’s house, when we listened to then 17-year-old Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License.” The single, which went super viral in January (going on to be streamed more than a billion times), had it all: soul-crushing lyrics, powerhouse vocals, and possible real-life inspiration. (It’s rumored to be about Rodrigo’s ex, her former Disney Channel costar Joshua Bassett.) The release of her debut album, Sour, in May only catapulted Rodrigo further into the stratosphere, channeling the angst of Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple and the songwriting prowess of Taylor Swift (who made her Rodrigo fandom known). Lest there be any doubt that Rodrigo became America’s first teen: When the White House wanted to promote vaccinations for young adults age 12 and up, they tapped Rodrigo—who showed up in a Cher Horowitz–ish Chanel suit and platforms—as an advocate.

The summer of The White Lotus

Like Succession meets the Saved by the Bell Malibu Sands episodes, the HBO series took over summer with a cast of irredeemable, irresistible characters mingling and ministering to one another at a five-star Hawaiian resort. Chief among them: Armond (the divine Murray Bartlett), the rapidly unraveling manager of the titular White Lotus; Shane (Jake Lacy), an overgrown frat boy on an ill-fated honeymoon; and Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya, who scatters her mother’s ashes (and her personal woes) at the hotel bar. The White Lotus served eye candy and escapism but, like the best shows of 2021, gave viewers something deeper too, scraping at class tensions between guests and staff, capitalism and colonialism. Months later, the hauntingly addictive theme is still screaming in my ears.

The multimedia, news-cycle-dominating release of Red (Taylor’s Version)

A long-awaited 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” complete with a short-film adaptation, plus the Blake Lively–directed and Miles Teller–starring “I Bet You Think About Me” video, packed with Easter eggs—all this and perfectly timed to Sad Girl Fall! Nobody releases (or rereleases!) an album like Swift.

All 7.8 hours of The Beatles: Get Back

The binge-watch to end all 2021 binge-watches, director Peter Jackson’s Disney+ docuseries provided one of the most intimate portraits ever of the Beatles’ creative process, unfolding while they made Let It Be and prepared to perform atop their Apple Corps headquarters in London in January 1969. A year later, they broke up. The Beatles: Get Back is an exercise in myth busting: While tension is apparent—at one point, George Harrison temporarily quits—the famous foursome never comes to blows. Rather, they’re civilized, communicative, and, above all, brotherly.

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