Several rows of outdoor seating are shown with cars in the distance and a movie project shining bright in the distance.

Arts, Culture & Media

The pop culture that got us through 2020

In 2020, we leaned on pop culture more than ever for moments of levity, distraction — and sometimes even clarity — during a chaotic year. Looking back, here are some of the pop culture moments that stuck with us.

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People in their cars and on outdoor chairs watch the movie "Tolo Tolo" July 9, 2020, at the Paolo Ferrari drive-in cinema in Ostia, on the Rome's seaside. The drive-in cinema opened during the summer with social distancing protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Movies, books, videos on the internet — these are the things we rely on to get us through normal times.

2020 was not a normal time.

This year we leaned on pop culture more than ever for moments of levity, distraction, and, yes — sometimes, even clarity — during a chaotic year. Looking back, here are some of the pop culture moments that stuck with us.

Related: Tunes that kept The World spinning in 2020: A playlist

Wash your hands

It’s probably the understatement of the year to say that the internet was a big part of our lives in 2020. And in the early days of the pandemic, public health messaging collided with the internet. Messages and guidelines from health officials were changing as we learned more about the virus.

First; everyone was told to stop touching their faces. Then, of course, you needed to stand six-feet apart. While those practices remain important to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the line that really took off online was: "Wash your hands" — and sing the “Happy Birthday” song while you suds up, among other variations on this theme.

Government agencies were doing whatever they could to get this message across. For example, this PSA from Vietnam's Ministry of Health called “Ghen Cô Vy” takes the cake: 

Not surprisingly, using that catchy beat did the job — a famous dancer quickly choreographed some moves and it wound up on TikTok, where millions of people got the message. This version of “Ghen Cô Vy," by Vietnamese dancer and choreographer Quang Dang was watched "over and over again" by many staff at The World — easy to see why.

'Jerusalema' dance challenge

South African producer Master KG’s song “Jerusalema” originally came out in December 2019 and featured singer Nomcebo Zikode. As of this writing, it has more than 280 million views on YouTube. Then came a group of young people from Angola, who released a so-called “Jerusalema Dance Challenge.”

The challenge, along with that upbeat song, was what everyone needed during lockdown and it spread around the globe. Here’s an excellent example from Mombasa, Kenya: 

Also in the world of music, back in April, there was this moment when Canadian rapper Drake gave his shut-in fans a tour of his mansion. "Toosie Slide" opens on the empty streets of Toronto, and then brings you into the private home of a very public figure. One editor at The World writes that it was an escape into the life of megastardom — but also a strangely peaceful ride.

Streaming video

Netflix and other streaming platforms took over in 2020 as movie theaters closed. Among the many standout films, in the Spanish-speaking world, a horror film shot to the top of Netflix during the pandemic. “The Platform,” a futuristic dark film about a prison, debuted in the fall at the Toronto Independent Film Festival and then Netflix picked it up.

The film seemed destined for obscurity — but then blew up. Its success is fitting for the darkness experienced this year throughout the world. 

Drive-in entertainment

In Mexico, the owners of Lucha Libre AAA, one of the biggest wrestling companies in the country, built an outdoor, drive-in arena near Mexico City’s airport in order to be able to continue operating with fans seated far from each other.

Mr. Iguana, a wrestler who dresses in a lizard green uniform and face paint, told The World it was difficult to adapt because 90% of a wrestler’s work is responding to the audience’s encouragement and taunts.

“I prefer it when I can hug the fans and take selfies with them, but this works too,” Mr. Iguana said. “This is safe for everyone, and it’s how we have to do things in the new normal.”

Comedic stress relief

Comedy undoubtedly helped us process 2020. A young Kenyan woman named Elsa Majimbo in Nairobi, Kenya, really captured our attention during the coronavirus lockdown. The 19-year-old comedian took to social media posting short, snippy and hilarious videos about this time we’re living through, covering topics like gaining weight during lockdown, missing seeing friends (or not) and her newfound fame.

A return to reading

While many of us have been glued to social media throughout the pandemic, others went back to old-school pleasures, spending more time reading and writing. A book that resonated this year was Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor’s “Hurricane Seasontranslated into English by Sophie Hughes.

Melchor spoke to The World and said creating is difficult and that she'd been reading poetry for inspiration. “It is really hard now to find words to explain what we are feeling, don’t you think?" Melchor asked.

“For me, it’s really difficult. We can talk about solitude. We can talk about desperation. We can talk about loneliness. But at the same time, it’s really difficult to find the exact words to describe, and I’m a person who does that for a living, you know? So, so maybe taking words from another person, from a poet, I think it helps make clear what we are feeling.”

Additional book suggestions:

Nigerian writer Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀'s debut novel “Stay With Me” was published in 2017, but one producer at The World turned to the novel in 2020 and coveted its sweet, heart-wrenching romance more than ever. It's an intense love story that rides wave after wave of loss. Don't be surprised if you can smell the hair dye in the main character's hair salon in 1990s Ilesa. The book is highly transportive — which is exactly what many of us needed this year. 

Also on our list for 2020 is "Parable of the Sower" by Octavia Butler — an eerie, riveting Sci-Fi set in the not-so-distant dystopian future. Reading this in the middle of a pandemic and in the throes of racial unrest across the globe was strangely comforting because, despite all the post-American madness depicted in the book, the protagonist still manages to embody hope and plant seeds for a divine future. 

This last year was also a very unusual year for sports with empty sports stadiums filled with artificial crowd noise, the postponement of the Olympics, teams trying (and failing) to stay in bubbles and the cancelation of road races. As the pandemic took over, marathons largely disappeared off the calendar and dreams of winning races were swapped for FKTs (fastest known times). One book about running felt like another era and was worth every page: Ed Caesar's 2015 exploration of the (now achieved) two-hour marathon in “Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon,” was a great dive into the remarkable life of Kenyan marathon runner Geoffrey Mutai, who won the New York marathon twice and ran the Boston Marathon in 2:03:02.

The World's Bianca Hillier, Jorge Valencia, Halima Gikandi, Kate Ellis, Jessica Yarmosky, Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein and Steven Davy contributed suggestions.

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