By Liv Jordan
2016 has been a real shit show—a multitude of horrible events; a buffoon’s rise to power, the normalization of bigotry, the complete failure of the justice system, having to explain “Harambe” to anyone over the age of 20, and the ubiquity of the phrase “daaaaaaamn, Daniel.” This year frightened a lot of people … it doesn’t look like things will get any better for members of marginalized groups. However, the leaking of artistic urgency into the mainstream provides the only counterpoint.
I remain skeptical of pop culture. The “art” that makes it to the mainstream seems to be more nonspecific to the point of “relatability” than innovative. The same stars produce non-threatening and moderately entertaining content, shoved down our throats until Taylor Swift’s musing about heartbreak serve as the score for our dreams. What passes for art seems universal and vague enough so everyone can think to themselves, “You know, sometimes I DO feel like a plastic bag. Katy Perry just gets it.” In a culture that values money, fame, ratings, artists find themselves pressured to make their work accessible to all, lacking poignancy and unique perspectives. This year, however, I sensed a shift towards harnessing the power of art and the autonomy of the artist.
In the realm of music, artists brought originality and authentic perspective in place of “sick beats” and critical acclaim. In early 2016 Beyoncé released her album Lemonade, a catchy, radio-suited album and a revolutionary work of feminism, tackling the intersections of race and gender while making it impossible for your mom to stop shimmying her shoulders. This album, which many reduced to a narrative about Jay-Z’s infidelity, uses art to tackle issues of social justice. Filled with genuine emotion, it calls listeners to action.
In 2016, Hamilton become a phenomenon. The cast performed at the 2016 Grammys, thrusting the show into the mainstream and introducing it to an audience isolated from the theater, capturing the hearts of those who slept through the Hamilton unit in their American History classes. While trying to learn the words to those impossibly fast raps, we found ourselves hearing the words “Immigrants/we get the job done!” at the same time that politicians stoked fears of illegal immigration. The art entertained us, but its relevancy reached beyond its celebrity appeal and critical acclaim.
Television also saw a surge of topical, sharp content in 2016. Atlanta, a new show created by Donald Glover, debuted in September on FX. The show, with an all-Black writing staff and central cast, tackled issues like mental illness, poverty, and racism seamlessly while also providing laughs and enthralling storylines. Glover explained, “The thesis behind the show was to make people feel Black.” You laugh and think about why you’re laughing. It portrays life from a uniquely Black perspective and acquaints us with characters that our society would likely criticize or demonize: rappers, drug dealers, and people living in poverty. At the same time, it breaks societal stereotypes and provides a broader social commentary.
At a time where journalists struggled with their election coverage, late-night television stepped up to provide sharp political commentary. Given a massive platform and equipped with the emotional appeal to humor, comedians injected sharp social commentary into their jokes, exposing the ills of society and producing smart, influential humor. Seth Meyers had his so-called “Jon Stewart moment” in 2016 with the escalating acidity of his “A Closer Look” segments. The show stood out by focusing less on the lip-sync skills of celebrities and more on major stories in the news through a comical lens. The show boldly rejected the idea of neutrality favored by hosts like Jimmy Fallon, taking a firm stance against Trump and doing serious work to expose his lunacy.
Samantha Bee emerged as the only female late-night host and delivered the news with a much-needed fiery, feminist power that we so badly needed. She not only filled the void left by Stephen Colbert — a comedian who traded genuine influence for fame and likability — she became a fresh female voice who expressed her anger as a woman in a way that another bold woman, Hillary Clinton, could not. Bee sat with Syrian refugees, interviewed Barack Obama, and did a stellar segment on backlogs of untested rape kits across the country. Moving forward, Samantha can do use her show to inform, inspire, and influence.
Of course, for every lyric like Solange’s “But you know that a king is only a man/ With flesh and bones, he bleeds just like you do/ He said ‘where does that leave you’/ And do you belong? I do, I do” there are thirty vapid pop songs about sex/money/fun. Much of pop culture still centers around the cult of celebrity, but we are starting to see content with meaning break through to the mainstream, hailed by critics as the “best of the year,” topping charts, and attracting audiences. With the state of the country, we need this kind of urgency in our art.
Art can comfort and serve as a catalyst for change, and I’d love to see creators step up and use their talents to influence public opinion. I hope this trend continues, and I look forward to seeing how new content will heal, inform, and galvanize viewers.