Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and celeb divorces: These are 2023’s defining pop culture moments

We lived through a lot this year — too much, even! From Beyoncé and Taylor Swift monopolizing our lives to debates over NFL safety, labor strikes, celebrity divorces and endless court appearances (who knew Gwyneth Paltrow and Young Thug would have something in common this year?), we — two self-proclaimed pop-culture scholars — have remembered it all.

So gather around, fellow culture fiends. Here are the things that defined pop culture this year, for better or worse.

‘Barbenheimer’ rules the box office

Margot Robbie as Barbie in Warner Bros. Pictures' "Barbie".

Margot Robbie as Barbie in “Barbie,” which took over our summer and dominated our Halloween costumes.Jaap Buitendijk/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

It was a theatrical event the likes of which we haven’t seen since Tony Stark died in the MCU (sorry, this isn’t a spoiler anymore). “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” two of the most-anticipated films of 2023, premiered over the same summer weekend. (“Barbie” was released by Warner Bros., which shares parent company Warner Bros. Discovery with CNN.)

Rather than set the pair up for competition, filmgoers created a viral campaign to see them on the same day, in a dissonant double feature. They called it “Barbenheimer.” Buzz and marketing budgets aside, the “Barbenheimer” movement drove both films to the top of the box office and gave theaters a much-needed boost. The real takeaway here, though, is that audiences just want to watch good movies, whether they’re steeped in historical dread or bedecked in pink.

Celebrity memoirs reign

Britney Spears' memoir "The Woman in Me" is seen at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Clifton, N.J., on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. The book has sold 1.1 million copies through its first week. Spears says in a statement Wednesday that she poured her "heart and soul" in the book and that she is grateful to fans for "their unwavering support."

All the girlies (plus Prince Harry) were writing this year.Ted Shaffrey/AP

It was the year of the celebrity memoir — Britney Spears’ “The Woman in Me” was billed as the pop idol’s first account of her 13-year conservatorship, while Prince Harry’s “Spare” was the erstwhile royal’s tell-all about the house of Windsor.

Barbra Streisand, of course, needed nearly 1,000 pages to recount her remarkable life and even Julia Fox, at 33, had a book-full of unbelievable stories. The accompanying audiobooks made the texts even richer: There was five-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams nonchalantly reciting the Justin Timberlake/Ginuwine “fo shizz” passage from Spears’ memoir; Prince Harry went viral for reading descriptive lines about his penis. Their honesty paid off: All four memoirs became New York Times best sellers.

Scandoval shocks the Bravo universe

When “Vanderpump Rules” star Tom Sandoval cheated on his fiancée and co-star Ariana Madix with their co-star Rachel Leviss, fans were floored. The outpouring of shock and support for Madix was so massive that it forced even non-Bravo viewers to pay attention. And then when the revelations aired on “Pump Rules,” fans relived the drama as if for the first time — the episode about the breakup’s aftermath was the series’ highest-rated. Madix, at least, wears heartbreak well: She recently released a book of cocktail recipes and will soon star in Broadway’s “Chicago.”

‘M3GAN’ slays

(from left) M3GAN and Cady (Violet McGraw) in M3GAN, directed by Gerard Johnstone.

The stuff of American Girl doll nightmares.Universal Pictures

AI continues to write its own horror story as the tech rips text from books, creates bizarre art and generally freaks us out. If only AI was contained to “M3GAN,” a film about a murderous android who looks like a preteen and kills her haters in between TikTok dances and deadpan quips. M3GAN made her eponymous film a hilarious, unmissable event — and now, she’ll likely lead a saga of films based around her sardonic menace.

George Santos lands on Cameo post-Congress

The Republican representative from New York was expelled from Congress in December after a House Ethics investigation found that he misused campaign funds and violated several federal laws. The disgraced politician parlayed his ouster, in what seemed like mere hours later, into a career on Cameo, recording messages for paying customers about everything from ignoring the haters to transferring the spirit of a deceased spouse into a mannequin. As of this writing, personalized videos ran for $500.

‘The Simpsons’ strangles on

“The Simpsons” has had a few constants over its three decades and 35 seasons: The family will always be yellow, Springfield will always be stateless and Homer will always strangle Bart. And yet fans were sure that TV’s doughnut-loving patriarch had finally laid off the kid after a joke in a recent episode went viral off-air: “See, Marge, strangling the boy paid off,” Homer said, before quickly adding, “Just kidding, I don’t do that anymore. Times have changed.”

Series creator Matt Groening and producer James L. Brooks shut down the rumors with a new drawing of Homer wringing the neck of the young rapscallion, this time for “clickbaiting.” And, per the team, “Homer Simpson was unavailable for comment as he was busy strangling Bart.”

Pedro Pascal fever hits new heights

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Pedro Pascal, Coldplay Episode 1838 -- Pictured: (l-r) Host Pedro Pascal, Marcello Hernández, and Chloe Fineman during the Protective Mom sketch on Saturday, February 4, 2023

Pedro Pascal cheeses alongside Marcello Hernández and Chloe Fineman in the Protective Mom sketch on “Saturday Night Live” in February. Decked out in pink and sporting an old-lady wig, Pascal plays a convincing mother.Will Heath/NBC/Getty Images

Mr. “Mandalorian” won new fans this year as Joel in “The Last of Us,” HBO’s acclaimed adaptation of the video game of the same name. Pascal’s Joel is a hardened killer of fungus-zombies whose heart slowly thaws during his time traveling a post-apocalyptic US with a pun-loving teen. It’s a winning turn that earned him an Emmy nomination, a lauded host gig on “Saturday Night Live” — not his only appearance in 2023 — and so many TikTok fancams. Rumors are swirling that Pascal will join the MCU next — but with what time? We assume he’s busy enough being America’s sweetheart.

Eras and Renaissance tours make summer sing

Beyoncé performs onstage during the "RENAISSANCE WORLD TOUR" at PGE Narodowy on June 27, 2023 in Warsaw, Poland.

Beyoncé performing in Warsaw, Poland, completely blowing the country’s collective mind (we assume).Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images

Taylor Swift’s “Eras” tour and Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” tour were the suns around which our summers revolved. If you didn’t wear all-alien chic to “Renaissance,” you donned the friendship bracelets for “Eras.” Or maybe you did both! The tours became record-breaking behemoths, bringing in billions of dollars in revenue for Live Nation, selling out stadiums around the world, and spawning wildly successful concert films that also became huge money-makers. The year belongs to these two queens.

Formula 1 races away with our hearts

The fifth season of Netflix’s “Drive to Survive,” a docudrama series about Formula 1, aired in February, bringing all sorts of F1 jargon into the lexicon (cut to us on navigating traffic on the way to work, racing down the highway and telling ourselves to “push push”).

Our speedy commutes aside, F1 had a massive year in the US. American automakers like General Motors and Ford have applied to get in on the action, and the season was capped by the sport’s first grand prix in Las Vegas in more than 40 years. The event was a celebrity hotspot, and though many residents were skeptical, the spectacle of watching drivers blast down the Strip was a sight to behold. F1 may not take football’s place as America’s favorite sport just yet, but it gets points for trying.

Everyone goes on strike

Striking Writers Guild of America workers picket outside the Sunset Bronson Studios building on May 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. After talks with studios and streamers over pay and working conditions failed to result in a deal, more than 11,000 Hollywood television and movie writers went on their first strike in 15 years. Late-night shows are expected to stop production immediately, while television series and movies scheduled for release later this year and beyond could face major delays.

Striking Writers Guild of America workers picket outside the Sunset Bronson Studios building on May 2 in Los Angeles.Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Autoworkers, actors, hotel workers, writers, health care workers — you name it, they probably went on strike.

The biggest of these was seemingly the WGA strike, a nearly five-month long saga that, along with the SAG-AFTRA strike, brought Hollywood to a screeching halt. Who knew we would miss watching the most beautiful among us promote their work?

Alas, we did, and the break exposed some of the sinister underbelly of the industry — notably when one studio executive told Deadline they’d allow the strike to continue until writers “start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” THESE writers shudder at the thought.

Trump makes history

Donald Trump

The history-making mug shot in question.Fulton County Sheriff’s Office

It was a mug shot unlike any other. His eyes trained on the camera, slightly bloodshot, his eyebrows like two upside-down check marks, his mouth twisted in a frown. Inmate No. P01135809, also known as former president Donald J. Trump. Few times has a mugshot sparked as much debate and analysis as this one, taken after Trump was indicted for his attempts to overturn the 2020 election in the state of Georgia.

Trump will go down in history for many things, and being the only president to have a mugshot is one of them.

Travis Kelce finds a new fanbase

Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks on prior to the game New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on October 01, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

At this point, Kelce has one of the most recognizable mustaches in America.Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Travis Kelce, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, started the year on a high, after his team went to the Rihanna concert — er, sorry — the Super Bowl, facing his older brother Jason and the Philadelphia Eagles. In a victory for younger siblings everywhere, the Chiefs prevailed, and the event became known as the Kelce Bowl.

For most people, that would’ve been enough publicity for the year. Then Kelce went on to date a little-known indie artist named Taylor Swift. Heard of her?

Kelce, once known primarily by NFL fans and fantasy football addicts, is now one of the most dissected celebrities of the year. His old posts on X, formerly Twitter, went viral thanks to Swifties sleuthing; his ex came out of the woodwork to share the details of their former entanglement; and people seemingly asked him more about his relationship than his football. It feels like we haven’t seen this level of celebrity obsession since the early 2000s. Thank you, Kelce, for the nostalgia.

Celebrities get divorced

For Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, it was the autumn of love. But for every other celebrity — Joe Jonas and Sophie TurnerJodie Turner-Smith and Joshua Jackson, Cardi B and Offset, Jeremy Allen White, Reese Witherspoon, Tina Knowles, Tia Mowry, Deion Sanders, Hugh Jackman, Britney SpearsAriana GrandeSofía Vergara, Ricky Martin, Billy Porter, Kevin Costner, David Lynch, Lukas Gage, Maren Morris and, and, and, — it was the year of divorce. Womp womp.

Artificial intelligence begins its takeover

Though AI began its assault on our culture last year with the introduction of ChatGPT, this year it upped the scale. Despite warnings from experts, companies have continued to embrace AI. Spotify, after laying off more than 2,000 employees this year, has furthered its investment in the technology. Newspaper chain Gannett began using AI to write reports on high school sports, only to announce a pause after several reports were botched. And one author spoke up about her name being used to write books that were really generated by AI.

All of it feels like something straight out of a sci-fi movie — and those of course ALWAYS end well for the people in them!! Alas, it seems like the takeover will continue, and surely we have nothing to worry about.

RIP to our best friend’s brother’s girlfriend’s Netflix account

You know, the one Netflix account we all used to binge “Bojack Horseman” at two in the morning or hate-watch “Emily in Paris.” This year, to our collective chagrin, Netflix began its password crackdown — successfully boosting its new subscriber sign-ups and killing our account access in the process. Narcs! We hope they’re happy.

Threads, Bluesky and Twitter replacements rise

We never quite agreed on a replacement, did we? This year, Twitter became X for no discernible reason (thanks, Elon!), and effectively killed the platform. Take it from our friends over at CNN Business, who said Musk turned Twitter “into a husk of its former self.” Yikes.

In its place have risen a myriad of alternatives. Threads, Bluesky, Mastodon, Spill and T2 have all seen varying levels of success in X’s wake, although none can compete with Twitter in its heyday. Maybe instead of a replacement, we all take some time away from social media. Now wouldn’t that be nice?

Hip-Hop turns 50, and André 3000 makes a flute album

This image released by Epic Records shows "New Blue Sun" by Andre 3000.

“New Blue Sun” is André 3000’s first solo album.Epic via AP

It’s not every year that a music genre so embedded in American culture turns 50. And it’s ALSO not every year that André 3000, one of the beacons of the genre, releases his debut solo album, “New Blue Sun,” which isn’t really a hip-hop album at all, but a lilting, spring-like flute odyssey.

What else could we have expected from the OutKast artist, who has spent years randomly appearing in public playing a wind instrument? The title of the opening track seems to reflect this internal battle: “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a ‘Rap’ Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time.” We don’t know what the next 50 years of hip-hop will hold, but if Three Stacks is leading the way, we’ll happily follow.

Damar Hamlin changes the state of the NFL

Just two days into the new year, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin left the entire country holding its breath. The order of events has been countlessly repeated. https://bagaimanacaraya.com Hamlin, in a late-season game against the Cincinnati Bengals, took a shot to the head and chest area. He got up, took a few steps, and fell backward. Later, it was revealed the then-24-year-old had experienced a cardiac arrest on the field. As he was carted off, some players knelt in prayer, others cried.

Though Hamlin has returned to NFL action, albeit minimally, the episode was a sobering one for America’s favorite pro sports league, which was already facing questions about player safety. Despite the recent dose of good publicity from the Kelce-Swift romance, it’s still unclear whether those questions have been answered as another season draws to a close.

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