In 2020, Pop Culture Failed To Meet The Moment

There was no song or movie or TV show that really captured the grief and isolation of this year.

On Nov. 7, 2001, Alan Jackson took the stage at the Country Music Association Awards and, backed by a small orchestra, mournfully performed “Where Were You (When the World Stops Turning”), a song he’d written the week before about the 9/11 attacks. It was not the song he was supposed to play. He’d been scheduled to perform “Where I Come From,” an up-tempo twangy tune sitting at the top of the country charts at the time. This was an awards show. You played the hits people want to hear.

By contrast, “Where Were You” was about living in the shock and grief after 9/11. “Did you shout in anger, in fear for your neighbor / Or did you sit down and cry?” it asked. Each line prompted you to remember precisely where you were when a horrific terrorist attack tore the fabric of America. It’s not the usual stuff of award shows. Besides, no one had even heard the song before.

But a few days before, Jackson’s manager had convinced CMA executives to let him do “Where Were You.” And as it turns out, it was the right call. By the next morning, radio station directors — country stations, pop stations, talk radio — were pulling the audio from the broadcast in order to air the song. It felt urgent, vital, like it captured the depth of the sorrow and the emotional state Americans were existing in.

Within a week’s time, the song debuted at #25 on the notoriously slow-moving country charts, based just on the airplay of bootlegged recordings of a TV performance. A couple of weeks later, it hit the pop Top 40 charts, and peaked at #28. Jackson’s label literally couldn’t produce singles fast enough to get copies into stores (tbt). That’s how badly people needed to see their trauma in music. A little under two months after a devastating national wound, here was a pop culture artifact that immediately became crucial and indispensable. Jackson’s sincere vulnerability, Rolling Stone later wrote, “encapsulated the American collective consciousness perfectly.”

It’s a stark contrast to now — a year into a global pandemic that arrived in full force in North America 10 months ago — when we still lack an urgent offering to contextualize our trauma. In the US alone, more than 300,000 have died. Millions have fallen ill — some for an indefinite period of time, with devastating side effects. Millions more have lost their jobs or found themselves working in environments that deem them “essential,” which they soon found out was a synonym for “most likely to interact with the virus.” The weight of the present and uncertainty of the future sit heavy on all our chests.

But months into this altered reality, pop culture has remained stunted, vaguely gesturing at our shared reality without having contributions of substance. There have been surprisingly few works in music, TV, or films that help us process what we are going through.

Being able to escape into any alternate reality is worthwhile. It just doesn’t do much for helping us tangle with the implications of this one.

This is not for lack of content. New shows were still launched and it felt like we all watched more TV this year. And that’s saying something, considering we’ve been in Peak TV for a decade. Many of your faves put out albums throughout the year. But startlingly little of what we consumed shed a healing light on our reality or offered us a common language to process our collective grief.

Take music. Within weeks of lockdown, Bono put out “Let Your Love Be Known.” Luke Combs released “Six Feet Apart.” Pitbull gave us “I Believe We Will Win.” (Let us, please, never speak of Brad Paisley’s entry into the category.) Across genres, a dozen songs tried to reflect the socially distant reality. Except they got at exactly the wrong thing: These artists used the pandemic as a gimmick, instead of mining the strikingly difficult emotions of finding ourselves separated from friends and family for days that eventually stretched into weeks. These songs, almost uniformly, cast their net too wide, too impersonal. Perhaps Grace Potter’s “Eachother” gets the closest to feeling real and grounded in wrestling with the effects of isolation.

This is not to say the pandemic didn’t leave a footprint on music. Some of the year’s best albums came as a result of canceled tours and abandoned plans. Taylor Swift said the isolation of lockdown drove her to write, and that drive launched not one but two ambitious projects, one of them among the year’s best. We all hungrily listened to “WAP,” the song of the year, momentarily forgetting the overbearing sexlessness of lockdown. Adrianne Lenker’s Songs, one of 2020’s standout albums, came to life after her band Big Thief's tour was canceled. Lenker disappeared to a cabin in the woods for a month and came back with a breathtaking record.

Swift positioned her records as a gift to fans as they try to manage the pandemic. And true enough, they brought a great deal of joy and relief. It just wasn’t about the world we share. It served as a feast of distraction.

Don’t get me wrong, distraction is its own balm. Being able to escape into any alternate reality is worthwhile. It just doesn’t do much for helping us tangle with the implications of this one.

Distraction was the main offering this year from TV, too. From the absurdities of Tiger King to the jaw-dropping antics of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, reality TV parted ways with the world we exist in, and whisked us away. It makes sense, too — while scripted shows had to pause production, the reality heavyweights declared early on that they have enough shows in the bank to power through the pandemic. One notable occasion where reality TV hewed to actual reality was Netflix’s Love Is Blind, which looked a lot like what quarantine dating would become — only that show actually predated quarantine, and the resemblance was purely accidental: The show was shot in 2018.

Scripted shows, meanwhile, did not have an even approach to the pandemic. HBO Max’s Flight Attendant, for instance, was the first HBO show to resume filming after lockdown, but it was not in conversation with the way the pandemic has utterly upended the airline industry. Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Doctor chose to place themselves in our timeline, to mixed results — though Grey’s has had its moments, The Good Doctor spent three episodes on the virus, then promptly abandoned it (moving on now, bye!). One-off coronavirus-based series like Love in the Time of Corona and Coastal Elites either missed the mark or felt out of touch with how real people talk.

There were a couple standouts though. This Is Us dove headfirst into both the pandemic and the historic Black Lives Matter protests, for a new-season premiere that packed a punch. Superstore pivoted to unpack what it means for its setting to be declared “essential.” But even the best TV shows set in this perilous time feel forced, treating the pandemic as a novelty, instead of the overbearing and permanent-feeling weight that it is.

Then there are the movies. Sure, they usually have a longer production cycle and take longer to get in front of audiences. But the response to what we have seen is not promising. Take the Michael Bay–produced Songbird, a dystopian movie ostensibly about COVID-23, a fictionalized mutation of the virus we’re all dealing with now, that kills people faster than COVID-19. It’s set in the 213th week of lockdown. It supposes that somehow sanitation workers are the villains of this future pandemic. I feel so much better already.

Shortly after Sept. 11, a passenger in a car recognized Bruce Springsteen, rolled down their window, and said, “We need you now.” It’s the kind of statement that could be dismissed out of hand for its grandness. A nation was reeling. What could an artist offer? As it turns out, a lot. Nine months after 9/11, Bruce Springsteen released The Rising, a 15-song album about the attack and the emotions that followed. Its title track conjures up the specific image of firefighters going up the towers, then describes souls going up to heaven. Its sentiment is built around transcendence: of circumstance, of hurt, of grief, toward something unknowable but real all the same. It is song as sermon, verse as eulogy. It deservedly earned a spot among the best songs of the aughts.

It is crucial that The Rising started with “We need you now.” When the world feels like it makes no sense, those with a gigantic platform, those who make up the tapestry of pop culture, the ones with the cameras and microphones trained upon them ought to play a part in making sense of our moment.

Which brings us to the “Imagine” video. The damn “Imagine” video. About half a second into lockdown, allegedly to inspire people to be patient, Gal Gadot corralled 22 celebrities into singing an awkward a capella rendition of John Lennon’s song. It is genuinely difficult to watch the video. Remember, the video was posted March 18. We were mere days into this new life! Instead of comfort, the video inspired the plebeian wrath of the internet, who accused celebrities of riding out the first few weeks of lockdown in mansions.

As it turns out, that accusation was rather prescient. The “Imagine” video was but a mere crack that would grow to be a grand canyon between celebrities and the rest of us. As the pandemic wore on, famous people tried to relate but only drew attention to the stark contrast between us and them. Jennifer Lopez posted a video about how she too can’t go to restaurants, and got promptly flamed. Madonna told us how COVID is the great equalizer from a bathtub full of rose petals. Two weeks into lockdown, Justin Timberlake got roasted for discussing how “24-hour parenting is just not human” (fact check: false).

The “Imagine” video was the beginning of the unraveling of celebrity culture in 2020. As Amanda Hess writes in New York Times, the video suggested that “the very appearance of a celebrity is a salve, as if a pandemic could be overcome by star power alone.” But more than that, celebrities assumed that they could relate to our burdens. That their isolation could be the same as our isolation.

Class and fame ended up being one of the pandemic’s biggest fault lines. While people of color and poor people became the primary victims of COVID-19, rich people invented closed-off worlds where they could get tested and then party. They surprised their friends and family with COVID tests, private jets, and private islands. “After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island,” Kim Kardashian tweeted after her 40th birthday in October. It’s the single wildest sentence of 2020. Kim, there’s people that are dying.

We may not have found comfort in music, movies, TV, or celebrities, but we did find it in each other. In 2020, we turned to memes and internet jokes to make sense of this collective trauma. TikTok was one of the main things to keep us sane. Perhaps the meme of the year is “Mentally, I’m Here.” It’s honest and funny and heartbreaking and profoundly real. We coped through the hard turns of 2020 together and got each other through this. We said to each other: I am here with you.

Writing for Country Universe, Dan Milliken ranked “Where Were You” the seventh-best country song of the aughts. Milliken wrote, “Bound as it is to the event it addresses, ‘Where Were You’ cannot travel forward into the future the way other songs on this countdown can; its full impact will remain locked in the memories of those of us who lived through September 11th, 2001.” This is true: “Where Were You” feels dislocated in 2020, overly saccharine, disembodied from its original context. But in November of 2001, it communicated an essential truth about millions of people who were hurting.

2020 has no such unifier. There is no song, no TV episode, no movie that distills the anxiety of living through this pandemic or articulates the horror of watching it go by. In a decade’s time, when we look back on 2020, we won’t have a shared pop culture moment that brought us together and gave us the tools we need to start healing. Pop culture failed us when we needed it most.●

This story is part of our series on the year 2020. To read more, click here.

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