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The Pop Culture Winners and Losers of 2016

Which musicians, actors, and extremely broad concepts had great years? And who can’t wait for 2017?

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration
Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Winner: Frank Ocean

Micah Peters: After Channel Orange, expectations and demand for Frank Ocean were high. But he escaped the pop culture centrifuge and disappeared into the wilderness for four solid years to live out what was left of his 20s in peace: racing rally cars, eating shrooms, falling in love (but “not the lasting kind” — how is anyone this cool and wise), and otherwise living his life. Then he came back and essentially bought himself out of his record deal with a (great!) visual album consisting of no hooks and only mostly formed thoughts, and then self-released a second that would’ve been Grammy nominated had he decided to submit it for consideration.

But he didn’t, because the “infrastructure of the awarding system … is dated,” but also because Blonde was just good enough on its own.

I want to believe in myself that much.

Winner: Ralph Fiennes

Chris Ryan: Nobody in 2016 had more points per possession than Ralph Fiennes. I imagine that this dude tools around the Amalfi Coast in a two-seat convertible CRACKING UP at a joke I will never understand and having languorous four-hour lunches, and then every few months, he stops by a movie set for a week or two and inevitably is the best thing in whatever he’s doing.

If it pleases the court, Exhibit A comes from the sunburned erotic thriller A Bigger Splash, in which Fiennes plays a spun-out rock producer.

Exhibit B is the funniest scene in a movie this year, from Hail, Caesar!

Save me some Chianti, Ralph. I’m on my way.

Winner: Little Sisters

Lindsay Zoladz: Solange made an album as good as (maybe better than?!) Beyoncé’s! Bella Hadid became as ubiquitous as Gigi, despite being less ubiquitous in Taylor Swift’s Instagram pics. Remember when we all thought Dakota was the best Fanning? And then we met Elle? This year Kylie became more… uh, Kardashiany (or Jenner-y, if we’re being technical) than Kendall. No matter your measure of success, little sisters were stepping out of the shadows all over the place in 2016.

Loser: “Facts” (Also, Facts)

Victor Luckerson: Remember when our pressing national concerns were as simple as “When is that new Kanye dropping?” 2016 started with exciting news on that front — Kanye West had a new song called “Facts.” Let’s ignore for now that this “Jumpman” parody is the most derivative thing in Ye’s catalogue this side of “H.A.M.” No, we’re here to talk about the lack of facts in “Facts.” The track’s central thesis about warring sneaker brands — “Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman” — isn’t true. The claim that Kim Kardashian’s app shut down Apple’s App Store is a lie. And the boast that KimYe “made a million a minute” from the app appears to be a thing the internet just sort of kept repeating, citing unnamed “reports.” Through sheer force of personality, Kanye does his best to will these imagined accomplishments into reality and use them to bolster credibility for his future endeavors — perhaps he’ll run for president, he raps, or launch a line of hotels. An improved remix of the lackluster song appeared on The Life of Pablo but still carried all the weight of a throwaway bonus track. “Facts” didn’t matter this year. Neither did facts.

Loser: Katy Perry

Juliet Litman: Tough year for the Katy Kats out there — myself included. The only new tune Katy delivered in the last year was the failed Olympics song, “Rise,” which does not even fall in Perry’s top-25 all-time. Meanwhile, she’s coming up on two years in her attempt to buy this convent, but a bunch of nuns and some litigation stand in her way. And, as if the dismal response to an intentionally targeted song and a protracted legal battle weren’t enough, she came out hard for Hillary Clinton, who lost. Katy is taking Ls in all facets of her life. All of these things have something in common: seriousness. In 2016, Katy ditched her confection brand, and while I admire her for trying to avoid Peter Pan Syndrome, I miss the unabashed pop tunes. I want to hear you roar, Katy.

Winner: Kate Beckinsale

K. Austin Collins: This summer, if you’d asked me whose name would get batted around for Best Actress contention this fall, I’d have told you Kate Beckinsale, whose role as a witty, conniving widow in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship was the best thing she’d done since her last Stillman movie, The Last Days of Disco (1998). It hasn’t quite turned out that way Oscar-wise, which is a shame but not a shock given the weird sprawl of Beckinsale’s career — including, among other things, 13 (?!) years’ worth of Underworld movies. Social survival is the name of the game in the Stillman universe. Armed with Austenian verse and the strategic intellect of a war general, Beckinsale’s character — a genius of manipulation — practically lept offscreen. And Beckinsale’s own genius — for language, posture and style, and for imagining the inner life of a character so mechanically wry she almost doesn’t have one — was one of the finest rediscoveries of the year.

Loser: Vine Users

Carl Brooks Jr.: Vine is dead. RIP Vine. I can’t imagine an internet with no Vine. No more will I watch a ridiculous play in a Warriors game and know that very soon, I’ll be able to watch that play on a loop of three-point glory. No more hip-hop Disney remixes. And no one, no one will ever be able to replace Jay Versace.

Winner: Ava DuVernay

Justin Charity: Seriously, which other creator had the year she just had? My sister and I love 13th, DuVernay’s documentary about the U.S. carceral state. My mom loves Queen Sugar, her TV drama adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s novel about a Louisiana family and a sugarcane farm passed down from their father. DuVernay closes the year with momentum still flowing as she’s set to direct Disney’s forthcoming A Wrinkle in Time, making her the first black woman to direct a film with a budget greater than $100 million. Everybody’s watching.

Loser: ‘The West Wing’

Michael Baumann: The TV shows I watch over and over are about clever, earnest do-gooders — characters that makes me feel good. Nowadays, that kind of show is in decline. Parks and Recreation is long gone. Star Trek has been lobotomized into a noisome franchise shoot-em-up. Pitch, which is executively produced by West Wing alums Paris Barclay, Kevin Falls, and Eli Attie, is attracting so few viewers it might as well be an actual San Diego Padres game.

Meanwhile, The West Wing portrays a political world in which people are principled but willing to compromise, and good logic and rhetoric will win the day — a world far from the one we now inhabit a decade after the show ended. Aaron Sorkin’s erudite optimism reads like naive smarm in a world where you can pat yourself on the back for stealing the radio lady’s crab puff all the live-long day and still get smoked at the polls over and over. High-minded and optimistic politics will lose to hate and fear every time, to the peril of hundreds of millions of Americans born into a marginalized race, gender, sexual identity, religion, or social class, and aping the rhetoric of Bartlet in the time of Trump makes it look like you think politics are just something that happens on television, and not a matter of life and death.

Winner: FX

Alison Herman: A long, sustained slow burn finally broke out into a raging bonfire. FX has been setting our terms of engagement and making your culture-snob best friend’s favorite shows for years now. In 2016, that quiet strength turned into unquestioned dominance. Atlanta, The People v. O.J. Simpson, The Americans, Better Things, and You’re the Worst is a best-of list unto its own, and that’s without Fargo, currently on climate-change-induced “We need snow for our show about how depressing Midwestern winters are” hiatus. Legion and Taboo are waiting in the wings; even Baskets has its partisans. We’ve spent so much time marveling at the post-antihero prestige arms race we didn’t notice its clear winner until Ryan Murphy made it official.

Winner: Ryan Reynolds

Robert Mays: Think about all the guys Marvel has thrown in a suit recently: Chris Pratt’s star was already rising before Guardians of the Galaxy. Handing a franchise to Benedict Cumberbatch was easy; he’s had plenty of practice. And Paul Rudd as an adorable, wisecracking con man doesn’t take much imagination.

When Reynolds got his shot at Deadpool, he was nowhere near that track. Much was made of his superhero second chance after Green Lantern’s glorious flameout, but the stink on him hardly stops there. Remember R.I.P.D.? How bout Self/less? The two best roles of Reynolds’s post-rom-com heyday were in Buried — which takes place in a fucking coffin — and Mississippi Grind. Together, their box-office haul was $1.75 million. As of right now, Van Wilder’s turn as the Merc with a Mouth has netted 430 times that. Four days after Deadpool opened to a record-setting February weekend, Deadline reported that Reynolds would star in Life, a big-budget space drama that eventually added Jake Gyllenhaal to its lineup. Criminal, it is not. Seems safe to say that Ryan Reynolds is back, and he did it by refusing to go away.

Loser: Yacht

Jason Concepcion: Making up a story about a leaked sex tape is bone-stupid and, hopefully, fingers crossed, no one tries a stunt like this for the foreseeable future.

Winner: Chance the Rapper

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Luckerson: Lil Chano strode to center stage during (ostensibly) a Kanye West Saturday Night Live performance in February, and he didn’t let go of the spotlight for the rest of the year. He gave us the rap verse of the year on “Ultralight Beam,” then kept us in church with the kaleidoscopic and spiritual Coloring Book. He eulogized Muhammad Ali at the ESPYs, launched his own music festival in Chicago, and donned a Super Mario Tanooki suit for Kit Kat while earning nary a drag. “I’m just having fun with it,” Chance told us on that SNL stage. That was clearly the case, whether he was freestyling for his girlfriend on Twitter or fanboying for Beyoncé at the VMAs. Rarely has a star-making turn been so fun to watch.

Loser: Taylor Swift

Molly McHugh: Taylor Swift probably sees herself as the martyr of 2016, but the year was just a series of Ls for her. Between “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative” Apple Notesgate, being dragged by not-his-actual-name Calvin Harris, and having her birthday co-opted by none other than her ex/fine-watch connoisseur John Mayer, times were tough for Swift. For a brief moment, it seemed like her relationship with Tom Hiddleston could lead to something — an album release? A music video? Anything other than some wretched Instagram photos? But nada.

Winner: Jake Tapper

Katie Baker: CNN’s Jake Tapper is an intriguing guy in his own right: He’s a cartoonist, he wrote an unauthorized biography of Jesse Ventura in the late ’90s, his office is decorated with the campaign signs of losers, he thinks you should read Michael Chabon’s latest. But he’s still an intrepid reporter at heart, best at making other people newsworthy. His interviews with Donald Trump earlier this year were unsparing and illuminating; more recently, he asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch a number of pointed questions about her infamous plane chat with Bill Clinton.

Tapper’s skeptical expressions speak for so many viewers; his command of the facts allow him to be an antagonist without blowing hot air. He has been praised for his Twitter presence; he has been named Samantha Bee’s inaugural Thunder Cunt award winner. After the John Podesta email leak revealed that the Clinton campaign manager had sent an email to a colleague asking, “Why is Jake Tapper such a dick?” Tapper tweeted: “It’s a question that has confounded millions of people for hundreds of years.” There have been many times throughout this long year when Tapper, with his impatience for bullshit, his perma-smirk, and his penchant for breaking out Yiddish terms like verkakte, has felt like the exact newsman we need.

Winner: J.K. Rowling

Mallory Rubin: It’s been nearly 20 years since J.K. Rowling first flew into our lives, and, like a beautiful phoenix, her magic has steadily regenerated ever since. But this year her creative tail feathers proved particularly strong, her elixirs more capable of healing our wounds than ever before. Like a Niffler in a jewelry store, JKR and her creations were everywhere in 2016.

She gave us a glimpse into Harry’s future by co-creating Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. She penned the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a five-part film series that’s poised to brilliantly walk the line between standalone saga and connected prequel. She continued to open the Pottermore vaults, adding more detail-rich backstory bricks to the world she’d already built as beautifully as Hogwarts itself. She allowed more of us than ever before to visit Hogwarts itself, with the gates to the West Coast Wizarding World opening in April. She even put her beloved characters and dialogue to charitable use.

Her gifts also extended beyond the magical realm. Though she did not put out a new Strike novel, the titillating mystery stories she’s been crafting under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym remained in the headlines, with HBO acquiring the American rights to the TV adaptation, and casting news sparking chatter. And between producing massive swaths of meaningful culture, she contributed micro bits as well, emerging as a Twitter force cutting through trolls (and president-elects) like the Sword of Gryffindor through a basilisk.

In 2016, JKR took on as many forms as the boggart in Lupin’s Defence Against the Dark Arts class. She never frightened, but she consistently thrilled.

Winner: Chad Johnson

Ben Lindbergh: Chad was a Bachelorette contestant so compelling that I wanted to watch him wherever he went, from Paradise to Bachelor-adjacent backwaters such as the notably boring Ben & Lauren: Happily Ever After? and Bachelorette Canada’s after show. It wasn’t just the memeable behavior — his ominous warning whistle, his unapologetic protein intake, his bromance with fellow meathead Daniel — that made Chad a champion. It was the man’s many contradictions: the outbursts of incredible braggadocio interspersed with glimpses of vulnerability, the moments of misanthropy and the reminders that he had feelings other than rage. By being both more clever and likeable than the other Bachelorette hopefuls and more prone to truly reprehensible conduct, Chad was a heel who made us question ourselves. I still haven’t decided whether he was exploiting TV’s reality landscape or being exploited by it.

Winner: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Litman: What’s left to say about to Lin-Manuel Miranda? He is such a winner that it’s boring and obvious. In 2016, he won Tonys and a Grammy and a Pulitzer. His Hamilton squad reminded us that theater is a place for peaceful protest. His most impressive feat of the year, though, was becoming a bona fide celebrity. One of the most difficult moves for a creative famous person to accomplish is a true crossover. Miranda has been a luminary to musical theater fans since In the Heights, but with Moana under his belt, Mary Poppins on the way, and a bevy of selfies with the famous people who went to his show, Miranda is now fully blown famous. And he completely deserves it. Hamilton remains extremely dope.

Loser: John Mayer

Alyssa Bereznak: By most standards of human existence, 2016 wasn’t the best year if you spent it handwashing white shirts while drinking tequila on Snapchat and searching for pictures of yourself on Instagram. And if you are a Grammy–award-winning musician like John Mayer, whose last album was released more than three years ago, it should be worrying that your most notable actions included launching an eponymous detergent with The Laundress, and adding some Tibetan rope jewelry to your website. In June, Mayer declared “I’m ready to roll, I’m more mature than I’ve ever been.” This statement was quickly disproved when he released a very bad song that includes the very bad line: “Love on the weekend/ I hate your guts ’cause I’m lovin’ every minute of it.” To top the year off, he recently tweeted: “Tuesday, December 13 may be the lamest day of the year, conceptually,” most likely in reference to the birthday of Taylor Swift, his ex. The 39-year-old man then deleted the tweet and, minutes later, shared a screenshot of it, saying “Looks like I shouldn’t have deleted this tweet…” You already know that Taylor Swift had a pretty bad year, image-wise. But somehow, John Mayer’s was worse.

Winner: Jesuit Priests

Kate Knibbs: 2016 was the biggest W banner year for Jesuit priests since St. Ignatius of Loyola was straight-up alive. Pope Francis — a Jesuit — continued his Woke Pope tour, Marty Scorsese made a sweeping historical drama about SEXXXY JESUIT PRIESTS, and then his star, Andrew Garfield, spent an entire major-motion-picture press tour talking about how spiritually gratifying the Jesuit way of life is.

Also, the young pope in HBO’s upcoming Young Pope isn’t explicitly identified as a Jesuit, but he gives off a real ’Suit vibe, so that’s something extra to celebrate.

Winner: The Word “Levitate”

Shea Serrano: Many good things were done by many good people, and those good things resulted in the sort of upward movement we all covet for ourselves. For example, Donald Glover started out the year as a guy we were all pretty sure could stay good on TV and could possibly be good in music. Now, 12 months later, Glover has a critically acclaimed TV show, a critically acclaimed album, and a new, better, bigger, brighter spot in the pop culture conversation. That’s great. Nobody, though, made a greater and more undeniable move forward than the word “levitate,” which Kendrick Lamar took and turned into a war cry and a declaration of intention on “Untitled 07.” Prior to this year, the word “levitate” belonged mostly to magicians, and magicians are just about the worst group to belong to. “Levitate” now belongs to us, to everyone, to all things. Do you need advice? Is your relationship in trouble? Are you struggling at work? Do the people around you take you for granted? Because here is my advice for those situations, and every situation for the rest of my life: levitate.

Winner: Hip-Hop’s Relationship With Funk

Brooks: The year in hip-hop was tumultuous and plentiful. Most of our signature performers dropped albums — some of them good and progressive, some of them flat and uninspired. But one thread was strongest through it all: the heavy references to funk and jazz roots found in the genre. Whether it’s Kendrick crooning on “Goosebumps,” Childish Gambino floating on “Redbone,” or Noname openly reminiscing on tracks like “Diddy Bop” and “Shadow Man,” hip-hop spent some time reconnecting with what is at its foundation. The game is better for it.

Winner: Kate McKinnon

Alison: Ghostbusters lost at the box office, but McKinnon won our hearts. Hillary Clinton lost the election, but McKinnon won SNL. Nobody in 2016 more regularly snatched victory from the jaws of institutional misogyny — and what’s more, she did it without ever seeming to make a statement or stand for a cause. Kate McKinnon is just really funny, and who doesn’t love to laugh?

Winner: ‘Gomorrah’

Concepcion: You’ve seen a million mafia stories, but you haven’t seen anything like Gomorrah. Adapted from the journalist Robert Saviano’s book (and Matteo Garrone’s film) of the same title, the show tells the story of the rise and fall of gangsters in Naples. Showrunner Stefano Sollima, in collaboration with Saviano, has created a bleak portrait unstinting in its depiction of characters with no redeeming values doing things that are utterly evil. There are no anti-heroes in Gomorrah; it is a show, unambiguously, about villains. But it’s also refreshing because it is an organized crime story that has no stylistic relationship to the Italian-American mob tales you’re used to.

Loser: VR’s Short-Term Mainstream Dreams

Lindbergh: There are ways in which virtual reality was a winner this year: Three credible devices (the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR) finally made it to market, and many consumers strapped on a headset for the first time and experienced some semblance of the “holodeck in my living room” fantasy. Those are milestones for which we’ve waited decades.

Despite those strong proofs of concept, though, this wasn’t the year when VR became something everyone had to have. After entering 2016 with a wave of hype about “the year of VR” and sure-to-be-massive sales, VR fell prey to the traditional drawbacks of first-gen hardware: high prices, hardware delays and shortages, compatibility questions, and a lack of killer apps. The most costly equipment found few converts beyond the early adopters, and augmented reality reached the masses first. None of VR’s growing pains has convinced me that VR won’t be a big part of the future when the prices fall, the applications spread, and the games get better. The technology is too transformative not to be embraced. But the medium’s big debut didn’t do away with the doubts.

Winner: Charlamagne Tha God

Donnie Kwak: This is the year when Charlamagne evolved from a rabble-rousing shock jock to a mainstream media brand. On Planet Hot Take, overcrowded and chaotic, Charlamagne has elevated himself closer to the 1 percent of media personalities, whose reactions to the news becomes news itself. He reached this level through perseverance — over a decade and counting as a radio host — and now, more of a defined sense of purpose.

To be clear, the guy is still an irrepressible blowhard. Yet his provocation is beginning to transcend hip-hop gossip. His bread and butter is still The Breakfast Club morning show — April’s Birdman “Respek”tacle is an all-time classic — but the guest list reflects his progression. It used to look like a Love & Hip Hop roll call; this year Charlamagne and Co. have carved out a space in the “non-urban” interview circuit, with guests ranging from Andy Cohen to Dakota Access Pipeline protesters to, yes, our own Bill Simmons. During his appearance, Bill said to the hosts: “You can have a guest on and the guest comes in, and the guest knows everything is on the table. And that’s a really hard place to get to.” The Breakfast Club has become one of the best interview shows in the business.

Of course it was an aborted interview that thrust Charlamagne onto TMZ’s radar: the canceled Tomi Lahren sit-down. Charlamagne was now being mentioned alongside Trevor Noah, not Birdman. Perhaps the best evidence of Charlamagne’s new status came in the wake of the controversy. The following day, his foes at a rival network launched a lengthy ad hominem rampage against him. Charlamagne didn’t respond.

Loser: Forest Whitaker’s Accents

Sam Schube: Arrival and Rogue One were two of my most anticipated movies this year: big-budget sci-fi movies from cool directors — one an original property, and the other the latest drop from the biggest IP spout of them all. Also, they both had Forest Whitaker in a supporting role, which was cool. I like Forest Whitaker. Arrival and Rogue One were also two of my straight-up favorite movies this year. But not because Forest Whitaker was in them. Because — and I hope Forest is reading this — it’s really hard to create a compelling character when the audience can’t understand a word you’re saying. His general in Arrival had a totally undecipherable maybe-Southern accent; his rebel extremist in Rogue One spoke with something creaky, wheezy, and a little bit British. (His character is named Saw Gerrera; I kept hearing “Sol Guerrero.”) Forest Whitaker is blessed with striking charisma and great screen presence. He also has a wonderful speaking voice. Next year, I hope he uses it.

Winner: Drake

Allison P. Davis: Drake turned 30 this year, and you can tell he really came into his own and is comfortable in his own skin. As a result, the brand of Drake was the Drakest it’s ever been, and, it seems, sort of the most successful. He’s never been swoller. He dropped his Drakest line yet (“Why you gotta fight with me at Cheesecake”). He got to slow-wine on Rihanna in like four different music videos. He got the key to Toronto. He’s never been more prolific: First there was Views, an album that was 12 songs too long but gave Drake his first no. 1 hit on the Billboard charts and spent 33 weeks on the chart (it’s currently at no. 17). He received a record-breaking 13 AMA nominations. “One Dance,” a mediocre Drake song, has been streamed a billion times on Spotify. He released a couple more singles, one of which, “Fake Love,” is quite good. He made a short movie. Yes, Please Forgive Me was an abomination, but hey, at least he felt secure enough in his talents to challenge himself and dabble in experimental art-house film — plus, we all all still watched it.

Loser: Drake

Davis: August 29, 2016. Drake declares Rihanna “someone I’ve been in love with since I was 22.” Drake goes in for a kiss on national television. Rihanna does not kiss him back. Drake has finally Draked too far.