Grantland Asks: Which Pop Culture Phenomenon Won 2013?

Jan 1, 2014
Originally published on January 2, 2014 12:41 pm

Friend of the blog Rembert Browne and the folks at Grantland put together their annual year-end, winner-take-all tournament bracket to determine just who won pop culture in 2013. Yeah, it's a jokey project, but Grantland is better than just about anyone at considering our popular culture without moralizing didacticism or snarky dilettantism.

Rembert came up with a diverse field full of 32 entities that we had to reckon with this year, including:

  • Scandal, which became a television phenomenon large enough to swallow Twitter whole once a week
  • the ubiquitous, delightful movie star Jennifer Lawrence
  • the ubiquitous, insufferable Harlem Shake
  • the intense, unforgiving final season of "Breaking Bad"
  • the selfie, powered by your teenage siblings/cousins and Instagram
  • the tennis star Andy Murray. (Sadly, as Rembert points out, finally winning Wimbledon and bringing the trophy home to the U.K. after nearly eight decades means his career has essentially peaked.)

As the bracket progressed to the later rounds, LeBron James faced off against Peyton Manning. Beyoncé, who is rewriting the rules of pop superstardom, went up against Pope Francis, who is reorienting the focus of his billion-member flock. Kanye West, as exasperating as he is important, tore through the early rounds of Rembert's tournament like a buzzsaw, until he came up against the eventual winner of 2013: cultural appropriation. Which makes sense, because as Rembert points out, cultural appropriation — and the conversation about it — was impossible to miss over the last 12 months year.

Through all the mess, that's what stands out about cultural appropriation in 2013. The fact that, through a newfound ability to talk about things, there was a discourse redistricting. And, like it or not, it wouldn't have happened had Miley not become the ambassador for twerking and an assortment of other things that have been labeled as "minstrelsy," had Lorde not written lyrics for "Royals" that could have been misconstrued as racially insensitive, had the Washington Redskins not continued to remain the Washington Redskins, had Macklemore not struck gold with "Thrift Shop" and "Same Love," had the Harlem Shake been titled something different from a dance popularized a decade earlier, and had Kanye not made songs called "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" and then produced apparel decorated with Confederate flags.

A ton of uncomfortable things happened in 2013. But we finally began talking about them together. Declaring cultural appropriation as the winner of 2013 signifies that, for 12 months, we all kind of lost. But I'll take a short-term mess in exchange for long-term progress any day.

(Not bragging or anything — okay, maybe bragging a taste — but the Code Switch team kind of called this in our very first post.)

Still, I think there were some pretty big omissions here. Even though "Royals" was everywhere, Lorde didn't make the tourney. My Code Switch teammate Matt Thompson suggested Michael B. Jordan, the charismatic star of Fruitvale Station. (No worries: he's certain to make it to the Sweet 16 one of these years, though.)

What cultural figure should have made the tournament? Daft Punk?, which became so huge that people really believed that delivery-by-drones story? Movies featuring peoples of color? Allie Brosh, whose hilarious, deeply moving webcomic Hyperbole And A Half returned as a book after nearly two years of silence?

We want to hear your suggestions in the comments. You'll find Grantland's list here.

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