In the early hours of November 9, there was only total despair. Nothing else seemed possible. And then, we began to get back up: For every image of a celebrity traipsing sheepishly through the lobby of Trump Tower, there was a video of Patti Smith singing "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" with an orchestra at her back in Vienna, plainly overwhelmed by the Nobel she was accepting for her friend, Bob Dylan. For every report of another hate crime, there was a Ta-Nehisi Coates to remind everyone that, "For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell." For every appointee Donald Trump added to his cabinet of atrocities, there were three more musicians who refused to perform at his inauguration. Yes, it would've been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year even without the election. But it was, contrary to appearances, objectively not the worst year ever. Below, 14 writers rehash 2016: Some chose to wipe off and hold up the treasures that shone through the murk, while others panned the silt below for silvery linings. And, guess what? As much as there was to bemoan this year, there was just as much to celebrate. Well, maybe that's pushing it. But here's to the year that was, for better and for worse. —Fan Zhong
The Year of the Bubble
Kyle Munzenreider: The day after the election wasn’t the first time I was told I lived in a bubble. That happened on a yellow public school bus during a field trip when I overheard my middle school Social Studies teacher tell my Science teacher that we, the students, had all grown up in a bubble. My Florida hometown, an idyllic-seeming place that exists to cater to the interests of Midwest retirees—it likes to boast it has more holes of golf per capita than anywhere else in the country—was indeed a bubble. Of course, it was a bubble I was dying to get out of. The magazine rack at the bookstore and later the internet provided not only a temporary escape but a place where I could build my own counter-bubble. One where people listened to cool music, talked about art, and actually thought that maybe the Iraq war wasn’t such a great idea. Imagine!
I get how comfortable, soothing, and sometimes necessary constructing your own online and media-assisted bubble-land can be. I just never imagined that the rich, mostly white, mostly Republican retirees who populated my hometown would also one day build one of their own. Yet that’s what happened. They’re not the only ones. More and more, we all live in our own little bubbles. Streaming services and cable networks are churning out content that are aimed with laser precision at each and every tiny sliver of the demographic pie (in fact, 2016 saw more scripted television series than ever before). Literary imprints, record labels, and indie studios exist to cater to increasingly specific tastes. “Newsy” sites provide a steady stream of impassioned half-fact, half-opinion pieces for every political outlook imaginable (and that’s not even counting fake news).
America the melting pot has given way to America the bubble bath. The problem is that something has to rise to the top, and this year, well, what did wasn’t too appealing. Somehow both Suicide Squad and Batman V. Superman ended up as two of the biggest movies of the year, despite the fact it remains impossible to find anyone who actually enjoyed either. In fashion, the most dominant trends were... what? Athleisure, branded merch and nostalgia? And, of course, we have a President-elect who will enter office with historically low poll numbers. The reality is that a bubble bath may be a nice respite, but stay too long and things start to get a little too soggy. Here’s to popping some bubbles in 2017.
The Year Sci-Fi Got Too Real
Katherine Cusumano: In the second season of the BBC's cult science-fiction series Black Mirror, which aired in 2013, a cartoon character runs for public office—and wins. This year, when the show returned from hiatus for its third season, a reality television star-turned-white nationalist figurehead ran for public office—and wins. In 2016, Black Mirror, which has always worn its cultural timeliness as a badge of honor, became just a little too on-the-nose, even if that is less a fault of the series and more the product of reality looking, these days, so unreal. Since Jonathan Swift, sci-fi and its genre ancestors have provided fertile ground to reflect on uncomfortable realities by holding up a mirror at society from the safe distance of speculative fiction. But as supposed future tech has converged at a faster and scarier pace with current-day reality than we anticipated, so has sci-fi. In 2016, the questions asked by science fiction—in the form of entertainments like Black Mirror, Westworld, Arrival, and much, much more—felt more urgent than ever before. Still more chillingly, they did not always provide the answers.
The Year of Musical Healing
Brooke Marine: A constant relief throughout 2016 has been the steady release of very good, multilayered, complex music, and especially that which came from tenacious black voices. Some of the most popular, and most challenging, albums of 2016 have come from artists like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Blood Orange, to name a few. Even Kanye West’s sprawling, scattered, and at-first unfinished The Life of Pablo challenged fans and critics alike. But the three albums I’ve still yet to remove from my streaming music library (even as my storage is near-depleted) are Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, and Solange’s A Seat at the Table. Each one of these endeavors reinforces the necessity of community-building and healing for black Americans, and illuminates the internal and external political conflicts they engage with on a daily basis.
The three artists take on their traumas and spiritual queries in different ways. Chance the Rapper praises and exuberantly alludes to biblical verses, allowing his Christian faith to lift his work (“When the praises go up, the blessings come down," he exults on "Blessings"). But Frank Ocean, the existentially tortured crooner, looks inward to the unknown, searching for meaning in a lonely world (“It's hell on Earth and the city's on fire,” he trills on “Solo”). And Solange demands a celebration of blackness, and speaks to the stress of living in a world that constantly seeks to demoralize and dehumanize black people (see: “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.”). I’ve been listening to these albums nonstop since their release, and sometimes have to force myself to take a break; even as they heal me, they make me too emotional for my morning and evening commutes among the people of New York.
The Year Ariana Grande's "Side by Side" Was Here For Me (Really)
Brian Moylan: I heard it first in a T Mobile commercial. Young Ariana Grande, a wood nymph who descended to Earth to show us mortals what bangs should look like, was singing her hit single “Side to Side” in the car along with some Muggle who looks like she cut her hair with a pair of safety scissors in front of a dirty mirror. The commercial was both a failure and a success: It did not induce me to switch my mobile plan (#AT&T4Lyfe), but it did make me seek out “Side to Side” on YouTube and listen to it incessantly through a very difficult fall.
For those who don’t know, the song is about Ariana’s boyfriend who is no good. Her friends are always telling her that she should give him up, but then he comes over and gives it to her good. He gives it to her so good that the next day she can’t even walk straight. (Alongside this message about having sex so good that it requires a chiropractor, Nicki Minaj impressively rhymes “wrist icicle” with “dick bicycle.") We can all sympathize with the song; we’ve all had a lover for whom we chose sex over common sense. And, bear with me here, we’ve all had a year that f--ked us so royally that we’re walking side to side. With 2016's relentless bad news—from Trump to Brexit to Aleppo to climate change to celebrity deaths to Kim Kardashian's robbery and Kanye's mental breakdown—nobody felt they didn't get screwed this year. Still, here we are, walking side to side; this is still the only world we got, vile men and tragedy be damned. Like Ariana in that commercial, we're abandoned on the side of the road, without a compass to guide us. Luckily we can still have small pleasures like this song to get us through, and the will to fight to make the next year better than the last. But still, we don’t have T Mobile.
The Wop Year
Nate Freeman: My favorite commentary written after the election came from an unlikely place. It's a caption for a video, text that's usually perfunctory, window dressing for the media it lies beneath. The caption describes a performance, part of NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series, where musicians come to the radio station's Bryant Park offices and play a few songs. Here's the best part, right in the middle:
"Everyone in the room knew their songs—one from 2009 and two from this year—and knew that this performance would represent a surreal dip into a parallel universe where ingenuity is rewarded, snobbery is gone and love is real."
There's the shock of the election that has pushed us all toward hyperbole: "a surreal dip into a parallel universe." There's the hope that actual worth can triumph over petty bullying: "ingenuity is rewarded, snobbery is gone." There's the joy of communal worship: "everyone in the room knew their songs." And there's the catharsis that comes when a truly beatific musician can actually deliver us from this dark place we've found ourselves, even for a short while: "love is real."
The Year (Celebrity) Love Died
Allyson Shiffman: Nothing good survived 2016, including Hollywood’s highest-profile celebrity couples. And apropos the utter carnage that characterized the year, there was nary a conscious uncoupling in sight. These splits were ugly, drawn out, and struck us without warning. It was an A to Z of juicy scandals of every variety, from cheating (Diane Kruger and Joshua Jackson, by way of Norman Reedus) to allegations of domestic abuse (Amber Heard and Johnny Depp) to petty Twitter feuds (Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris) to PR vehicles crashing to a screeching halt (Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston). Even the less dramatic breakups felt downright depressing, like Taylor Kinney and Lady Gaga (the pop star took to Instagram to urge fans to pray for their reconciliation), Bella Hadid and The Weeknd (they were too “hot” for this world) and Naomi Watts and Liev Shreiber, the golden couple with two darling children who looked to be in it for the long haul. But still, nothing could have prepared us for the big one: We will remember where we were when we found out Angelina Jolie filed for divorce from Brad Pitt, spawning a brutal custody battle for their six children, not to mention dozens of Jennifer Aniston memes. It was the final nail in the coffin for celebrity romance in 2016, but there may be a silver lining for 2017: Maybe now celebs will start dating civilians instead. A girl can dream.
The Year Fashion Got Feminist
Ally Betker: In an effort to move positively into 2017, I’m reflecting on the uplifting moments from a discouraging year, namely the wave of girl power that our first female presidential nominee brought to fashion. The rise of merch gave way to “I’m With Her” paraphernalia and the Made for History project, with t-shirts designed by the likes of Marc Jacobs, Public School, and Tory Burch. Instagram feeds were covered with “The Future Is Female” logo, which the New York Times called a “sensation.” “It’s kind of a call to arms, and it’s a statement of fact,” photographer Liza Cowan, who shot the first iteration of the t-shirt in 1975, told the paper. And while Hillary Clinton didn’t break that ultimate glass ceiling, there were smaller victories that deserve a podium place. For example, Maria Grazia was named the first female creative director at Dior, and the “We Should All Be Feminists” shirt she showed in her debut collection capped off an optimistic season full of bright color, diverse models (in skin color, size, and age), and a front row populated by the new class of feminist It girls, Lena Dunham, Petra Collins, and Cleo Wade among them. If Chanel’s feminist “protest” on the runway in 2014 felt gimmicky and out-of-touch, fashion’s embrace of feminism this year was both emotionally charged and a call to action. Grazia’s collection felt like the extension of a woman embracing a major new role in our industry, while also remaining keenly aware of the gravitas of the appointment, and the reality of the world around her. I don’t think we’ll lose these sentiments, or the sartorial statements in the new year. Come find me in D.C. at the Million Women March on January 21. I’ll be the girl in the “Nasty Woman” hat.
The Unhappy Year of Movie Anniversaries
Alexandra Pechman: When I first saw Matilda as an almost-seven-year-old in 1996, I had no idea the world I’d be living in as a 27-year-old would look more and more like the Wormwood house. The film had its 20th anniversary this year, and when I watched it recently—it’s been on TV nonstop over the holidays—it seemed more important to show it to children now than at any time in recent memory. Between the 1988 book, the film adaptation, and a new-ish touring musical, you probably know the story. But in case you don't: A genius little girl who loves the library discovers she has magic powers and schools her philistine parents and abusive school principle. (“Matilda longed for a friend, someone like the kind, courageous people in her books.”) In the movie, the Wormwood parents, played by Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, emerge loudly in living color, in Cheeto orange and new money green. In their chintzy, bric-a-brac living room, the Wormwoods eat M&Ms and marshmallows for breakfast, tally their earnings, make fun of reading, and force their kids to watch wrestling matches and reality TV. At the time, it was meant as brash caricature; in the Trump era, it looks eerily close to reality. In the used-car shop he runs, Mr. Wormwood teaches his kids how to cheat customers with cheap tricks, like gluing on bumpers instead of welding them. “Isn’t that dangerous?” Matilda asks. “Not to me!” he replies. (He may as well add, “That makes me smart!”) The president-elect’s actions so far wouldn’t be out of character for a Roald Dahl villain, with a stable of characters in the cabinet who fit the bill, too. When right and wrong seemed so clear in a kid’s movie, it's hard to understand how 20 years later the two sides have become so willfully confused. (If you want further evidence of farce as unfortunate forecast, it was also the 40th anniversary of Network.)
The Year Theater Made Me Optimistic
Vanessa Lawrence: Sixteen days after the election, I was sitting at the Public Theater in New York watching Lynn Nottage’s soulful, beautiful and eerily prescient play Sweat. And for the first time in that two-plus week period I felt something tugging at my skin: hope. It's not that Nottage’s work is inherently optimistic—many people are likely to emerge from their seats feeling, well, sad, depressed and even angry, depending on their frames of reference. Set in Reading, PA (a city cited as the most economically depressed in America in 2011), Sweat focuses on a group of factory workers, both former and current, who through toiling and then drinking together at the same bar (run by Stan, a former worker who was injured on the job) have formed a bond that, however tight, can be irrevocably broken by conflict. That catalyst comes in the form of a managerial promotion, which two friends Cynthia (who is black) and Tracey (who is white) both seek, and the looming prospect of job cuts and a union lockout. When Cynthia wins and the inevitable corporate fat trimming mandate goes out, Stan’s Columbian-American barback Oscar goes after the new, free non-union jobs, creating a complicated and nuanced portrait of race and socioeconomics and immigration across generations.
So how on earth did I pull out a thread of optimism from this stacked work? The fact that working-class families across the country were suffering in great numbers thanks to lost jobs wasn’t news. Nor was the notion that race relations can be just dandy until the going gets tough a revelation. But what Sweat, which Nottage and her director Kate Whoriskey researched heavily through interviews with Reading residents, did was breathe life into people with whom I have no contact and into whom I have no insight, in a way that no news story has managed to accomplish. I felt deep compassion for these characters, and while I couldn’t agree with their political leanings, I could understand the motivation behind their decisions. And the fact that a play could accomplish this task, well, that makes me hopeful.
The Olympic Year Ryan Lochte Could Not Ruin
Kristin Tice Studeman: Ryan Lochte tried really, really hard to ruin the Summer Olympics for us. But let us not forget Simone Biles's performance in Rio. The 19-year-old took home her fourth gold and one bronze, hands down one of the greatest Olympic performances by any gymnast, ever. She became the fourth American female gymnast to win five medals in a single Games, after legends Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller, and Nastia Liukin. She flipped, twisted, and turned her way into American hearts, and then charmed the rest of the world, too. In the face of enormous pressure—she came into the Games an almost foregone conclusion to win gold—she was very nearly perfect. So were her teammates, who were utterly dominant. They proved that while infamy lasts the length of the news cycle, greatness never gets old.
The Year of Self-Care
Emilia Petrarca: “Take care of yourself.” It used to be a meaningless farewell. Today, it's an emphatic order, with an emphasis on "self" as a separate entity that requires not only physical maintenance, but also mental, spiritual, and emotional. It’s not a novel idea, but this year self-care became a mainstream practice to combat compounding political and social anxieties. It's a revival of the ethos the writer and activist Audre Lorde espoused in 1988: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation,” she wrote in A Burst of Light. “And that is an act of political warfare.”
Google searches for “self-care” had the largest spike in five years from November 13 through November 19, according to the New York Times. These, of course, are the weeks following the election of Donald Trump. But 2016's need for healing was not only due to Trump—it was also the year of Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, of terror in gay dance clubs, of cyber attacks, of the world’s biggest celebrities deleting themselves from social media. It was a rough year for almost everyone, but a particularly unbearable one for those who already fight single every day to exist in the world as themselves. To the cynics: self-care at its most sincere is not a capitalist ploy to turn your attention from politics to expensive candles. No, self-care nourishes our differences. And it says that one of the best ways to combat hate is not with more hate—it's to love yourself.
The Year We Couldn't Play It Cool Anymore
Fan Zhong: The week after Trump was elected President, I went to a dinner at the Whitney Museum in New York. The same question circulated the table: "How are you doing?" There was an archness to the ritual—it was the question we'd been asking one another all week, haha—but the concern also felt genuine. When it came her turn to answer, the thirtysomething artist I was seated next to replied with the typical terror and disbelief. Later on, though, she added a postscript: The night of the election after the results came in, her boyfriend, also an artist, proposed to her. In the moment, she said, there seemed no possible way to combat such existential dread except with gloriously naive hope for the future. When everything you thought you knew is falling apart around you, what is the point of caution? Might as well take the longest shot. (She said yes, of course.)
That's how I have come to view, with optimism and gratitude, much of the best output in film, TV, and music in 2016. Beyoncé got both deeply political and unflinchingly, almost uncomfortably personal; Solange spoke with no ambiguity—and great musicality—on the anxieties of being black in America; Frank Ocean trusted that we would hang on his every (wordless) move, and gave us an album that felt as important as its build-up was tortured. Even Kanye West, whose politics now threaten to alter my relationship to his music, dared to openly revise Pablo before our eyes and ears. (As a writer, I shuddered.) Meanwhile, in the first TV series he's helmed, Donald Glover eschewed common practice: Instead of staffing a writer's room, he rented a house in Los Angeles and filled it with friends whose voices he trusted. Instead of hiring veteran TV directors, he hired Hiro Murai, a music video director, to make his idea, which could only have been pitched in a meeting as a kind of tone, come alive. The result, FX's Atlanta, was the most thrilling and original product this year. And midway through the first season of Fleabag, creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge took a dark sitcom featuring a single woman behaving delightfully badly and flipped it, without a word of warning to its viewers, into a pitch-black drama featuring the same single woman on the verge of a breakdown. The destination was worth the detour; in fact, the detour was worth the detour. And with Moonlight, Barry Jenkins made a film that was not just an issues picture about being poor, black, and gay. It is also deeply felt and personal, strange and surreal enough that it could not reflect my own experience, nor that of most Oscar voters—and more importantly, it did not seek to. To a man or woman, these culture-makers took great leaps of faith. And we leaped with them. That's a good sign.
The Year America Protested
Stephanie Eckardt: Though the Academy Award nominations came out at the same dependable time this year, the Academy's consistent pattern of oversights—in this case, the roster of entirely white nominees—found a different reception in January: #OscarsSoWhite, a hashtag-driven campaign quickly propagated not just by thousands of angry Twitter users, but by the likes of Spike Lee and Will Smith, who were willing to go beyond an armchair retweet to actually boycott the ceremony. It became clear early on this year that online activism, which took firm hold in 2015 with Black Lives Matter, was set to come full circle: Months later, when the summer saw yet another series of senseless police killings, the widely circulated videos of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and, finally, Laquan McDonald produced more anger and heartbreak than could be simply expressed by an avatar. America protested in full, with people taking to the streets everywhere from St. Paul to New York to Baton Rouge to voice their outrage even after a protest in Dallas turned violent. Even big names in industries like fashion, too, were spurred to step into the fray and away from the comparative safety of their screens.
Of course, from this street-level activism there arose a new anxiety: Suddenly, protesters who turned up were being accused of social media tourism—for example, it felt like a social obligation within my circle to Instagram the starting line of the Trump protest march in Union Square, even if one didn't march all the way uptown. Then there were those who made the pilgrimage to the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota in November, where temperatures had begun steadily dropping below freezing. The latter, it turned out, would draw the heaviest criticism for turning a protest site into Burning Man—but it also became by far this year’s most measurably effective action when it successfully forced the government to halt its pipeline project (at least for the time being). In the end, does it matter why people show up if they do? Probably not. Either way, in 2017 the revolution will be Instagrammed.
The Year the Art World Stood Up
Antwaun Sargent: “END WHITE SUPREMACY NOW,” reads the artist Sam Durant’s glow-in-the-dark orange-and-black light box. The sign, unveiled earlier this month at Art Basel Miami Beach, currently hangs above 24th Street outside Paula Cooper Gallery in New York’s Chelsea art district. First scrawled matter-of-factly in black marker on paper by a protestor in 1963, the appropriated text is a cautionary word from the past that joined a chorus of art works in a yearlong fight against white supremacy, and the white nationalist-adjacent nominee on the ballot.
Earlier this summer, a few blocks over outside of Jack Shainman Gallery, the artist Dread Scott remade a black-and-white flag the NAACP first flew outside of their 5th Avenue offices in 1938 that read, “A MAN WAS LYNCHED TODAY." Scott flew his flag after two unarmed black men, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, were fatally shot by police officers within a day of each other in July. Scott’s reminder of the unabated killing of black people by police officers was a part of a larger effort orchestrated by Hank Willis Thomas and a band of nearly 40 artists—Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and Zoe Buckman among them—to counter white America's assumption that this country belongs only to them. In Mississippi, Thomas’s art-political PAC For Freedoms put up a billboard depicting black and white protestors marching on Selma in 1965. The historic image, one of this country's finest moments, was made chillingly current, embossed with the Republican presidential nominee’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.”
There's more. Recently, a group of 150 curators, gallerists, and artists (including Rob Pruitt and Marilyn Minter) collected by Ivanka Trump, the unofficial incoming first lady, formed Dear Ivanka, a protest group whose first action was to march on Ivanka Trump’s downtown doorsteps. The artist Cameron Rowland’s exhibition "9102000" at New York's Artist Space explored through commercial objects produced through incarcerated labor—school desks, fire fighter uniforms, and sewer rings—the prison system's links to slavery and the mass incarceration of black men. Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at the Met Breuer, featuring 72 awe-inspiring paintings depicting scenes of black life, reminded us how rare it is to see people of color represented in culture, museums, and history in their full range of human possibility. And the cinematographer and artist Arthur Jafa provided the prefect antidote to what many have called a “white lash” with Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, an unflinching seven-minute film installation at Gavin Brown's gallery that pairs a history of white violence against black Americans with their creative response to such unchecked racial animus. In one particularly stirring scene in the video, which is soundtracked to Kanye West’s rap-gospel “Ultralight Beam,” Jafa plays back the moment President Obama stood before the congregation at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, eulogizing their pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight other parishioners killed in their sanctuary by the white supremacist Dylan Roof. The president, moved by the spirit, sung “Amazing Grace“ in sorrow. With the election of our next president, we will miss this one more than we ever imagined. It remains an open question if black lives will matter under the incoming "law and order" administration. But it looks for certain that the artists' fight has just begun.