2019 brought us a lot. Off the top of these reporters' heads: the third time in United States history the House of Representatives has voted to impeach a sitting president, a trailblazing wave of youth-led climate protests, and the most diverse — and plentiful — crowd of presidential candidates the country has ever seen.
But it also brought us Baby Yoda. And an immersive, beyond-the-scenes film of a historic Beyoncé concert. And a squad of congresswomen who use social media in innovative ways, breaking tradition in an effort to reach their constituents where they are.
As we look back at the past year, we know that not every moment will have a lasting effect; not every moment will get a president impeached, or even be remembered past January. But for varying reasons, they brought society together for a little while, whether to bask in the glow of an athlete or singer who finally got their due, or just to gleefully watch, enraptured, at the demise of some villain whose failure we've collectively decided to root for.
And so, here are the 15 moments that we think best define all 2019 had to offer popular culture:
Jan. 1: Cleaning Up With The Kon-Artist
On the very first day of 2019, Marie Kondo launched her Netflix series, "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo," and acquired a kind of cult-leader status with her patented anti-hoarding “KonMari” method. Kondo encouraged us to kiss our beloved dreck goodbye, thanking the T-shirt from our 2009 Turkey Trot 5k for its continued service and finally donating that copy of "Infinite Jest."
As millions of viewers purged their lives of unwanted objects that no longer sparked joy, Kondo caught a bit of criticism for her part in filling the landfills with joyless crap. But her real crime was committed in the latter part of the year, when Kondo launched a retail component of her empire. If ditching your belongings created a $175 compost bin-sized hole in your heart, look no further than the Shop at Konmari: a one-stop shop for a $24 "crumb brush" to sweep away the mistakes of 2019 and a small, $75 empty leather box to contain the promise of 2020.
Jan. 3: The Year Of The Squad Commences
It began with an Instagram post in October of last year: a picture of then Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) seated together and a one-word caption: “Squad.” On Jan. 3, Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in as the youngest woman in history to be elected to Congress, and her "squad" took their oaths beside her. The freshman members made the 116th Congress the most diverse class yet — not just racially, but generationally, with a record number of women.
Of that class, the four liberal women of color making up “the squad” became well-known for speaking their minds (see: Tlaib’s “impeach the motherf*****” speech), their stances on Israel, and their willingness to criticize President Donald Trump, particularly on his immigration policies. In July, Trump tweeted that the four congresswomen, three of whom were born in the United States, should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” In response, Pressley issued a statement calling Trump’s tweet racist. “Congresswoman Omar, Congresswoman Tlaib, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and I represent four of the most diverse districts in America,” Pressley wrote, “and the President’s attacks illustrate his abhorrent lack of respect for the hundreds of thousands of people we represent.”
Jan. 14: Watching Fyremania With Giddy Horror
A weekend getaway with Blink 182 on Pablo Escobar’s private island? If it sounds too good to be true, it’s because it was. Thanks to two dueling documentaries from Netflix and Hulu — the first one, "Fyre Fraud" released on Hulu on Jan. 14, and Netflix's "Fyre" four days later — we got an inside look at how the spectacular disaster that was the Fyre Festival came to be.
The documentaries follow entrepreneur and now convicted felon Billy McFarland's plan to host his own Coachella-like music festival on a deserted island — despite the fact that he had no island, and failed to find one that had all the amenities needed for such a festival (toilets, showers, a surprise appearance from a now-defunct band from the 1990s.) So, like Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams,” Billy hoped that if he built it, they would come.
Come they did, but build it — he did not. Instead, McFarland caused $100 million in damages while festival-goers were stranded without lodging or access to bathrooms. Fans took shameless glee, of course, in the schadenfreude of watching a bunch of ultra-rich yuppies stranded, frantic and festival-less, and the internet lit up with the haunting image of the dinner served to attendees who had dropped more than $2,000 to attend the festival.
Amid the sinful fun of watching this trainwreck unfold in our living rooms, Fyre had one last surprise to throw to fans. Shortly after its release, it was revealed that the main financial backer of the Netflix documentary was the same social media marketing firm that helped market the festival, despite having their own concerns about Fyre.
Feb. 21: Late Night Television Gets A Breath Of Fresh Air
Twitter heavyweights Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez (AKA Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, AKA The Bodega Boys) had a good thing going with their show at Viceland. But when they left for a new home and bigger platform on Showtime, their was a lot at stake: Would a larger audience buy into their off-the-cuff, Bronx-spiced humor?
It’s safe to say the move worked. “Desus and Mero,” which premiered in February and has already been renewed for a second season, has become the go-to place for big names to go for interviews they wouldn’t get anywhere else. (Just watch them navigating an escape room with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren for proof.)
The duo’s antics are the flagship of an increasingly diversifying fleet of late-night options. From the "Desus and Mero" brand staying strong, to Lily Singh becoming the first person of Indian descent — and the first woman in 30 years — to host a late night show on a major network with the September release of NBC's "A Little Late With Lilly Singh," 2019 has been a promising step forward for comedy after dark.
March 8: Gayle King Interviews R. Kelly
In March, CBS News aired host Gayle King's interview with R. Kelly, the first in-depth interview with the singer since he had been indicted on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in February. The television interview lasted over an hour, and Kelly’s volatility was captured in a single photograph that captivated the internet: Kelly standing over King with his mouth open, his arm raised in the air, the anger emanating from his body and focusing on a single, pointed finger. In the picture, King is sitting with a calm expression across her face, staring at the floor.
During the interview, Kelly stood up several times, pounded his chest, screamed and ranted, all while repeatedly claiming his innocence. Kelly has called the charges “lies” and had pleaded not guilty. Months after the interview, in July, federal prosecutors indicted Kelly on 18 more charges, including sexual exploitation, child pornography production, kidnapping, forced labor, racketeering and obstruction of justice. This month, the charge of bribery was added to Kelly’s racketeering charge, in connection with his 1994 marriage to the late singer Aaliyah.
King was praised for her composure during the interview, which civil rights activist DeRay McKesson described as “stellar and unflappable.” Director Ava DuVernay lauded King’s line of questioning as “direct, super clear and no-frills” and said “she [asked] exactly what most of us would ask if we were in her seat. Crazy how refreshing it is.”
March: Can’t Nobody Tell [Lil Nas X] Nothing
When Lil Nas X first self-released his country-trap hit "Old Town Road" in December 2018, the world wasn’t ready. The year wasn’t right, and it wasn’t until the song gained popularity on TikTok* and eventually entered the Billboard charts in mid-March that the universe finally couldn’t deny what everyone felt so innately in their hearts: the song was a bop. Yet just after "Old Town Road" reached No. 19 on the Hot Country Songs chart, Billboard disqualified it from the country list, arguing in a statement that the song "does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music "to belong in the "country" category. This sparked controversy about black artists fighting for a place in the homogenous country world, and who gets to "belong."
In a brave stroke of vigilantism and a reminder to the world of his existence, Billy Ray Cyrus recorded a remix with Lil Nas and Diplo in April, helping to break a new record on Billboard's Hot 100 chart at No. 1 for 19 consecutive weeks. The remix was nominated for three Grammy awards, including Best Music Video, and in October, the song was certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America.
*See below for a refresher on how the Chinese viral video app TikTok became explosively popular in 2019.
April 17: Beyonce’s "Homecoming" Brings The Biggest Concert Of 2018 To Your Living Room And Spotify Playlist
Texas legend Beyoncé has always been one of the best at keeping her cards close to her chest. If we know even the tiniest bit of inside information about her life, it’s because she wants us to know about it.
So when she released a behind-the-scenes Netflix documentary and album from her 2018 Coachella headline performance in April, it was a revelation into her creative process — and the toll it takes for Beyoncé to be Beyoncé.
We all knew just how important Beychella was when it happened, and people around the world talked about it for weeks on end. But to see a film that took us there took it to another level. And if that weren’t enough, the accompanying album automatically enters the canon as one of the greatest live records ever. An album with a “Swag Surfin’” interpolation from an HBCU-style marching band dropped into “Drunk In Love”? Give Beyoncé a Grammy. And an Oscar.
May 30: Scripps Spelling Bee Is A Win-Win-Win-Win-Win-Win-Win-Win
The Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a historic eight-way tie this year, after the remaining contestants (all of whom were under 15 years old) made it through 20 rounds and the judges literally … ran out of words.
“We’re throwing the dictionary at you, and you’re showing the dictionary who’s boss,” Scripps’ announcer Jacques Bailly said at the time. In December, six months after the unprecedented result, Scripps announced “new reforms” to the competition, including a more challenging word list. That means the 2020 list will have to be more difficult than the winning words for the eight champion spellers: Auslaut; erysipelas; bougainvillea; aiguillette; pendeloque; palama; cernuous; and odylic. Good luck.
June 25: White Claw Enters Our Lives With A Viral Video From Comedian Trevor Wallace
In 2019, hard seltzer nearly surpassed craft beer as the drink du jour for hip and health-conscious drinkers across the nation. Leading the pack was White Claw Seltzer, which saw its sales explode by over 250% this year.
The drink’s rapid growth in popularity even caught White Claw off guard. Over the summer, demand was so high that a nationwide shortage took place as the company struggled to ship out enough of its sleek white cans to fervent new fans, young — well, 21 and up — and old alike.
With its sudden appearance in bars and liquor stores, one would assume the company was formed this year. Nope. Turns out, White Claw has been eagerly waiting for drinkers to put move on from IPAs and sours since 2016. So, what happened? Many have pointed to a viral video released by White Claw in June that introduced the world to their mantra: "Ain’t no laws when you’re drinkin’ claws."
June 28: Bad Bunny Begins His Worldwide Takeover With Release Of "OASIS"
When Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known by his stage name of Bad Bunny, released his debut album, “X 100pre,” last Christmas Eve, he was only setting the stage for maybe the biggest year of his young career.
From having multiple songs on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart to dropping the double platinum collab album “OASIS” with fellow Latin superstar J Balvin in June (the project’s second single, “LA CANCIÓN,” is a crying-in-the-club anthem for sad boys and girls worldwide), Benito stayed busy in 2019. The 25-year-old also become the fifth most streamed Spotify artist globally this year.
But Bad Bunny's impact has been bigger than just his music. With his androgynous fashion and frequent use of makeup and nail polish, he's pushed the boundaries of what we think a Latino mega rapper looks like. He also used his platform to protest Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned in July after facing a corruption scandal. At a time when Latin trap is becoming a lingua franca for young people worldwide, Bad Bunny may be the genre's Rosetta Stone.
July 7: The U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup Win Unites A Nation
Sauce. It’s that intangible, ethereal quality of swagger that you can’t exactly put your finger on, but you know it when you see it. Think Selena twirling in the Astrodome or the feeling you get deep in your gut when you have a fresh cut and look good.
That’s what the U.S. Women’s National Team gave America this summer throughout its quest for a fourth World Cup, and with its victory in July. From Alex Morgan sipping from a pretend cup of tea during a match against England two days before the Fourth of July to Megan Rapinoe’s famous pose becoming a symbol of national excellence, this team glowed gold.
Despite heat the squad received from the president of the United States and armchair coaches, plus a clear pay gap between the players and their less successful male counterparts that led to the women suing the United States Soccer Federation, the USWNT shined on a world stage.
That’s as spicy as the sauce gets.
Alex Morgan trolling England by sipping tea is LEGENDARY 😭🐐pic.twitter.com/BzIBNx0xzu— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) July 2, 2019
Aug. 28: Greta Thunberg Becomes An International Climate Hero
Before she stared down President Donald Trump at the United Nations in September, 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg had inspired a generation of young environmental activists to take to the streets and push their legislatures to call for bold action on climate change. If it wasn’t enough to set sail on a boat from her native Sweden to New York City — calling attention to the environmental impact of planes — to attend the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, Thunberg went viral in August with her takedown of Rep. Garret Graves while speaking in front of the House Climate Crisis Committee.
And here's Greta Thunberg subtly refuting @RepGarretGraves's self-defeating logic that the US doesn't need to do more to address the climate crisis because other countries are lagging behind pic.twitter.com/4WH9iirSXN— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 18, 2019
Then there was the Sunrise Movement, which is affiliated with Thunberg. If you’ve heard the term “Green New Deal,” you can thank the nationwide activist group the Sunrise Movement in part for bringing it out of the shadows and into the mainstream. Sunrise’s activism was so powerful, one presidential candidate was even inspired to make climate change his “first, second, and only issue.”
Oct. 23: Mark Zuckerberg Gets Grilled By Congress
2018 was a rough year for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public image, but 2019 may have been even worse. In 2018, when Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress, many made light of the fact that some — a lot — of the politicians grilling him couldn’t tell the difference between Facebook and Twitter.
But in October, Zuckerberg was again invited to testify in front of Congress about why Facebook was trying to create its own crypto-currency. What Zuckerberg may have hoped would be just another comical hearing, though, turned out to be anything but, as the representatives — now armed with true knowledge of how Facebook operates — vivisected Facebook's policies and commitment to fighting the spread of disinformation.
If government oversight wasn’t bad enough, this was also the year Zuckerberg became a kind of Lex Luthor-esque villain in the eyes of many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
Amplifying her call to break up the tech giant, Sen. Elizabeth Warren took things a step further when she released a patently false Facebook ad claiming Zuckerberg endorsed Trump in a move to prove how easy it is to spread disinformation on the site.
We intentionally made a Facebook ad with false claims and submitted it to Facebook’s ad platform to see if it’d be approved. It got approved quickly and the ad is now running on Facebook. Take a look: pic.twitter.com/7NQyThWHgO— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 12, 2019
Looks like life really is lonely at the top.
Nov. 12: Baby Yoda Gives The Internet Baby Fever … And Disney A New Star
It doesn’t talk. It doesn’t have a name, at least not really. But in the span of just a few weeks, Baby Yoda has become one of pop culture’s biggest stars.
Technically, the Child, as it’s officially known in Disney+’s “The Mandalorian,” isn’t actually a young version of the Jedi Master himself. (At least, it's probably not.) But the fan frenzy it’s caused is everywhere. The Seattle Seahawks tweeted out Baby Yoda in quarterback Russell Wilson’s gear. It’s become the meme you’re looking for. (This one of Baby Yoda jamming to Daddy Yankee is a personal favorite.)
Streaming may now be more crowded than ever, but Disney's launch of its own service may be one of the shrewdest business decisions of the year. Baby Yoda has become possibly the most talked about Star Wars character in the same year we’re getting the final film of the new trilogy in theaters. Difficult to do, that is.
Nov. 18: TikTok Hits 1.5 Billion Users
In 2019, Gen Z stopped eating Tide Pods and started making music videos. TikTok, the social media service that allows users to create their own short-form music videos, hit over 1.5 billion users globally with more than 800 million of them inside the United States.
But is TikTok all fun and games? Sens. Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton aren’t so sure. Turns out, the teenage sensation also may have some nebulous ties to China’s communist party, prompting the U.S. to launch a probe into whether it could constitute a national security threat.
But until we get to the bottom of that though, let’s all take a minute to thank TikTok for helping us tell the Castro brothers apart.
This story was edited by WGBH News' Kaitlyn Locke.