This was the year that took Tom Petty. That fact alone qualifies 2017 as one of the most soul-sucking, 365-day nightmares on record.
But 2017 couldn’t stop there, could it? Oh no. Put the latrine fire that is our nation’s widening political chasm aside for just one second — I know, it’s not easy — and just think about the year in pop culture.
Honestly, we should have seen this coming last New Year’s Eve, when Mariah Carey ushered out 2016 — itself no picnic of a year — with a disastrous, lip-synced trainwreck of a performance in Times Square. A crazier cultural fiasco unfolding on live TV, one could scarcely imagine — until, in March, the Academy Awards went all "Hold my beer," handing Best Picture to Moonlight over La La Land (or was it the other way around?) in an epic envelope snafu. Toss in legions of Rick and Morty fans rioting over Szechuan sauce at McDonald’s, and yeah, in 2017, that was pretty much the way the news goes.
But at least those debacles we could laugh about. The culture of 2017 also got real dark, real fast, and it never really let up.
This was a year that saw unfathomable terrorism unfold at a pop concert in Manchester, England, and a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. It was a year in which a football player’s decision to kneel during the national anthem ignited a deep and furious culture war from within the Oval Office. It was a year of great reckoning for so many men accused of sexual misconduct — Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Dustin Hoffman — which, while ultimately a very good thing, makes it much harder to reconcile consuming their past great work. And it was likely hardest of all for the victims, having to relive it all, often very publicly.
If Petty wasn’t enough, we also lost a couple of the Allmans, singer Gregg and drummer Butch Trucks. Chuck Berry died, too, as did Mary Tyler Moore, Glen Campbell, Hugh Hefner and Adam West. And so, much too soon, did Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Charlie Murphy and Lil Peep.
So yeah. Good riddance, 2017. Don’t let the door hit you.
It’s a bit of a cliche that culture can comfort in dark times, that we look to art and music and cinema whenever we need an emotional pick-me-up. But never have we needed it more than in 2017. We really needed Ariana Grande to bring Coldplay, Liam Gallagher and Justin Bieber to that cricket stadium in Manchester to raise more than $13 million for the British Red Cross. We really needed to hear Jason Aldean, who was on stage when that gunman slaughtered dozens of festivalgoers in Las Vegas, sing Petty’s I Won’t Back Down on Saturday Night Live. For all the terrible and depressing images of 2017, there were these glimmers of hope.
As a new year approaches, it’s the glimmers we want to remember. So as we look back on the pop culture of 2017, we’re focusing not only on the best of the best. We’re shining a light on the artists, works and trends that gave us faith in the future. Some are new faces and voices; others are movements that might actually shape the world for the better.
All gave us hope that 2018 might not be as grim as the year we’re all too happy to leave in our dust.
There were reasons to fear a sophomore slump from the New Zealand pop singer, whose Grammy-winning hit Royals catapulted her to worldwide fame. How could anyone expect the then-20-year-old singer to follow it with something even better? But with Melodrama, she did. The album was a great leap forward, delivering intelligent and unconventional singles that reimagined what a teenage pop confessional could be. It is nominated for Album of the Year at next month’s Grammys — and even better, Lorde is coming to Tampa’s Amalie Arena on April 11, her first-ever local performance and one of the most anticipated concerts of 2018. That night alone is reason to keep going in 2018.
In September, Master of None’s Lena Waithe became the first African-American Emmy winner for Writing in a Comedy Series, which is impressive on its own. That she did so for "Thanksgiving," a powerfully personal episode about Waithe’s character coming out to her family, told over the course of a generation’s worth of Thanksgiving dinners, felt like a watershed statement for LGBTQ women of color. It put a bright spotlight on Waithe’s career path, which in 2018 includes a role in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and her own show, The Chi, a drama about children growing up on Chicago’s South Side, which premieres Jan. 7 on Showtime. Not that long ago, Waithe wouldn’t have gotten the chance to create and produce her own show. Now it’s one of the most anticipated series of the year.
Support for local stages
When I put this question to Times performing arts critic Andrew Meacham, he mentioned a few memories from the past year on stage, like the 2,000 screaming teenagers who attended a show of interpretive dance (!) by Miss D from Lifetime’s Bring It! and the Dancing Dolls at the Straz Center in June. He also mentioned a recently announced program by American Stage allowing customers younger than 20 to get in for free, with a $15 monthly pass available to those under 30. All of this, along with American Stage’s new apprenticeship program and continued good work by Freefall Theatre and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts’ Patel Conservatory, will help nourish an enthusiastic base of fine arts patrons and performers for years to come.
The children of ‘The Florida Project’
How director Sean Baker thought a film about homeless residents of a run-down motel outside Walt Disney World could be so joyful and uplifting remains a wonderful mystery. But whatever enthusiasm he had for his film shone through in the film’s preteen co-stars, Orlando area newcomers Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera. If it seems like Baker conjured these too-perfect kids out of thin air, well, he sort of did, finding them at Target, on Instagram and at other unconventional spots. And the children nail their roles with conviction and humor. In one scene at the end, Times movie critic Steve Persall wrote in his review, Prince "left us breathless, doing something emotionally that actors 10 times her age will envy. She’s an extraordinary kid and The Florida Project is a remarkable movie."
Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ trailer
Audiences got their first look at Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. But when the first teaser trailer for 2018’s Black Panther movie debuted during the NBA Finals, it was like a Wakanda-sized bomb hit the nerdosphere; the clip racked up nearly 90 million views in its first 24 hours. It wasn’t just that it looked like one of the best superhero movies Marvel has ever produced. It’s that Black Panther was made by an African-American director with electric talent (Ryan Coogler) and stars a largely black cast (Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya). Rare is the studio blockbuster that looks like a Hollywood game-changer. But Black Panther might actually be it.
It has been said that Hollywood has a "leading man" problem. The Tom Cruises and Johnny Depps and Matt Damons of the world aren’t getting any younger, and actors to fill their movie-star shoes are hard to find — just look at the seemingly endless casting call to fill the vest of a young Han Solo in next year’s Star Wars spinoff movie. Enter Timothée Chalamet, a 22-year-old New York actor whose breakout performances in Lady Bird and, especially, Call Me by Your Name herald the arrival of a major new acting talent. If he wins a Best Actor Oscar for the latter — and he will surely be nominated — he would be by far the youngest man to do so. While the film doesn’t open in Tampa Bay until Jan. 19, Chalamet’s Lady Bird performance and easy press-tour charm suggest bigger things are still to come.
New cinematic voices
However next year’s Oscars play out — and please, someone double-check the envelopes this time — 2017 should be remembered as a breakout year for fresh voices in film. There was former sketch comic Jordan Peele, whose directorial debut Get Out infused the horror genre with a fresh blast of prescient social satire. There was comic Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote (with wife Emily V. Gordon) and starred in The Big Sick, a romantic comedy that showed a movie with a heartfelt subplot about a faithful Muslim family could still be a summer crowd-pleaser. And there was the coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird, whose first-time director, Greta Gerwig, made a film so enchanting it became the best-reviewed movie in the history of Rotten Tomatoes. None of these might be your favorite film of the year, and that’s fine. But if you aren’t curious about what Peele, Nanjiani and Gerwig do next, that’s your loss.
Logic, Alessia Cara and Khalid’s ‘1-800-273-8255’
From a marketing perspective, giving your single such a clunky and unmemorable title would seem like a kiss of death. In the case of 1-800-273-8255, it has literally been the opposite. That’s the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which saw an enormous uptick in calls after rapper Logic turned it into a smash single about reaching out in a time of depression. Here we have a song — a really good song, by the way — that has actually saved countless lives, and it came from three artists under the age of 30. Google the clip of their performance at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, surrounded by suicide survivors and families of victims, the next time you need a good cry.
It wasn’t just the #MeToo movement, or the "silence breakers" on sexual assault who were named Time’s Persons of the Year. Look at the art women produced in 2017. Lorde, Lena Waithe and Greta Gerwig, we’ve already mentioned. But how about all the great new TV shows created by or starring mostly women? To name a few: The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Claws, Feud: Bette and Joan, Downward Dog, SMILF, Glow, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Alias Grace, One Day at a Time, Great News, Liar and The Sinner. In a year that began with millions of pink-hatted protesters engaging in women’s marches around the country, such work suggests that a leveling of the playing field really might be at hand.