By Peter Knegt
1. R.I.P. Not to start things off on a dire note, but 2014 seemed like a particularly sad year when it came to the tragic deaths of beloved pop cultural icons. From Academy Award winning actors Robin Williams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman to legendary comedienne Joan Rivers, we head into 2015 without some of the folks that have helped define pop culture for decades.
2. Seth Rogen and James Franco Start a War. The craziest pop culture-related news story of the year somehow developed (and could continue to develop) into a full-fledged cyberwar between the United States and North Korea. Seth Rogen and James Franco’s political comedy The Interview – in which the pair play D-list American journalists on a mission to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – was supposed to be in theaters this Christmas. But a North Korean group called “The Guardians of Peace” put a stop to that by hacking into Interview distributor Sony Pictures’ computer system, releasing everything from films to gossip-filled e-mails to the public before threatening a “9/11” scale attack if the film got released. Sony backed out and canceled the release of the film, with no plans to ever release it as a of press time.
3. Taylor Swift Saves the Music Industry. Music sales have been struggling for a while, and most of 2014 was no exception. By mid-October, no single artist’s album had gone platinum in the U.S. (meaning it had sold over 1 million copies). But then came Taylor Swift’s “1989.” The singer’s first full-on pop album sold a whopping 1.3 million copies in its first week, going platinum in just a couple days. “1989” almost single-handedly gave the music industry its biggest sales week since 2002, and as of mid-December has sold 2.7 million copies.
4. Laverne Cox Propels Transgendered People into the Mainstream. The second season of Netflix’s series “Orange Is The New Black” was a pop cultural event in its own right this year, but not quite on the same level as what one of its stars achieved. Laverne Cox, who plays Sophie Burset on “Orange,” broke major barriers for transgendered public figures. In June, she became the first transperson to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and then a month later was the first to be nominated for an acting Emmy. Cox utilized the exposure to speak and write about transgendered rights and experiences in the mainstream media.
5. Frozen Becomes the Highest-Grossing Animated Film of All Time. Not since at least The Lion King has an animated film become the pop culture phenomenon that Disney’s Frozen was. While it opened late in 2013, its momentum continued well into the new year, and by July it had grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, becoming the fifth-highest grossing film of all time, and the highest grossing animated film. Add that to a soundtrack that sold 3.7 million copies in the U.S. alone and we can revise #3 to note that Taylor Swift and the Frozen soundtrack saved the music industry.
6. Kim Kardashian Breaks The Internet. In an effective move to remain relevant, American “media personality” Kim Kardashian appeared wearing nothing but jewelry and gloves on the cover of Paper magazine’s 2014 winter issue. Her famously luscious behind was exposed (and oiled up) for everyone to see, with the caption “Break The Internet” just above it. And break the internet it did, with Paper’s website receiving 15.9 million views in a single day – compared to their average of 25,000.
7. Late Night Television Gets a Major Revamp. After two decades of a late night television landscape dominated by Jay Leno and David Letterman, 2014 marked a considerable end of an era. It started in February when Jimmy Fallon took over for Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” and then continued in April when David Letterman announced he would be retiring after over thirty years in late night, with Stephen Colbert replacing him. Shame that the big switch didn’t add any diversity to late night, though (every U.S. network host will remain a white male).
8. Investigative Journalism Is The New Black. “Serial” – a spinoff of National Public Radio’s “This American Life” – debuted quietly in early October to limited expectations. But as the podcast went on to spend twelve episodes investigating the 1999 Baltimore murder of teenager Hae Min Lee, it became an international sensation in the process. It quickly exceeded over five million downloads on iTunes, far more than any other podcast in history. And its second season is now an unlikely bet for one of the most anticipated media events of 2015.
9. Hollywood Has Some Royal Weddings. While Chris Martin and Gwenyth Paltrow were busy consciously uncoupling, some Hollywood royalty were busy doing the conscious opposite (and we’re not talking about Kimye). In August, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie finally married at a small ceremony in France, only to be outdone a month later by Pitt’s BFF (and notorious bachelor) George Clooney – who had a lavish, celebrity-filled ceremony in Italy when he married British human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin.
10. Everyone Does That ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Thing. Who knew dumping cold water on one’s head would become all the rage in 2014? And that it would raise a remarkable about of money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in the process? Basically, the “ice bucket challenge” consisted of folks dumping an ice bucket on their heads and then challenging others to do the same, all with encouragement to donate money to ALS. In July, Matt Lauer took the challenge on “The Today Show” and within a matter of weeks everyone from your Mom to Barack Obama had done the same. The ALS Association raised over $100 million as a result.