There’s a duality to pop culture that works to satisfy two fairly opposing objectives. On one hand, it can serve as a handy means of escapism, carving out spaces that shield us from worldly stress. When the news becomes cumbersome, music, film, television, and even memes can occasionally do their part to shoulder some of the load.
On the other hand, pop culture has the enduring power to entomb a certain time and place, capturing our environment in ways that mere recollection simply can’t. Just as some of our personal, most prominent memories are attached to songs and shows and films, some of the biggest historical events of the decade have been granted a shot at immortality thanks to the artists who felt inspired by them. When lyrics double as time capsules, political criticism gets filtered through a half-hour sitcom, or a comic book simply acknowledges a serious need for social change, the relationship between art and news becomes clearer, more necessary. From a booming anthem encouraging community resilience to an award-winning dig at a historically inaccurate press secretary, here’s how pop culture rendered some of the most memorable entertainment from the decade’s biggest news.
2010: South Park lampoons changing medicinal marijuana laws in “Medicinal Fried Chicken”
Matt Stone and Trey Parker have tendered a decades-long history of providing distinct (and efficient) commentary on current events via Comedy Central tentpole South Park. In 2010, at the start of its 14th season, Colorado was on the cusp of enacting state laws that would open the doors for regulated medicinal marijuana businesses while considering major restrictions for fast food eateries. Continuing its talent for gleaning possibilities from the most absurd threads of real-life events, the show’s 198th episode, “Medicinal Fried Chicken,” followed the men of South Park, Colorado as they exposed themselves to threats of testicular cancer in order to obtain prescriptions for pot. Meanwhile, Cartman rose the ranks as a chicken-slinging crime boss, signaling Scarface. Like most of the series to date, the episode uniquely blended Parker and Stone’s brand of sophomoric humor and social satire, shining a bright light on the state’s willingness to implement more stringent laws on fast food than medicinal drugs.
2012: The legalization of gay marriage begins, and Key & Peele delivers one of its most memorable sketches
“We’re gonna rent the moon and fill it with rosé!” In 2012, Maine, Maryland, and Washington became the first states to legalize gay marriage. That same year, longtime creative partners Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele premiered their Comedy Central sketch show, Key & Peele, which quickly established itself as a cultural mainstay with bits like “Gay Marriage Legalized.” The hilarious sketch was both a celebration of the country’s necessary step forward and a solid reminder that not every person affected by the law—no matter how ostensibly favorable it may be—necessarily wants the same thing. Either way, we hope Lashawn was granted the destination cloud wedding he so richly deserved.
2014: The Newsroom finds its Edward Snowden in Neal Sampat
The very premise of Aaron Sorkin’s verbose HBO drama depended on the news, plucking ripe season-long arcs from major headlines as The Newsroom chronicled the inner workings of fictional network Atlantic Cable News. While some episodes centered on real-life happenings, others served as very familiar interpretations, like Neal’s (Dev Patel) brush with espionage after receiving information implicating the U.S. government in a scandal that lead to riots in an African state and the deaths of 38 people. The resulting back-and-forth between Neal and razor-sharp litigator Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden) in the season-three episode “Run” mirrored much of the discourse surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden, as the Newsroom characters weighed in on Neal’s varied, clashing duties as a journalist, patriot, and law-abiding citizen.
2015: Kendrick Lamar shows collective strength in the face of policy brutality with “Alright”
By the end of 2015, the rate at which Black people were being killed by the police had reached an alarming peak, more than doubling the rate of non-Black victims. As gut-wrenching tragedies, hashtags, and protests amassed with every dreaded news break, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” felt like necessary armor against a crushing reality. Specific in his mission to uplift his community, the Compton artist asserted that as familiar as this culture-wide pain felt, so were the inevitable moments of resilience and resistance to follow.
2016: Kanye gets in bed with pop culture’s most polarizing figures for the “Famous” music video
In an attempt to make a presumably overarching statement about fame, Kanye West released a voyeuristic NSFW music video for the song “Famous,” which featured naked recreations of himself and other highly controversial pop culture figures. Those who were able to shirk discomfort long enough to watch along got an eyeful of some of the biggest cultural moments converging in one image, including the presidential election, Caitlyn Jenner choosing to live openly as a trans woman, and the overdue reckoning of Bill Cosby. It also added an additional, complex layer to the ongoing feud between West and Taylor Swift with the lyric, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” Their conflict, enduring and ever-changing, isn’t one that we seriously believe will be put to bed anytime soon.
2017: Melissa McCarthy becomes Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live
Is there a silver lining to the most powerful member of the press choosing to publicly—and dangerously—lie on behalf of the highest government office in America? No, absolutely not. But Melissa McCarthy’s surprise turn as former U.S. Press Secretary Sean Spicer added a jolt of energy to SNL’s 42nd season by illustrating what made him such an overtly ridiculous figure worthy of scrutiny. It was also one of the show’s better examples of its ability to provide quick-witted political humor, and McCarthy’s season-long residency as the linguistic gymnast earned her an Emmy.