THE BOOKS, BY JOHN SELF
Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy
By EL James, 2012
The “dirty books” about a sadomasochistic relationship that spawned a million monochrome imitators broke all the rules of publishing. They started out as Twilight fan fiction published online, then became self-published ebooks; the three books, once picked up by a mainstream publisher, appeared just weeks apart, and they were completely criticproof. If EL James seemed subsequently to be short of inspiration – rewriting two of the books from the antagonist’s viewpoint – her place in 21st-century pop culture, and the second-hand bookshops of Ireland, was already assured.
By Mike McCormack, 2016
Long-time fans of Mike McCormack (who once wrote a story about police arresting the only man in Ireland not to have written a memoir) were thrilled when his comeback novel proved a huge success, bagging the Goldsmiths Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. Its flowing one-sentence structure of a dead man reviewing his life showed that experimental fiction can be popular. It was a triumph of discovery and smart publishing by Tramp Press, showing how small, independent Irish houses can take on the big boys and win. It also seems to have been influential in the Man Booker Prize changing its rules to allow Irish publishers to enter.
By David Walliams, 2011
David Walliams is a publishing phenomenon, having written 11 of the UK’s 50 bestselling books of the decade. This was his breakthrough children’s novel, which capitalised on his Roald Dahl-inspired formula of gross humour, wicked adults and Queen Elizabeth. Walliams is a representative of the ever-popular category of authors who are better known for something else. But don’t be downhearted, bookworms: your chosen medium retains such an air of aspiration that everyone, even the YouTuber and Instagram influencer, still wants to be a writer.
My Brilliant Friend
By Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, 2012
The rise of literature in translation, from about 3 per cent of books sold in the UK and Ireland at the start of the decade to about 6 per cent now, is exemplified by Elena Ferrante’s four-volume Neapolitan saga of female friendship, which started quietly in 2012 and has now sold 10 million copies worldwide. So popular have the books proved that when her first novel since completing the series was published, last month, British newspapers rushed to be the first to review it – even though it’s published only in Italian at present.
The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood, 1985
One of the most influential books of the decade was published almost 35 years ago. The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed in its day but never a bestseller, gained new life with the recent television adaptation and Margaret Atwood’s 2019 Booker-winning sequel, The Testaments. But its popularity this decade also spoke of fears for an uncertain world where the political climate seems closer to Atwood’s totalitarian state of Gilead than ever – an impulse that also saw George Orwell’s 70-year-old novel Nineteen Eighty-Four become a bestseller in the month after Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president.
THE MUSIC, BY UNA MULLALLY
Released in 2013 when she was 16, Lorde’s debut album, Pure Heroine, undercut the cheesiness of lyrics steeped in brand-laden braggadocio, with Royals. It was also probably the first album that could truly be viewed through a post-Body Talk lens. By the time of Melodrama, a collaboration with one of the producers of the decade, Jack Antonoff, her dominance was copper-fastened. It could be argued that not since the mid-20th century have teenagers been so central to sociopolitical and cultural discourse. Lorde represented a shift in what is “cool”: vulnerability, ennui, resistance, resilience, so-many-feelings, and the equity of the emotional labour of teendom relative to “adult” struggles.
Populism, narcissism, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, egomania, mental illness, celebrity, reality television, delusions of grandeur, outbursts, controversy, red hats, zebra trainers, paparazzi, memes, power, Adidas, stage design, Yeezus, Twitter, SNL, the 2015 Brit Awards, fashion weeks, Glastonbury, Good, The Life of Pablo, Christianity, race, gender, Watch the Throne, Chicago, Calabasas, architecture, Coachella, Sunday Service, Taylor Swift, ye, slides, drill, Kids See Ghosts, opera, rage, insecurity, feuds, outbursts, gospel, Tidal, Vogue, manifestos, Cruel Summer, presidents, spiralling, cancel culture, forgiveness, deep dives, Obama, Grammys, Kardashians, CAPS LOCK, despair, hope, art, fear, fragility, genius.
Although Beyoncé is criminally under-recognised when it comes to many of the industry’s big awards, particularly for her albums, she still dominated this decade. From her era-defining performances at Coachella, the Super Bowl and Glastonbury to evolving the very concept of concept albums with both Beyoncé and Lemonade, it would be hard to know who to carve next to her on the Mount Rushmore of popular music, given how out on her own she is. With her astute, magpie-like approach to visual influences, her once-in-a-generation voice, her flawless moves, and her songwriting of incredible prowess and originality, she is everything.
Stormzy stands on the shoulders of the grime godfathers and -mothers, but once he got up there he ascended to levels no UK rapper had reached before. This bonafide pop star’s headline performance at Glastonbury this year was a baseline for English popular culture from which the next decade will be measured. It’s telling that he also took that moment to shout out those who have come up before and alongside him. Britain’s strain of hip hop has boomeranged to influence the sounds emerging from North America, particularly Drake, and in Ireland, but his talent, humility, humour and sense of duty to community are all his own.
The Odd Future incubator
In many ways the 2010s were the decade of the collective. As young artists picked through the fragments of a fractured music-industry infrastructure, new ways of organising, releasing, creating, promoting and merchandising were born. The Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All collective have not just raised some of the most intriguing artists of the decade – Tyler, the Creator, Syd Tha Kyd, Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt – but also manifested a genie-out-of-the-bottle cultural moment. Their shows, music and online presence were hip hop’s contemporary punk moment, of which there will always be a before and after, and which the 2010s solidified.
THE TV SHOWS, BY PETER CRAWLEY
Game of Thrones
Winter came and went. Some nasty things were done for love. Every method of murder, rape, torture, incest and resurrection was graphically explored. Lannisters sent their regards (and always paid their debts). Wights, white walkers, dragons, giants and a gazillion extras in leather and pelts got stuck with the pointy end. Hodor held the door. Jon Snow knew nothing and, almost 10 years later, comprehended less. Books were sidelined. Fans clashed. Starbucks entered the frame… The show of the decade was a sordid and sprawling fantasy so big it felt as if we were living it. And now our watch is ended.
Although it premiered in 2007, Forbrydelsen didn’t reach anglophone audiences until 2011 – not that the -phone mattered much by then. Here began the concentration-sharpening joys of drama with subtitles. The epitome of Scandi crime drama – ushering in The Bridge, Borgen, you name it – The Killing introduced audiences to Sarah Lund, a complicated detective with an obsessional drive and a hardy knit sweater. Like The Wire, it wove its narrative through different spheres – police, politicians, criminals, military – but at a breakneck pace, encouraging other detective shows, such as Line of Duty and Happy Valley, to forge new moulds for its own deepening heroes and villains.
As a rule, plays don’t work well on television; the stories operate by different rules. Fleabag, on the other hand, a solo show that became a phenomenon, never cared much for rules. Lena Dunham’s Girls might have been more attuned to the zeitgeist – young, female, privileged, comically flawed – but Phoebe Waller-Bridge found a way to make her own character more conspiratorial, more charming, more alarming, more intimate, more fun. Much of that involved her sly asides, but the characters, the cast, the rococo forbidden fantasies (“Kneel!” commands Andrew Scott’s hot priest) and the sexual frankness were desire and guilt brokered by a wit that knew no bounds.
The showrunner Damon Lindelof began the decade with the disappointing fizzle of Lost. He ends it with the dazzling promise of Watchmen (which, like Legion, asks us to take comic-book-inspired work seriously). But in between came this gem of a series, which even in the reported “golden era” of scripted television brought the medium to whole new places. The Rapture – or “Departure” – has happened, spiriting away 2 per cent of the world’s population and leaving the unchosen to pick up the pieces. The show, though, kept shattering them, spinning them and making daring mosaics in its absorbing combination of uncanny events, deep emotion, wild comedy and twisting philosophy.
Is it really five years since Love/Hate ended, finally loosening its grip on the national conversation? If that seems unlikely it may say something about just how game-changing was Stuart Carolan’s heroically vivid drama of Ireland’s criminal underworld. A combination of budget and ambition gave us star performances (Aiden Gillen, Brian Gleeson), breakout performances (Robert Sheehan, Aoibhinn McGinnity, Charlie Murphy, Killian Scott, Peter Coonan) and, of course, indelible performances (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s extraordinary everycrook, Nidge). So what if it lost the spark of its earlier years, as though decline, even in depiction, were contagious? It remains the high-water mark for Irish television. Coolaboola.
THE FILMS, BY DONALD CLARKE
Blue Is the Warmest Colour
Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013
There are lessons about our times in the strange history of Abdellatif Kechiche’s powerful, brilliantly acted lesbian love story. Loud were the cheers when, to no enormous surprise, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and, for the first time, two actors – Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos – received honorary Palmes. When accusations emerged of abusive behaviour on set the atmosphere around the film soured. Blue Is the Warmest Colour, conspicuous by its absence from ongoing best-of-decade lists, feels even less fashionable in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo fightback. Yet it remains the same passionate film that took the Palme six years ago. Posterity will decide.
Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015
Throughout the decade, various Irish film companies moved towards high-end international coproduction. A year before securing four Oscar nominations with Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, Element Pictures showed what was possible when it premiered Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English-language feature to delirious acclaim at Cannes. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz are set loose in a world where, if individuals fail to couple up, they are transformed into the animal of their choice. The Greek director denies his films contain any explicit message, but this grim, funny, surreal masterpiece does feel like an argument against conformity. The ideal film for a period of uncertainty.
Greta Gerwig, 2017
The first best-director Oscar of the decade went to a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker. Yet only one woman has even been nominated in the succeeding years. The better news is that that honour was for Greta Gerwig’s delightful, resonant Lady Bird. Saoirse Ronan is incandescent as a teenager who should be infuriating – a bit pretentious, very stroppy – but who emerges as a hero to compare with Huck Finn or Scout Finch. The wonder is the way the film acknowledges the traumas of adolescence while still admitting the excitement and promise of that condition. The interplay between Ronan and, as her mom, Laurie Metcalfe is flawless.
Jordan Peele, 2017
In previous decades Hollywood tended to form its debates on race into pious lectures that were less fun than double geography homework. Jordan Peele’s genius was to work cutting criticism of complacent white values into the most compelling of horror yarns. “By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could,” Bradley Whitford says to his daughter’s black boyfriend. There was some grumbling when the film was entered as a comedy at the Golden Globes, but it really is darkly hilarious throughout. That darkness is heightened by a closing adjacency to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Noah Baumbach, 2019
This was the decade when the means of delivery again became a topic of discourse. Noah Baumbach’s terrific break-up movie deserves mention for its old-fashioned cinematic values. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are terrific as a Bohemian couple breaking up traumatically at either ends of the United States. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography finds yawning gaps in the smallest spaces. On a more prosaic level, Marriage Story offered confirmation that Netflix, which produced the film, now sits where the old studios used to sit. It played in cinemas. A few short weeks later, the picture was generating online debate as it arrived on the streaming service. Welcome to the 2020s.