From Baby Ed to gay Babadook: The web was a tonic in a dispiriting year
In a Fake News maelstrom, #MeToo and a cartoonish sauce meltdown lifted us up
Jen Chapman: just having a break
It was a year of cultural and social upheaval, a year when the internet, still reeling from the maddening meat-grinder that was 2016, looked unto the heavens and hoped something slightly less insane would follow. It did not get that wish. But, in its place, we watched as online media platforms continued to digest ever bigger portions of the music, film and televisual landscape, and deliver comedy, horror and drama – so much drama – direct from the critical mass of social media, this year woven even tighter into the fabric of the online hive mind.
We had an early sign of what was to come in late January, as Donald Trump’s inauguration concert kick-started 2017’s cultural calendar. Although the exact turnout is still a matter of debate among some quarters – specifically within the White House – it’s fair to say that many millions caught the show online. Thus they got to sample the bewilderingly muted performances of stars like 3 Doors Down, DJ Ravidrums, Toby Keith and The Piano Guys, each of whom was good enough to cancel shifts at their day job and rock out under the Lincoln memorial.
Sure, Obama’s inauguration featured U2, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Shakira, Herbie Hancock and a dozen or so others, but it’s skill, not fame, that counts. Unfortunately, what followed was one of the most strained and awkward musical events ever mounted or, as Twitter funnyman @jeremynewberger put it, “the 2nd worst piece of theatre Lincoln has had to sit through”.
Before long, numerous internet detectives had surveyed the crowd photographs and decided that turnout had been way down from the previous occasion, leading the US president himself to obsess over denying this clearly observable fact for many months afterwards. If 2017 was to become the year of #FakeNews, this early tremor gave us a good idea of what we should expect.
Trump was, in fact, still litigating these crowd sizes when the Oscars did their best to take over the mantle of worst-run cultural event a month later. After mistakenly unveiling La La Land, not actual winner Moonlight, as Best Picture, there was a hasty on-stage correction, and of course, a complete collective internet meltdown.
“If anyone from the In Memorium [sic] is still alive please let us know”
So screamed comedian Billy Eichner, in one of the funniest reactions to the gaffe. But, were proof needed that memes ascended to a higher plane in 2017, his tweet would come true just hours later, when it was revealed that a photo of perfectly animate producer Jen Chapman had been included in the scroll of remembrance for costume designer Janet Paterson.
Internet media had a big year, with music and TV charts increasingly dominated by online platforms. Nowhere was this more apparent than in pop music where March’s release of Ed Sheeran’s record-breaking album Divide on Apple and Spotify saw it end up with 16 songs in the UK’s top 40. It was a disconcerting prospect for radio listeners, even if you happened to love the scraggle-haired troubadour.
Along with his likeness to a particular baby, his song Galway Girl was among the most-discussed songs of the year: variously described as a perfectly machine-tooled wedding anthem or, in the words of user @citizen_sane, “the musical equivalent of chemical warfare”.
In streaming video, things were no less momentous, with online video continuing to gain pace on its more established rivals, with Netflix in particular gaining headway and hits such as American Vandal, Stranger Things 2 and 13 Reasons Why showing that web studios are here to stay.
In a way the biggest viral moment to have spun off from Netflix all year had only a tangential relationship to its programming. When, early this year, The Babadook was spotted in Netflix’s LGBT Films section, the internet was immediately receptive to the idea and, lo was born the century’s newest gay icon. Before long The Babadook was rendered in pride colours, photoshopped appearing on Ru Paul’s Drag Race – with the memorable caption “your performance had us, well, babashook” – and, in a crowning moment, named unofficial mascot for LA’s Gay Pride Parade.
Meanwhile, a slightly less delicious bit of real world meme crossover happened in relation to Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty. After the show made reference to a Szechuan sauce that McDonald’s had released in conjunction with Disney’s Mulan in 1998, some enterprising souls at the golden arches decided to give the long-absent sauce a comeback, but didn’t factor in unexpectedly large demand and relatively low stocks. The result was huge lines, hordes of dissatisfied fans and hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage. The entire episode was a cautionary tale in meme-led marketing, and even if McDonald’s might rue the day they launched it, one woman certainly won’t. Rachel Marie of Michigan managed to trade her container of the exotic dip on Facebook for an actual car, proving a great day both for her and the many, many journalists looking to use a slew of “fast food” related puns.
Outside traditional media, the internet was also showing itself capable of creating art on its own terms. Inventive and innovative forms of content were taken to new levels via interactive pieces in the Guardian covering the Panama Papers and Brexit negotiations. There was also chilling Twitter thread Dear David, which used nothing more high tech than tweets to craft a boldly creepy horror story that led along millions for months.
Possibly pick of the bunch was SBNation’s strange, magisterial and mind-bending interactive fiction piece 17776: What Football Will Look Like in the Future. Written by by Jon Bois, it tells the story of life 15 centuries into the future, through the prism of how football is covered and what the game has become. Interweaving clips, videos, animations and all kinds of subtly impressive design, it’s the taut, disarmingly moving writing that shows what online literature can really do.
Finally, no rundown of the year could fail to highlight the single biggest cultural moment of 2017; the steady, growing movement to call out and name sexual abuses within the entertainment industry. Starting most notably with Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the revelations have so far led to dozens of victims coming forward with revelations about Louis CK, Dustin Hoffman, James Toback, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman and Bryan Singer. Amplified by the internet, the powerful #MeToo hashtag expanded these stories to the everyday world, showcasing the accounts of women of every walk of life, in a hundred countries, across a thousand industries. This critical mass took on a prominence usually reserved for major, ongoing natural disasters, wreaking a seismic effect on both Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole.
It was a dispiriting year in many respects, with increasing polarity, hateful rhetoric and the brain-scrambling prominence of Fake News. In response many spent 2017 distracting themselves with memorable and affecting art, and our many new ways of engaging with it. If it seems like all the bad news is winning, then perhaps the #MeToo campaign is the first sign that the ingenious engines of web culture can offer a way of fighting back.