Thanks for reading the Culture Translator this year! We're devoting the next two issues to looking at the top 20 personalities, trends, memes, and moments that shaped how teens (and their families) experienced the year 2021. This ranking is in no way meant to be definitive. As we reflect on 2021, we believe there’s a lot to be learned about the direction of our culture.
Here’s #20-11 of our countdown. The top 10 will be published in next week’s edition.
The CTP's Top 20 Trends of 2021
#20: Kanye West
A year after a failed (like, really failed) presidential run and amidst rumors of marital trouble, you might think that Kanye would have planned to retreat a bit in 2021, or at least be a bit… quieter. Instead, Ye (as he is now legally known) doubled down. He made up with long time nemesis Drake. He went public with the gospel from on stage, several times, and expressed his longing to reconcile with his wife. He released Donda, a deeply personal and emotionally-charged tribute to his late mother. Kanye continues to be a professing Christian, and his faith continues to be a matter of public cultural discussion.
#19: The cryptocurrency craze
After a decade on the fringes, crypto burst into the public consciousness this year as an entire economy sprung up around using it to purchase NFTs (digital-only assets). Governments are scrambling to understand how to regulate the use of multiple decentralized currencies. Young people in particular are convinced that they are going to become cryptocurrency millionaires. In a strange plot twist, celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Matt Damon became vocal spokespeople for crypto as the future of currency. As the crypto boom continues, young people are uniquely equipped to invest and trade in these currencies. They’re also more at risk of losing it all on a bad bet.
#18: Sports betting
Speaking of betting, the game-ification of all things made its way to sports entertainment in a big way this year. Sports betting apps like DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesar’s became mainstream. Streaming services like Disney and Sling angled to incorporate real-time betting capability in their live sports event broadcasts. Concerns about the ethics of gambling and the possibility of gambling addiction seemed to be left in the rearview for the time being as betting on sports events seems to become an everyday pastime, even for minors.
#17: Billie Eilish
Pop star Billie Eilish had a banner year as she released her sophomore record, Happier Than Ever. The twenty-year-old “Bad Guy” singer dyed her hair a light blonde and embraced a more sensual look this year, ditching her trademark neon green locks and baggy ensembles. Musically, Eilish’s songs continue to carry a breathy, ethereal and wholly original vibe, which makes her stand out amongst her radio-ready peers. Eilish also spoke up about her past pornography addiction, was candid about a damaging past relationship, and attended the Met Gala. Gen Z has a different relationship with their pop idols than say, Gen X, but Eilish is the closest thing teens today have to an Alanis Morissette.
#16: Console shortages
The release of the PS5 and the Xbox Series X/S last year was supposed to mark a new age of gaming in 4K. Last year around the holidays, COVID-19 disruptions and third-party sellers made it next to impossible to get ahold of these next gen consoles. Twelve entire months later, it’s still quite difficult and expensive to get your hands on a PlayStation 5 or an Xbox X/S. Whether or not the supply chain issue will ease and get these consoles into more households in 2022 is not a guarantee, and teens seem to be “making do” (and by that we mean, playing just fine and as they normally would) with their older systems in the meantime.
#15: Olivia Rodrigo
Olivia Rodrigo went from being best known for playing characters on Disney Channel’s Bizaardvark and High School Musical: The Television Show to being a breakout, bona fide pop star in the span of several months. The 18-year-old singer/songwriter released her first record, SOUR. A smash-hit single, the sad and slow “drivers license” was followed by the fast-paced breakup belter “good 4 u.” Rodrigo’s music blends together pop-punk influences with radio-friendly hooks and belt-in-the-car lyrics. When SOUR was released, listeners were addicted. What’s specifically Gen Z about Rodrigo is that she sings sympathetically about mental health issues, isolation, and loneliness, a stark contrast to stars of the past like Britney Spears, who sang mostly about desire, social success, and sexuality.
Different niches on TikTok have been around since the app was known as musical.ly. But this was the year that language to describe these different niches reached the mainstream consciousness. TikTok “aesthetics” like #Cottagecore and #DarkAcademia might have sounded like complete nonsense words (and, let’s be honest, they still do) just 18 months ago, but are now understood to mean a certain style of dressing, presenting yourself, and posting. Is #DarkAcademia just emo for Gen Z? That’s a debate for another time.
After a year of not going to the movies, teen audiences headed back to theaters. And what brought them there, for the most part, was Marvel movies. Black Widow, Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings all brought fans out in droves (though not pre-pandemic level droves), culminating in Spiderman: No Way Home, one of the most anticipated films of the year. Fans were also mainlining Marvel content at home, as Disney Plus released five ultra-successful limited-run Marvel series (WandaVision, Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, What If? and Hawkeye). Critics were unsure if the next iteration of Marvel after 2019’s Endgame would continue to have theatrical success, but now it seems we have only just begun the ascent toward peak Marvel.
#12: Simone Biles
As anticipation built for the Tokyo Olympics, gymnast Simone Biles was the American athlete that people were most excited about watching. Biles had already built a solid case for being one of the best athletes of all time, and she was set to smash medal records with moves that are literally named after her. But Biles shocked the world when she pulled herself from most of her events because of physical and mental health concerns. While some slammed her decision as a letdown for her team and for her country, Biles was certain that she made the right choice for her safety and for her sanity. In fact, one could make the argument that Biles’ choice made her all the more popular as she became something of a mental health icon.
Roblox was already one of the most popular games for teens and tweens, but 2020’s stay-at-home recommendations led to a hefty spike in play. Roblox now has over 200 million monthly active users, with 47 million of them playing every day. But Roblox came under fire this year when it was revealed that there are some less-than-innocent ways that its games are used, with “condo games” and “strip clubs” on the platform where users are sometimes even groomed by predators. Still, the most popular way to use Roblox this year is the much more palatable “Adopt Me!”, which is a role-playing game about pets.
We’ll see you next week for the top ten countdown!
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