Change comes in increments. Moving at the speed of the hand of a clock, it’s easy to go through your day-to-day life without noticing that suddenly, for instance, there are no more travel agents, pay phone booths, or used CD stores.
This year in many ways seemed like an inert one, full of dead ends, false starts and creative bankruptcy. But hindsight may very well reveal this to be the year when everything changed.
In fact a recurrent theme of the year was a challenging of the old. Though every year new stars are made and old stars burn out or fade away, 2014 in many ways was the year in which Millennials took the reins and challenged the establishment. Sometimes, they even won.
1. “Frozen” and Adele Dazeem
Despite being released in November of 2013, “Frozen” was very much the big entertainment story of 2014. Raking in over $1.2 billion, the film has become fifth-highest grossing of all time, the top-grossing animated movie and the fastest-selling digital release of all time. And that’s not even counting the enormous sales of its soundtrack, the hit single “Let It Go” and the countless piles of branded toys, Halloween costumes and braided hair styles the film is selling.
In much the same way that “The Lion King” reinvented Disney for a new generation 20 years ago, “Frozen” will be the touchstone that children of this generation refer to in ironic adult conversations. But nothing quite captured the weird place “Frozen” has taken in today’s culture like John Travolta’s Oscar flub of Broadway star Idina Menzel’s name. Half of the crowd instantly reacted in horror, while the rest was still confused even after learning the singer’s real name. For parents and children, “Frozen” is everything, and possibly too much. For everyone else, it’s just a cartoon.
2. Taylor Swift Saves Music?
This year was on track to be the worst for the music business since the early ‘90s. Record sales were in the dumps and no record (save for 2013’s “Frozen” soundtrack, ironically) had gone platinum. Then Ms. Swift rode in to save the day with “1989,” a definitively pop shift for the former country singer. The album broke sales records and garnered some of the best reviews of Swift’s career.
Where 2013 had been dominated by a tiny, trashy, twerking sex-kitten, Taylor seemed an over-correction on every level, a pop-cultural reflection of a conservative reaction. Tall, tasteful and horrified by sensuality, she came in like the anti-Miley, while, ironically enough, using Madonna’s playbook for promotion.
Swift picked a fight with streaming service Spotify. She was declared a New York City ambassador (and then was on the receiving end of about 1 million New York editorials asking for her to be returned to Nashville). She was strategically seen in embraces with supermodel Karlie Kloss to get the gossip mags purring. And it all worked.
In a year that threatened to be dominated by Nicki Minaj, Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande or even Meghan Trainor, the prom queen stormed in and declared that the crown was still hers.
3. “Guardians of the Galaxy”
Another Marvel adaptation with an audience-friendly cast, fun cameos, and tie-ins to the extended universe tops the box office for the year. Same old story, right? Except “Guardians of the Galaxy” was different in a million ways that prove that execution was everything.
Hardly the household name that Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk are, the Guardians of the Galaxy were an oddball corner of the Marvel universe, and hardly the most likely candidate for an adaptation. But using a combination of Joss Whedon-inspired dialog in which the characters are allowed to be incredulous, a totally lovable AM Gold soundtrack and a star-making goofball performance from Chris Pratt, “Guardians” became the must-see, feel good hit of the summer.
By steering away from the Christopher Nolan seriousness of comic book adaptations of the last few years, director James Gunn showed that comic book movies can be fun again, without embracing the awful camp that so marred the Joel Schumacher movies.
4. Everything Is Serialized
There was a time in the not so distant past when Hollywood was being chastised for refusing to invest in anything that wasn’t a remake or a sequel. The idea, from the executive’s point of view, was to avoid gambling on a new property that could utterly fail and sink the studio. At least with a remake or sequel, you’d get fans of the original. You’d have a built-in audience.
But now, as a trip to the movie theater becomes less and less a part of average American life, studios are even less willing to invest in a property without that built-in audience. As such, studios are now starting to roll out their lineups years ahead of time. Not only is there a new “Star Wars” movie coming next year, but we know there will be “Star Wars” movies every year for the foreseeable future. Marvel has been even more generous, going so far as to state what the films from its universe will be. It’s no coincidence that both of those franchises are being headed by former TV whiz kids. Everything is serialized narrative, as Hollywood desperately tries to keep butts in the seats.
Is it any wonder that one of the year’s big cult successes was a podcast called “Serial”?
5. The Walking Dead Kills Football
The NFL has long held the monopoly on Sunday nights in the fall and winter. For years, programing was put on to try to “counter” its dominance, with female-friendly content or more slacker-friendly shows like Fox’s animation block. But this year, AMC’s The Walking Dead beat the NFL week after week, with 18-to-49-year-old viewers preferring the zombie show to the gridiron. Couple that with the NFL’s scandals and potential dangers drastically overshadowing what happens on the field, and it was an especially bad year for the game.
6. Women Rule the Air (and Wi-Fi) Waves
Though the music business suffered, its success stories were noteworthy for being almost entirely about women. Though there were some notable exceptions (Pharrell Williams, for instance), this was undoubtedly a year in which the big hits were delivered by the ladies. Nicki Minaj dominated the conversation through the summer, with the above-mentioned Taylor Swift swooping in to take the fall. The old-new guard of Beyonce, Katy Perry and Ke$ha were all represented, but it was the next-gen stars-in-the-making like Lorde, Charlie XCX, Meghan Trainor and Ariana Grande that really dominated headlines. The conversations about Iggy Azalea’s cultural appropriations were almost as ubiquitous as “Fancy.”
On television, women lead such bellwether dramas as Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Orange is the New Black and Homeland. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes has become a household name as a purveyor of high-class soap operas.
Comedy, meanwhile, continues to be on a crusade to disprove Christopher Hitchens’ assertion that women simply aren’t funny. Tina and Amy continue to be everyone’s favorite awards show hosts. The Amy Poehler-produced Broad City made a (much deserved) surprise appearance on almost every single year-end list. Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling and Zooey Deschanel all continued to turn in good work in sitcoms, whereas funny ladies Kristen Wiig and Jenny Slate both made big steps in dramatic features.
In fact, with those two exceptions, film is the only medium where women aren’t currently running the show, and it is perhaps not coincidental that film is the medium most in trouble….
7. Streaming Goes Mainstream
Perhaps no single technological change has shaken up the industry this year like the growth of streaming entertainment. Traditional media distribution networks like television, cable, movie theaters and broadcast radio all felt the sting as audiences increasingly used Internet-enabled devices to watch or listen to the latest hits, the big movie or their favorite TV show.
Movie theaters, already desperate to attract customers in a country where the average home entertainment center provides a more than acceptable viewing experience, found their profits shrinking other further. As the rest of the entertainment industry has found ways to adapt and even profit in the Internet age, theater owners are being increasingly left out in the cold as audiences choose to watch at home, or even on the go.
Indeed the long-foretold “year of mobile” may have finally come around at last, as industry-wide reporting shows drastic increases in traffic to mobile devices and a corresponding decrease in views to traditional desktop and laptop devices. As part of that trend, the cord-cutting movement gained further steam as Amazon Prime became a genuine player in the content game, both through its critically acclaimed original show Transparent through to its content partnership with HBO. HBO itself announced plans to launch a freestanding version of its immensely successful HBO GO app, a move that will undoubtedly cause many to consider ditching their traditional cable package.
And if you needed proof the music industry still fears streaming, look no further than Taylor Swift’s attack on Spotify.
With each passing year, video games make a stronger and stronger argument that, at their best, they can be just as potent a story-telling medium as any. Prestige studios such as Bioware, Telltale and Naughty Dog all made games within the last year that could stand with all but the best of television and film.
With the increased spotlight on the industry, it was only a matter of time before the ugly recesses of the gamer community got dragged into the light, warts and all.
The particular details of the original gamergate controversy are far too labyrinthine to go into here, but the fight quickly sprawled far beyond the original argument to a point where “ethics in gaming journalism” became a walking punchline for any sort of clueless and offensively sexist behavior. A combination of pedantic rage, bottled up misogyny and the safety of anonymous commenting on the Internet allowed the most rancid of thoughts to be spewed, and eventually, real world threats to be issued. For a brief moment, everyone was talking about video games for all the wrong reasons.
9. Bill Cosby
As Chris Rock said, 2014 was a tough year for comedy. “We lost Robin (Williams), we lost Joan (Rivers) and we kinda lost Cosby.” Regardless of the outcome of the legal wrangling going on, that does feel true. We will never have “Bill Cosby” again.
The manner of his downfall is most striking. The rumors regarding Cosby had been around since at least the early ‘90s. Those rumors were largely dismissed with usual excuses — “women looking for money or attention” — but they were never quite forgotten. Meanwhile, Cosby had aged from a beloved father figure to a curmudgeonly old scold, far more known for his harangues at African-American youth than his several attempts to recapture the success of his ‘80s sitcom or earlier stand-up.
Comedian Patton Oswalt stated that Cosby’s alleged proclivities were a dark secret in the stand-up community, and one comedian had finally had enough. Hannibal Buress, a comic with no small following, essentially asked on stage how Cosby could dare to question his use of profanity or how low he wore his pants when Cosby himself was a rapist.
The initial response was to chastise Buress, but times have changed, and we no longer allow allegations of sexual misconduct to be swept under the carpet for decorum’s sake. More and more women came forward, including Janice Dickinson, who surely had nothing to gain from false accusations.
History has forgiven the works of awful people before. It’s impossible to discuss the development of film technique without “Birth of a Nation,” “Triumph of the Will,” “Chinatown” or “Annie Hall.” It will be equally impossible to talk about television without mentioning at least Cosby’s 80’s sitcom and his work on I Spy. It is possible that we may one day be able to appreciate the man’s work, separate from his life, but it feels unlikely that that will be before he passes.
Between the drone strikes, the surveillance state, and the pocket super-computers we all carry with us, it’s sometimes easy to feel as if we are living in an exceptionally drab Philip K. Dick adaptation, one sadly devoid of flying cars. But nothing speaks to our living in a boring dystopia quite as much as the increasingly common nature of hacking scandals.
Last year we had Target and Edward Snowden (who was actually just an insider, not really a hacker). This year we had Home Depot, hacked pictures of naked celebrities and a cyber war between Sony Pictures and (probably) the government of North Korea.
The nude celebrity photo hack had all of the qualities that SEO-hungry headline writers and salacious readers loved, but it also resulted in very serious debates about what realistic expectations of privacy we have and what exactly constitutes a violation of that privacy. They are questions that we still don’t really have answers for.
The Sony scandal on the other hand has been almost entirely light hearted…or at least as much as any scandal that threatens “9-11 style terrorism” can be considered a laughing matter. The emails that have been released largely expose Hollywood as the exact cesspool of venal and petty and not-terribly-bright people that it’s always painted itself as, whereas the film at the center of all of this, “The Interview” has been transformed from a middling comedy into a national symbol for how we will not be bullied by some petty tyrant, playing Prince Joffrey in a shoddy, home-video production of Game of Thrones.
What’s most remarkable about it all is how totally normal it all feels.
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