clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The weirdest pop culture of 2016

New, 1 comment

These are the things that broke our minds

As we head into the final weeks of 2016, the inevitable nostalgia for six to 11 months ago is engulfing the pop culture universe. This week, we look back on some of the stranger things we experienced in 2016 — pop culture that made Stranger Things look downright normal.

Don’t miss our previous best-of: The pre-2016 entertainment that got us through 2016


“Pillowtalk” music video by ZAYN and Gigi

In distancing himself from the sweet little rascals of One Direction, Zayn Malik selected an aggressively “edgy” aesthetic for the music video for his first solo single. A small selection of the images therein: a neck tattoo that says “war zone,” a flower blooming out of a vagina (twice!), golden face spikes, famed Instagram model Gigi Hadid levitating inside a kaleidoscope, crying blood, crying ink, women in catsuits and bunny ears punching each other, weed, weed, weed, MacBook Photo Booth infrared filters, screams, a collarbone tattoo that says “Paradise,” lots of steamy-looking smooches, a small hoop earring (just one), and a smashed guitar. It’s a trainwreck and a treat, an argument against being subtle ever — much like Zayn’s assessment of grown-up sex beds, which are “a paradise” and “a war zone.” Very perceptive, Zayn! Watching this video makes me laugh and laugh, which I’m sure is not what our young moody friend intended. But he’s extremely talented, and he’ll start making less-stupid songs someday soon. Then he can look back at it and laugh with us, and it’ll be a great time. Put this one in the time capsule as a trippy, confusing, neon bit of post-teen and post-teen-band angst. –Kaitlyn Tiffany


Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid

Stephen Chow films like Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle are clearly made for his Hong Kong fans, but they’re still full of action, comedy, and familiar tropes, so they’re fairly accessible to an international audience. I can’t say the same about Chow’s latest, The Mermaid, which broke all-time box office records in China, and snuck into a few American theaters at the same time. Sort of an environmental love story about a business tycoon who falls for a mermaid, who’s just trying to infiltrate his company and murder him, it’s stuck midway between a sweet Splash-style romantic comedy, a bloody slapstick murder-comedy, and the kind of gory dolphin massacre seen in The Cove. This is a movie where a half-man / half-octopus cuts off, grills, and serves his own tentacles to oblivious diners while grimacing in agony. A pretty young girl attempting to ninja-murder a businessman ends up with poisonous sea urchins stuck to her face. And, well, there’s a lot of this. Sorry, everyone. –Tasha Robinson

Sony Pictures Releasing

Job Simulator, by Owlchemy Labs

I doubt Job Simulator is the weirdest thing I've seen this year, but it might be the most surprisingly popular one. Here's the premise behind one of the best-known virtual reality games ever made (an admittedly low bar): the year is 2050, and robots that look like floating CRT screens have made humanity obsolete, leaving us to play at "jobbing" in simulated restaurants, convenience stores, garages, and cubicle farms. No one has any idea what those jobs entailed, so keyboards have only two keys, photocopiers replicate three-dimensional objects, and it's perfectly acceptable to spend hours throwing donuts at your boss. There are technically goals in Job Simulator, but the real fun is just seeing what the game will let you get away with. Job Simulator theoretically addresses our worst economic fears — its website features ominous quotes from Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, warning about the dangers of AI. But it does so through a playfully warped vision of the present, translating dystopian anxiety into something oddly joyful. –Adi Robertson

Job Simulator
Job Simulator, HTC Vive

Penny Lane’s documentary, Nuts!

At Sundance, I saw my two favorite documentaries of the year. The first was a 7.5-hour marathon that began as a biography O.J. Simpson, then grew into a history of Los Angeles, racial discrimination in the United States, and the policing of largely black communities by white law-enforcers. The second was a 79-minute story about the restorative power of goat testicles. Nuts!, the latest from the immensely talented documentarian Penny Lane, tells the "mostly true story" of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, who leveraged a homespun cure for male impotence (inject goat glands into the scrotum!) to build a medical empire and a pair of wildly successful country radio stations, the latter powerful enough broadcast to 17 different countries. And he did it all while dodging the Feds. One word of advice: don't read Brinkley's Wikipedia page. The beauty of a story this good is in its telling. –Chris Plante


Shia LaBeouf, freestyle rapper

Shia LaBeouf has bars. This is a true statement in 2016, and may be the biggest proof that this wasn’t just another year. LaBeouf, aka the rapper you never knew you needed in your life, burst into the rap world in November after he showed up on Sway in The Morning and dropped the most unexpected (and fire) freestyle in years. His lyrics, cadence, and delivery were good enough to baffle rap fans across the world. Then, less than three weeks later, LaBeouf returned with another freestyle, dissing Lil Yachty (you don’t need to Google him) and Soulja Boy, who then proceeded to ban Labeouf from Atlanta*. Does Shia LaBeouf becoming a great freestyle rapper make any sense? Not in the least, but in a year full of surprises, this was one of the few good ones. –Micah Singleton

(*Mr. Boy does not control entry to the Greater Atlanta Metro area.)


“Purple Lamborghini” by Skrillex & Rick Ross

For me, Suicide Squad is the kind of bad movie you teach a class about. It’s seriously this moldy, greasy onion of a film. There’s just so much wrong with it, from the editing to the acting to even the story’s logic, that’s it’s just fascinating to pick up apart. But there’s probably nothing weirder or more off-putting than Jared Leto’s take on the Joker. Leto plays him like Jim Carrey on lean, turning a character who should be equally captivating and terrifying into a strange mess. Funnily enough, he’s only in the movie for about 10 minutes, and he never takes center stage. Even funnier is the music video he actually does star in. “Purple Lamborghini” is a Rick Ross and Skrillex joint, a bizarre blend of trap and dubstep that never builds into a song you want to be caught listening to. That would be enough on its own, but here you have Leto’s Joker, in tails no less, slithering wordlessly through a club filled with dollar bills with Ricky’s face on them and… I dunno, the dudes that didn’t make it into the actual Suicide Squad? It’s so bananas that you almost can’t look away, until you close the tab, shudder, and go back to wondering when Warner Bros. will actually get this DCEU thing right. –Kwame Opam


Idiocracy predictions realized

When Idiocracy and Silicon Valley creator Mike Judge chatted with The Verge a couple years ago, he joked that our society was doomed. Back then, it was funny to laugh at the speculation about a ridiculous satire coming true. The premise — that in the future, the dumbest people would be running the world — seemed unlikely. But last February, Idiocracy writer Etan Cohen tweeted, “I never expected #idiocracy to become a documentary,” as the Republican presidential nominees battled over fake news and ignorant ideas about basically everything. Over the past year, the Idiocracy movement as a documentary has grown, with a Facebook group dedicated to the premise. Artist Shepard Fairey organized a series of screenings and discussions, and made Idiocracy-inspired artwork to support voter education. And here we are on the precipice of a new president, due to be inaugurated in 2017, not 2505 — and the satire doesn’t seem so funny. –Tamara Warren


Slow TV on Netflix

There is an 8-hour "movie" on Netflix called National Knitting Night. In it, a group of women spin freshly sheared sheep's wool into yarn and then knit with that yarn. They're technically trying to break a speed record for turning hunks of raw wool into a men's sweater, yet the scene is anything but speedy. Sample dialogue: "Who needs some more wool?" "Magda does." This is part of the Norwegian Broadcasting Company’s "Slow TV" project, eight episodes of which were added to Netflix this summer. Other viewing options include National Firewood Morning, Train Ride Bergen to Oslo, and Salmon Fishing. Each episode features exactly what you would expect from its title, and exactly nothing more. It's a comfort, such commitment to climax-less mediocrity. –Lizzie Plaugic


The Jeremih concert imposter

Fans have accused Jeremih, rapper and singer of the greatest song of 2015 (“Oui”), of sending out a stunt double to perform for him at a show in Houston last month. The evidence is pretty fuzzy: The video of the hoodied performer doesn’t make it clear that it’s not actually him — but it could be anyone! Multiple angry concertgoers from that night have reported their doubts on Twitter. I’m not actually sure which story I want to believe as truth: on the one hand, I’d be pretty pissed if I ended up seeing a poor man’s version of the act I wanted to see. But on the other? News like this is so bizarre and unbelievable, I’m actually happy to take in the sheer absurdity of it all. So did Jeremih really pull a fast one on America? He certainly wouldn’t be the first person to do so this year. –Dami Lee