What were the most-meaningful cultural influences of 2018? The Christ and Pop Culture 25 is a list of our favorite people, works of art, or cultural artifacts from the past year that we feel best represent God’s truth and grace in the world. The list is extremely weird, a meandering, whiplash-inducing product of the diverse perspectives of our writers. We wouldn’t have it any other way. The goal of our list is to illuminate and appreciate the good both in and outside of the church, to show the way God uses Christians to shine a light on the world and the ways God’s common grace spills out into the most surprising places. We’re counting down the list each day this week; stop back to see The 25 of 2018 take shape.
Nominations covered a wide array of potentials from film, television, music, games, Internet, and people. We then used our magic algorithm to compile those choices into a tentative list of around 30 items. Finally, a panel of six (aka, the CAPC 25 Council), each representing various perspectives and expertise, met over the internet for three-plus hours to hash out exactly how the list should look. Our final deliberations were recorded and produced into a two-part podcast in which you can hear exactly how the CAPC 25 Council determined the order and make-up of the 25 of 2018. Part one is available today; part two will be released later in the week so as to not spoil the surprise for the top spots.
While our list is in no way meant to be authoritative or objective, it is a serious attempt at appreciating culture, a task that is at the forefront of Christ and Pop Culture’s purpose.
The 25 of 2018 series: #25–#21, #20-#16, #15–#11, #10–#6, #5–#1, The 25 of 2018, The 25 of 2018 Podcast Part 1, The 25 of 2018 Podcast Part 2
Illustrations courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.
The American Chopper Meme
“The lesson is clear—unrestrained emotion corrupts good argument.”
Long ago, before the reign of memes began, Discovery Channel’s American Chopper attempted to entertain the public with motorcycle construction (or something like that.) Alas, the public cared not for motorcycles, but found themselves enthralled with the volatile arguments between the show’s protagonists, a father and son famous for screaming and throwing things while they discussed appropriate clock-in times and details of employment contracts. Though the show was cancelled in 2012, someone (probably a Millennial) resurrected five images from the show to create the American Chopper meme. And thus, a star was born.
The American Chopper meme manages to correct as it inspires. It is both an admonishment and aspiration, all crammed into five slides. The first slide offers an argumentative proposition, followed by a refutation, then a reaffirmation of the proposition, then another refutation, then a final statement. For a meme, or for an internet argument, the structure is fairly complex. Each subsequent slide engages the previous one, which is just shy of a miracle in today’s public discourse. The argument progresses, even though a clear resolution isn’t quite within grasp.
But the images are corrective. Rather than measured body language and respectful gestures, the meme depicts two very, very angry men, screaming, pointing, grimacing, and hurling chairs. The treasure of the argument’s nuance is lost to the indulgence of fury.
The lesson is clear—unrestrained emotion corrupts good argument. If you want to make progress in persuading others, you have to offer an engaging constructive argument AND stay seated in your chair. That kind of restraint is the only way to move forward, and potentially, the only thing standing between you and your future conscription into an unflattering meme. —Amanda Wortham
by Kacey Musgraves
“Many country singers claim to speak directly to the lived experience of ordinary people; only Kacey seems to understand what that lived experience actually is.”
Kacey Musgraves has never had a number 1 hit on the Billboard Country top 100 charts. Part of the reason for this is the continued dearth of female singers on country radio, and part of this because she refuses to play the game. She doesn’t do songs about bar-rooms and back roads. Even when she does love songs, she never goes the predictable route.
On Golden Hour, her first full length album since getting married last year, Kacey Musgraves doesn’t ramp up the pace and volume to try to compete with the likes of Florida-Georgia Line’s good-old-boy frat-rock anthems. The album was created (per Musgraves’s own admission) with the aid of a generous handful of psychedelics, but the resulting sound is spacious, not trippy. It’s a backyard blanket, staring up into the sky kind of high. The album is unhurried, reflective, and unrelentingly gorgeous.
“Butterflies” and “Velvet Elvis” are a pair of genuine love songs that traffic in the good humored bounce and sway that made “Follow Your Arrow” a hit, with even stickier instrumental hooks. But the album’s real center is the way that Musgraves never shies away from exploring the bits of sorrow that are mixed up inextricably in the joy.
“Space Cowboy” details the ache and longing of the end of a relationship without any bitterness or desperation; the song’s narrator recognizes the futility of sharing a life with a partner who wants to roam, and she gently removes herself from that equation. On “Happy & Sad,” she tries to pin down why she gets in the way of her own happiness: “I’m the kind of person who starts getting kinda nervous / When I’m having the time of my life.” It’s not a lament as much as a personal reminder that her feelings can work against her, that part of happiness is conscious intention.
And it’s this kind of restraint and grace, both in her approach to melody and message, that make Musgraves at once a Nashville outsider and an immediately warm, familiar presence. Many country singers claim to speak directly to the lived experience of ordinary people; only Kacey seems to understand what that lived experience actually is. —Keegan Bradford
Crazy Rich Asians
“Screenwriters… infuse the escapist fantasy of the rom-com with a fresh sensibility that is welcome in a pop-culture landscape where East Asians are rarely protagonists and even more rarely romantic leads. “
I can pinpoint the moment when Crazy Rich Asians won me over like the reluctant love interest in a rom-com. Our heroine, Rachel Chu, is at a meal with the preposterously privileged Goh family, and the children are picking fussily at their food. Mr. Goh cajoles them to eat: “You haven’t finished your nuggets yet, sweetie. There’s a lot of children starving in America!” The line inverts the cliché about starving children in China that American parents once used to reproach their own picky eaters, highlighting the undercurrent of cultural condescension that was always present in it. The moment reveals and skewers human foibles with a deftness that is the hallmark of good comedy.
Much of Crazy Rich Asians works along these lines. The story, in which class prejudices and money exert outsized pressure on Rachel’s relationship with her intended, is as old as Austen, but by recontextualizing the familiar tropes, the film rejuvenates them. Screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, working from Kevin Kwan’s source material, infuse the escapist fantasy of the rom-com with a fresh sensibility that is welcome in a pop-culture landscape where East Asians are rarely protagonists and even more rarely romantic leads. Crazy Rich Asians marked a point when these creatives looked over at white Hollywood and decided, “I’ll have what they’re having.” —Kevin McLenithan
The Haunting of Hill House
“Life is worth living, Hill House says, not despite the suffering in the world, but because of it.”
It’s easy to imagine that Shirley Jackson purists would hate Netflix’s horror-drama The Haunting of Hill House—the adaptation retains almost none of the book’s characters or events, and shows little respect for its themes, either—but in some ways, that seems appropriate, given that the series is ultimately about learning to let go of the past. While the novel is about a haunting in the present, the series is about people coming to terms with a haunting in their own past—arguably an apt metaphor for the current political climate, and in many ways a better usage of the ghost genre than the book’s.
At the core of The Haunting of Hill House is the question of what we’ll do with the suffering in life. Will we deny it? Try to drink it away? Try to profit from it? Give up entirely? The series flirts with nihilism, but the answer it embraces is ultimately one that can only be described as pro-life—in a way that’s miles from the cynical, opportunistic sense the phrase has taken on in the political sphere. Life is worth living, Hill House says, not despite the suffering in the world, but because of it. There are hagiographies that haven’t said it better. —Luke T. Harrington
Atlanta, Season 2
“They’re [the core themes] filtered through writer/director Donald Glover’s singular vision where everything, no matter how innocuous, has a hint of dread.”
Atlanta’s first season followed Earn, a burnout in a backpack bumming around Atlanta with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Van; his cousin, the aspiring rapper Paper Boi; and Darius, their friend who is either some kind spirit guide or just really, really high. Earn becomes Paper Boi’s manager, Paper Boi manages a radio hit, relationships are navigated and negotiated, money comes and money goes. It was a fun journey through a brand new world: funhouse mirror Atlanta where anything could happen.
Season 2 continues this journey through the low levels of the music industry for Earn and Paper Boi, but the real bones of this season are in the spaces between events, the journeys. Standard 30-minute sitcom conventions are abandoned. The Teddy Perkins episode (the one that finds Darius trapped in a house of horrors with a truly terrifying Michael Jackson-inspired neurotic recluse) is so gripping that it wasn’t until it was over did I realize there hadn’t been any commercials—an intentional choice to increase the episode’s claustrophobic atmosphere. One episode is an extended parody of a local access TV set interview between the host and a nonplussed Paper Boi, complete with fake commercials.
The surreal surfaces in every episode: Justin Bieber shows up but he’s black, an Oktoberfest party is haunted by a threatening monster, and Paper Boi gets lost in the woods on a journey that becomes about much more than getting out. Family, fame, the entertainment industry, being black in the entertainment industry, being black in America, and the responsibilities that we have to one another are the core themes, but they’re filtered through writer/director Donald Glover’s singular vision where everything, no matter how innocuous, has a hint of dread. Nothing can be taken for granted in Atlanta, which is what made season 2 so gripping; but, the show’s real success was centering the journey of Earn and company, making relationships the thread strong enough to tie all its disparate parts together. —Keegan Bradford