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How Our Entertainment Changed In 2020


2020 was - what can I say that hasn't been said? It was a lot, to say the least, from the start of the pandemic to the quarantines to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the protests that those deaths and others sparked to the counterprotests over mandates and shutdowns. The past year was, as we said, a lot.

And for many people, entertainment is an escape from the realities of daily life. But entertainment can also be a reflection of life. We wanted to know how the entertainment industry reflected this tumultuous year, so we've called two of our in-house experts on all things pop culture, Stephen Thompson and Aisha Harris, both from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.


MARTIN: Well, you know, for many of us, 2020 had us locked inside, glued to our TV sets, looking for something to binge-watch. I mean, so, Aisha, I'll start with you.

How did - and that includes movies - right? - because a lot of us couldn't go to movie theaters or didn't want to go to movie theaters, so all the movies we were experiencing was on television. So how did those industries, television and the movies - first of all, how did they react to the events of 2020? Aisha, what effect did it have on the way they did their business? And how do you think they responded?

HARRIS: Well, it definitely became a year where we didn't have those big blockbusters that the industry, the movie industry, seems to rely on every summer. We had movies like "Wonder Woman" being moved and shifted to video on demand at the end of the year. And so without that, you have the industry wondering, OK, what are we going to do?

Even before the year started, there was concern - all this discussion about streaming and the streaming wars and how it's going to affect the movie industry and the fact that fewer and fewer and people were already going to the movie theaters in the last few years. And so I think this just kind of accelerated the pace of movie theaters' sort of crumbling infrastructure.

And it'll be interesting to see going forward how they move past this. I think people are going to definitely want to go back as soon as they possibly can, but that doesn't mean it's going to work out for the movie theater industry in the long run.

MARTIN: Stephen, what about you? When you're thinking about the way artists in music responded to the moment, like, what comes to mind? Like, I'm thinking about some specific songs responding to a specific moment, like "I Can't Breathe" by H.E.R. What about you? What comes to mind?

THOMPSON: Well, I think there are a lot of moments to respond to. And I think musicians attacked a lot of them from a lot of different angles. I mean, if you're talking about the pandemic and kind of the isolation that that brought about, Taylor Swift made two albums in quarantine that were quite well-received and that were in many places quite beautiful.

You have a group called SAULT - that's S-A-U-L-T - a British kind of R&B, jazz kind of genre-blending group - made two fantastic records that came out in 2020. One is called "Untitled (Rise)." The other is called "Untitled (Black Is)." "Black Is" in particular is this hour-long ode to the Black experience that approaches its subject from so many different angles and with such righteousness and rage and beauty.

You feel these albums, and they're speaking to the moment - sometimes they're made before the specific flashpoints that we're talking about, but they really speak to them in remarkable ways. Run The Jewels put out a record called RTJ4 that came out on June 3 - like, kind of right in the middle of when the George Floyd protests were coming up. And that album had been made months and months ahead of time, but it managed to speak to the moment in a really, really striking way.


RUN THE JEWELS: (Singing) And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, I can't breathe. And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV.

MARTIN: Aisha, what about you? What about sort of in - movies have such a long tail, so maybe let's focus on TV here. How did TV respond to this moment? I mean, I know that, for example, the shows like "Cops" and "Live PD" were canceled, I think pretty much in response to the fact that many people felt that those storylines were, you know, wildly inappropriate or were so biased or for whatever reason.

But just overall, like, how do you think television responded? And did anybody capture the moment, in your view, particularly well? And I'm also interested if you think anybody blew it and just didn't get it right.

HARRIS: Well, I think one thing that remains to be seen is "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which is a show that I love, but I also have long had reservations about loving, in part because it depicts this, you know, ragtag group of Brooklyn police officers being goofy and doesn't really - it kind of doesn't jibe with this current conversation that we're having about policing and police reform. And so they have actually - the creators, Mike Schur and also the cast have talked about how this upcoming season, they're planning to address it head-on.

So we're seeing shows like that really start to wrestle with it and say, like, we can't ignore this anymore. We really need to confront this. And so I think if any show is going to be able to do it, it'll be that one.

You know, we've also seen lots of discussion - I know you and I have talked about "The Bachelorette" and the way in which they've discussed that. It's not a show that I watch, but I think it's interesting that even a show as frothy as that can't even sidestep the conversation that's happening.

So I don't know. I feel like it was a moment that was happening in the summer, and I feel like it's ebbed a little bit. So I think the further we move away from the George Floyd protests, the less I feel like it's going to be something that continues to reverberate. But I'm cautiously optimistic on that front.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go, I mean - this is - it's really not fair to ask reporters to predict because it's your job to, you know, describe, you know, what is and to tell us about it. But I am interested in whether - you know, we're all thinking about what changes we've all experienced, what might last, what we would want to last and what we can just please never see again.

And I'm just wondering if I could just ask each of you to say if there's something that happened this year that you'd like to see as a result of everything we've gone through, that you'd like to see more of in the future, that you hope will continue in the areas that each of you covers. Aisha, you want to start?

HARRIS: Sure. I just think this is a really great year for women filmmakers. And this has been something - it's not like there haven't been women filmmakers before, obviously, but I think, especially in a year when so many movie releases were shuffled around and everything, I think, you know, it was easy to say, oh, there were no good movies this year, but there were.

And a lot of them were by women filmmakers like Garret Bradley, who created a really fascinating, beautiful documentary about the prison industrial system from a very personal point of view called "Time." And that's - you can find that on Amazon Prime. You had Radha Blank making "40-Year-Old Version," which is a great, funny movie that I highly recommend everyone see. There were just lots of really great films by women filmmakers, and so I hope you continue to see that going into 2021 and beyond.

MARTIN: Stephen, is there anything that, you know, despite the fact that last year was terrible, and nobody would wish this, you know, on their worst enemy - but are there some things that happened as a result of COVID, perhaps, in the world of music that you hope might continue?

THOMPSON: Well, I think that 2020 did give musicians - it kind of forced a lot of musicians to connect with fans in new and kind of personal ways and create performances that really had a real intimacy to them. I think the world of live shows streamed over the Internet has been a very, very mixed bag. But I think the fact that musicians are learning how to create a sort of facsimile of a live experience over the Internet does have real potential to create some great performances and some great art.

I think that everybody in music is really kind of white-knuckling and holding on, hoping that live music can come back, in part to kind of prop up this economy. But I think that creatively, musicians becoming better at working from home and creating from home just has the capacity to bring about a lot of new and exciting art.

MARTIN: That was Stephen Thompson and Aisha Harris from the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Stephen Thompson, Aisha Harris, thank you so much for speaking with us.

And happy New Year to you both. It's got to be a better one than the past one.

THOMPSON: Well, let's hope so.

HARRIS: Happy New Year.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Michel.


HARRIS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.