A year in pop culture: 20 of the biggest viral and celebrity moments of 2021

From Kim and Kanye’s split and Bennifer 2.0 to Aryan Khan’s arrest and James Bond’s final mission – here are 20 moments that defined pop culture this year

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As the constraints of the pandemic began to lessen in 2021, movies, music, weddings and events which had been on hold finally happened.

After 18 months of waiting, fans were finally treated to Daniel Craig’s swansong as 007 in No Time To Die, while in Bollywood the wedding of the year between Vicky Kaushal and Katrina Kaif took place on December 8.

We not only said goodbye to Keeping Up With The Kardashians after 14 years on air, but Kim also said goodbye to her husband of seven years, Kanye West (who changed his name to Ye this year), filing for divorce in February.

The arrest of Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan made headlines, as did the tragedy which unfolded on the set of the Alec Baldwin movie Rust, when cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was tragically killed.

Ultimately though, the year gave us some heartfelt moments to remember, including Olivia Rodrigo’s drivers licence, Bernie Sanders’ mitten memes, new music from Adele and plenty of conversations about how we might personally fare in the dystopian nightmare of Netflix’s mega-hit Squid Game.

Here are 20 of the biggest pop culture moments from 2021 …


Olivia Rodrigo releases Gen Z anthem 'Sour'

Olivia Rodrigo made her mark on the Gen Z music scene with her huge-selling album 'Sour'. AP

The former Disney star released her debut single drivers licence on January 8, with the track debuting at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and breaking streaming records.

Her follow-up singles deja vu and good 4 u preceded the May release of her record-breaking album, Sour, which debuted at No 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and spent a total of five weeks in the spot.

Rodrigo was invited to the White House in July to encourage young people to get vaccinated.

Read more: Who is Olivia Rodrigo? The Filipino-American singer whose debut single has topped charts around the world

Bernie Sanders’ mittens go viral

On January 20, all eyes should have been on Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th President of the United States.

Then Bernie Sanders turned up on the freezing cold day wearing a pair of brown knitted mittens and stole the show.

The former presidential hopeful went viral for his sartorial choice at the inauguration, appearing in pop culture references for weeks after.

Read more: Why Bernie Sanders and his mittens have brought us all together


Kim Kardashian and Kanye West split

After months of rumours about the state of their marriage, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West split up in January, with Kardashian filing for divorce in February. Reuters

The reality star filed for divorce in February, seeking to end her seven-year marriage to the rapper.

The pair, who have four children together, sought to keep the split amicable, with Kim turning up to the launch of West’s Donda album launch in August.

In November, West appeared to have changed his mind about the break-up, telling the Drink Champs podcast: “My kids want their parents to stay together… I want us to be together.”

Read more: Are Kim Kardashian and Kanye West still getting divorced?


Harry and Meghan sit down with Oprah

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, sat down for a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey. Joe Pugliese / Harpo Productions

In one of the most-watched television events of the decade, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sat down with US talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, for a tell-all interview.

The pair discussed their wedding, relationship, children and mental-health struggles. They also revealed that an unnamed member of the royal family had wondered what skin tone their firstborn, son Archie, would have.

The fallout was explosive.

Read more: Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview: the five most shocking revelations


Bennifer 2.0

The relationship that defined the early noughties returned for round two when Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez reunited in April this year.

Fresh off his romance with Knives Out actress Ana De Arnas, Affleck began dating his former fiancee J-Lo after she split from ex-baseball star, Alex Rodriguez.

The pair first started dating back in December 2001, earning themselves the nickname Bennifer, before breaking off their engagement in 2004.

Read more: Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck: a look back at couple's red carpet moments over the years


‘Friends: The Reunion’

Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey and Ross were reunited on TV special ‘Friends: The Reunion’. Photo: OSN 

The cast of hit TV show Friends were reunited 17 years after the final episode aired in May 2004.

Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer - aka Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey and Ross - returned to the sound stage where the show was filmed, before being interviewed in front of an audience, along with the show’s co-creators.

Read more: The National's review of 'The One Where They Get Back Together'


The Kardashians say farewell

After 14 years on the air and 210 episodes, the final episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians was broadcast on June 20.

Fans of the reality TV family watched the members grow up onscreen, start their careers, get married, divorced, have children and become billionaires.

Although the series might have ended, the family has signed a new deal with US TV network Hulu, with new content expected in 2023.

Read more: Kourtney Kardashian's style evolution in 33 pictures: reality starlet to Blink-182 bride


The billionaire space race

Billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos found themselves in a space race. AP

Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson made headlines when the two billionaires became involved in a race to see who could rocket into space first.

British Virgin chief executive Branson won the race, with his Virgin Galactic craft reaching the outer limits of the earth’s atmosphere on July 11, while Amazon founder Bezos had to settle for second place in his Blue Origin on July 20.

Read more: How early investors in the space race can reap rocket-fuelled rewards


Summer of Zomdaya

'Spider-Man' co-stars Zendaya and Tom Holland finally confirmed their are-they-aren't-they relationship this summer. PA

Rumours have swirled around Spider-Man co-stars Tom Holland and Zendaya since 2016, when the pair first teamed up as Peter Parker and MJ for the big-screen reboot of the superhero franchise.

Dubbed "Zomdaya" by fans keen for the self-proclaimed "best friends" to get together, the pair played it coy a la Twilight-era Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson for years.

However, 2021 proved to be the right time for the couple, and they made the fandom happy when they attended a friend's wedding together on August 22, looking loved up.

Read more: See Zendaya's style evolution in 61 photos: 'Shake It Up' starlet to 'Dune' leading lady


‘Squid Game’ becomes a must-watch

The first episode of South Korean television sensation Squid Game was released on Netflix on September 17 and instantly became one of the biggest pop culture moments of the year.

The show made stars of Lee Jung-jae (Seong Gi-hun), Park Hae-soo (Cho Sang-woo) and Jung Ho-yeon (Kang Sae-byeok) outside of Asia.

It inspired as many watercooler moments, Halloween costumes and opinion pieces akin to how the streamer’s Tiger King had done the year before.

Read more: 'Squid Game' season 2: five burning questions we’d like answered

TikTok hits one billion downloads

The social media company announced on September 27 that it had passed one billion monthly users.

Launching in August 2018, the app’s popularity increased during the pandemic and became the most-downloaded app in the world in the first quarter of 2020.

This year, the platform cemented itself at the heart of the cultural conversation, breaking news, starting trends and creating stars and influencers.

Read more: Dubai delivery man goes viral on TikTok for saving dog on street: 'I could not leave him'


Alec Baldwin shooting tragedy

Alec Baldwin was the actor holding the gun when cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot on the set of his movie 'Rust'. AP

On October 21, on the set of the movie Rust, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins died and director Joel Souza was injured when a bullet from a prop gun fired by Alec Baldwin hit Hutchins in the chest and Souza in the shoulder.

The gun was found to contain live rather than dummy ammunition. Baldwin later called the incident a “one-in-a-trillion event”.

Read more: Alec Baldwin shooting: what happened on the set of the movie 'Rust'?

Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker get engaged

The Blink-182 drummer popped the question to his reality TV star girlfriend on the beach surrounded by red roses.

The pair began dating in December 2020, quickly earning themselves the portmanteau “Kravis”. Following the proposal, the father-of-two took to Instagram to call Kardashian the “love of my life”.

Read more: Kourtney Kardashian engaged to Travis Barker - everything you need to know about her ring

Shah Rukh Khan’s son arrested

Aryan Khan, son of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, was arrested before being bailed in connection with a drug case. AFP

Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s son, Aryan Khan, was arrested on October 2, when India’s Narcotics Control Bureau boarded the cruise ship he was on heading for Goa, and charged him under laws “related to possession, consumption and sale of illegal substances”.

He was released on bail on October 30 after 28 days in jail, and is required to report into the bureau once a week.

Read more: 35 celebrities who received the UAE's golden visa: from Shah Rukh Khan to Giorgio Armani

James Bond’s final mission

Daniel Craig's final outing as 007 in 'No Time To Die' finally reached cinemas. Reuters

Warning: this entry contains a major film spoiler.

After over a year of delays, Daniel Craig’s James Bond swansong No Time to Die was finally released in cinemas.

In the $250 million movie, Bond lost his legendary 007 designation to another agent, fell in love and had a child. He also died in one of the final scenes, leaving fans scratching their heads over the message at the end of the credits that “James Bond will return…”

Read more: There might be ‘No Time to Die’, but there is time to talk about those Bond bombshells


Britney Spears’s conservatorship ends

After 13 years, the singer’s conservatorship came to an end, with her father Jamie Spears no longer exercising financial and personal control over his pop star daughter.

Spears, 40, told a judge she was unable to leave her home, drive a car, go shopping or have a baby with her fiance, Sam Asghari, without her father’s permission.

“I’m just grateful, honestly, for each day and being able to have the keys to my car, being able to be independent and feel like a woman,” she said on Instagram.

Read more: Britney Spears is free from conservatorship, but what happens to her $60 million fortune?

Travis Scott Astroworld tragedy

Ten people died and hundreds were injured at Travis Scott's Astroworld Music Festival. AP

Ten people died, including a boy aged 9, and hundreds were injured during a deadly crowd crush at rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival on November 5.

Authorities confirmed that a “crowd surge” amid the 50,000 festival-goers had led to the deaths, however Scott’s concert was not stopped despite videos showing people climbing onstage to try to halt the music.

The rapper has denied all wrongdoing amid a spate of lawsuits.

Read more: Astroworld 2021: what happened at Travis Scott's Houston music festival?

Adele releases ‘30’

Adele’s fourth album release sparked the usual fan frenzy that accompanies new music from the British singer.

She released the first track Easy On Me on October 15 and it went on to break the record for the most-streamed song in a single day on Spotify with 24 million global streams.

Read more: Adele's '30' review: new album hits emotional depths in a heartache-laced journey

Taylor Swift releases ‘Red (Taylor’s Version)’

After becoming embroiled in a legal battle over the rights to her music, Taylor Swift announced she was remaking all the albums she no longer owned.

On November 12, she released the new version of her 2012 album Red. The 10-minute-long video for All Too Well went viral for its apparent portrayal of Swift’s short-lived romance with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

Read more: Taylor Swift's style evolution in 59 photos: from 'Fearless' to 'Folklore'


Vicky Kaushal and Katrina Kaif marry

The two stars tied the knot on December 8 in a winter wedding that was attended by Bollywood names including Kabir Khan, Mini Mathur, Neha Dhupia, Angad Bedi, Sharvari Wagh and Vijay Krishna Acharya.

Choosing to marry at Six Senses Fort Barwara resort in Rajasthan, the mehendi (henna) and sangeet (music event) were followed by a haldi (turmeric) ceremony and sehrabandi (turban-tying) before the pheras (wedding ritual) during the three-day event.

The pair began dating in 2019, keeping their relationship under wraps, but were outed when actor Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor was asked on the chat show By Invite Only to reveal a celebrity rumour he knew to be true, and said: "Vicky and Katrina are together, that's true."

Updated: December 13, 2021, 11:43 AM