Pop Culture’s Top 10 Movers and Shakers (2019 Edition)

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The year 2019 was a year of goodbyes. We said farewell to sitcoms (The Big Bang Theory) and television serials (Orange is the New Black); rappers (Juice WRLD) and Disney stars (Cameron Boyce); writers (Toni Morrison) and superheroes (no spoilers here) and even a Grouch (as in Oscar and the voice that brought him to life in Caroll Spinney). We closed the book on the seminal Skywalker saga that had powered the Star Wars franchise for more than 40 years. And in a couple of days, we’ll say goodbye to not just another year, but a whole decade.

But before we officially turn the page on 2019, let’s take a look back and see the folks in the world of entertainment and technology that made the year one to remember—for better or worse.

Baby Yoda: This 50-year-old toddler doesn’t just make this list because it’s the cutest thing ever (though it is), or because it became the ultimate Christmas toy that no one could have, or that it gives us another chance to talk about Star Wars (which is always fun to talk about). It’s also about what Baby Yoda represents—a massive shake-up in the streaming network space. As we mentioned just yesterday, Disney+ has more than the breakout character of the year: it has signed up 24 million subscribers in less than two months. Fellow freshman streaming service Apple TV+ hasn’t unveiled how many have subscribed to its own startup, but some believe that it could be on track to rack up even more—100 million by this time next year, according to Barclay’s. Netflix has been the big kid on the block for a while, but let’s face it: these new upstarts are carrying plenty of muscle to the party.

Fortnite Soldiers: ‘Course, it’s not just Disney and Apple that Netflix might be wringing its digital hands over. The streaming giant sees the online game Fortnite as even bigger competition. “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” a Netflix earnings report released this year read. And no wonder: Epic, the company behind the shooter, says that 250 million people were registered to play the game as of this March (compare that to the 151 million users who subscribe to Netflix), and almost as many companies seem to be vying to market themselves in the game—causing Polygon to call it a “giant, endless advertisement now.” And when Fortnite shut itself down to launch a new season this fall, leaving a gigantic black hole in its wake, hoo-boy were gamers upset. Maybe that 2019 lawsuit, which alleges that Fortnite is as addictive as illegal drugs, has some merit.

Reed Hastings: Interesting that we mentioned Netflix in connection with both of our first two entrants, isn’t it? And even though the Netflix CEO landed on our list last year, we couldn’t stop him from making a return. From the boundary-shattering inclusion of Netflix’s movie Roma in Oscar’s Best Picture category to the hordes of people who watched this year’s highly touted The Irishman (Netflix says 26.4 million; Nielsen suggests it’s more like 17.1 million), Netflix was all over the entertainment landscape. Its series Stranger Things was once again one of the buzziest shows around. It banked 117 Emmy nominations, second only to HBO’s 137.  And it dominated both the film and television nominations at the Golden Globes just a couple of weeks ago, pocketing 34 nods in all. “Not bad for a company that just got into the original series business six years ago,” notes Variety.

Scarlett Johansson: Netflix owes some of its awards-season buzz to Johansson, who co-stars (with Adam Driver) in one of the streaming service’s most-hyped movies, Marriage Story. But that’s hardly Johansson’s sole claim to fame this year. The thespian racked up a rare double helping of nominations with the prestigious Screen Actors’ Guild, landing not only a Best Lead Actress nomination (for Marriage Story), but a Best Supporting Actress for her role in Jojo Rabbit. And let’s not forget that she made quite the impact on another little movie you might’ve heard of: Avengers: Endgame, which just happens to be the second-biggest-grossing movie of all time. Little wonder that Forbes named her (for the second year in a row) the world’s highest-paid actress, collecting around $56 million. And that’s before she shows up in her own stand-alone superhero movie, next year’s Black Widow.

Lizzo: Talk about a slow burn. This Houston-based singer, rapper and flutist takes her spot on the list in part for “Truth Hurts,” a song that was released back in 2017. Two years later, it was re-released and caught fire on the video sharing site TikTok, then went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for two months. (It was also featured in the film Someone Great, which was released by—you guessed it—Netflix.) Now she’s released her third album (Cuz I Love You), has been nominated for a record eight Grammys and has earned raves for her messages about body positivity. Her songs and performances are not without their problems, as Plugged In takes note of. Still, no one can miss the fact that Lizzo has made a massive impact in the world of music.

Mickey Mouse: It seems only appropriate that 2020 will be, in China, the Year of the Rat. After all, 2019 was unquestionably the year of the mouse. We’ve already talked about the massive debut of Disney’s streaming service, Disney+. We’ve mentioned the year’s biggest movie, Avengers: Endgame, which also hails from the Mouse House. And we should offer a nod toward Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker latest and, some say, last chapter in Disney’s Star Wars Skywalker saga. In fact, Disney’s home to seven of the year’s nine highest-grossing movies, and the studio became the first in history to earn more than $10 billion worldwide in a single year. Indeed, Disney dominated the movie business in 2019 like no other company had in history. Yep, forget the standard mouse trap. This mouse traps money.

Jussie Smollett: Seems like a decade or two since this story first broke, but no. Smollett, star of the Fox show Empire, says he was attacked Jan. 29 in Chicago by two men in ski masks, who made racial and homophobic slurs as they beat him and put a noose around his neck. (Smollett is both black and gay.) About two weeks later, he made a tearful appearance on ABC News. But by the next week, police in Cook county had concluded that Smollett had organized the attack himself—allegations that Smollett still hotly denies—and the city demanded that Smollett pay back all the costs incurred by the investigation. While the FBI is still apparently investigating why Chicago dropped those charges (suggesting that there’s still a little uncertainty in some quarters as to who did what to whom and why), Smollett was dropped from Empire. And the story certainly hits plenty of cultural buttons: ongoing dialogues about discrimination, the power of (and the potential power to misuse) celebrity; strong and growing cultural divisions. And who knows? Maybe this’ll be a tale we’ll be following in 2020, too.

Daenerys Targaryen: Avengers: Endgame? Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? Nah. The year’s biggest pop-culture finale was on HBO, in the form of its wildly popular (and incredibly salacious) fantasy series Game of Thrones. Pundits trumpeted the program as perhaps the macro-culture’s last real water-cooler show, with a few calling it the greatest, most ambitious television show in history. And then the last show aired and it was … well, less enthusiastically embraced, we’ll say. Many were furious at the fate of the lovely-but-ruthless Daenerys (played by Emilia Clarke), feeling it was out of character for the show. Others vociferously defended the choice the showrunners made. The controversy illustrated one of the most interesting dynamics at work in 21st-century pop-culture storytelling: The passionate ownership that fans feel toward their favorite tales, their unmatched ability to voice that passion (thanks to social media) and, sometimes, their unwillingness to accept a story that takes an unexpected turn. Meanwhile, Clarke has been speaking out about how HBO pressured her to take off her clothes for the show. But she also admitted feeling bad about leaving that disposable coffee cup on the table during a shoot. Who knew that Westeros had a Starbucks?

Alex Trebek: The longtime Jeopardy host has always been synonymous with class. But he engendered a new wave of respect when he announced this March that he was battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He admitted the diagnosis was poor, but that he was going to fight it and continue working for as long as he could. In October, he said the cancer was getting worse and that the chemotherapy he was undergoing was creating sores in his mouth, making it more difficult to talk. He noted that “there will come a point when [fans and the show’s producers] will no longer be able to say, ‘It’s OK.’” But that day hasn’t come yet. On a Nov. 11 show, Jeopardy contestant Dhruv Gaur scrapped writing an answer for the Final Jeopardy question, and instead wrote, “We love you Alex!” the normally unflappable Trebek choked up a bit, but he wasn’t alone. In moments, #WeLoveYouAlex was trending on Twitter.

Kanye West: What a long, strange journey it’s been for the rapper this year. Long regarded as one of pop culture’s most mercurial figures, West took a sharp turn toward the spiritual. He launched his famous Sunday Service in January of this year, partnering with longtime West Angeles Church music director Jason White to bring gospel and the Gospel to thousands of well-heeled, well-paying attendees. In October, He pushed out his ninth studio album—one he was originally going to title Yandhi but instead turned it into a praise-and-worship project named Jesus is King. He scrapped his notoriously explicit lyrics and said that the whole album is to “share the gospel and the truth of what Jesus has done to me.” And when Christian comedian John Crist became enmired in a scandal and was dropped from a massive Christian youth conference, who stepped in? Kanye West. The rapper has always explored spirituality in his music, of course, while being still very focused on … well, West. And some are still skeptical as to how sincere West’s wholehearted embrace of faith is. But no question, West’s spiritual journey has not only been one of the year’s most compelling stories, but it has perhaps helped make the Gospel all the more compelling for a new audience, as well.