The biggest and baddest of 2013 in popular culture

Here's what got us dancing, watching, listening and clicking in popular culture in 2013.

By Alexis Petridis

You might already have guessed that the outrage surrounding Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines hasn't prevented it from becoming the year's biggest-selling single. There was a chance that sales would nose-dive after a succession of student unions banned the song – "utterly degrading to the female subject", "promoting a worrying attitude to sex and consent", etc – but it doesn't seem terribly likely. It also hardly comes as a shock to learn that the Rolling Stones made a huge amount of money from touring – tickets for the next leg of their 50th anniversary tour in Japan range from £83 to £473 – or that Psy's follow-up to Gangnam Style, Gentleman, was one of the most-watched videos on YouTube.

Perhaps someone out there is gasping in horror and disbelief at the implicit suggestion that Psy's popularity may be founded more on the public's desire to watch a chubby man do a funny dance than his sparkling musical oeuvre. Then again, perhaps not. 2013 was supposed to have been the year in which David Bowie's shock return and the huge promotional campaign around Daft Punk's Random Access Memories revived the old-fashioned notion that the release of an album can be a major cultural event. But for the first time since 1971, the year's biggest-selling album in the UK is the same as the biggest selling album of last year: Emeli Sandé?'s Our Version Of Events.

By Jess Cartner-Morley

The runaway success of the Isabel Marant Nowles boot is, at first glance, baffling. It is kind of … weird looking. And yet it has seen off competition from delectable morsels of fashion candy – chic dresses, fairytale party shoes, It bags – to become online boutique Net-A-Porter's bestselling item for 2013. The Nowles boot is a leather and suede ankle boot, with a sheepskin lining and concealed wedge heel, that retails for £440. It is a Frankenstein design, combining elements from the Ugg boot (the squashy texture and Lego chunkiness) with others from the hi-top trainer (the height and close-fitting silhouette) and a dash of Timberland hiking boot (the bold, rope-like laces). Crucially, it gives the impression of a flat shoe, but the combination of a one-inch platform and a two-and-a-half-inch concealed wedge gives the wearer a significant chunk of extra height.

The Nowles is the latest version of the hi-top trainers and ankle boots that have elevated the Isabel Marant brand from a niche label for affluent Parisiennes into a name with totemic power for a generation of young women. Marant came up with the idea as an 11-year-old tomboy, when she wanted to be taller, but to keep her favourite sneakers, and hit upon the solution of pressing pieces of cork into their soles, to give a secret height boost. This is fashion for a generation who hit 30 – maybe even 40 – not yet ready to leave their teenage sneaker-wearing identity behind, but who want the figure-flattering, leg-lengthening boost that a high heel offers.

By Claire Armistead

If 2012 was the year when everyone got Kindles for Christmas, then 2013 was the year we all started reading on them. Or was it? Not if fans of Alex Ferguson are anything to go by. As Manchester United football club's former manager storms to number one in the UK charts, his publishers report that 90% of his sales were in old-fashioned hardback. That's perhaps not surprising for the memoirs of an old-fashioned football manager, but trend-setting owners of the ebook have one unexpected advantage. The ghost-written book hit the headlines in November when a reader complained it contained 45 factual errors, and while "legacy readers" will have to put up with the howlers until the next edition, ebook fans will play spot-the-balls-up in vain: digital technology means ebooks can be corrected even as they sit in your virtual bookshelves.

Bridget Jones fans may flock to the e-version for a different reason: digital books may not be shareable in the way traditional books are, but they make reading a collaborative experience, enabling readers to share the bits they like (or don't) by highlighting them for all to see. Slightly sniffy reviews for the third Bridget Jones book did not prevent it from sweeping to the top of the British fiction charts as it became the novel every fifty-something wants to share with her friends. Bridget is now 51 and belatedly discovering the joys of skinny jeans, though her love life is more chaotic than ever, due to the untimely death of husband Darcy, leaving her with two small children. Expect max highlighting for this pearl of wisdom from the redoubtable Talitha: "Everything has changed since you were single. There was no texting. There were no emails. People spoke on telephones. Plus, young women are more sexually aggressive now, and men are naturally more lazy. You have to, at the very least … encourage."

Elsewhere, another novel has powered up behind Bridget: New Zealander Eleanor Catton was this year's unexpected Man Booker prizewinner (a literary prize awarded each year for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe) with her clever and capacious second novel set in the 19th century gold fields of her native country. But success isn't all about prizes, nor does it necessarily even strike during a writer's lifetime: the word-of-mouth hit, and Waterstones' (British book retailer) book of the year, is a 48-year-old novel by an American university teacher who died nearly 20 years ago. It's called Stoner, and it's a deadpan account of the life of an American university. It doesn't sound exciting, but take it from Ian McEwan: "It is the most extraordinary discovery for us readers."

By Holly Baxter

For many, it's hard to believe twerking even existed before a PVC bikini-clad Miley Cyrus smashed on to our screens like a wrecking ball at the MTV video music awards in August. As the artist formerly known as Hannah Montana bent over and shook her money-maker in front of Robin Thicke in a Beetlejuice suit, 306 000 tweets a minute lit up the internet – you'd think nobody had seen a Disney star publicly morph into a sex symbol before (step forward Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake). One image of a shocked Will Smith and his children went viral as proof that Miley had taken it too far – though it was later confirmed the Smith photo was taken during Lady Gaga's performance of her new song Applause.

Twerking as a dance move had been around for about 20 years, but 2013 saw the twerk go mainstream. After "twerk" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, news came in that "What is twerking?" was the most Googled "what is" phrase of the year. As November rolled around, the move was already being parodied in Lily Allen's music video for Hard Out Here as apparent proof that sexist objectification remains rampant in the industry. So what fate awaits the twerk as we enter 2014? It may well be going out as quickly as it came in. BuzzFeed included "twerk" among its "26 most overused terms of 2013", warning that "[it's] forbidden in 2014". Similarly, Time magazine's 2013 word banishment poll, in which it asks readers which lexical quirk they'd like consigned to the dustbin, announced "twerk" as the winner. Katy Steinmetz at Time pointed out that "twerk" is a different kind of winner from previous inclusions, speculating that people voted for it because they want to see the end of twerking as an act and they've reached saturation point with media reporting on the phenomenon. For which I can only say: sorry.

Miley Cyrus performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in August. (AFP)

By Alex Bilmes

"I see it's spread west, then," said a friend the other day as we paid for our flat whites in west London. He was nodding disapprovingly at the young man pouring milk into our takeaway cups. Shaven-headed, his neck tattooed with a swift, our barista was dressed in a pristine denim jacket and jeans. But his defining feature was his beard – a bushy thicket of face fur reaching to his chest.

In other words, he looked entirely typical of the kind of 21st-century hipster conformist who has adopted a wild-man-of-the-woods look even though he works in marketing and only leaves the city to attend music festivals. This type will be most familiar to denizens of east London, Brooklyn, Berlin and all those other places where youngish middle-class people congregate to compare tastes in Instagram feeds. Increasingly, though, he's becoming familiar to the rest of us, too.

And this is what my friend meant: 2013 is the year the beard grew out of the hipster ghetto. Beards are now being spotted on mainstream figures. When I were a lad, beards were for weak-chinned, Genesis-loving chemistry teachers. Men with excessive facial hair were "beardie weirdies". Hollywood has seen a generation of men let themselves go, from Ben Affleck to Bradley Cooper. Pop personages, too: Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Kanye West …

What does it say about urban sophisticates that they feel moved to ape the style of hardy outdoorsmen, even though the most intrepid journey they make most days is to the bus stop? After much chin-stroking, I conclude, along with everyone else, that weedy modern men are dressing up as untamed adventurers in a bid to convince themselves that moustache-twirling manliness still has a place in the world. To which I can only say: good luck with that, chaps.

By Steven Poole

Oh hi, is that a selfie of you twerking in the middle of a sharknado? Such is the pleasurable speed of linguistic invention that this perfectly normal sentence would have been incomprehensible to most people only a year ago. The word "selfie" first appeared in an Australian online forum in 2002, but this was the year it earned the title of Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Oxford's editors also admired the word's fecund capacity for variation: a "shelfie" is a picture of your shelves, a "drelfie" a picture of you while drunk and a "belfie" is a picture of your arse.

Even Pope Francis got in on the selfie action. (AFP)

Speaking of arses, a strong challenger to "selfie" was "twerk", a verb that was thrust to prominence by Miley Cyrus's remarkable performance at the MTV video music awards in August. Oxford speculates that it is "probably an alteration of work". I am no expert, but it seems to me more plausibly a portmanteau of "twist" and "jerk". Some new or unusual words see topical spikes in popularity then die away again. You can probably guess why "papabile" (Pope-worthy) became briefly common in February and March. "Sharknado", an excellent term for a tornado on the winds of which are borne live sharks, spiked in July around the release of a cable TV movie of that name, though the word was actually coined two years ago by an American high-school Latin teacher, Mike Kubik, as an awe-inspiring name for the lacrosse team he coached.

Not mentioned by the Oxford editors (or yet in their dictionary) is "listicle". This term, which has seen a strong increase in Google searches this year, describes an article in the form of a numbered list. I'm told that it reminds some dirty-minded readers of testicle, but if the burgeoning prevalence of listicles online is any indication, it's one to keep in your pocket.

A different emphasis on linguistic fashion is provided by Merriam-Webster, which nominated "science" as its word of the year: people looked it up in their dictionary nearly three times more often than in 2012. The editors pointed out that a lot of major political issues involve science, and suggested that the critical kickings given to Malcolm Gladwell's latest book might also be relevant. An army of Breaking Bad binge-watchers joyously responded in the style of their beloved Jesse: "Science, bitch!"

By Keith Stuart

Grand Theft Auto 5 cast a magnificent shadow over every other title released this year, shifting almost 30-million copies thanks to its deranged plot, astonishing visuals and stylised hyperviolence. More meaningful, but certainly no less visceral, were some engrossing action-adventure epics. The new Tomb Raider reboot brought some depth to gaming legend Lara Croft, while post-apocalyptic thriller The Last Of Us, had a tragic parental relationship at its core. Blockbuster games are finally learning how to tell mature stories, even if they do still quite like blasting zombies into space with shotguns. It wasn't all kill, kill, kill, however. The brilliantly designed Super Mario 3D World and utterly cute Pikmin 3 brought some attention to Nintendo's maligned Wii U console. Meanwhile, in smartphone gaming, Angry Birds Star Wars and its sequel did as well as you'd expect for such a gigantic franchise mash-up: more than 100-million downloads. Star Wars: Tiny Death Star – a merger of Star Wars with popular mobile title Tiny Tower – was a hit.

Most importantly, this was a brilliant year for small games made by independent studios, usually for the PC and Mac. Papers, Please made a compelling and thought-provoking experience out of being a border guard, while the puzzle adventure Gone Home created an engrossing story about dysfunctional families with no characters or dialogue. These intelligent, idiosyncratic titles pointed to a bizarre, barely conceivable future in which we won't have to jump out of planes, rob banks or shoot baddies to have a good time.

Viral videos
By Rhiannon Cosslett

December arguably doesn't count as a proper month, so clogged is it with "year in review" lists: what was hot, what was not; what people were talking about around the world (Pope Francis, mainly), all set to the requisite sentimental music to let us know that hey, guys, we're all humans really, even if we've swapped face-to-face communication for cartoon emojis (appropriately, the most popular Instagram hashtag was #love). Here's some of what went viral in 2013.

Any "most popular" list will inevitably be saturated with our unquestioned masters and overlords: celebrities. And this year Bieber fever showed no sign of abating with an Instagram photo of the aforementioned star posing with Will Smith winning the title of the most liked picture of 2013, having garnered 1 496 070 likes.

Tom from British band McFly's 14-minute wedding-speech-in-song-form omnibus includes a rewritten version of his McFly hit Obviously, a thank you song addressing every member of the wedding party, and a background of a choir of children mawkishly singing It's All About You. It's possible to suspect, however, that it's all about Tom, especially seeing as he uploaded it himself. It's been viewed more than 11-million times.

Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis dance around in a couple of animal onesies to a background of electronic dance music, speculating on the kind of noise a fox might make. The video was meant to be a parody of contemporary club music, but the plan backfired. It has become a huge success, has been played in clubs across the land and, with 288-million viewers so far, is 2013's top trending video. Thanks for that, Ylvis.

This video blog of British Olympic diver Tom Daley revealing to his fans and supporters that he is in a romantic relationship with a man not only nearly caused the tabloid press to explode, but also shot straight into YouTube's most trending videos of 2013, despite being released only this month. It has thousands of supportive comments published beneath.

The fight against homophobia reached fever pitch this year, with thousands taking to the internet to offer their support for gay marriage legislation worldwide and to decry Russia's archaic and bigoted stance. British actor and author Stephen Fry's impassioned letter deserves a mention, but one of the most shared posts on Facebook appears to have been a father's letter to his son, which has been shared more than 250 000 times.

By Leo Benedictus

For a long time we've known it in our bones, but only in 2013 did it become admissible in public: what we really want to read is 21 Cats Who Must Be Training For Something Sneaky. This has been BuzzFeed's year. is not the scene of very much actual reading. It is a home for those memes that go around online – Fenton the dog, the sneezing Panda, the squirrel that popped up in those people's picture – and for aspiring memes, mostly compiled as lists.

The 35 Greatest Animal Photobombers Of All Time is a superb example. And what makes memes go around? There's an impulse to call them trivial, which they are, as if that were an insult. How momentous, after all, is your lunchbreak entertainment supposed to be? If you don't have it in you to laugh when you see a cow grinning at a horse trapped in a gate, then please sit down, I have something to tell you. You're not trivial enough. Lists were not invented by the internet, of course, and there's always been an impulse to call them trivial, too. Their lack of ambition is instantly appealing. As with a box of chocolates, it's easy to get going because deciding to read the first one is such a small commitment, and then it's such a small commitment to read the next … Mmm. Delicious.

1. 47 Hilariously Underwhelming Local News Headlines. 
2. 23 Most Painfully Awkward Things That Happened In 2013. 
3. 17 Jokes Only Physics Geeks Will Understand. 
4. 9 Shockingly Filthy Lines from Latin Poetry. – Guardian News & Media 2013

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday