Leo, The Bear, and Other Nonsense

 

Opening Monologue

It’s that time of year again, and 8 movies have been chosen to fight it out for the grand accolade of Best Picture this Sunday in Hollywood. The 8 movies in question aim to join ‘whoever won last year’, and ‘whoever won the year before that’ in the grand pantheon of movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. As usual, I have watched as many of them as I could tolerate, and present them here, ranked in reverse order of how much I enjoyed the movie in question. It’s as close to a listicle as it gets around here, so let’s enjoy this departure from the usual long read, and get straight into the countdown. With regards to spoilers, I do go into plot details that I think are relevant to any discussion of the movies, but do not reveal endings or plot twists.

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(Unranked) Room

Plot: A woman attempts to create a nice and pleasant environment to raise her son, despite them both being imprisoned for years in a tiny room by her abusive partner.

Discussion: Look, I feel bad enough about myself and the world as it is. I don’t need to watch stuff like this to feel terrible, despite what potentially hopeful message it has at the end. I tried to consider watching this, but failed each time.

Oscar Chances: Absolutely locked in in for Brie Larson as Best Actress.

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7. The Revenant

Plot: Leonardo Dicaprio plays a fur trapper in 19th Century US wilderness who gets mauled by a bear and left for dead in the middle of nowhere by his colleagues. He summons the will to survive and attempts to wreak vengeance on those who done him wrong.

Discussion: Yes, the undisputed Oscar frontrunner is ranked at the bottom of my countdown. Westerns are my favourite movie genre, and I was expecting big things from this tale of vengeance and survival from director Iñárritu , but came away feeling quite bored and very, very cold. The Revenant is a perfectly serviceable movie and is extremely well made, with some great performances from Dicaprio, the bear, and particularly Tom Hardy. Despite all this, all of the talk in the media about the movie is centred on how difficult it was to make: how it was filmed in the middle of nowhere, with only a few hours of light available to film each day, and how poor Leo had to be cold a lot in order to show the desperation of his character to the audience, such as having frost in his beard. I understand that the movie was quite difficult to make, but that does not mean we all should necessarily care too much: no one asked them to make the movie, and we all would be doing just fine if they hadn’t made it at all. The fact is that if you take away the ‘nightmare shoot’ narrative of The Revenant, there isn’t much left to discuss. It’s a very simple story of survival, vengeance and protecting your family: there is nothing here we haven’t seen before. I would watch a documentary about the film shoot, however.

Oscar chances: The internet will explode if Leo doesn’t win Best Actor for this, and it will more than likely pick up Best Director and Best Picture too.

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6. Bridge of Spies

Plot: Tom Hanks plays a lawyer in 1950’s US who comes up with the idea of saving a convicted Soviet spy from execution, and instead using him in a prisoner exchange to get a US spy back from the dirty communists.

Discussion: I don’t know about you, but I was expecting more bridges, and more spies. By the midpoint of the movie I had realised all we were going to get was just one bridge with just the spies we had seen already, and I was disappointed. It is Spielberg and Tom Hanks, so it is obviously well made, and mostly entertaining. Mark Rylance as the Soviet spy held by the US as a bargaining chip steals the show. Once again, it’s a perfectly serviceable Oscar-bait movie that is not out of place in a list of Best Picture nominees, but there were a few issues in it that left a sour taste in my mouth. While it may have been sold to us as spy thriller, what Bridge of Spies is really about is the glorification of US due process and the role of the American legal system in its victory over the USSR in the Cold War. We see the trial of each spy: one in the US, and the other in the USSR, and the verdicts are exactly the same, yet they are portrayed onscreen differently. They are both show trials, being undertaken for reasons of propaganda, yet only the USSR trial is portrayed on screen as such. Both verdicts dictate life imprisonment, yet the US version is seen as mercy while the Soviet equivalent is seen as a horrific death sentence. Similarly, we are briefly told in a throwaway line of dialogue that the Soviet spy has been interrogated by the Americans, yet we see explicitly how the US soldier is treated by the Soviets. I know it is probably impossible for a US movie, but it is about time we had a realistic, non-ideological movie about the Cold War. We can take it.

Oscar Chances: It could possibly win Best Supporting Actor, but other than that, it’s just here to make up the numbers.

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5. The Martian

Plot: On a mission to Mars in the near future, botanist Matt Damon is left behind by his NASA crew and must use his wits to survive the long wait for a rescue team.

Discussion: The Martian is a very decent blockbuster, carried by a Matt Damon performance that probably deserves more credit. Leo was cold a lot, yet Matt is talking to himself for 99% of his scenes. The movie is also surprisingly funny, and the political nature of the NASA organisation was very interesting to see, particularly when it comes to releasing information on a possible life-or-death situation to the public. The problem with The Martian however was that it was unbearably light, it was a throwaway rescue mission movie disguised as science fiction and as a result, it fell under the shadow of Interstellar. Love or hate Interstellar, but you have to at least admit that it contained ideas within it that resonated long after the movie ended. The Martian had no such issues, and after leaving the cinema, I had a very empty feeling once the stimulation of 3D and special effects had worn away. I realised that I had been fooled into thinking I was watching an intelligent, pretentious science fiction movie, and it was really just an enjoyable, expensive, instantly forgettable popcorn movie instead. It’s rare that you will hear this, but the movie could have benefited from being a little more pretentious.

Oscar Chances: None.

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4. Spotlight

Plot: The journalists of the Boston Globe newspaper undergo an in-depth investigation into the cover-up of child abuse within Boston’s powerful Catholic Church establishment.

Discussion: True story, important issue, great cast, great director: this is the most Oscar-y of all the movies on this list, and it is difficult to picture the movie getting funded at all without the explicit intention of competing for this year’s Academy Awards. Spotlight is a gripping movie, and benefits from staying with the journalist team throughout, rather than showing the perspective of the Evil Priests. Liev Schreiber gives one of the best performances I have seen as the aloof, quiet new editor who doesn’t see the big issue with going after Boston’s Catholic Church. This movie is set in 2001, and therefore some very interesting issues are brought forward, as the article is ready to publish in time for September 11th, yet all involved are then occupied by covering the aftermath of 9/11. There are hints that there is pressure from above not to publish such a depressing story after 9/11, so the journalists elect to allow Boston to have their Christmas without more bad news, and publish after New Year’s. This aspect of modern journalism was what I found more interesting, which is probably because I’m Irish, and priests abusing children just does not shock me.

Oscar Chances: Don’t be surprised if it wins Best Picture.

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3. The Big Short

Plot: From the mid-2000’s we follow the separate stories of a disparate group of traders who each independently see that something is not quite right with the structure of US mortgages. Each party invests heavily in ‘shorting’ (betting against) the US Property Market at the height of its prosperity, and we follow all involved until the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

Discussion: The Big Short is a comedy starring Steve Carrell, by the director of Anchorman (who is also nominated for Best Director). The reason it’s in this list of nominees is that it’s a comedy in the Ancient Greek sense of the word, rather than jokes about cologne and the etymology of San Diego. The main joke of the piece is that we all know our protagonists are absolutely right, and that it’s the rest of the world who are wrong and blind to the imminent disaster. We, the audience, and the select excellent cast are in on the joke that is about to rip the world a new asshole, and both them and us are put through a lot in order to get to the punchline. You know it’s a comedy because, by the last act of the movie, you are actually wishing the financial crisis happens just to prove the unbelievers wrong.

Oscar Chances: It has about a 20% chance of winning Best Picture.

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2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Plot: In a post-Apocalyptic World, a man assists some women in escaping the clutches of a powerful warlord.

Discussion: If I knew one year ago that Mad Max: Fury Road would be nominated for Best Picture at the 2016 Oscars, I would have gone to every betting agency in my neighbourhood with fistfuls of tenners, and beg them to take my money. Even 100-1 odds would have seemed stingy by the betting houses, and probably 1000-1 would be the odds I would look for. The movie is the fourth installment of a somewhat successful franchise, the equivalent of a future instalment/remake of The Neverending Story being rated as not just good, but among the best of the year. Yet this nomination has been coming since the world first glimpsed the Fury Road back in May last year, as anyone who saw this movie in a cinema will tell you that it is something they had ever seen before. Long distance races in the desert were possibly the reason why 3D was invented, and are definitely the only time I have watched a movie in 3D and thought the technology enhanced the experience. The level of inventiveness in every action scene, the practical special effects, and the insane otherness of what we all watched in those dark rooms across the world back in May 2015 are what make the inclusion of this movie in the list of nominees here so expected, however. The movie starts with a brief contextual sentence about the end of the world, and from then on, you’re on your own: if you don’t understand why someone is doing something, the movie has already progressed without explaining it and you just have to accept that this is a different society with different rules. This movie explains absolutely nothing about its world, and is all the better for it. It’s bleak, it’s brutal, it’s hopeful and it’s beautiful. The best action movie since The Matrix, and I would like to say that it’s a game changer, but it isn’t, it’s an anomaly. There is only one person in the world who could make a movie like this, and it took George Miller 30 years to do it.

Oscar Chances: Miller deserves Best Director.

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1. Brooklyn

Plot: In 1950’s Ireland, a young girl realises that her only option for a decent future is to emigrate to New York. We follow her in her new home in Brooklyn as she questions her decision.

Discussion: Yes, it finally happened: I liked a movie with a female main character. It had to happen eventually. I may even have cried at the end, and in the middle. Brooklyn hits a few nerves with me as not only is it about Ireland, it is about migration. I am Irish, and am a serial migrator, so a lot of themes brought up here resonate and really hit home, and I would possibly go so far as to say it’s the best movie about emigration I have seen. This is not a story about someone fleeing war, destitution or persecution, it is a story of a normal person deciding to leave her country of birth because there simply was no room in her own country for any sort of successful life. She suffers no great hardships in New York: no crime, no corruption or no dilution of her values. Her biggest obstacle is her homesickness, and this passes eventually. After eventually fashioning herself some kind of life in New York, she visits her family back home in Ireland and is given the choice of whether to stay or return to Brooklyn. The choice she faces here is something all economic migrants face at some point, and I really don’t think I have seen it made so well as in Brooklyn. I’m crying again, so I’ll stop.

Oscar chances: Not really, but possibly could snatch a Best Screenplay award for Nick Hornby.

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Closing Monologue

There you have it. I’ve been doing this for a few years now so if you want you can check out what I thought of the Best Picture nominees of 2013, 2014 and 2015 by clicking on the appropriate link embedded within the year! But enough about me, what did you think of this year’s Oscar bait? Vote for your favourite in the poll below. I’ll be back next year telling you what I thought of whatever crap Hollywood thinks we should appreciate then!

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The Commodification of Outrage

Commodification: the transformation of goods, services or ideas into objects of trade.

Prologue:

Last week, the internet was very upset with Roosh. Roosh is an author, motivational speaker and media personality who comments through the lens of an ideology that he calls neomasculinity. Neomasculinity is an ideology that brings together idiots, misogynists, and nerds who happened to have read “The Game” by Neill Strauss, and found their life’s calling inside its meagre page count. Roosh has been around for a while, and has written several books for his target market, as well as providing paid instruction courses on how to pick up women for those without his obvious skills, and pops up on TV every now and again whenever a panel show wants a provocative guest to rile up the audience and other guests.

Roosh felt however that he could do more, and decided to take his following one step further, and organise real-world meetings of his supporters, in dozens of cities all over the world, at the same time: all to occur on Saturday February 6th 2016. This physical manifestation of misogyny was too much for one internet to take, and in the days and weeks leading up to the main event, Roosh was not a popular man, as mainstream media took on the story, fuelled by a narrative that he was ‘pro-rape’. As impassioned Facebook statuses, likes and shares began to pile up, as well as sincere retweets and think-piece gifs pointing towards a unanimous public consensus that Roosh was indeed a very bad man, a few days before the intended meet-up, he cancelled the worldwide event, saying that he feared for the safety of those who intended to attend. A victory was declared for progressive-thinking internet folks.

To make a decent living by preaching an ideology such as neomasculinity, I would imagine that Roosh is quite a smart man, yet it is hard to see anyone who follows his nonsense as anything but a complete idiot. No one had any idea how many people would turn up to his meet-ups, but I think we all would admit that it probably wouldn’t be a lot. Opponents in every city he planned an event in, from Ireland to Australia, all expected the man himself to show up at their local event, preaching vitriol about how the rape of a woman in the comfort of your own home was no rape at all. The Immigration Minister of Australia pledged to deny Roosh an entry visa into the country, and Roosh replied with a photo of himself with a wad of cash saying he would sneak in through the unguarded North-West Coast. Australia was outraged. The entire world was outraged, and the entire world was not quiet about it. When Roosh cancelled the worldwide event, he was eventually tracked down by a tabloid reporter, living in the basement of his mother’s house in Maryland, USA. It turned out that while the world was outraged at his very existence, Roosh was busy selling ad-space on his personal website. The man set the world on fire while lounging around in his underwear, and was getting paid for it.

outrage

What Is A Two-Sided Market?

Everyone reading this sentence knows what a two-sided market is, you just maybe don’t know that it has this name. A one-sided market is when you walk into a shop and buy something. There is one customer, and one seller (or provider, if a service). A product is exchanged from buyer to seller for money, and then the transaction is over. A two-sided market is more complex: it involves the interaction between one seller and two different types of customers. In this case, the ‘seller’ acts as a platform (or intermediary) between the two types of customers, as one type of consumer attempts to extract value from the other side of the market (the other customer). It sounds complicated, but you know when you are watching television and a commercial break comes on? The product advertised (Side 1) paid the TV station (the Platform) for the privilege of gaining the undivided attention of you (Side 2). There are two sides to the market, and the traditional ‘product’ merely facilitates interaction between these two sides that would struggle to efficiently encounter each other without that platform. If one side of the market values the other significantly more than vice-versa, then often only the more desperate side will pay for using the platform, while the other side will use the platform for free.

This, of course, is why Facebook is free, and will always be free. It’s why all Google products are free, and will always be free. It’s why basically everything on the internet is free: you are on one side of the market, and the product/app/social network makes its money by selling you to the other side of the market, the advertisers. Most news sites operate like this, unless they are behind a paywall and require a paid subscription, meaning the site will get less views and thus is not attractive to advertisers that want their ad to be seen by as many people as possible. Paid subscription news sites therefore focus on extracting revenue from a different side of the market from the free-to-view news sites, but what is to be gained from taking money from readers, rather than advertisers? A free-to-view site is in the business of selling eyeballs (page views) to advertisers, while a subscription site is in the business of convincing readers into a long-term relationship based on quality content and possibly a compatible ideological viewpoint. We all know which one of the two is easier to do.

Two-Sided Markets & Clickbait

The above paragraph or two would be the best explanation I can give for the existence of ‘clickbait’: a headline of a news story shared on social media that was created solely to tempt you into clicking it. Think “He Asked For a Divorce, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next”, or “9 Things College Never Prepared You for”. These kind of titles exist in order for you to click on them, and hence count as a page view for the site you have now entered, and this provides advertising revenue for that site. These things are meant to be a mild distraction, and no one really expects to be blown away by what is discovered on the other side of the click. This poses a problem for these clickbait websites, as ad revenue analytics have evolved significantly over the years, and simple page views are just not enough to charge advertisers big money: what’s required is that each page view corresponds to another click on that same website, and the holy grail: for users to share the content on their personal Facebook/Twitter accounts, meaning that successful clickbait will take on a life of its own, snowballing into thousands of unique page views.

The issue here is that fluffy clickbait stories such as every Buzzfeed post ever have gotten old very fast, and while we will share one now and again, we all know deep inside that all of our Facebook friends are silently judging us as ‘the type of idiot who shares cute cat pictures or Game of Thrones personality quizzes online’. No one wants to be that person. So in order to get you to share something online to all your friends, the content you share must be something interesting, or at least say something important about your character, or (and this is the goldmine) provoke an emotional reaction.

Remember Roosh? Roosh provoked an emotional reaction: everybody hated Roosh, and everybody shared something explaining Roosh’s diabolical acts, and how he/she felt about it. Roosh was at home selling ads the entire time he was suffering the scorn of the world: Roosh understood two-sided markets, and he knew he could charge whatever he wanted for advertising space on his website that would achieve unimaginable traffic during the whole ordeal. A page view that hated him generated exactly the same amount of money as a page view that agreed with him. Everything anyone read about him, anywhere, would provoke a google search that would lead to Roosh’s own website, or his YouTube channel, and each one of those searches put money into Roosh’s pocket. Roosh is the platform, the advertisers who pay him are one side of the market, and the outraged page viewers are the other side. He brought everyone together, and made money from it.

It’s pretty depressing, but that’s not even the point I’m trying to make here.  The thing is, Roosh probably didn’t even plan all this, he just took advantage of the situation. This is because all those articles written about him and his plans were written solely to lure enraged clickers to ad-funded websites, and then for this content to be shared on social networks along with a sentence or two condemning the morality of the man in question. Roosh became a big issue because websites knew his views would enrage people online, and so article after article was published, in the hope of enticing traffic based on revealing whatever depraved sentence Roosh had uttered in the past. This content would cause outrage in people who viewed it, but this content had nothing to do with Roosh, nothing to do with rape, and nothing to do with anything at all except drawing eyeballs to advertisement on an external website.

The Commodification of Outrage

Did you ever wonder why the death of Cecil the lion was such a big deal? Why you probably know what the Westboro Baptist Church is, despite it consisting only of one family and perhaps 30 members? Why all of a sudden there are calls for race quotas at the Oscars because there are no non-White acting nominees? Why Donald Trump is always in your timeline, yet you don’t know anyone who would vote for him? Why some websites will actually complain that Harrison Ford was paid so much more than Daisy Ridley for appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? I am not saying there are not real, important issues involved here, but my argument is that the reason for a website writing about any of these issues is more about inducing a click by causing anger to the viewer, rather than any genuine concern for the issues that are very superficially discussed on the other side. The goal of an ad-supported, content driven website is thus to pick up on whatever is currently pissing people off, or whatever could possibly piss people off, and throwing it out there to see how it does. If it attracts attention, more will be written about it, and ad-driven websites will recognise the power of the issue, and reap their rewards through advertising revenue.

People like Roosh don’t matter, they just personify a certain type of outrage that we all feel from time to time, and this outrage was successfully focussed and directed at him for a certain amount of time, and many made money from this. They didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, they just knew how to benefit from it. They successfully acted as a platform that brought together two sides of a market, the outraged and the advertisers. The platform extracted money from the advertisers due to the increased interest and page views caused by the outrage, and this is part of their business model. The interesting point is that in the order to extract money from one side of the market (the advertisers), the platform was forced to produce exploitative content that extracted emotion from the other side (the customer). Clickbait has evolved, it is not fluffy photos of animals anymore, it is content that is meant to offend, outrage and then be retweeted afterwards with a few words indicating your moral standpoint. There are a few old memes that tell us “if you’re easily offended, then get off the internet”. This could not be more wrong: isolating easily offended groups is the future of the internet, at least outside of paid subscription sites.

1996: Looking Back In Anger

For those who don’t want to read, or would like some musical accompaniment to this rant, please simply skip to the bottom of the page or click here for a Spotify/YouTube playlist of the best music from 1996. These will convince you of my argument in ways that my words cannot. 

For a person who pretends to be an expert on almost everything, from politics to economics to copyright law, you may have noticed that I don’t pretend to know anything about music. In fact, this is my 87th post, and only once in the previous 86 have I ever dedicated an entire post solely to music. I will admit it now, I am no authority on music, and I can prove it. For it was around this time of year 20 years ago, in early February 1996, when I bought my first ever music single. It was a time before Spotify, before iTunes, before Napster, before even the power of the mp3 format had been recognised by anybody except a small group of audio engineers in central Germany. The only way to listen to music was to either buy the album, buy the actual song (if it was released as a single), or to wait for it to be played on the radio (and possibly record this on cassette). That single I bought 20 years ago was none other than Babylon Zoo’s Spaceman, a song that was only popular because it was featured in a Levi’s commercial, and the mid 90’s was a strange period in history where Levi’s jeans were so popular they could literally be used as currency in some places. The song was ridiculed as trash even then, but I was so clueless that I genuinely liked it. I still listen to the song from time to time, but recognise now that enjoying it non-ironically is practically impossible.

From this inauspicious beginning however, I began to pay a bit of attention to what was happening in popular music. I regularly listened to radio stations in Ireland that played popular music, and through my friends at school and family at home I discovered music slightly under the radar (that phrase meant something else before the internet) also. This all culminated with me buying my second ever single a few months later: Three Lions by Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightning Seeds: a novelty single that was the anthem of England’s football team during the European Championships that year. It sounds silly, but I stand by that purchase.

So yes, these were the only two songs I bought in 1996, and after a brief foray into minidisc recording in the late 90s/early 2000s, only really began collecting music once it became free for anyone with an internet connection and relaxed morals. I soon had a collection of thousands of songs, which I would then on a regular basis curate into playlists of up to 100 songs for listening on a regular basis. Later on in the late 2000’s a troika of ubiquitous wireless internet, attention deficit disorder and the emergence of Wikipedia soon meant that I could now read the history of every song I listened to on a regular basis, and the curious thing was that so very many of them were released in 1996. Not just released in 1996, but were popular songs released in 1996. I realise that my nostalgia goggles are most definitely switched on, but I am here today to try and convince you that 1996 was the best year in modern history for popular music.

1996

When you think of popular music now, you think of things like Adele, Kanye West, One Direction, David Guetta or Beyonce. This type of pop music was also present in 1996 of course: for Adele, think Celine Dion, or for One Direction think Take That or Boyzone. However the mid 1990’s also allowed a certain mix of genres in popular music, and 1996 was the pinnacle of this. In spring 1996, switching on a popular radio station you could be confronted by Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio or Street Spirit by Radiohead. 1979 by The Smashing Pumpkins could turn up in rotation, as well as Return of the Mack by Mark Morrison. Stupid Girl by Garbage might get an airing, or even Firestarter by the Prodigy. All of these songs were top 10 hits in the UK and Ireland by the end of March 1996. In January 1996, Missing by Everything But the Girl was the biggest song in Europe. All of the mentioned songs I still listen to regularly, and all are unqualified classics.

In the summer, The Fugees would appear with Killing Me Softly, followed by several other classics from their album The Score. 1996 was also the year Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill blew up, and the year was scattered with single after single from that album. No Diggity by Blackstreet became a breakout hit in the winter, as well as Faithless capitalising on the success of the Prodigy by rereleasing Insomnia. Together with Children by Robert Miles and the remix of Born Slippy by Underworld, fresh from being immortalised in Trainspotting, 1996 was the year dance music gained credibility. At the same time, No Doubt were gaining traction with Just a Girl and the Foo Fighters released Big Me out of nowhere. 1996 was also a year of immortal one hit wonders, such as Deep Blue Something’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Joan Osbornes One Of Us, OMC’s How Bizarre, Fools Gardens Lemon Tree and Luniz’s I Got 5 On It. As I said, these songs didn’t just get released and went unnoticed, they were all extremely popular at the time. I could namedrop classic songs for another paragraph, but I think it’s best if you just listen to the playlist at the end of this post.

The defining point of music in 1996, in popularity as well as legacy, was none of the songs I mentioned here, and nothing positive at all: it was the emergence of the Spice Girls in late summer, with Wannabe. They followed that hit with a few more before Christmas, and became the biggest pop group in the world. Their manager was Simon Fuller. He would use the millions he made from the bands career to create the modern reality TV show, first with Pop Idol in the UK, and then American Idol, and followed closely by {insert nationality} Idol. This franchise and its offshoots not only dominates popular music now, but also popular TV in general, and subsequently Twitter and YouTube. There would be no Ken Lee without The Spice Girls. Without them, Donald Trump would not have had The Apprentice as a platform for over a decade to brainwash stupid Americans into thinking that he is a great leader.

It is thus where I acknowledge that as well as being the greatest year in modern history for popular music, 1996 also saw the sowing of the seeds that would later destroy it. While in the mid and late 90’s, bands like Blur, Oasis, The Smashing Pumpkins, REM, The Manic Street Preachers, Sheryl Crow and No Doubt could achieve success in the mainstream charts, the evolution of the music industry after The Spice Girls, reality TV, and online downloading meant that popular music would never achieve so much quality in a single year again. Of course, it wasn’t all good: I have gotten this far without mentioning that the biggest song of the year was La Macarena. It’s a terrible song, but it’s undoubtedly a classic terrible song. 1996 even did the bad stuff well.

The Playlists:

The Best Songs from 1996

For those without Spotify, here’s the YouTube equivalent: