Top 10 Pop Culture Moments of 2012

1. London Olympics Opening Ceremony

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As the London 2012 Olympics approached, it was generally accepted that Britain could never deliver an Opening Ceremony that would come close to the spectacle produced by Beijing in 2008. Then it began, and much to the surprise of everyone – least not the Brits themselves – it was great. Artistic director Danny Boyle took the Isles Of Wonder show through a historical commentary featuring everything from the Industrial Revolution to the creation of the NHS, as well as sections dedicated to children’s literature, Saturday night TV culture, and the victims of 7/7. Some of Britain’s greatest exports took centre stage, with the Queen ‘parachuting’ into the stadium with James Bond, Mr Bean getting mixed up with ‘Chariots of Fire’, and Paul McCartney bringing celebrations to a close with an epic sing-a-long of ‘Hey Jude’. The lighting of the caludron was a breathtaking moment when British Olympic champions passed the flame to young children, perfectly embodying the mantra of the games, ‘inspire a generation’. The Closing Ceremony was criticized as a sloppy tribute concert with too many appearances from Emeli Sande and Jessie J, but it was here at the beginning of the games that the finest cultural moment of 2012 took place. Rio, it’s over to you…

2. Whitney Houston 1963-2012

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In February the world woke one morning to the sad, yet ever expected news that Whitney Houston had died. Born into a connected musical family, the gift of a powerful gospel voice and the direction of Clive Davis meant Whitney sailed straight through to global superstardom in the 1980s. But the young girl who was once the voice of America soon fell prey to alcohol and drug addiction, after a tempestuous marriage to Bobby Brown. Her untimely death at age 48 sent shockwaves around the world, and registered as a loss on the same scale as that of Elvis, John Lennon or Michael Jackson. She left behind a rich catalogue of popular music, which soundtracked the lives of millions. Her version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ is more than just her own musical legacy – it will survive as one of the most important works in the history of art and culture. Bette Midler summed up the tragedy of Whitney, and all the other artists we lost too young, when she tweeted, “What a shame her talent didn’t bring her the joy and happiness it brought to all of us.”

3. Call Me Maybe

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After coming runner up on Canadian Idol in 2007, Carly Rae Jepsen was releasing music on small labels. In January 2012 her single ‘Call Me Maybe’ was heard by Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez on Canadian radio, and after tweeting about it, Jepsen and her song were rocketed into the international mainstream. With the help of celebrity parody videos, the originally music video went viral, and the song started to top the charts around the world. It’s been named the best song of the year by many respected publications, for staying true to traditional pop without conceding to the raunchier elements of peers like Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Whether you think it’s a cheesy piece of bubblegum pop, or a carefully crafted classic, it’s been inescapable, and undeniably catchy. Unfortunately for Jepsen, this is the kind of track one hit wonders are made of.

4. Gangnam Style

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Dance crazes have been slim on the ground since the turn of the century. Apart from Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, there hasn’t been much to rival Thriller, Vogue, or even the beloved Macarena. But this year along came Psy – a South Korean musician who has immortalised his home district in Seoul and its specific style of lavish living with a bizarre dance record and a move that mimics a lassoing horse rider. Referencing a lifestyle of opulent living in his home city, ‘Oppan Gangnam Style’ quickly became the most popular catchphrase of the year, and everyone was having a go at it, from David Cameron to Barack Obama. In December, ‘Gangnam Style’ broke a major world record in becoming the first video on YouTube to reach 1 billion views, just five months after its release. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was said to be disappointed at being replaced as the most famous South Korean in the world, but nevertheless called the song ‘a force for world peace’. North Korea responded by firing some warning rockets.

5. Skyfall

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Bond 23 got off to a shaky start, with MGM financial difficulties stalling its production by over a year. But once given the green light, director Sam Mendes set about creating a Bond movie like no other. In the year of the 50th anniversary of Bond, Mendes made a movie that went back to basics, and triumphed the British origins of 007. From the vintage cars to the traditional London locations, with a symbolic British bulldog thrown in too, it’s a Bond movie paying homage to the traditional. Even the stunning theme song by Adele is much closer to the classics of Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones than the more experimental offerings of recent years. By focusing on the back story of Judi Dench’s M, her relationship with the agents, and Bond’s formative childhood experiences, Mendes succeeded in making a ‘psychological Bond’ which goes beyond the action whilst still delivering all the usual goods. In less than two months it’s become the highest grossing film in the UK of all time, with many already calling it the best Bond movie ever made. And – for the first time in history – 007 could be headed for Oscar success in the new year.

6. Space Jump

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Stunts that were once impressive faded into insignificance after watching the triumphs of the Olympics this summer. Maybe that’s why Felix Baumgartner felt like he needed to perform the highest sky dive ever, from the edge of the earth’s atmosphere – effectively, space. On 14th October, the world watched with baited breath as he slowly ascended 128,100ft above ground (24 miles), before jumping from the capsule he had travelled in. He was in free fall for 4 minutes and 19 seconds, and achieved his goal of breaking the sound barrier. Upon landing in the New Mexico desert, he immediately got to his feet and punched the air – celebrating his victory, and proving that after minutes of somersaulting out of control at 834mph, he was in fact, still alive. No wonder it was sponsored by Red Bull.

7. Naked Royals

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It seems Prince Harry needed to let his hair down a bit after the demands of the Jubilee and the Olympics, not to mention his day job in Afghanistan, but when photographic evidence of his naked antics in a Las Vegas hotel room was revealed in August, we saw just how hard the prince could party. The Royal Family weren’t best pleased, but admirers of the cheeky ginger rejoiced. Then, in September, photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge sunbathing topless appeared in a French magazine, signalling a massive violation of privacy, which upset the couple greatly. The public at large were appalled by the photographs, and boycotted those who published them – but secretly had a good look at them online.

8. Grace Jones at the Jubilee

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You can’t accuse Gary Barlow of not catering for every audience when he arranged the Diamond Jubilee Concert for The Queen in June. The most bizarre moment came when the iconic Grace Jones took to the stage to perform her 1985 classic hit ‘Slave To The Rythym’. Unusual as ever, the 64 year old wore a red plastic corset with nothing on her legs but oil, looking like a cross between Lady Gaga and Usain Bolt. She then curiously proceeded to hula hoop the entire way through the song, without a single slip up. The Royal Family watched open mouthed and bemused, as did most of the global television audience. To round off the madness, she yelled ‘Happy Birthday!’ at the end, giving further evidence that she may not have had a clue where she was, or what she was doing. As ever, it was the stuff of legend.

9. Fifty Shades of Grey

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Former British TV executive E. L. James began her writing through Twilight fan fiction, before developing it into something more ‘adult’ in nature. Initially released as an e-book in 2011, the resulting novel Fifty Shades of Grey told the erotic tale of a sadomasochistic relationship between a female college student and a wealthy young businessman. Its beginnings as a digital book meant that it became a naughty pleasure which women could read at ease on the tube or in public, and no one need know what they were engrossed in – like Lady Chatterley’s Lover but without the over the counter shame. Critically slated, and generally accepted to be poorly written (even by the author herself), the original book has nevertheless become a best-seller, shifting 65 million copies, overtaking the Harry Potter books as the fastest selling ever. The book’s popularity peaked during the publication of its two sequels in 2012, and a film adaptation is highly anticipated – but who will play the irresistibly handsome Christian Grey whom women have lusted over on the page, and imagined for the past year? The search continues.

10. Madonna at the Superbowl

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Devising a career highlight performance in just under 15 minutes, in front of a TV audience of over 150 million is a daunting task for the greatest of performers – but not Madonna. In February her Madgesty was carried into the Superbowl stadium by the Cirque de Soleil troop, in an imitation of Cleopatra’s historic arrival in Rome. As she sailed through performances of ‘Vogue’, ‘Music’, and ‘Like A Prayer’, she found room to include Nicki Minaj, LMFAO, M.I.A. and Cee Lo Green, without letting anyone else anywhere near centre stage. Whilst other half-time acts usually give a traditional band performance, Madonna used the entire football field, with a full cast of dancers, acrobats and a gospel choir, all choreographed under the direction of her long-term collaborator Jamie King. Often slated for a lack of real talent, Madonna’s unrivalled skills at producing a live spectacle was on display at its finest, and quickly became a hot topic of conversation the world over, and one of her most memorable performances. Not least because she remained fully dressed for the whole thing.

My Favourite Festive Film: Sleepless In Seattle

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Much of the praise lavished on the late screenwriter and director Nora Ephron is reserved for When Harry Met Sally. But when it comes to Christmas time, the movie I always return to is her 1993 classic Sleepless In Seattle. It’s the supreme romantic comedy for me, because it has a seasonal edge. Its themes of fate, destiny and magic are heart-warming and believably immersed in a real life setting. In many ways, it’s a strong precursor to the recent favourite Love Actually.

Centring on recently widowed Sam (Tom Hanks) and his young son Jonah (Ross Malinger), the movie begins on Christmas Eve, when Jonah phones a radio show attempting to find a new wife for his father. He’s heard by Annie (Meg Ryan), driving to spend the holidays with her fiancée’s family. But across the night time airwaves – from Baltimore to Seattle – she feels a connection to the man and his son, and an anonymous courtship begins that feeds into romantic notions of a Christmas miracle.

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Coming right off the back of the Harry Connick Jr. revival, the soundtrack features old jazz standards sung by everyone from Ray Charles to Nat King Cole, and is the kind of thing you might bring out at this time of year anyway. By the time the opening credits have finished rolling, it’s hard not to be bowled over with holiday spirit and romance. It reminds me of my childhood, and the hey-day of video rental, when I’d get to watch the latest releases with my parents at the weekend, and later, of watching classic Hollywood movies on Sky as a teenager.

Sleepless In Seattle is a movie drenched in nostalgia. It’s based on the 1957 movie An Affair To Remember, which the characters of Sleepless in Seattle discuss in comparison to their own situation, as the storyline plays out in parallel. The final scene, which takes place at the top of the Empire State Building, is a fulfillment of a promised reunion in the original Cary Grant movie that never actually happened. Clever, I know. Co-star Rosie O’Donnell complains of wanting “to be in love in a movie” – and who doesn’t? In my books, New York is the perfect setting for romance, but it’s also the capital city of Christmas. Alongside all the standard holiday films, Sleepless in Seattle is always a must watch for me.

This article originally appeared in SoSoGay magazine.

Alicia Keys – Girl On Fire

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Alicia Keys set herself a high bar by creating a modern classic with her début album, Songs In A Minor. But having sustained an incredible career for the past ten years based on pure talent and likability, she arrives at a turning point in her journey. Her private life is not usually a hot topic of conversation, but marriage and motherhood have inspired this fifth album, Girl On Fire – a celebration of a reinvention.

The opening track, ‘Brand New Me’, sets the tone and is an instant album highlight. It’s about her personal reinvention, but anyone could listen and hear a parallel to their own story. In her recent webcast, many in her ‘musical family’, spoke of how it moved them to tears. The personnel on this record reads like a who’s who of R&B music, with contributions from Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, Babyface, and Emeli Sandé.

Keys became a fan of Sandé’s after she supported her at a show last year. Describing themselves as ‘kindred spirits’, she boasts four co-writes on the album, though rumours that Sandé attempted a Part 4 of ‘Read All About It’ are unconfirmed. The songs they have written together – ‘Brand New Me’, ‘New Day’ and ‘Not Even The King’ – are the album’s highlights, although they are the kind of songs Keys has rhymed off solo on previous albums. ‘New Day’ is an anthem, with a strong Rihanna-esque chorus. Even on this track, which is a rare uptempo number, Keys is still her own woman, and her musicality shines through. ‘Not Even The King’ is a classic Alicia Keys song, using her favourite theme of love conquering material riches, but it’s not exhausted. As motherhood traditionally has for the female singer-songwriter, the arrival of her own offspring, Egypt (who makes his vocal début on the album too), has given Keys much food for thought.

Production wise, there’s a lot to be said for Keys having her own New York studio, and a DJ-producer for a husband. In her recent webcast she spoke of finally understanding that ‘less is more’. She leaves piano songs to piano, and other songs – like the incredible title track (featuring Nicki Minaj) – feel full with sparse but strong arrangements. Her sound is polished and defined, a honed version of all the textures she’s tested for years. ‘Listen To Your Heart’ sounds like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On album, but it’s clear and crisp, harking back to her début album, an association repeated with tracks like ‘You Don’t Know My Name’. There’s a similar retro feel to her Bruno Mars collaboration, ‘Tears Always Win’. Like so many, the album gets a bit thin on the ground towards the end, but closes by reverting to another strong piano number, ’101′.

Though her music never pushes boundaries too far, the talents of Alicia Keys are never wasted, and always apparent. Musically, she is the R&B champion of her generation, in the lineage of a very elite group; and with every strong album released, she proves why she’s the rightful heir.

This article originally appeared in SoSoGay magazine.

James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Men?

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However macho something is by nature, it is never safe from the inklings of homoeroticism. In fact, sometimes the more macho something is, the more camp it appears. The James Bond movies have always had hints of gay – occasionally through outcast, misunderstood villains, or lesbians that appear as sexual challenges to 007. Now, in Skyfall, director Sam Mendes has painted the pinkest portrait yet, in the form of Javier Bardem’s wonderful cyber-psycho Silva. But what does it reveal about Bond himself?

Silva makes his entrance with a long walk across a warehouse floor, in a wonderfully shot scene where we watch him advance over chair-bound Bond’s shoulder. He delivers a curious monologue, which implies the two men are like rats who have eaten everyone else, and now must ‘eat each other’ – the innuendo of which is appreciated by the actors and the audience alike. Sitting down in front of Bond, he begins to unbutton 007′s shirt and caress his chest. As he implies his own homosexual experiences, he suggests Bond tries it himself, to which Bond teasingly replies, ‘What makes you think this is my first time?’. In the next scene, as Silva dares Bond to shoot a shot glass off a girl’s head, he says he will try too, and that whoever wins ‘gets to go on top’. These are the lines that have sparked mumbled giggles in cinemas, and brought delight to queer theorists everywhere.

It may not be coincidence that this new scene mirrors the Casino Royale moment where Craig’s Bond was tied to a chair and, with somewhat obvious homoerotic undertones, had his testicles whipped. Perhaps Craig as an actor is more open to it than any Bond before; perhaps it’s been there all along, lurking in the shadows; or perhaps the old undercurrents of homosexuality and blackmail in espionage are finally coming out of the closet and becoming more acceptable in this environment. Nothing is exactly confirmed or denied, but either way, this element of dubious sexuality makes for one of Skyfall‘s most popular talking points.

This piece originally appeared on SoSoGay magazine.