The biggest pop culture moments of 2022

The face-offs (both fictional and real), celebrity deaths, interviews, and other entertainment stories that dominated headlines this year.

By EW Staff December 22, 2022 at 03:38 PM EST

What will you remember most about pop culture in 2022? What headlines will come to define the past 12 months and perhaps be a Jeopardy! answer in the coming years?

Pop culture is never short of pure moments of glee, but scandals, deaths, and legal battles can also capture the spotlight. From Stranger Things, Funny Girl, and Don’t Worry Darling, to Taylor Swift, Elton John, Harry Styles, Will Smith, Kanye West, and more, we’re looking back at some of the biggest pop culture moments of 2022.

Oh, slap!

When everyone said the Academy should punch-up the Oscars ceremony, we’re certain they didn’t mean like this. After 2022 ceremony presenter Chris Rock made a joke on stage about the shaved head of Jada Pinkett Smith — who has alopecia — the actress’ husband, Will Smith, approached the comedian and slapped him across the face. Audiences watching in the room (see Lupita Nyong’o’s reaction) and at home (Twitter blew up) appeared equally stunned, and headlines buzzed for nearly a month after the incident, as the Academy banned the King Richard actor (and eventual winner that night) from AMPAS events for the next decade — arguably giving those involved a bigger presence in the press than an Oscar victory could’ve. Nuanced discussions about the why behind the exchange aside, the moment proved that, even on a night meant to celebrate cinema champions, no one wins when it comes to blows. —Joey Nolfi

Better Harrys & Gardens

When Harry Styles announced his new album, Harry’s House, three years after the success of Fine Line, fans expected some press to follow. What they didn’t expect was for the musician to end up on the cover of the June issue of Better Homes & Gardens. A brilliant marketing move — get it, Harry’s House? — nearly broke the internet, both for the unexpectedness of it and because, well, have you seen the photos?! For a guy who has delivered more than his fair share of great pop culture moments in 2022 — including a plethora of concert videos on TikTok — that cover goes down as one of the year’s biggest. —Samantha Highfill

(Disclosure: Better Homes & Gardens and EW are both owned by Dotdash Meredith.)

Funny Girl(s)

For a musical with a song about not letting anyone rain on your parade, Funny Girl sure had some stormy backstage proceedings. The highly anticipated Broadway revival (its first ever) opened this spring with expectations bigger than Fanny Brice’s comedic stylings. Its star, Beanie Feldstein, suffered the brunt of those lofty expectations, drawing lackluster reviews. But that disappointment quickly devolved into rumors of All About Eve-level drama, with Feldstein reportedly feeling unsupported by producers who were already looking to course correct with a new star. Enter Lea Michele, a star who came with her own baggage thanks to reports of her toxic behavior on the set of Glee — but also the actor who many thought should’ve had the role in the first place. All this came to a head as Feldstein left the production earlier than planned and rumors about Michele’s past diva tendencies swirled. But when Michele finally did take the stage as Fanny in September, it was as resounding a triumph as Fanny’s Act One finale. Amidst the plate full of onion rolls, Michele emerged an indisputable bagel — and between the gossip and the musical itself, we basically got two shows for the price of one. —Maureen Lee Lenker

Naomi Judd’s death

The country music world and beyond was stunned by the news of Judd family matriarch Naomi’s death in April to “the disease of mental illness,” according to a statement from daughters Wynonna and Ashley at the time — the latter later confirming in an interview that the “Love Can Build a Bridge” singer died by suicide. Judd, who was 76, was very open about her mental health struggles throughout her life — and her daughter’s used the moment to shine a light on mental illness, while also celebrating the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter’s illustrious career and life. —Gerrad Hall

Uncut what?

In 2013 we all wondered “What Does the Fox Say” … and in the case of Julia Fox, well, what she said during a February interview on the Call Her Daddy podcast is all anyone could talk about for a few weeks. “I was Josh Safdie’s muse when he wrote Uncut Gems,” was her response to host Alex Cooper, who asked Fox to explain what a muse it. It wasn’t so much what she said but how she said it — “gems” sounded like “jaahms” — that took hold of the internet, becoming a viral TikTok trends thanks to Fox’s Valley Girl, glottal fried pronunciation. Even celebrities got in on the fun, using audio from the moment to have a little fun. Fox’s initial reaction: she laughed it off in an Instagram comments saying, “Omggggg I was stoned leave me alone!!!!” followed by a few laughing emojis. The moment became one of 2022’s, well, gems. —Gerrad Hall

Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard

Johnny Depp‘s defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard began in April in Virginia, ushering in six weeks of live-streamed testimony and media mayhem. Depp sued Heard for $50 million over her 2018 Washington Post op-ed detailing her experiences as a domestic violence survivor. She didn’t mention Depp by name, but his lawyers argued that the references to him — and her previous public abuse allegations — were clear, claiming it damaged his reputation and career. Both parties recounted gut-wrenching accusations of physical, verbal, and sexual assault, as well as some bizarre anecdotes that involved feces and a severed fingertip. A jury ruled in Depp’s favor in June, awarding him $15 million in damages. Hollywood played a starring role in the case that warped the cultural discourse, with Paul Bettany, Ellen Barkin, Kate Moss, and James Franco among the stars referenced in subpoenaed correspondence or called to the witness stand. —Jessica Wang

Cheers to that!

With just seven decisive words, the rightful queen spoke the cocktail of the year into existence: “A Negroni… Sbagliato… with Prosecco in it.” A perfect recipe transformed a seemingly throwaway moment between House of the Dragon stars Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke into a viral sensation. You start with gender-nonconforming horniness; LGBTQ TikTokers, specifically those who identify as nonbinary, were thirsting after the inadvertent sex appeal of D’Arcy, who uses they/them pronouns, exuded in this clip. You then add costar chemistry; D’Arcy and Cooke get on so well that onlookers were mesmerized by this genuine moment between friends. Add a dash of fantasy horniness; D’Arcy and Cooke’s characters on the Game of Thrones prequel drama, the at-odds Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower, play with the female gaze in ways that sometimes border on flirting. And finally, you add a dash of “stunnin'”, a.k.a. Cooke’s perfectly timed, darling response to D’Arcy’s drink order. And you get a meme for the ages. —Nick Romano

We worried, darling

Between spitgate, Nora Ephron’s salad dressing, and Ms. Flo with her Aperol spritz, psychological thriller Don’t Worry Darling took the cake as the messiest press tour of the year. At the center of it all was director Olivia Wilde‘s highly-publicized relationship with star Harry Styles, who replaced embattled actor Shia LaBeouf in the co-lead role. The latter would emerge from the shadows of abuse and assault allegations to dispute his former director’s comments about his departure from the film. Sprinkle in tabloid headlines about Jason Sudeikis throwing himself under ex Wilde’s car — plus, Kiki Layne’s admission that she was cut from much of the film — and the result was a promotional tour more engrossing than the movie itself. —Jessica Wang

Running up the music charts

Despite coming out four decades ago, Kate Bush‘s “Running Up That Hill” was unquestionably 2022’s song of the summer. It was everywhere: Straddling the pop charts, playing on the radio, blasting at bars, wafting off of teenagers’ smartphones in public. Aside from the timeless perfection of the song itself, this can only be explained via the zeitgeist-conquering power of Stranger Things. In its fourth season, the Netflix sci-fi series used Bush’s 1985 single as a sonic weapon against the monster Vecna, and reminded us all of the power of making a deal with God. —Christian Holub

Hot for baddie

Joseph Quinn‘s metalhead Eddie became a fan-favorite, and Sadie Sink‘s grief-stricken Max stole the show in Stranger Things season 4, but the introduction (or, re-introduction) of Vecna (played by Jamie Campbell Bower) birthed a collective thirst for the villain from fans of the sci-fi hit, who declared their love for the big bad through horny tweets and TikTok videos. Though taken aback by the saucy reception, Bower — who intensified the thirst after he recited a Lizzo song and iconic film lines in the demonic voice — said he was “very grateful” for Vecna’s sex symbol status. The heart wants what it wants: a homicidal humanoid monster. —Jessica Wang

Swifties vs. Ticketmaster

If there was ever an artist with enough pop-culture prowess to bring down the music industry’s most hated monopoly, it’s Taylor Swift. As the celebrated pop star’s first tour in five years, and the live debut for the whopping six albums she’s released since 2019, nobody expected securing a ticket to the upcoming Eras Tour to be an easy task. But between Ticketmaster’s online queues stretching from hours into days, scalpers inflating prices into the thousands, and presales eating up all available seats, Swift decided enough is enough — and so did the U.S. government. The Justice Department has since opened an antitrust investigation into Live Nation Entertainment (which merged with Ticketmaster in 2010) about whether its monopoly seriously harms the music industry. Swifties’ long story short: “Look what you made me do.” —Allaire Nuss

Death of a legend

The news of Bob Saget’s Jan. 9 death sent a shockwave through Hollywood and with fans. The comedian, 65, died in his sleep from head trauma in a Florida hotel after performing there the night before. Saget was revered throughout the industry for his kindness, generosity, and incredible comedic talent; audiences considered the Full House star America’s dad. Processing his passing wasn’t made any easier given it came just 10 days after that of another comedy icon, America’s grandma, Betty White, who died Dec. 31 — a couple weeks shy of her 100th birthday. We still hadn’t recovered, and now this one added to our collective grief. It’s continued throughout 2022 with the deaths of legends including Sidney Poitier, Naomi Judd, Taylor Hawkins, and Ray Liotta. Just when you need a joke from someone like Saget to help lift your spirits…… —Gerrad Hall

The Iceman returneth

There can be no day without night, no sound without silence, no fire without ice — or, more precisely, Iceman. When it was first learned that Tom Cruise would be re-enlisting for the role of his Top Gun flyboy Maverick, superfans prayed for a reunion with his cocky antagonist, immortally played by Val Kilmer. (The latter’s well-known battles with throat cancer have nearly robbed him of his voice, so praying may have been in order.) Kilmer’s one-scene appearance is better than anyone could have hoped for: silent but dignified, emotional, and the occasion for some of the most empathetic acting of Cruise’s career. —Joshua Rothkopf

Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader

It was a rematch 17 years in the making. When Ewan McGregor‘s Obi-Wan and Hayden Christensen‘s Darth crossed lightsabers on the volcanic planet of Mustafar back in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, we thought that was the last time we would ever see both the actors and characters doing battle. But thanks to Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, we got to watch the two friends-turned-foes engage in “aggressive negotiations” not once more… but twice! Obi-Wan was clearly a little rusty in their first encounter on the mining planet of Jabiim, and was literally buried at the start of the rematch, but the wise Jedi once again summoned the Force to show his former Padawan who the Master truly was. It was a thrilling and emotional conclusion to their epic tale. —Dalton Ross

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

Much delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elton John at last took his final bow touring in North America this November. Returning to Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium for the first time since his legendary 1970s concerts there, John went out in only the way he can — with heaps of sequins and pizazz. The event loomed so large in music history that Disney+ streamed it live, offering fans a way to see John take a breathtaking trip through his greatest hits from home (though if you were lucky enough to be there, it was a once-in-a-lifetime night). It wasn’t just the costumes or the fireworks or even the absurd joy of watching John bellow “The Bitch Is Back,” knowing it was airing live on Disney+. Nor was it simply the extra sparkle of the special guests (Kiki Dee, Brandi Carlile, and Dua Lipa) to really send John off in Style. More than anything, it was watching a man who has dedicated his life to music and performing (and almost lost it in the meanwhile) give a heartfelt goodbye to audiences while he’s resolutely still standing. Everyone in that crowd wanted to hold each other a little closer, knowing that it’s going to be a long, long time before we witness something this epic again. —Maureen Lee Lenker

Maryanne Oketch wins Survivor

Season 42 of Survivor was overstuffed with twists wrapped inside wrinkles that were covered in an assortment of bells and whistles, but the thing that has always been at the core of the show are the contestants themselves. Which is why the unexpected delight of the reality TV year was when a goofy, grinning chatterbox of a seminary student who made up fake curse words somehow, someway won the game — becoming the most likable winner in the franchise’s long, storied history. The relentlessly unpretentious Maryanne — who became the show’s second Black female winner ever — was not just a silly barrel of laughs either. She displayed gravitas and wisdom when talking about issues of race, and made the strategic move of the season when she blindsided the puppet-master Omar to clear her path to the million dollars. She not only won the money, but the hearts of all who watched her journey along the way. —Dalton Ross

Bennifer 2.0

A wise woman once asked, “Do you believe in life after love?” Though that dance classic predates their coupling by a few years, Cher might as well have been talking about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. Some 20 years after they first got engaged, the entity known as Bennifer decided to give it another go. The pair met on the set of the historically bad Gigli in 2001 and their romance became front-page fodder till their 2004 break-up. But like many a couple during the pandemic, Affleck and Lopez rekindled their romance in May 2021 (following respective break-ups from Ana de Armas and Alex Rodriguez) — and announced their engagement this April. News of the Bennaisance immediately set nostalgic minds racing with hopes that those two crazy kids could finally make it work this time. Do you believe? —Lester Fabian Brathwaite

Heidi Klum does the Worm

Of all the celebrity Halloween costumes to haunt our social feeds this year, none were as awe-inspiring (or, frankly, nausea-inducing) as “the Worm,” Heidi Klum‘s ultra-camp departure from her usual pop-culture prosthetics (see: Michael Jackson’s werewolf or Shrek‘s Fiona). Void of reference or reason (which only makes it more abjectly enthralling), her nearly seven-foot vermin shocked as it slithered, its mounds of slimy ringlets writhing on the blue carpet outside the supermodel’s 21st annual A-list Halloween party. After her husband Tom Kaulitz’s fisherman had hooked and rolled her vermin toward the press, the former Victoria’s Secret Angel encased within licked its glistening, thin-lipped grin, batted its beady pink eyes, and declared to ET, “You know what they say, ‘the early bird catches the worm’…I’m the worm.” —Allaire Nuss

Multiversal madness

Alternate realities and parallel worlds have long been a cinematic staple. But in 2022, the multiverse officially entered the mainstream, with the films Spider-Man: No Way Home, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. (Another thing that all three films have in common? Insanely long titles.) 

No Way Home helped kick off the trend in December, with Spider-Men Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, and Tobey Maguire uniting for a franchise-hopping, box-office-topping adventure. Later, Marvel revisited the concept with the appropriately named Multiverse of Madness, zipping between dimensions and introducing alternate versions of familiar heroes. (RIP to Professor X & Co.) Finally, the Daniels’ brilliantly bonkers Everything Everywhere All At Once fused parallel-universe sci-fi with absurdist family drama, resulting in one of the strangest and most delightful films of the year. (Shoutout to this year’s breakout star, Raccacoonie.) Perhaps it’s no surprise that moviegoers have glommed on to multiverses this year: In 2022, haven’t we all dreamed of escaping into a different, slightly better version of our world? —Devan Coggan

Kanye shows his true colors

Kanye West is no stranger to controversy. His most beloved album, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was itself an artistic act of redemption after the rapper had disgraced himself by accosting Taylor Swift at the VMAs. But this year, it felt like West finally dug a hole too deep even for him to climb out of — first with his aggressive social media harassment of both ex-wife Kim Kardashian and her temporary beau Pete Davidson, then by fully swerving into anti-Semitic rhetoric and going so far as to publicly praise Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Some lines can’t be crossed, and some outrages can’t be redeemed with a good album. —Christian Holub

Aw, shucks

A corn-loving kid named Tariq took the country by storm this fall when his interview with Recess Therapy went viral, amassing more than 10-million views so far. Tariq shared his newfound love of the vegetable, made even better when slathered in butter. What’s he love about it especially? “It has the juice!” It had all the makings for a viral trend, especially on TikTok, where fans used audio from their favorites moments of the interview. Tariq was named South Dakota’s “Corn-bassador,” The Gregory Brothers created a parody song (Tariq and his family do get some of the royalties!), and Drew Barrymore even welcomed him onto her daytime talk show, where they tried corn-flavored products. Chipotle and Green Giant even hired him for campaigns. Vegetables have never been so cool! —Gerrad Hall

Lea Michele shares the word of her body

The Spring Awakening reunion documentary gave millennials a chance to revisit a musical that shaped many of our youths alongside the cast that enshrined it in theater history. But we weren’t expecting to get a revelation as explicit as the lyrics of “Totally F*cked.” In the doc, Lea Michele disclosed that she’d once shown costar (and BFF) Jonathan Groff her vagina with a desk lamp in an illustrative lesson on the female anatomy, a story she then elaborated on with EW. It’s a bitch of a living, but this shameless confession made our days a little brighter (and Lea, we’re sorry for making your vagina trend on Twitter). —Maureen Lee Lenker

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