Every year has its highs and lows, but 2021 stands out as a nonstop roller coaster ride — a long roller coaster ride. It’s hard to believe that 12 months ago vaccines had just arrived, the Biden presidency had not begun, and sporting events were still being attended by cardboard cutouts.
But now is the time of year that we all like to pause and look back, and as usual we’re awash in lists of 2021’s most notable events and business developments. I like to look back through another lens that offers distinct insights we would otherwise overlook: the products, material goods, consumer culture artifacts, and other stuff that defined or left a mark on this unique time. So here is a different kind of list — The Year In Objects, 2021.
QAnon Shaman’s hat
Just six days into 2021, America absorbed a profound shock to its democratic system, in the form of a full-on assault on the U.S. Capitol that left five dead. Among other things, this shocking event was a true visual spectacle, replete with flags, signs, and theatrical costumes. The standout was, of course, the so-called QAnon Shaman — bare-chested, face-painted, and sporting an inexplicable furry, horned hat. The man wanted attention, and he got it, going so viral nobody could escape his image. Another thing he got: a 41-month prison sentence.
The Bernie mittens
If January 6 still feels raw, the Biden inauguration just weeks later somehow seems like a generation ago. Despite the fashionable pageantry of Lady Gaga and Amanda Gorman, among others, the visual star of the day was a pair of wooly mittens worn by Bernie Sanders — “a sort of brown and cream Himalayan sweater pattern, which seemed to have charmed practically half the social media world,” the New York Times reported. The mitten-maker was promptly identified, and the pattern reverse-engineered; and mittened Sanders seated in a this-could-have-been-an-email pose became the first meme of the Biden era.
The vaccine syringe
When the year began, many of us, even those who may have been needle-averse in the past, absolutely craved a jab from a specific variety of syringe: one loaded with a Covid-19 vaccine. Others, of course, have resisted the shot despite loads of scientific evidence in the vaccines’ favor. But worldwide, the big picture is one of intense demand — meaning a need not just for vaccines, but for single-use disposable syringes to deliver them. In November, the World Health Organization issued a call for boosted manufacturing of these critical objects, warning of a potential shortage. In a year of supply-chain stumbles and slowdowns, this one has the highest stakes.
Gender-Neutral Potato Head
Hasbro’s iconic Mr. Potato Head product line got a modern update this year, dropping the Mr. & Mrs. titles from its family sets, so kids can make their own decisions about the gender composition of any given Potato clan; earlier sets were “limiting when it comes to both gender identity and family structure,” a spokesperson explained. In a time of nonstop culture wars, the decision was inevitably decried by some as a political correctness run amok. But others pointed out that kids have long made Potato Head a beyond-gender toy. As one observer put it: “Fact is, when you’ve got an arm growing out of your nose hole and a mouth where an ear should be, you’ve ascended beyond the sexual politics of the human world.”
Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket
If you think space tourism seems like a low priority in a plague year, then you must not be a billionaire. And among the mega-rich dudes who wanted to show us their rockets in 2021, Jeff Bezos got perhaps the most attention. His company Blue Origin launched its New Shepard spaceship 60-plus miles into the sky before returning safely to earth. And, maybe more to the point, the Bezos rocket briefly became a trendy, and slightly off-color, meme. This had less to do with the craft’s technical details and more with what the Internet considered its blatantly phallic aesthetic. More than one observer raised comparisons to Dr. Evil’s comical rocket in Austin Powers—but that was supposed to be funny.
Lil Nas X Satan Nikes
Just because we were awash in doom and gloom didn’t mean there wasn’t some cultural space for over-the-top publicity stunts, and by far the standout example was the “Satan” Nike conceived by New York prankster-art collective MSCHF in collaboration with Lil Nas X — in a limited 666-pair edition design featuring a pentagram, an inverted cross and (supposedly) “a drop of human blood.” This sold out instantly, and also attracted swift attention from Nike, which was emphatically not in on the collaboration, and sued. MSCHF agreed to provide full refunds — but it’s hard to imagine they had any takers. Meanwhile, Lil Nas X issued an “apology” video that swiftly morphed into a clip from his controversial “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” single. Fiendish.
Vivienne Westwood’s TikTok necklace
There’s no simple explanation for the surge of interest in a three-strand pearl choker created decades ago by seminal designer Westwood (best known for her formative role in the original punk aesthetic). It’s part Bridgerton, part early 2000s anime, part TikTok, and many parts celebrity: Rihanna, Janelle Monae, Zendaya, Dua Lipa, Bella Hadid, and K-pop star Lisa Manobal have been spotted sporting the $600 accessory. Turns out lots of Gen Z online influencers are fans of Westwood—who turned 80 this year, but clearly remains more cutting-edge than most of us will ever be.
These circle-shaped LED lights once seemed like a totem of the self-styled (and self-absorbed) influencer set, living life in online video as a permanent performance. But as the elusive “return to the office” moment was continuously postponed in 2021, it sank in that practically every office worker would be performing online—in Zoom meetings and the like—for the foreseeable future. Sales in the category this year were five times higher than in 2021, according to market researcher NPD Group.
Apple’s polishing cloth
Some say Apple product releases just don’t generate the same cultural buzz they used to. But there was an exception this year: a bizarre wave of interest in a 6.3-by-6.3-inch cloth that the company offered to consumers to, you know, wipe smudges off their screens. That’s it. That’s what it does. The $19 cloth sold out almost immediately, and it’s not clear if it caught on despite that ridiculous price, or because of it. One satisfied customer (he bought four of them) noted that, having just dropped $4,000 on a laptop, he was happy to own “the most elite cloth” to keep its screen tidy.
Elon Musk is no stranger to adventurous merch—remember the Tesla short shorts?—and is even less of a stranger to expressing a loudmouth opinion about basically everything. This $50 whistle made from “medical grade stainless steel” could be a promo gimmick for the weird-looking Tesla Cybertruck that it vaguely resembles. It could be a troll-ish comment on tech-company whistleblowers. Or it could be a satirical response to the Apple cloth. Or maybe Musk just needs attention—again. As always, his fans obliged, and the whistle is out of stock.
Bass Pro Shop trucker cap
Those of you old enough to recall the trucker-hat trend of the early 2000s know that it was so fleeting, and so silly, and so instantly backlashed into self-parody that it came to be shorthand for the general concept of a brainless fad. Well, guess what? It’s back! Specifically, as 2021 wound down, Bass Pro Shops-branded caps (featuring the chain’s logo and a gape-mouthed fish) were in such demand that the $6 items were being flipped for more than three times that on eBay, according to The Wall Street Journal. The main culprits seem to be young style influencers, driven in large part by retro nostalgia. What will the creative TikTok crowd “discover” next? Maybe Fleetwood Mac? Oh, wait, that was last year.
Taylor Swift’s scarf
Inevitably, the most meaningful objects in our lives are the personal ones, like the scarf you left behind on a date that your crappy ex never returned, and still has in some drawer, even now. And when I say “you,” I mean Taylor Swift, whose epic, reinvented version of her song “All Too Well”—in which an unreturned scarf is a crucial totem—became a sensation. This was not just an artistic win but presumably a financial one, as Swift continues re-recording her first six albums (whose master recordings are now owned by an investment firm) in what she characterizes as an effort to regain control of her own intellectual property. And maybe that’s worth losing a scarf for.
Rob Walker writes about design, business, and other subjects; his newsletter is The Art of Noticing.