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2021’s Most-Viral Stories, Unwrapped

Oh, 2021. The year we got “vaxed and waxed,” added the word “cheugy” to our vocabulary, loaded up on feta cheese to make TikTok pasta, binge watched Squid Game, and listened to “All Too Well” (Taylor’s Version) on repeat. We’re taking a quick walk down memory lane as we remember the moments we couldn’t stop talking about this year. Every week, YPulse rounds up the biggest viral stories of the week, and we’ve looked back to see what the most headline-making stories were this year. Here’s seven of 2021’s biggest viral stories…


Gen Z Canceled A Few of Millennials’ Favorite Things

From calling out the “cheugyness” of their side parts and blonde hair, to declaring that skinny jeans were out of style, and even canceling Eminem (yes, the real Slim Shady), Gen Z broke Millennials’ skinny jean-loving, side part-wearing hearts this year. February marked the start of it all after Gen Z TikTokers started roasting Millennials for their side parts using the sound from @missladygleep’s video where she “asserts that there’s no one who looks better with a side part than they do with a middle part.” To date, the sound has garnered 25.7K videos and #middlepart counts 396.M views. Next, teens started ripping on skinny jeans, saying they reminded them of “flared leggings” (that one hurt…a lot) while Millennials clapped back saying they won’t take such criticism from “the tide pod eating” generation. And to make matters worse, Gen Z turned undereye circles into a makeup trend. It didn’t stop there, however. Gen Z declared blonde hairy “cheugy” (to all the Millennials who have been rocking a blonde balayage, our hearts are with you), as they traded their bleached blonde hues for expensive brunette locks. #CancelEminem lit the hate fire between these two generations even more as Gen Z called out the rapper’s problematic lyrics, forcing celebrities like Lil Nas X to get involved by attempting to diffuse the situation. And for the cherry on top of these generations’ year-long feud, “geriatric Millennials” was a “fun” new nickname Gen Z gave this not-so elder gen (#geriatricmillennial counts more than 900K views on TikTok). Maybe these generations will get on the same page about fashion / style trends in 2022, but until then we’ll be gripping on tightly to our skinny jeans (and dignities). 

Black TikTok Creators Reclaimed Viral Dance Trends 

When TikTok came into our lives, so did the dance trends. But after seeing popular influencer after popular (and White) influencer steal the spotlight with their recreations of viral dances without crediting where they came from (i.e. Black dancers and choreographers), Black creators said no more. Following the release of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Thot Shit” this summer, Black TikTok Creators used the track to go on strike, explaining, “We’re not making a dance for ‘Thot Shit.’ Sorry. We’re just gonna let them keep flailing.” Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body” is one of many viral dance trends that have gone uncredited on TikTok, so the release of “Thot Shit” marked a significant shift as Black creators protested the matter by refusing to make another dance for White creators to steal. The protest led to a much-need conversation about who gets credit for viral dance trends: the original choreographer or the first influencer to go viral dancing to it? (hint: it’s not the latter). “Renegade,” “Savage,” and “WAP” are just a few of the dances that have gone uncredited—until now. In August, JaQuel Knight—the choreographer for Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion—teamed up with Logitech to host a dinner in L.A. that recognized BIPOC creators / choreographers, revealing that they started the copyright process for their dances on TikTok. Backstory: JaQuel Knight became the first creator to copyright his dance moves back in April, and launched Knight Choreography and Music Publishing Inc. to help Black creators do the same. Keara Wilson (“Savage” dance), Young Deji (“The Woah” dance), Fullout Courtland (choreographers behind the “Say So” dance Doja Cat performed at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards), the Nae Nae Twins (“Savage Remix” dance creators), Chloe Arnold (choreographer behind “Salute a Legend” for Syncopated Ladies), and Mya Johnson and Chris Cotter (“Up” dance) are among the creators who started working with Knight and Logitech to gain the copyright to their dances. Once their work is copyrighted, they will be able to receive payment when their moves are featured in a film, video game, etc.—or take legal action if proper credit isn’t given.   

Two words: Squid Game 

After dropping on Netflix September 17, Squid Game quickly became the No. 1 most popular TV show on the platform—and No. 1 in Gen Z and Millennials’ hearts. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos was quick to claim Squid Game as the streaming service’s “biggest show ever”—and he wasn’t wrong. #SquidGame garnered 1B views on TikTok within two weeks of premiering as users reenacted games from the show, created makeup looks inspired by the characters, and shared their Squid Game-inspired Halloween costumes. Speaking of which, sales for white slip-on Vans surged 7,800% in October as people gathered gear for their costumes, and searches for green tracksuits also boomed. YPulse’s Borderless Culture trend research explores young consumers’ interest in content from other countries, so it makes sense young people immediately fell in love with the show as it paints a scary real picture of the debt crisis in South Korea and around the world. After YouTuber MrBeast created an IRL Squid Game in November (the video racked up more than 100M views on YouTube in less than one week), it was clear excitement for the show wouldn’t be dying down anytime soon—especially now that season two is on its way

TikTok’s Famous Pasta Caused a Feta Cheese Shortage

2020 may have been the year of viral TikTok food trends (remember dalgona coffee?). But 2021 also had some viral food trends—especially when it came to making anything pasta related. Baked feta pasta (a.k.a. TikTok pasta) won every foodie’s heart early this year, quickly impacting cheese sales. The original dish—composed of cherry tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, basil, pasta, and a block of feta cheese—is known as UuniFetaPasta and is a huge hit in Finland. Feta pasta has been credited to Finnish food blogger, Jenny Häyrinen, and once TikTokers got their hand on the recipe after @grilledcheesesocial shared a video of herself making feta pasta (the clip has garnered more than 3M views to date), users couldn’t stop making it or talking about it, leading to a feta shortage across U.S. grocery stores (a Trader Joe’s employee says they still haven’t been able to keep the cheese in stock). According to another video by @grilledcheesesocial, they credit themselves as being the one who “brought the baked feta dish to America.” In 2019, the dish was so popular that it reportedly led to a feta shortage in Finland when it first came on the scene. #FetaPasta counts 1.1B views, while #TikTokPasta has garnered 122.5M views to date, so it’s safe to say this food trend will (luckily) be sticking around beyond 2021 as well. More 2021 food trends—like Emily Mariko’s salmon bowl—also led to food shortages in grocery stores this year. After Mariko posted a video of her salmon rice bowl back in August (the dish includes mashed up salmon, white rice, soy sauce, Kewpie Mayo, Sriracha, and seaweed chips), it instantly racked up millions of views and people were so excited to try the dish that grocery stores have been struggling to keep Kewpie Mayo in stock since. “As seen on TikTok” food recipes have become so popular that TikTok is opening ghost kitchens across 300 U.S. restaurants in March 2022 to serve people their favorite TikTok recipes.  

Young Employees Said “No More” to Their Toxic Jobs—And Shared it on TikTok

YPulse told you all about The Great Resignation, and our What’s Next for Work trend research shows Gen Z and Millennials are fueling the movement in the U.S. and Western Europe. Signs that The Great Resignation was happening started in July when research from the U.S. Labor Department found that a record 4 million people quit their jobs in April alone—and quit rates have risen since. The trend of documenting resignations on TikTok took off this summer, although people started having these conversations at the end of 2020 when Shana Blackwell, who worked as a night stocker, showed herself quitting her job at Walmart by broadcasting it on the store’s intercom system in a video that has received more than 36M views. Since then, TikTokers have been sharing their job resignation stories via #QuitMyJob (the tag counts 195.8M views), while workers at Burger King in Nebraska went viral for collectively quitting their job by putting a sign up in front of the restaurant, after complaining of having to work under intense heat and other poor working conditions. The fact is, young workers are thinking more deeply about what they want out of their jobs (i.e. healthy working conditions that don’t lead to insane burnout), and they’re not afraid to speak up about it.

New Albums from Gen Z & Millennial Artists Won Young Fans’ Hearts

What’s one thing Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift, Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, and Adele all have in common? They released killer new albums this year, and are among some of Gen Z and Millennials’ favorite artists. Olivia Rodrigo’s “SOUR” (a.k.a. the breakup album no one knew they needed) was the talk of summer 2021, with Rodrigo surpassing Swift as the number one selling artist across all digital platforms following the drop of her debut album. Her collab with Sour Patch Kids also took over the internet as fan accounts spotted Rodrigo in NYC carrying the box while others shared images of store shelves stocked with the exclusive candy (the team up included a two pound box of Sour Patch Kids’ grape-flavored soft candy decorated with Olivia’s face). Fans were “Happier Than Ever” once Billie Eilish’s highly anticipated album dropped in July. Within a few hours of releasing, the album reached number one on the Apple Music chartsand the music video for the song “Happier Than Ever” garnered over 900K views and counting on YouTube. The “Happier Than Ever” album signaled an “end of an era” as Eilish said goodbye to her iconic former black hair and slime green roots. Luckily, fans have a lot to look forward to in 2022 with Eilish’s upcoming world tour, so you can expect more Billie coverage come next year. Next up was Lil Nas X, deploying several clever marketing efforts leading up to his “Montero” drop, including sharing his “Montero” baby / pregnancy, a series of billboards in L.A. mimicking cheesy lawyer billboards raising money for LGBTQ and human rights nonprofits, “The Montero Show” daytime talk show, and more. YPulse’s Lil Nas X coverage this year was never ending thanks to the way he’s impacting the music industry through his cutting edge hits, genderfluid fashion, and over-the-top marketing. Last but certainly not least, “Red (Taylor’s Version)” and Adele’s “30” rounded out 2021 as fans celebrated Swift’s re-recorded “Red” songs and new releases from the “vault,” while taking “Sad Girl Autumn” even further with Adele’s first album in more than five years (Adele’s “30” became 2021’s top-selling album in just three days). While Swift’s songs immediately took over TikTok, Adele reminded her fellow Millennials that her album “isn’t for the TikTok generation, it’s for the 30- and 40-year-olds who are all committing to themselves and doing therapy.” We can’t forget about Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” or Kanye West’s “Donda,” which were also staples of 2021, and YPulse’s (new!) Pop Culture Redefined trend research shows that the release of a new album / song is one of the top pop culture moments Gen Z and Millennials pay attention to. 


Would it really be a 2021 recap if we didn’t talk about NFTs? In March, we told you how non-fungible tokens were popping up everywhere after Grimes sold $6 million worth of digital artworks in an auction on Nifty Gateway, kicking off a trend that musicians, content creators, and brands got involved in by selling their own digital versions of IRL products. In case you forgot, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are part of the Ethereum blockchain and is a unique type of cryptocurrency as it blends art with the digital world so people can trade it in. Basically, it’s like a (very very) expensive digital arcade ticket that can be traded for a digital prize. The crypto-art currency opened brands up to a whole new universe, with companies from Taco Bell, to Budweiser, Campbell’s Soup, and more creating their own NFTs. We used our on-demand survey platform PULSE to ask young consumers what they thought of NFTs, and we found that 44% of young consumers have heard of NFTs but don’t understand what they are, while the same percentage said they don’t care about brands creating NFTs as part of their marketing efforts. *Mic drop.* Aside from NFTs, Gen Z and Millennials did become more interested in investing and cryptocurrency. In January, YPulse told you about the GameStop x Reddit frenzy where Redditors made GameStop’s stock soar via the r/WallStreetBets forum, forcing it to halt trading several times while causing “a major headache” for short sellers from hedge funds attempting to bet against it in hopes that the stock would fall. They also caused AMC’s stock to surge, turning the matter into what’s now known as “meme stocks” to describe how “the shares of a company have gained a cult-like following online and on social media,” according to Investopedia. Gen Z and Millennials were interested in trading real-er stocks, too, and leaned on TikTok creators (a.k.a. “finfluencers”) to learn how to day trade, invest in a 401K, how to start a Roth IRA—anything that would help set them up for financial success.