20 Defining Pop Culture Moments of the Past 20 Years
From 9/11 to a year-plus-long pandemic, the history of the last 20 years has not always been kind. At the same time, we’ve experienced culture-shifting technological advancements—and the birth of Baby Yoda Mania. Is that a “defining” pop culture moment of the past 20 years? Of course! As we celebrate 20 years of Mental Floss, we're cataloging a handful of the breakthroughs, breakdowns, achievements, developments, and events that, for better or worse, became important to us as pop culture marched in lockstep with—and sometimes in response to—the heavier events of our shared history.
1. Survivor: Borneo premieres
On May 31, 2000, America was introduced to Survivor. It was a real toss-up as to whether this or American Idol (which premiered in 2002) would receive its own entry on this list. But together, they ushered in an era of reality TV from which we still have not recovered. By comparison, The Real World (which debuted in 1992) was a measured, legitimate social experiment; but in the new millennium, reality series expanded to include competitions, complex rules, and multimillion-dollar prizes for whoever surpassed, undermined, and/or defeated their opponents. The competitions ranged from the highly artistic to the ruthlessly graphic (get that dinner plate of bugs away from me!), but unequivocally these shows proved over and over that Americans have talent ... even if that talent is a willingness to endure unprecedented levels of public humiliation.
2. The Apple Revolution
Apple was founded in 1976, so has existed as a company for 45 years. But in 2001, as the music industry struggled to control its revenue streams in the era of file sharing and piracy, Apple developed the iPod, the most profitable mp3 player of its era, along with iTunes, an online marketplace that hastened the obsolescence of physical media (well, CDs, anyway). But the release of the iPhone in 2007 truly broadened consumers’ technological landscapes—not just by putting the computing and communication power of a personal computer in the palm of their hands, but by paving the way for a constant level of connectivity and interactivity that has changed the way we experience the world.
3. The Digital Music Takeover
Apple’s devices were to some extent developed in response to the Wild West days of file sharing (and precipitous revenue loss) the music industry experienced due to the rise of platforms like Napster and LimeWire. But the shift from physical to electronic media, which exploded in the 2000s, altered perceptions about the value of art itself, even as it accelerated a desire for more and more content to consume.
In the days before digital media, people were stacking their CDs (or DVDs) and literally seeing what they were paying for, but the ease of acquiring a song or album with the click of a button seemingly reduced people's willingness to pay as much for them. This eventually led to aggregators and curatorial programs like Spotify and Apple Music to provide subscription-based services to meet consumers' needs while hiding the sausage that revealed how little the music's creators were (and often still are) making off this new method of patronage.
4. Beyoncé Goes Solo
On June 17, 2003, Beyoncé Knowles released Dangerously In Love, her first solo album. Truth be told, we could probably assemble a timeline of pop culture highlights just based on her accomplishments since then, including her three visual albums (Beyoncé, Lemonade, and Black is King); winning TIME’s Person of the Year in 2016; her Homecoming concert ... the list goes on. But there are few artists who have made the kind of impact Beyoncé has. She's a musical force of nature with a well-deserved laundry list of accolades and a once-in-a-generation magnetism that makes virtually anything she does news-worthy.
5. The Office comes to America
When Greg Daniels announced that he was developing an American adaptation of The Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's beloved British workplace comedy, no one expected it to usher in a new era of sitcoms. But The Office's faux-documentary format broke the two-camera setup of the past and created an absolute cultural phenomenon that paved the way for series like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. The resulting show, which originally premiered on NBC on March 24, 2005, certainly has been a balm during quarantine as Netflix and Comedy Central played reruns endlessly. But at a time when there’s more new entertainment than ever, there’s something profoundly reassuring about The Office's availability and its familiarity. Everything about the series—from its line of daffy bosses beginning with Steve Carell to the mundane daily operations of office life—gives us a sense of belonging, and reality, as we laugh at character types who feel all too recognizable in our own lives.
6. Doctor Who Returns
The reboot of Doctor Who, which premiered on March 25, 2005, marked The Doctor's first time onscreen in live action form in 16 years—which is a pretty significant amount of time, even for a Time Lord. Although Christopher Eccleston lasted just one season as The Doctor, he helped rekindle interest in a character and a franchise that first began broadcasting in 1963. He also paved the way for David Tennant, who quickly became a fan favorite, and eventually Jodie Whittaker, who became the series’ first female Doctor (with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi in between).
7. Netflix Starts Streaming
Netflix opened for business in 1997 as a mail-order subscription service for cinephiles that offered a vast library of films for rent. But in February 2007, at almost exactly the same time the company was celebrating the delivery of its billionth DVD, Netflix was also in the process of transitioning to streaming. And it wasn't just licensed content the company was streaming; Netflix was acquiring and creating its own original programming, too—and setting the stage for what would become known as the “streaming wars” as studios and distributors set up their own platforms to deliver television and films. Thirteen years later, Disney, Apple, and Paramount (among many others) have all premiered their own streaming platforms, offering more delivery systems for content than ever—and demanding more passwords than we will ever remember.
8. The Kardashians Arrive
Kardashian was far from a household name when the soon-to-be first family of reality TV, who would go on to become synonymous with tabloid exploits and aspirational wealth, debuted Keeping Up With the Kardashians on October 14, 2007. Some of what happened in their lives marked important cultural benchmarks—most notably Caitlyn Jenner’s deserved legitimization and a painfully overdue recognition of transgender individuals. But even before Kanye West got involved, their privileged lifestyle super-charged the burgeoning “influencer culture” and set a template for rich people to become mega-rich people without doing much more than putting their name on various products. After a whopping 20 seasons, Keeping Up With the Kardashians aired its final episode in June 2021.
9. Twilight Opens in Theaters
When Stephenie Meyer wrote the first book in her Twilight series in 2005, it seemed impossible for anyone to imagine how the series, and its eventual film adaptations (the first of which was released on November 21, 2008), would radically transform the landscape of fandom. Even at San Diego Comic-Con, which had long been a destination for every kind of nerd under the sun, some of the most hotly anticipated panels beginning in 2008 were those for the Meyer adaptations. Meanwhile, shows like The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017) and True Blood (2008-2014) further capitalized on this blood-sucking renaissance, creating sexy, sharp-toothed antiheroes as far as the eye could see.
10. RuPaul’s Drag Race Debuts on Logo
RuPaul became a pop culture icon at least a decade before RuPaul's Drag Race premiered on February 2, 2009, and it was far from the first series to spotlight LGBTQ culture in all its wonderful joy. But prior to its debut, outside of Paris is Burning and John Waters's movies, drag culture was never something that was celebrated, at least not in the mainstream. Even if RuPaul occasionally stumbled in some of his own understanding of transgender identity, the show offered a window into a community that was often ignored, woefully misunderstood, and regularly vilified. Its regularity paved the way for many of the LGBTQ-related discussions that became more commonplace in the mainstream. Drag Race's success also opened the door for series like Pose, which further explored these wonderful artistic subcultures that far too few people had ever experienced—much less absolutely loved to watch slay down a runway.
11. Catfish Enters the Popular Lexicon
On September 13, 2012, Notre Dame senior and late first-round NFL draft pick Manti Te’o tweeted out a heartfelt message: "I may not hear your voice, but I do feel your presence." The day before, Te’o later told media outlets, he had learned that both his grandmother had died and that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had lost her battle with leukemia. This kicked off a series of events that not only led to the discovery that Te’o was the victim of an elaborate hoax by an acquaintance of his, but catapulted the term catfishing into the popular consciousness. While Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman had first introduced the term two years earlier with their documentary of the same name, Te’o became the celebrity face of it at the very moment he was about to enter professional sports. Since then, Joost and Schulman have developed a television series following many other cases of catfishing, and turning what might sound like an improbable scenario into a bona fide cultural phenomenon.
12. Game of Thrones Debuts
On April 17, 2011, during the heyday of Peak TV, HBO premiered Game of Thrones at the same time that Breaking Bad and other shows were regularly riveting viewers across the country. For better or worse, this adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s series of historical fantasy novels epitomized and then marked the last chapter of that era, as millions tuned it to watch its power players battle for control of the Seven Kingdoms until the very last episode. In fact, the date of its last broadcast—May 19, 2019—feels almost as important as its premiere, since it seems unlikely that any show will captivate so many viewers week after week ever again.
13. Vintage Books Acquires E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey
Originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction and rejiggered as an original franchise, 50 Shades of Grey—which was released in March 2012—explores some (potentially) fun sexual taboos. It also, somewhat unexpectedly, brought older female readers into the same fray as young women enchanted by Twilight, tapping into yet another audience that hadn’t been successfully catered to in a long time. Its sense of BDSM is pretty tame, which might be why it appealed to readers who never would have considered such taboo subject matter. But short of the unabashed nudity and sex on Game of Thrones, there was nothing else that put eroticism into the mainstream as fearlessly as James’s books.
14. The Avengers Assemble for the First Time
Over the past two decades, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become what might be the most powerful film franchise in Hollywood. In addition to facilitating origin stories and separate franchises, Marvel Studios has also created The Avengers film series, which has simultaneously intersected and generated spin-offs. The Avengers, which opened on May 4, 2012, marked the first time that filmmakers not only brought together some of the most iconic superheroes in the history of comics, but gave them dignity and substance as leaders of adventure and compelling storytelling.
15. Serial Captivates a Nation
Podcasts have slowly gained popularity and legitimacy over the past 20 years. But Serial, which debuted on October 3, 2014, lit a fire that continues to burn for true crime stories of all kinds. What’s particularly notable about Serial is the way it captured listeners’ attention not just several years after the events of the case it covered, but how it unfolded in a way that led to other acclaimed, impossibly popular nonfiction projects, from Making a Murderer to Tiger King.
16. Hamilton Makes its Broadway Debut
Lin-Manuel Miranda was already a rising star on Broadway thanks to 2008’s In The Heights. But he became a certified icon following the debut of Hamilton on January 20, 2015. And if there’s a person in your life who will not stop rapping about America’s Founding Fathers, Miranda is the reason. The show's popularity took the theatrical community—and, really, the entire world—by surprise. Thanks to Miranda’s extensive use of nontraditional songwriting and a rich, multiracial ensemble cast, Hamilton transformed what might have been another parade of white faces into a show that felt revolutionary. "Our goal was: This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance—our story should look the way our country looks,” Miranda told The New York Times in 2015. "I think it’s a very powerful statement without having to be a statement."
Hamilton was a bona fide phenomenon, but it has had its critics since the beginning. In a 2016 interview with Slate, historian Lyra Monteiro criticized the show's use of "Founder Chic"—basically portraying the Founding Fathers as "relatable, cool guys"—as well as the show's multicultural casting: "Basically what the supposedly color-blind casting does, is it gives Hamilton, the show, the ability to say, Oh, we’re not just telling old, white history. This isn’t your stuffy old-school history that’s just praising white people. Look, we’ve got people of color in the cast. This is everybody’s story," Monteiro said. "Which, it isn’t. It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative." Poet and activist Ishmael Reed was also an early, outspoken critic; in 2019, he wrote The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, an innovative take on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol in which Miranda is visited by the historic figures who populate Hamilton. (The show was funded in part by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved author Toni Morrison.) In a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, Reed called the show "a bad jingoistic history salvaged by the brilliant performance of a multicultural cast," adding that the show ignored the fact that many of its characters were slaveholders who were unspeakably cruel to the people they enslaved.
More recently, Hamilton has faced renewed reassessment amidst rising racial tensions in America. Miranda himself has addressed these criticisms directly, tweeting in July 2020 that "All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game."
17. Star Wars: The Force Awakens Returns to a Galaxy Far, Far Away
George Lucas completed the Star Wars prequel trilogy in 2005, which represented a finale of sorts to his involvement in the series he created some 30 years before. Other projects shuffled into existence during this time while others fizzled before they could come to fruition. But Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm kicked off a new era of cross-platform storytelling that even Lucas couldn’t have imagined, thanks to the studio’s tentacled reach into film, television, gaming, merchandising, and more. On December 18, 2015, director J.J. Abrams brought Star Wars's cinematic legacy into a new era—one that allowed for other creators to pioneer spinoffs and new franchises. Just a few years later, in 2019, The Mandalorian paved the way for new films and TV series, proving the durability of the IP. Even if it is testing just how many hours per day fans may actually want to watch people fight with lightsabers.
18. Moonlight Loses, Then Wins, Best Picture at the Oscars
On February 26, 2017, at the 89th Academy Awards, La La Land was named Best Picture ... but Moonlight was the actual winner. Though it was Warren Beatty who announced La La Land as the recipient of the night's biggest award, it wasn't his fault: He was given the wrong envelope. But credit should be given to La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, who handled the snafu in a swift and classy way by announcing that Moonlight was the rightful winner, then ushered the movie's cast and crew on stage. It was a perfect moment for social media, but it was also a history-making moment for the Oscars: With its win, Moonlight became the first film with an all-Black cast and the first LGBTQ-related film to win Best Picture; Joi McMillon was the first Black woman to be nominated for an Editing Oscar; and Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim to win an Acting Oscar.
19. Fyre Festival “Happens”
Thinking about this even now, it seems too bizarre to be real: A CEO fraudster and rapper Ja Rule decided to stage one of the most elaborate music festivals in history in Exuma, The Bahamas. The event, known as Fyre Fest, would exploit the duo's existing relationships with models, celebrities, and social media influencers to attract attendees from across the globe. What happened instead was that 5000 people flew to the Bahamas only to be met with zero resources, no food, and certainly no performers in what seemed like something out of Lord of the Flies—but if all the characters had vast and very active media followings. Not one but two documentaries thoroughly examined the sordid history leading up to the event's stunning implosion, including one dedicated organizer's willingness to do virtually anything (yes, that kind of "anything") to facilitate the permits needed. But the catastrophic event also epitomized the vagaries of influencer culture even as it made that industry’s bubble burst.
20. Baby Yoda is Born
Don't get us wrong: The Mandalorian—Disney’s first live-action Star Wars-related series, which premiered on November 12, 2019—was a big deal. But Baby Yoda, a.k.a. The Child and later officially named Grogu, became an overnight cultural phenomenon. Never mind the fact he was neither a baby nor was he Yoda. The series’ popularity skyrocketed in no small part due to the appearance of this adorable little creature, and attracted viewers who can’t tell (or care about) the difference between a Wookiee and Wedge Antilles.