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The Millennial 100

From Beyonce to Bernie Sanders, we look back at the people, the music, the cultural touchstones, the movements and more that have shaped a generation

millennial 100 list harry potter britney spears titanic george bush

Illustration by Sean McCabe for RollingStone.com

Photographs used in illustation by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Warner Bros/Everett Collection, Scott Gries/Getty Images, Merie W. Wallace/20th Century Fox/Paramount/Kobal/REX Shutterstock, Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Jeff Daly/FilmMagic

What defines a millennial? We’ve been called “Generation Me” for our presumed narcissism and the “Peter Pan Generation” for our delayed adulthood. We’ve been accused of killing entire industries, like department stores and chain restaurants. But the only thing that may really define a millennial is that we’re indefinable. For people born between 1980 and 1995, our lives have been marked by some of the fastest-moving shifts in the world’s economy, political landscape and culture. We were radicalized by profound tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as well as the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were stung by the financial crisis in 2008, just as many millennials began to enter the workforce — and we’re still feeling the fallout. And, of course, we’re the last generation to witness life before and after the dawn of the Internet age.

The push into an all-digital world has been key to how we’ve grown, matured and consumed the world around us. From the early days of blogs and instant messaging through the arrival of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we’ve been sharing our lives. Companies like Napster, iTunes and Spotify, Amazon, Netflix and Hulu have democratized entertainment, giving us more choices than ever before. We’re millions of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, effectively raised on the idea that everything we want can, should and will be available at the click of a button.

At times, this deluge of culture and content feels splintering. Even the difference between “younger” and “older” millennials can seem vast. Those with stronger memories of a pre-digital era feel more grounded in shared experience with our predecessors in Generation X, sometimes longing for the existence of monoculture, while Nineties babies relate more to the faster-paced, still-forming culture of Generation Y, embracing streaming as both a lifestyle and a preference. That divide even within our own generation, and the way millennials have responded to the rapidly changing world we’ve inherited, means we’ve been blamed for the loss of many experiences. We don’t have the same appetite for post-recession luxuries — like diamonds and mortgages — and are threatening to make even smaller indulgences — like albums and movie theaters — obsolete.

It’s not entirely fair, but that blame is a price to pay for our increasing authority and stronger cultural and political voices. For as much as millennials have supposedly taken away from the world, we’ve also given back tenfold. Optimistic and inclusive, we helped elect America’s first black president, Barack Obama — twice. Provoked by tragedies like Sandy Hook and the killing of Trayvon Martin, we’ve started sociopolitical movements to address systemic racism and gun violence. Spurred by social media, we’ve expanded our cultural language, pushing for an increase in minority voices in everything from political offices to media.

As our power grows, time will prove just how much more we can accomplish. While every generation seems to worry about how to adjust to life’s faster pace, we’ve been thrown into the deep end for as long as we’ve been alive. This list looks at 100 moments, artists, events, movements and more that have helped form the millennial identity. How we’ll continue to shape-shift remains to be seen — but you can be sure we’ll defy expectations. Brittany Spanos

Britney Spears performs at the 2001 MTV VMAs

Britney Spears’ Hits and Misses

Emerging in the fall of 1998 with “… Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears quickly became the princess of pop, helping to usher in a new era for the genre that had gone dormant in the decade that followed New Kids on the Block. Bolstered by MTV’s Total Request Live, Spears would lead an army of pop stars — including Backstreet Boys, ‘NSync, Christina Aguilera and others — built on slick Max Martin productions, plenty of sexual innuendo and dance-heavy performances. From 1999 to the meltdown, Spears delivered hit after hit (“Oops! … I Did It Again,” “Stronger,” “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Toxic”) on four consecutive Billboard Number One albums, becoming one of the most successful artists of all time — and a cautionary tale for a generation, whether they paid attention or not.  — SL

Serena Williams, Venus Williams Taken, at the London Summer Olympics, Serena Williams, left, and Venus Williams of the United States celebrate on podium after receiving their gold medals in women's doubles. The winningest team in Olympic tennis history has entered the doubles draw at this week's Italian Open to kick off their preparations for the Rio de Janeiro GamesItaly Tennis Williams Doubles

Serena and Venus Williams

At the 1998 Australian Open, Venus and Serena Williams played each other in a grand slam for the very first time. (Venus bested her younger sister in the first of 30 total face-offs.) Two years later, the Williams’ would go on to dominate the sport, each winning a collection of grand slam trophies as singles players and also as doubles, creating an unstoppable force on the women’s circuit. Over the course of their careers, they pushed back on sexism, racism and what it means to be the greatest among men or women, with poise and grace — and yes, a bit of controversy at times. Forever changing tennis — both on and off the court — Serena and Venus Williams will go down as two of the greatest tennis players of not only the modern era, but also of all time. Plus, Serena is BFFs with Beyoncé, even showing up in her video for “Sorry,” forever cementing a generational bond. —SL

The Osbournes - 2002

The Family Drama of ‘The Osbournes’

First there were reality competitions (Survivor, Amazing Race, ANTM), then came the celeb reality shows that tended to follow the domestic antics of D-list stars ranging from Anna Nicole Smith to Kathy Griffin. Among them was the unexpected MTV hit The Osbournes, which reintroduced prince of darkness Ozzy Osbourne as a bumbling, loving patriarch of a colorful family. It included the sharp-tongued, ruthless matriarch, Sharon, and the wildly different siblings Jack and Kelly, who did everything from tossing a ham into a neighbor’s yard to getting into brawls to seeing dog therapists. Following in her father’s footsteps, the show’s success led to Kelly’s brief singing career — remember her cover of “Papa Don’t Preach”? — before she would go on to find stardom on Dancing With the Stars and as a fixture on the E! network. —SL


The Gay ‘Glee’ of Ryan Murphy Shows

Ryan Murphy is one of the two most-influential TV producers of the millennial generation (the other being Shonda Rhimes). He first created the short-lived teen comedy Popular and Nip/Tuck before conceiving the post-American Idol teen-TV juggernaut Glee, a musical dramedy about misfit students (played by newfound stars Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Chris Colfer, Naya Rivera, Darren Criss) singing covers — and many, many mashups — of popular music while navigating the ups and downs of high school and battling it out at regionals. While that show skyrocketed into hate-watch territory, Murphy became a hit machine, producing shows like 9-1-1, American Crime Story, American Horror Story, Feud, The New Normal, Pose and Scream Queens, and making stars out of Sarah Paulson, Emma Roberts and Evan Peters, while reviving the careers of Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates. —SL

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

Whatever Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson Is Cooking

Part of WWE’s “Attitude Era” of stars, the Rock became the “People’s Champion” known for his catchphrase, “Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?” He soon made the jump to Hollywood, first as an Arnold Schwarzenegger descendant, starring in action blockbusters like The Mummy Returns and Doom, before making the jump to comedy with The Game Plan and Tooth Fairy. By the end of the Aughts, the world of WWE was far, far behind him, and Dwayne Johnson, renaissance actor and leading man, took hold as he became one of the most bankable stars not attached to a Marvel franchise. —SL

Texts from HIllary

Tumblr as Culture Incubator

Launched in 2007, Tumblr was first viewed as a social network where users could share, like and react to each others’ microblogs. Soon, the site became a breeding ground for memes and themed sites — from ”Fuck Yeah …” to anything involving Ryan Gosling and James Van Der Beek GIFs to “Texts From Hillary” and absolutely everything in between — which caught fire thanks to the site’s photo-heavy layout. The platform became so big, Tumblr replaced blogs, and the Internet hasn’t been the same ever since. While Tumblr lost some of its cache in recent years, memories of just about every major meme can be found as novelty books — usually sold by Urban Outfitters. —SL

Tyra Banks and the hosts of America's Next Top Model

Tyra Banks and ‘America’s Next Top Model’

The reality competition created and hosted by Tyra Banks will likely be remembered more for the model’s antics than ever producing any legit superstars in the industry. Banks, with two photos in her hands, determined the fate of countless aspiring models, who wanted nothing more than Banks’ approval and adoration, while suffering through tear-filled makeovers, ridiculously-themed photo shoots and being berated by notoriously snarky and snarly judges — one of the world’s first supermodels, Janice Dickinson, Andre Leon Talley, PR maven Kelly Cutrone and noted fashion photographer Nigel Barker. If there was ever a winner of each cycle — and there have been 24 in total — it was and always will be Tyra Banks. —SL

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5862765a)Dave ChappelleDave Chappelle - 2004PortraitTv Classics

Standing Up With Dave Chappelle

Glancing at his career before and after the groundbreaking Chappelle’s Show makes one thing clear: Stand-up is Dave Chappelle’s first (and perhaps only) love. After a pair of stunningly good early specials, his beloved Comedy Central show and a much-ballyhooed visit to Africa, Chappelle has not only reasserted himself in the game but also put himself right back on top. He talks race, celebrity and politics in a way that belies the incisive and ferocious nature of his observations; he is also a precocious child who can’t keep himself from using “pussy juice” as a punchline. He relishes the fuzzy line between truth and fiction, and delights in keeping the audience on the hook until they’re scratching their heads about whether a baby could sell weed and how one could masturbate to their own sex tape.

High School Musical poster

Zac Efron, Heartthrob

High School Musical is the Disney Chan­nel song-and-dance franchise about an unlike­ly love between a school jock (Zac Efron) and a brainiac transfer student (Vanessa Hudgens), who are rumored to be linked in real life. But how did Efron go from teen heartthrob to chiseled stud? His 2007 Rolling Stone cover may have signaled his leading-man status, but he still needed to shed his squeaky-clean image. Masturbating with Macy Gray in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy — which later had the unforgettable moment of Nicole Kidman peeing on his face to help with a jellyfish sting — was a start. But confessing issues with sobriety was the next step, and then there was his role in the raunchy Neighbors. Teaming up with millennial fave Dwayne Johnson in the Baywatch flick helped cement his path, but where Efron will go next is still up in the air (like he was in 2017’s The Greatest Showman). Does this mean a superhero franchise is on the horizon? —JP

Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love - 2011

Ryan Gosling: ‘Hey Girl’

With a lick of his lips, Ryan Gosling can make any girl — or guy — swoon. It’s no wonder that the actor, who won over hearts with The Notebook before going on to star in Oscar-bait such as Half Nelson, La La Land and First Man, became a meme several times over — Tumblr would be nowhere without “Hey Girl” or “Feminist Ryan Gosling,” while one of Vine’s biggest hits was “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal.” In his 25 years of acting, he’s gone from the Mickey Mouse Club to a legitimate, serious leading man — he internalizes so much — that only Kate McKinnon can make him break on Saturday Night Live, much to the delight of fans everywhere. —SL

Veronica Mars: Series 2. - 2005

The ‘Veronica Mars’ Revival

When it premiered in 2004, this CW show starring future-A-lister Kristen Bell didn’t turn many heads — the network gave it two and a half seasons before unceremoniously pulling it off the air. But there was something about the fast-talking, Blondie-singing teen detective that proved popular with millennials; she was independent, sexually active and relied more on her friends (including her adorable pit bull Backup) than on any of her love interests. With the advent of streaming services, Mars was given a second life by rabid fans, who brought her back for a movie, a series of novels and, it seems, a fourth season. — Elisabeth Garber-Paul