Millennial 100: Beyonce to Bernie Sanders, What Defines Generation Me – Rolling Stone
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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

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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

Carson Daly and NSYNC on TRL

MTV’s ‘Total Request Live’

First premiering on September 14th, 1998, Total Request Live marked a new era of MTV, tapping into the zeitgeist and a generation of teens’ spending power like never before. Every Monday through Thursday afternoon, Carson Daly hosted a Top 10 countdown of music videos as determined by the votes of the show’s fans. Coinciding with the return of pop — 1999 was really a melting pot of genres — the show made stars out of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NSync, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Eminem, Ricky Martin, Korn, Blink-182, Avril Lavigne, Good Charlotte, Destiny’s Child and Nelly among many, many others in the decade it ran on TV before ending on November 16th, 2008. (Let’s ignore the ill-fated reboot shall we?) — Stacy Lambe

Spice Girls

The Spice Girls’ ‘Girl Power’

When Sporty, Baby, Scary, Ginger and Posh dropped “Wannabe,” in America in January 1997, their message wasn’t exactly revolutionary, but their packaging certainly was. Busting onto the scene in midriff-baring, faux-military garb and a mission to teach “girl power” to the tween set, they were initially scoffed at by feminists — in a Rolling Stone interview, Kim Gordon memorably called them “repulsive” — but they struck a chord with young millennial girls, who made them one of the bestselling groups of all time.  —Elisabeth Garber-Paul

"The Daily Show with John Stewart", 2009

Jon Stewart Is the Most-Trusted News Source

While Comedy Central’s Daily Show kicked off with Craig Kilborn behind the desk in 1996, it was Jon Stewart who transformed it into more than a late-night comedy staple: It was the place where many young people went to learn about the world. Four nights a week, we tuned in to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart to process the previous day’s events. He’d banter with authors and actors, and — if we were really lucky — rip into Fox News like a rabid dog. There were moments when he would press a guest to explain why something had fallen short of expectations, or call out folks when he felt that citizens were being purposefully misled, or dig into a story with a depth and sense of outraged humanity that the usual news sources hadn’t been able to tap. Stewart constantly told people that he was not a journalist, he was a comedian — yet there were times when he not only displayed impressive reporting and interviewing chops or got to the heart of a tragedy like 9/11, or Charleston, that you also felt he’d beaten the Fourth Estate at its own game.

Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini during first American Idol finale

‘American Idol’ Infiltrates Everything

The thrust of American Idol was always to showcase the best undiscovered American singing talent, but part of the reason you tuned in was to watch someone stumble. In the early episodes, that was a constructed reality, the handpicking of the very best to juxtapose against the very worst of those who showed up hoping for stardom. The first audition ever seen on American Idol is someone who Simon Cowell calls “terrible.” The 15 years of Idol‘s tenure are a microcosm of what America wanted to be and wanted from its culture for a decade and a half. But as the word moved forward, Idol stayed trapped in a past it could never really shake. —Jerry Portwood

Napster and music streaming

Napster, LimeWire and the Dominance of Music Piracy

If you were born into a world with music-streaming services, it can be hard to fathom the sheer amount of time, stupidity and anxiety previous generations wasted in front of a desktop computer waiting for songs to download. Every. Single. Song. Most of them, we may never have even heard before. Whether you were into Napster, Kazaa, LimeWire, BitTorrent, all of the above, or some more nefarious Dark Web software, pirating music was not only easy in the 2000s, it was addictive. Watching a green bar fill up next to a song was the dopamine hit we craved long before “likes” existed. And unlike a “like,” this was educational. It was about discovery, shaping our identities, feeling less alone, and because it was “free,” the gateways for fandom were flung wide open. The first time we heard our favorite songs, albums and bands was, probably, through some illegal channel. Was it worth the Red Scare-like terror we silently incurred when teenagers were sued by bands like Metallica? In hindsight, maybe not. But at the time, who could’ve predicted Spotify and iPhones were right around the technological corner? And all of our carefully curated download folders and iTunes libraries would be rendered futile overnight. — Sarah Grant

An empty desk at IG Markets during the current financial crisisIG Markets, London, Britain - 30 Sep 2008

2008 Financial Collapse

In a similar way to how growing up during the Depression impressed idiosyncratic money habits upon their grandparents — squirreling money away in a mattress because they stopped trusting banks, for instance — millennials’ relationships with money have been shaped by the collapse of the global economy in 2008 in ways that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Those who graduated college during and after the crisis have been shown to have lower-than-average earning potential and self-report a higher rate of savings compared with their Gen X peers. They also developed a healthy distrust (and well-earned resentment) of financial institutions that got bailed out. Unlike their grandparents, millennials have channeled that energy into political action: railing against the One Percent during the Occupy Wall Street movement, filling stadiums to hear Bernie Sanders speak, and backing candidates who swear off corporate contributions, promise student-loan forgiveness and debt-free higher education. — Tessa Stuart

Sex and the City

‘SATC’ #Goals

This shoe-porn Manhattan fantasy was ubiquitous, to the point where Jay-Z could rap that Beyoncé wouldn’t talk to him when Sex and the City was on. Nothing could stop fans from feeling the Carrie fever, as Sarah Jessica Parker and her clique — Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall — date, shop and quip their way through a borough full of rich straight guys, eventually realizing their only true soulmates are one another. And maybe also Manolo Blahnik. —Daniela Tijerina

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter Gives Voice to the Voiceless

Years after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officers, “I can’t breathe” remains one of the most disturbing phrases in modern American history. After young black men were killed at the hands of police officers whom the criminal justice system failed to hold accountable, protesters took to the streets and the Black Lives Matter movement began to take shape. On the front lines of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, in response to the victimization and police cover-ups of Michael Brown, Garner and Freddie Gray’s deaths-by-cops, those once-voiceless masses demanded their social-injustice priorities be heard. The movement also politicized a new generation of artists who are addressing racism, violence and disillusionment in ways that haven’t happened in decades. It helped to shake the commercial cobwebs from hip-hop and R&B, with high-profile musicians issuing anthemic rallying cries (Beyoncé’s fearless “Freedom”) and open-ended conversation-starters (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II”). Artists such as D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar emerged with ready-made, multifaceted statement albums; lesser-known acts such as Houston MC Z-Ro and icons like Prince released songs in response to various instances of police brutality; and even typically apolitical megastars like Ariana Grande and Usher have joined the outspoken chorus. —JP

Drake, 2018

Drake’s YOLO Lifestyle

Drake doesn’t just make millennial music — he invented it. The Canadian artist has spent a decade being the most consistent and key voice of Generation Y, singing and rapping about the digital-era blues in the most neatly packaged sounds. Not many people in the pop realm have been able to keep up with the always-evolving trends in both taste and consumption quite like this streaming-era savant. And let’s not forget, he popularized the acronym YOLO, which stands for “You Only Live Once,” in a single, forever changing the way we speak. “Originally, I had a sign outside that said ‘the YOLO estate,’” Drake told Rolling Stone when he was 27. “But it got stolen three times, and it was getting a bit costly to replace it, so I just changed it to the street number. I love that some kid has that sign in his bedroom.” — Brittany Spanos

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox/Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886183e)Leonardo Dicaprio, Kate WinsletTitanic - 1997Director: James Cameron20th Century Fox/ParamountUSAScene StillDrama

Unsinkable ‘Titanic’ Love

When Robert Ballard discovered the RMS Titanic wreckage in 1985, James Cameron decided he wanted to check out the ship himself. “I made Titanic because I wanted to dive to the shipwreck, not because I particularly wanted to make the movie,” he told Playboy. We’re glad he did: The 1997 blockbuster — starring Kate Winslet as Rose and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson — has become one of the most-beloved and highest-grossing films of all time. Whether it’s couples recreating that iconic boat shot or belting Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” at karaoke, it continues to resonate in the culture. Most recently, it served as the theme to Adele’s 30th-birthday party and was parodied in Charli XCX and Troy Sivan’s “1999” video. Much like Jack, we never let go. Angie Martoccio

Gene Simmons playing Guitar Hero

Classic Rock Resurgence Thanks to ‘Guitar Hero’

Even if you really did discover Deep Purple, Cream or Jimi Hendrix from rummaging through your dad’s musty record collection, you can still probably play at least one of those bands’ songs on Guitar Hero. The first Sony Playstation 2 game came out in 2005, two years before the iPhone was invented. To be clear, Guitar Hero has nothing in common with playing the actual guitar. You “play” songs on a plastic guitar-shaped controller by pressing a series of colored buttons on the “fret board” in a particular succession and speed as they pop up on the screen. But oh, how exciting it is when someone nails the Tier 6 song “Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Or you feel a Keith Richards swagger coursing through your veins after breezing through an “axe-grinder” like Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” in your friend’s basement. Guitar Hero helped launch a generational fascination with classic rock bands that got nerdier with each iteration. The game was a great equalizer and a gateway to thousands of albums, and for many, a way to communicate a mutual music obsession — which, for a game that doesn’t give you any legitimate skills, is pretty impressive. — SG


Rihanna DGAF

Rihanna’s tossed-off vibe and DGAF openness disguise both her musical gifts and remarkable work ethic, borne out in a cascade of hits. Who knew that the young Barbadian singer behind 2005’s “Pon de Replay” would eventually sell more digital singles (100 million–plus) than any other artist? Or that she trails only Elvis, the Beatles and Madonna in Top 10s? She’s one of pop’s biggest hitmakers, but she remains an enigma, partly because she has the ability to successfully depart from that chart-topping streak to create music that is both weird and vulnerable. Not only has her chart dominance been successful, but the quality and trailblazing nature of her singles have been just as consistent.

Spongebob Squarepants

Spongebob Squarepants and Patrick Are the Best Duo

He’s lived in a pineapple under the sea for 17 years and counting, during which time he became Nickelodeon’s highest-rated, most licensed (and lucrative) longest-running franchise. But the success of the squeaky-voiced, eternally optimistic sea sponge known as Spongebob Squarepants would be unimaginable without the support of his good-hearted, dim-witted starfish neighbor and best friend, Patrick. Voiced by comedian Tom Kenny  — a key player in cartoons from Powerpuff Girls to Adventure Time — and Coach‘s Bill Fagerbakke respectively, their (mostly) kid-friendly comedic chemistry proves you don’t necessarily need brains to be brilliant.

Amy Winehouse Grammy performance, 2008

Losing Amy Winehouse

What Amy’s state of mind was when she took her last gulps of vodka at home in London in July 2011 is impossible to know. She had said there were things she still wanted to do with her life, but she seemed unable to take action. Despite being a remarkably honest and open person in many respects, she had always been cagey about her inner life. Like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, she had become a prisoner of her image. And, as with Janis Joplin, her man was glaringly absent at the end. “The more people see of me, the more they’ll realize that all I’m good for is making music,” Amy Winehouse tells the camera in footage included in Amy, the 2015 documentary directed by Asif Kapadia. She’s a gone-too-soon megastar, a cautionary tale. And it’s clear that she won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (415580a)HILARY DUFF'THE LIZZIE MCGUIRE MOVIE' FILM - 2003

Lizzie McGuire Is Hillary Duff

In January 2001, Disney premiered Lizzie McGuire right after the launch of the futuristic TV film Zenon: The Zequel. Lizzie was much more relatable than a teenager living in outer space in 2049 — she was an average 13-year-old in the present, dealing with the awkwardness of everyday life alongside her two best friends and an animated version of herself (plus her dad was Revenge of the Nerds star Robert Carradine). Duff would blossom into a full-blown teen idol, making banger albums and starring in films like Cheaper By the Dozen and A Cinderella Story (“Diner Girl!”). But she remains in our hearts as Lizzie, whose unicorn sweater would absolutely kill in 2018. — Angie Martoccio

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live - 2002

‘SNL’ With Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler

Every generation gets their Saturday Night Live cast — which they swear is the best! Near the turn of the century, SNL was pretty magical to millennials. Tina Fey was the show’s first female head writer, and Will Ferrell was our star on the rise. It was the time of the cowbell skit, “Suck it, Trebek” and the Welshly Arms love-ahs teaching us what breaking was as Jimmy Fallon, Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell cracked up in a hot tub. Amy Poehler had just joined the cast, poised to introduce us to classics like “Bronx Beat” and her friendship and comedy #goals with Tina. What a time to be staying up late watching live-broadcast TV. —AM


Video-Sharing Sites Create Their Own Stars

YouTube launched in 2005, after its founders noticed a need for an online video-sharing site when they couldn’t find footage of Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl, and it’s now a seemingly unstoppable global platform for music videos and movie trailers, as well as stupid human tricks. In 2013, Vine launched as a platform for short-form comedy videos, lasting until its demise in 2016. Both sites allowed anyone to upload and view videos for free, creating a new type of celebrity as everyone from Justin Bieber to the little girl who thought geese were chickens went viral. In particular, Vine produced a new type of in-touch pop star who was predisposed to harness social-media capabilities and grassroots fandom. Dedicated Vine musicians — like Shawn Mendes and Ruth B — who rose to prominence with six-second covers and originals, have the tools to maintain their popularity and the hunger to grow bigger and better. —Linnea Emison

Alexis Christine Neiers stood motionlessly outside the courthouse as her attorneys address the media. Neiers, who is charged in a burglary at actor Orlando Blooms house, pleaded guilty Monday in Superior Court in Los Angeles on May 10, 2010.  (Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Alexis Neiers and the Bling Ring Thieves

Alexis Neiers’ phone call to Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales — which aired on her short-lived E! series Pretty Wild — was the the cry heard around the world in 2010. “Four-inch little brown Bebe shoes,” Neiers cried into her flip phone as she contested what Sales had reported that she’d paired with her tweed skirt when she arrived at the courthouse for her arraignment. (“$29.99!” added her Juicy Couture-tracksuited mother, Andrea.) Neiers was famously a member of the Bling Ring, a group of money-hungry California teenagers who had been convicted of burglarizing the homes of the rich and famous, targeting everyone from Paris Hilton to Lindsay Lohan. Note: 2010 was a great year for mug-shot photography, with Hilton, Lohan, and Neiers all posing for the camera. And the fact that Sofia Coppola later adapted the story into a feature film starring Emma Watson was an amazing Venn diagram of millennial perfection. —DT

Grand Theft Auto 5

Video Games Become an Inescapable Lifestyle

While previous generations can still remember when playing video games cost a quarter and home game consoles had wood panelling, everything changed as PlayStation and Xbox became a ubiquitous accessory in every household. After Rockstar Games launched Grand Theft Auto in 1997, cute animals who rolled and pounced or plumbers who jumped and flew became a quaint pastime. Now you were driving around killing indiscriminately (often prostitutes), and as the open-world aspect of the game evolved, players were given an enormous amount of freedom to do virtually anything, legal or illegal, they wanted. Games became a way to interact with others globally: Halo wasn’t the first multiplayer shooter, but it combined so many functions into an intoxicating mix that it lured a cohort of (mostly) men to spend countless hours in split-screen competition. This is the period when games eclipsed Hollywood as the dominant entertainment — and we continue to see it evolve in ways that few would have imagined possible just a few years ago. —JP

Mariah Carey

The ‘Glitter’ of Mariah Carey

One of the many deeply weird things about Mariah is that she’s never had much interest in growing up: She blew up big in the great teen-pop boom of 1990, and she stayed teen pop all the way to 2001, coming across as a sweet, suburban middle-school girl who’s crazy about hip-hop but always makes it home by 10. After albums titled Rainbow and Butterfly, she arrived with Glitter. As Rob Sheffield wrote in his review at the time: “Only Mariah could make a record with Ol’ Dirty Bastard or enjoy a much-publicized, much-denied public canoodle with Q-Tip and still project herself as such an innocent. Even her fashion sense remains that of a 12-year-old playing dress-up in her mom’s closet, which is one of the reasons Mariah has always kept it real with her devoted pubescent-girl fan base. She never tries to pass herself off as true hip-hop — she’s not stupid, G. Instead, she just comes on as a pop singer who doubles as a true hip-hop fan.”

Tamagotchi An Electronic Toy Pet Which Needs Feeding And Playing 1997.Tamagotchi An Electronic Toy Pet Which Needs Feeding And Playing 1997.

Neglecting Tech Pets

As much as every child may wish for a puppy underneath a Christmas tree or a kitten in a box on birthdays, the financial and emotional responsibility of a furry friend has always been a point of contention between adult and child. Thanks to the magic of Tamagotchi, which is conveniently attached to a key ring, neglect and death can be resolved with a paper clip on the reset button, and it became a morbid game to see how long your friend could go without dying or how long until the pocket-size pal was confiscated by the teacher. Neopets, although limited to the confines of home computer screens, were immortal and opened up a world of possibility to children everywhere as a way to discover friends around the globe through the common link of the bright-eyed mythical creatures. With the recent relaunch of Neopets in 2017 and the resurgent interest in Tamagotchis that was limited to Japan for nearly a decade, people are logging back into their old accounts to feed their starving friends and digging up those dusty keychains from their parents’ basements to relive those strange feelings of attachment to these digital creatures. — Jade Gomez

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1575046a)It Takes Two (Me And My Shadow), Mary-kate Olsen, Ashley OlsenFilm and Television

The Olsen Twins Grow Up

Full House may have launched the careers of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, but it was really their iconic direct-to-video movies that made every teenage girl aspire to be them. Sometimes these films were centered in America, like when they advertised their single father on an L.A. billboard or found fool’s gold on a dude ranch in the West. Other times they took European excursions, like when they were delegates on a Model United Nations team in London or reluctantly missed their Spring Fling to visit their grandfather (you know, a U.S. ambassador) in France. The Olsen twins have since quit acting but are successful fashion designers. We just wish they’d appear on Fuller House. — Angie Martoccio

Pete Wentz, Patrick Stump, Joseph Trohman, and Andrew Hurley of Fall Out Boy

Pop Punk Is the Teen Soap Opera of Contemporary Rock

Within the cramped confines of hot topics in the late 2000s brewed a new subculture, dominated by young teenage girls. Pop punk blended the angst of the 1990s wave of emo and the appeal of both baby faces and rock stars into something accessible enough for people of all ages to consume outside of punk’s originally underground nature. The 2000s saw Green Day and Blink-182 growing up and pop punk becoming omnipresent, soundtracking teen flicks and filling arenas. Fall Out Boy’s 2003 debut, Take This to Your Grave, ushered in a whole new, genre-blurring scene. With their songs of regret, such as the pop-punk anthem “Thnks fr the Mmrs,” they infected Top 40 radio stations, mall speakers, iPod Nanos and dirty Chuck Taylors, and a whole swath of angsty teens. —Jade Gomez

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1553766a)Batman Begins, Christian BaleFilm and Television

Batman Is a Dark Knight With a Growl

You can’t count on Hollywood for much, but you can bet good money that studio execs will deliver every generation its own superhero franchise reboot — whether they want it or not. While Gen X had Tim Burton’s vision of Michael Keaton as its caped crusader in gothic splendor, director Christopher Nolan took Batman in an entirely new direction with Batman Begins, casting Christian Bale as the dour playboy with his cave of tech toys. Rather than an invincible tycoon, however, Bale gave us a vulnerable hero of flesh and blood. And then with the next installment, The Dark Knight, Nolan switched gears by transforming one of the ultimate comic-book villains into something with a soul. “I don’t want to kill you,” Heath Ledger