The Biggest Pop Culture Moments of the Decade

From the invention of Instagram and two royal weddings to the election of a celebrity president and the start of the streaming wars, here's what mattered in the 2010s

By Natalie Finn Dec 27, 2019 11:00 AMTags

So long, 2010s. It's been real.

As we pause to take stock of another decade past, do we feel that life as it is now couldn't be more different than how it was 10 years ago—or was everything we're experiencing simply put into motion 10 years ago, and our Now is just the natural culmination of it all?

Well, either way, here we are, gearing up to party like it's 1999 and hoping that the 2020s are heavy on inspiration, excitement and joy, and light on whatever keeps us furiously tweeting into the night (or whatever the equivalent of furiously tweeting into the night is for you).

The Pop Culture Moments That Defined 2019

A decade is simultaneously a long time and an amount of time that passes by in a flash—which is why heading all the way back to 2010 to take stock of the biggest pop culture happenings of the last 10 years was such a trip. A relentlessly OMG-that-happened, entertaining, nostalgia-inducing and sometimes cringeworthy trip.

As well as a reminder that we should relish every moment of happiness when we have them, all the better to power through the moments of "wait, what?"

So without further adieu, take our hand, if you want, and let's follow the pop culture-brick road:


• Bieber Fever became a full-blown epidemic starting in January upon the arrival of "Baby," after which the condition spread unchecked. Justin Bieber himself couldn't always handle the pressures of that spotlight, as evidenced by his many antics in the mid-'10s, but the Beliebers never gave up and have been rewarded—"Sorry," the "Despacito" remix, a Baldwin marriage—for their loyalty.

• NBC just couldn't quit Jay Leno, and vice versa. Less than eight months after Conan O'Brien took over as host of The Tonight Show, the network gave its late-night flagship back to Leno and O'Brien set sail for TBS with $45 million in his pocket and the coveted 18-49 demo on his side.

Lady Gaga wore meat to the MTV Video Music Awards—because she was Lady Gaga, dammit, and the Fame Monster had to be fed.

David Fincher's The Social Networkfeaturing a chilling performance by Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg—was showered with accolades upon arrival and rightly is considered a contemporary classic. But only now can we appreciate it for the harbinger of doom it actually was.

• Cleveland Cavaliers star and hometown hero LeBron James announced in a July ESPN interview special humbly called The Decision that he would "take [his] talents to South Beach," to play for the Miami Heat. It was just business, after all. James would eventually return to The Land—requiring spurned fans who burned their LeBron jerseys to get new ones—and bring home a championship, the NBA couldn't pretend to be anything other than a big corporation after that.

• It would take another year and a half to get it on an Android and nine years to get Jennifer Aniston onboard, but the arrival of Instagram for iPhones in October was a way-of-life changer—hence Facebook buying it for $1 billion in 2012. Initially a place to make our pets and our food famous, it ultimately created a new tier of celebrity and a whole new world of entrepreneurial opportunity.


• Future king Prince William marrying Kate Middleton on April 29 at London's Westminster Abbey was a jolly respite from more pressing global issues, a windfall for local business as tourists flooded into town and the official passing of the attention torch to the young royals. Roughly 100 million people tuned in on TV and online to watch the royal wedding, including Americans still in their pajamas (or at work chronicling every last detail, starting with the bride's perfect Sarah Burton gown).

Seth Meyers hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner and made some choice Donald Trump jokes. Which seemed innocuous enough at the time.

Winner winner Sheen dinner.

• Making almost $300 million worldwide, Bridesmaids became the highest-grossing Judd Apatow-produced film to date, vaulted Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy to the next level, showed that dudes haven't corned the market on R-rated humor, and proved that people will flock to theaters to watch hilarious, smart comedies starring hilarious, smart women. 

Adele's 21 came out in January, and we've been rolling in the deep with the singer ever since.

• Unto every generation a child is born, and that child was Blue Ivy Carter—but first, Beyoncé confirmed her pregnancy at the 2011 MTV VMAs in regal fashion.

Kim Kardashian filed for divorce from Kris Humphries after 72 days of marriage.

The Oprah Winfrey Show ended in May after 25 years, but perhaps it was so the Age of Oprah could truly begin.


The Avengers assembled for the first time, ushering in the era of the superhero-ensemble film and cementing the Marvel Universe's hold on our attention and wallets for the rest of the decade.

• One of the earlier signs of K-Pop's global influence, Psy's "Gangnam Style" had millions galloping in place and on Dec. 12 became the first video to reach 1 billion views on YouTube.

McKayla Maroneyin "unimpressed" mode may have been one of the lingering images of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but no one was underwhelmed by Team USA's women's gymnastics team, the gold medal-winning Fierce Five.

• The Toddlers & Tiaras spin-off Here Comes Honey Boo Boo premiered in August, and with that TLC jumped the shark in its own waters.

Fifty Shades of Grey was self-published by first-time author and Twilight fan E.L. James in 2011, but this was the year Vintage Books took charge and banged out the whole trilogy.

• A new level of devastation was reached when 12 people were killed in a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, prompting the usual conversations about the need for gun control reform as well as a spike in gun sales—some for protection and some because after a mass shooting there are always folks who worry the government is coming for their guns. As the decade draws to a close, tens of thousands of people are still losing their lives to gun violence, gun accidents, and suicide by gun every year.

Whitney Houston died the night before the Grammys at only 48 years old, a tragically premature ending for the incomparably talented singer.


• Two words: ROYAL BABY!

• With the premieres—and subsequent success—of original series House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, Netflix loudly declared it had come to play with HBO and AMC. (It kept to itself the plan to drown us in programming and dismantle the TV-and-movie-watching-and-making business as we knew it forever.)

• Jennifer Lawrence started the year winning a Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, at 22 the second-youngest woman to win in the category, and then The Hunger Games: Catching Fire became the first movie with a female lead to top the year's domestic box office since The Exorcist in 1973 (if that doesn't make your head spin).

• It was the best of times and the worst of times for Anne Hathaway, who also won an Oscar (best supporting actress for Les Miserables) and yet, instead of doubling down on that exposure, took it as her cue to go away for a bit after one of the more inexplicable turn-on-her moments in modern memory.

 Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong had already been stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles, but sitting down in January with Oprah to confess his doping sins was a study in discomfort we didn't soon forget.

• Beyoncé chose to lip sync the National Anthem at President Barack Obama's second inauguration, but she proved in slick fashion at a press conference soon after that she had it in her to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" any time, any where.

• Sure, Miley Cyrus twerked at the VMAs and prompted a little pearl-clutching, but she also came in like a wrecking ball as she shed her Disney Channel alter ego forever.


• Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres broke the Internet with the all-star selfie she had the long-armed Bradley Cooper snap mid-ceremony.

• It turned out that Hello Kitty isn't a kitty. She's not even a cat.

• In November, Sony got hacked, The Interview got pulled, and a lot of people were embarrassed in the following months when private studio emails exposing a gender pay gap and all sorts of snark and insults ended up online.

• Inspired by a former college ball player diagnosed with the degenerative disease (RIP Peter Frates, who died in 2019 at 34), the Ice Bucket Challenge took social media by storm as one celebrity after another got their friends to dump ice over themselves and donate to ALS research. The ALS Association said it received $115 million that summer.

• We didn't know yet what it would mean for pop culture in the long run, but Beyoncé's sister, Solange Knowles, kicking and screaming at Jay-Z in an elevator after the Met Gala in May while Bey stood by triggered enough armchair analysis to fill several velvet-bound volumes.

• That's amore! Kim Kardashian and Kanye West threw the wedding of the year in Italy...until George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin in Italy a few months later.

• Podcasts (née audio blogs) had been around for years, but Serial was downloaded 68 million times in a few short months and turned countless people into true crime, podcast and true-crime podcast junkies.


• The world first met Caitlyn Jenner on a historic cover of Vanity Fair.

• Disney buying Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion in 2012 came to fruition in J.J. AbramsStar Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens, the franchise-reviving, box office-smashing, Harrison Ford-and-Carrie-Fisher-reuniting, Kylo Ren-emoting return to a galaxy far, far away. 

Jon Stewart left The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert ended The Colbert Report, and we're still not quite over it.

• The law finally caught up with reality when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and paved the way for legal same-sex marriage in all 50 states.


• The deaths of David Bowie and Prince jolted us out of our some-people-just-live-forever alternate universe. TBH, we liked it better there.

• Beyoncé re-wrote the rules yet again with Lemonade, her second straight surprise album that delved deep into the experiences of black women and themes of family, trust, lust, infidelity, spirituality and strength.

• The world went mad for Pokémon Go, the interactive mobile game that had people literally falling off cliffs in search of virtual pocket monsters. But at least it got people outside, right?

Simone Biles led the Final Five of the U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team to team gold and captured another three for herself at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, emerging as one of the biggest stars of the Games, as well as perhaps the most preternaturally talented gymnast ever.

• Swimmer Michael Phelps returned from retirement to capture four golds and one silver and be the most decorated athlete for the fourth Olympics in a row. On the flip side, Ryan Lochte won one gold as a member of the 4 x 200m relay team and then embarrassed America by making up a story about being robbed at a gas station with several other swimmers.

• Fox News CEO Roger Ailes—the man responsible for the conservative-opinion-based programming that has proved so successful—was ousted after fired host Gretchen Carlson sued him for sexual harassment and accusations from other women, including star anchor Megyn Kelly, started piling up.

• The Chicago Cubs won the World Series, ending a 108-season drought and making super-fan Bill Murray so, so happy.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had 99 percent of the celebrity endorsements, but it was the celebrity candidate, Donald Trump, who won the 2016 presidential election, after which pop culture was sent to its room without supper to think about what it had done.


• Obamas, out.

Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture in the most dramatic fashion possible, with Faye Dunaway first calling out La La Land because Warren Beatty had been handed the wrong winner's card. Once the dust had settled, the history made by a film that told the coming-of-age story of a gay black man, including an adapted screenplay Oscar for Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, and a best supporting actor win for Mahershala Ali, could be appreciated.

The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's haunting 1985 novel, turned the red cloak and white bonnet worn by the servants of Gilead into a symbol of real-life protest against a rejuvenated assault on women's rights.

• The Fyre Festival failed spectacularly, with would-be concertgoers, who'd paid thousands of dollars for a VIP experience advertised on Instagram, arriving in the Bahamas to find waterlogged tents, not enough food and, worst of all, no music.

The New York Times and The New Yorker published articles in October detailing harassment, retaliation and assault allegations against Hollywood power-broker Harvey Weinstein, not just bringing about the apparent end of the Harvey era in show business but also unmuzzling countless women, including Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Annabella Sciorra, Daryl Hannah and Uma Thurman. A movement was reborn when Alyssa Milano compelled women with stories of their own to use the hashtag #MeToo, first created by Tarana Burke in 2006. Women and men who had been terrified of the possible consequences of speaking up started coming forward, and within a few months, men in very lofty places—including Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Mario Batali, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K.fell from grace.


Ryan Coogler's Black Panther made $1.3 billion worldwide to become the top-grossing movie of the year and the highest-grossing film, period, made by a black director.

• Netflix's rebooted Queer Eye, featuring a new Fab Five and all new fellows in need of a multi-part makeover, was exactly the mood booster we needed.

• The Grammys kept denying him in the top categories, but Kendrick Lamar didn't get M.A.A.D. He got a Pulitzer Prize for his album DAMN, the first ever awarded for a work of music that wasn't classical or jazz, let alone a work of hip-hop.

• The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was the event of the year, as the tradition-obsessed British royal family welcomed a biracial American divorcée into their ranks. From the bride's Givenchy gown and Stella McCartney party dress to the bishop who invoked Martin Luther King Jr. at the ceremony and the cast of Suits dancing the night away at the reception, this was a royal wedding like no other.

• ABC brought Roseanne back and it was wildly successful. Then Roseanne Barr tweeted. Now the show is The Conners and matriarch Roseanne Conner is dead.

Anthony Bourdain—chef turned ;author, TV star and globetrotting cultural ambassador—died by suicide in his hotel room while on location shooting his award-winning CNN series in France. It was an immeasurable blow to a world sorely in need of people more interested in building bridges between cultures instead of walls.

• A labor of love four years in the making for first-time director Bradley Cooper, the fourth iteration of A Star Is Born finally hit theaters and we plunged right into the Oscar-winning "Shallow" with Jackson and Ally, star-crossed lovers played by Cooper and Lady Gaga who will alternately be the beginning and end of each other.


• Any preceding year could have included Taylor Swift, be it for her Album of the Year Grammy winners Fearless and 1989, her tens of millions of records sold, the rise of her squad, her whirlwind romance with Tom Hiddleston (that tank top!), the killing off of the old Taylor in "Look What You Made Me Do," her public feud with Kanye West or the way she has been busy shaping the music industry into a fairer, more just place. But since the American Music Awards named Swift its Artist of the Decade, we figured we'd just wait it out till 2019, too.

Game of Thrones premiered in 2011 and over the course of eight seasons endlessly entertained, sometimes disgusted and distressed, and ultimately confounded audiences with its polarizing final episodes. Regardless of who won the game, the drama gave life to a post-Sopranos HBO, showed that fantasy could make for prestige TV and won 58 Emmys. And at least it didn't end with an abrupt cut to black.

Tom Brady won his sixth Super Bowl with the New England Patriots at 41 years old. No part of that feat is likely to be repeated anytime soon.

• The Avengers assembled for the last time, and Avengers: Endgame, featuring the ceremonious, tear-jerking farewell to Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, made $2.8 billion, enough to become the highest-grossing movie of all time.  

• The landscape was already crowded, but this year it somehow made room for the launch of Apple TV+. The spotlight was then promptly stolen by Disney+, which reportedly poached a million subscribers from Netflix—and that's just people losing their minds over Baby Yoda. And with NBC's Peacock and Warner Bros.' HBO Max coming in 2020, the streaming wars are officially upon us.

Let the battle for our loyalty and increasingly short attention spans commence!

A great next decade, let's all have.

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