Analysis: A look at decade's most impactful pop-culture debuts
From the rise of the #MeToo movement to the dominance of streaming services to the power of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the biggest pop culture stories from the 2010s probably will affect the cultural landscape for many years to come. So rather than look at the most singular moments from the last 10 years, we picked the most impactful debuts of the decade (with a flexible definition of what constitutes a "debut," and in no particular order).
"Game of Thrones"
By 1956, most Americans owned a television and watched the same programs at the same time. Many of them would discuss an episode the next day at work, while loitering around the water cooler. If it were any other decade, GoT probably would have been just another of those shows.
But the rise of the internet/streaming/blah blah blah changed everything forever, and now an overwhelming majority of people have some sort of easy access to every television show ever created (if not actual television). So for a series — particularly one involving dragons, magic and incest, so much incest — to capture up to 20 million viewers per episode in today's media landscape seems nearly impossible. Sure, the finale left many of those viewers disappointed, but they watched, and that's what counts.
We'll probably never have another "consensus" show, but you can bet your bottom dollar that medieval fantasy-tinged stories will be ever-present during this coming decade as everyone attempts to capture lightning in a bottle a second time.
The 'living album'
When iTunes debuted in 2001, critics argued the very fabric of the music industry was forever changed. And while that might have been correct, a much more seismic shift in the way we listen to our tunes was en route. Streaming existed before this decade — Spotify debuted in 2008, Pandora in 2005 — but one moment showed how deeply it affected what we actually listen to: the debut of the "living album."
That's a cute phrase given to the idea that, with streaming services, an artist can change an album even after it's available to the public. The concept entered the mainstream when Kanye West premiered "The Life of Pablo" in 2016, only to release a slightly different version a few days later.
Kanye's real-time, public fiddling with his record — later adopted by artists like Drake — showcased one of the many ways streaming has altered traditional ways of doing business. Some artists, such as Future and Migos, now release overlong albums in hopes of racking up streams, while others such as Pusha T and Nas released shorter ones to promote replays. The phenomenon also might be responsible for shorter song lengths. Meanwhile, bands like the Hold Steady reconsidered their approaches to the industry, opting to release songs as they recorded them and later perhaps compiling them into an album.
Netflix creating original content
In 2013, Netflix released every episode of "House of Cards," "Orange is the New Black" and "Hemlock Grove," three original productions, all at once. These shows hit the industry like an atomic bomb, permanently changing the way we consume television. Suddenly, waiting for a new episode each week seemed antiquated. TV was now meant to be consumed in eight- or 10-hour blocks, and the way shows were structured was altered to reflect that. (Consider the sudden prioritizing of cliffhangers.)
Then, with the ashes of traditional TV in its wake, Netflix turned its attentions to disrupting the movie industry. The result? The resurgence of the rom-com with movies such as "Set It Up" and "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," along with a streaming service entering awards conversation for the first time after funding famed directors' passion projects — such as "Roma" by Alfonso Cuarón and "The Irishman" by Martin Scorsese — that studios wouldn't take a financial risk on. The big trade-off, of course, is that the service wants you to watch these movies at home, which only adds fuel to the flames dancing on whatever's left of movie theaters.
The 'new' Beyoncé
Beyoncé didn't need to change a thing — not she of Destiny's Child and Top 10-charting hits fame ("Halo," "Irreplaceable," "Single Ladies," etc.). The pop star had already won the game by 2013, so she decided to change the rules and create a new one. She surprise released her self-titled album that year, and did the same three years later with "Lemonade," which included an album-length music video.
The marketing of these albums was novel, but the content itself showed a new Beyoncé: angry, sad, loving, happy, horny. In other words, human. No longer was she hiding behind the mask of fame. Suddenly she put everything on display, from her then-embattled marriage with Jay-Z to her fury at the systematic racism crippling the country as evidenced by the deaths of black men such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. While other pop stars, such as Taylor Swift, became almost self-parodic by trying to appease every possible audience, Beyoncé crafted her pop music with the power of punk, following her own muse at all costs. She risked losing the culture entirely; instead, she ended up dominating it.
Accountability in Hollywood
It feels odd to include something so serious on what, in the grand scheme of things, is a list of frivolous things. But behind the curtain, the industry creating these frivolous things was besot by terrifying misogyny, power imbalance and a number of monsters who used their positions to remain secret. Thanks to the reporting of Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Ronan Farrow — and the bravery of the many, many victims who shared their stories — these systemic issues were finally brought to light.
The #MeToo and Time's Up movements, which rose to prominence following the exposure of Harvey Weinstein's alleged history of sexual abuse and assault, quickly spread from Hollywood to nearly every field, including law, politics and academia — making it one of the largest and most important movements of the young century.
The first 'Avengers' movie
The first inkling that superhero movies would dominate the box office along with our collective consciousness appeared in 2008, the year of "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight." Both hits, they proved superheroes could be big business. But 2012's "The Avengers," which brought several characters together in one movie, arguably altered the industry by taking major cues from television. Marvel made movies episodic and intertwined in a way that never before existed. Each installment in the MCU isn't merely a sequel or a prequel but part of a larger jigsaw puzzle, the piecing together of which requires a fan to watch every single movie — and even stick around for the credits.
As the manner in which we consume film and TV continue to merge, it's a strategy that feels natural in the streaming era. At the same time, it's smart business. Once a fan has invested dozens of hours watching movies that feature individual heroes, they're more likely to plunk down a few bucks to see them all team up. Case in point: This year's "Avengers: Endgame" became the highest-grossing movie ever at the global box office, earning $2.8 billion.
Internet culture becomes pop culture
For the early part of the millennium, popular culture and internet culture coexisted like two cousins who interacted a good bit but clearly came from different families. In the last 10 years, though, the two have felt more like a married couple as pop stars were formed on social media platforms. Case in point: Shawn Mendes, the Grammy-nominated, Billboard chart-topping singer, first garnered attention on Vine, the now-defunct platform for six-second video clips.
But the story that truly shows the internet's hold on "traditional" culture is the story of "Old Town Road." The jokey country-trap song by Lil Nas X began on the video site TikTok before, with a little help from Billy Ray Cyrus (that's another story), ending up as the longest-running Billboard chart topper of all time. The times, they are a-changin', indeed.
Kylie Jenner as a billionaire
Kylie Jenner became a billionaire in 2019 at just 21 years old. Her debut in the three-comma club might not seem worthy of inclusion on such a short list, but this simple (if unbelievable) fact points to the overwhelming influence the Jenners and the Kardashians have on American culture.
Just for starters, there was Caitlyn Jenner's public transition and widely discussed Vanity Fair cover, sparking a nationwide conversation about trans rights, and Kim Kardashian championing the case of Alice Marie Johnson, whose life sentence President Donald Trump commuted. Forget reality TV. This family's influence stretches into reality.
The debut of the Ryan Coogler blockbuster
It's no secret that, these days, Hollywood is basically propped up by intellectual property. Comic book adaptations and reboots of beloved franchises ruled the decade, making it difficult for a new director to showcase a truly original vision. Some tried to varying degrees, such as Rian Johnson with "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" and Colin Trevorrow with "Jurassic World." But Ryan Coogler accomplished something astonishing.
The young director burst onto the scene with his gut-wrenching 2013 debut "Fruitvale Station," which tells the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black man who was fatally shot by police on New Year's Day 2009. Coogler found a muse in Michael B. Jordan, who portrayed Grant, and astonished everyone by tackling existing IP in a deeply personal way. He rebooted the "Rocky" franchise with 2015′s "Creed" and tackled the MCU's "Black Panther" in 2018, imbuing these enormous franchises with personal, deeply felt stories about racial strife and inequality in America. To do so while also remaining true to the existing stories and style of these universes is a singular accomplishment, and only adds to our anticipation of Coogler's upcoming "Wrong Answer," written by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
K-pop phenomenon hits U.S.
K-pop is not new. That is beyond important to note. The genre — it's an abbreviation for Korean pop — dates to at least the early 1990s and has been popular throughout much of the world since the early aughts. But the genre reached new heights this past decade when the United States truly took notice thanks to a group named BTS. The hyper-popular boy band appeared on "Saturday Night Live," performed at the Billboard Music Awards (where a record-high three K-pop bands were nominated) and worked with American artists such as Nicki Minaj, Halsey and Desiigner.
By 2019, the genre had come to dominate the world. Want proof? The music video for "Kill This Love" by the K-pop group Blackpink has racked up nearly 700 million views on YouTube since April. What more do you need to know?
If it's that difficult to convince masses of people to watch the same TV show or pack into the same movie theater at the same time, imagine the barrier to entry when it comes to the stage. Now imagine that the play is a hip-hop-inspired musical about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton. A betting man probably wouldn't stake too much on that venture's success. But betting men aren't always right.
"Hamilton" debuted in summer 2015 and almost immediately made its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda a household name. (When's the last time a Broadway star become a pop culture figure?) The show so enraptured the country that its tickets became the most expensive in theater history, going for an average of $1,200 (with at least one going for close to $10,000) and earning multiple millions each week. The soundtrack broke records, hitting 150 weeks in the Billboard Top 40 last year and peaking on the rap charts. The show even earned the admiration of President Barack Obama, who invited the cast to the White House.