This is a short retrospective on the real and fictional personalities who made the past few decades what they were. It’s by no means an exhaustive list and the selection is somewhat arbitrary: some pretty big names are necessarily missing. We’ll start in the 60s and proceed from there.
The 1960s were a tumultuous time, during which the established political and cultural order crumbled. Third World countries rebelled against their colonial masters and the First World youth rebelled against The Man. Idealism, music and marijuana set the tone. The rebellious sound of rock railed against the war in Vietnam, and the artists of the day are now legends: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Hendrix to name a few. Living the rock star life on the football field there was George Best. Change and racial equality found champions in Martin Luther King’s speeches, and Muhammad Ali’s gloved fists. Batman also made his first appearance on-screen, with Adam West donning the cape and cowl. (My favourite Batman by far.)
The Vietnam War ended, and the protests of the 60s roared into the counter-culture of the 70s. ‘Love and Peace’, hippies and tie-dye: you know the sort of thing. Rock got a harder edge as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath gained prominence. Elsewhere rock’s structural boundaries were pushed by the likes of Pink Floyd, who also pushed the structural boundaries of the mind with special substances. Disco and the Bee Gees came out on to the mainstream with Saturday Night Fever. It was a good decade for film overall, with the arrival onto the scene of Star Wars (every main character an icon in their own right), Amitabh Bachchan rising to stardom and Don Corleone making attractive offers. The shark in Jaws became the quintessential terror from the deep, and Bruce Lee redefined what it meant to be a badass. On television Doctor Who reached peak viewing.
The 80s saw sweeping changes in world economies and great strides in technology. The nascent medium of video games found its heroes in Pac-man, Mario and Zelda. Music began to diversify, and rock’s harder edges turned to metal under the helm of artists like Ronnie James Dio. The ‘MTV format’ of music was championed by the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson. Steven Spielberg followed his triumph in Jaws by giving the world E.T and Indiana Jones. There were also many popular TV characters during this time, notably The A-Team and MacGyver. But their legacy was shorter than many of the cartoons that came out during this period: characters such as the Transformers, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Thundercats remain as iconic today as they were then.
Riding the wave of the information age towards the new millennium, the 90s were a strange and exciting time. Nelson Mandela became leader in a country where his race was considered subhuman. The Spice Girls took the world by storm; the underground rocked to Nirvana and stared moodily into the distance with Radiohead. T-Rex roared at us through the screen, and Neo was The One. Terminator 2 came out, actor and character fitting together better than living tissue over metal endoskeleton. Every child wanted to be a Power Ranger, when they weren’t pretending to be Pokemon trainers. Enduring TV classics included the Simpsons, which was probably the first popular cartoon not for kids. And no sitcom has yet been as culturally important as Friends- fans are still on a first name basis with the characters. Video gaming was still firmly in the grip of Mario and Co. but Mortal Kombat’s cast of supernatural punchmasters proved enduring, and Lara Croft became one of gaming’s most iconic characters for some rather big reasons. In the world of sport, Michael Jordan was so popular they allowed him to help Bugs Bunny defeat criminal aliens with the power of basketball. The 90s, man.
After the internet failed to end the world in the year 2000, things got much weirder. The ability to limit your exposure to stuff you didn’t like caused pop culture to become less relevant. The few popular obsessions that were present were notoriously strong: Pottermania peaked during the decade and it’ll be a long time before Harry and the others become irrelevant. The Lord of the Rings enjoyed resurgence through film, with Gandalf and Gollum achieving iconic status. Jack Sparrow lurched his way into our hearts, and Batman never had it this good. Music was conspicuously free of giants, and video gaming became less about pre-made characters. Adult-oriented animated TV did give us the cast of South Park, so there’s that.
Today nothing much lasts. Things go viral and are forgotten about within months. In the 21st century we’ve traded our heroes in for smaller, more personal obsessions. (And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)