Top 20 Pop Culture Icons of the 20th Century

The 20th century was a huge decade for music, artists, and Hollywood in general. Pop icons such as Britney Spears, James Dean, and boy bands like NSYNC are becoming household names. 

This century also launched the showbiz careers of stars like Mandy Moore, Jennifer Lopez, and Shakira. You probably have heard some of these names even if you are not from this generation. 

Who are they, and what made their art timeless? Find it out with our Top 20 Pop Culture Icons of the 20th Century! 

Jesse McCartney

McCartney began his musical career in the late 1990s as the youngest member of the boy band Dream Street. This American pop singer and songwriter was also a Daytime Emmy-nominated actor. 

He published his first solo EP in 2003, including “Beautiful Soul.” He has since released five solo albums, the most recently released in 2014. McCartney unveiled his next single, “Better With You,” four years later, and followed it with “Wasted.” 

The New York native has kept busy with his acting career, including appearances on Summerland, Army Wives, Young Justice, and The Masked Singer in 2020. He also appeared in a Hannah Montana episode and When You Wish Upon a Star. 

In 2019, he proposed to Katie Peterson, his longtime girlfriend.

Mariah Carey

Following the success of her debut album in the 1990s, Carey became a household name. Throughout the 1990s, she recorded and published seven albums, including the smash hit “Merry Christmas,” which featured the legendary track “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

She started on a world tour after releasing the critically praised album “Caution” in 2018. The singer also embarked on a tour promoting the “Merry Christmas” re-release in 2019.

Muhammad Ali


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Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest boxers of all time, being the first fighter to win the world heavyweight title three times. He was also noted for his social activism of black pride and black resistance to white dominance. He was also well known for refusing the induction United States military during the Vietnam War.

Ali’s influence on American society grew, becoming a lightning rod for political criticism. “Unless you have a very good reason to kill, war is wrong,” he would say. A Black activist even stated that “When a figure as heroic and beloved as Muhammad Ali stood up and said, ‘No, I won’t go,’ it reverberated through the whole society.”

Ali went down the boxing history as one of the greatest fighters of all time. Others have matched his final record of 56 wins and five losses with 37 knockouts. Still, his opponents’ caliber compared to his prime made him one with the boxing immortals. 

Ali may be famous for his speed, great footwork, and ability to take a punch. Still, more importantly, he had the courage that makes him a great fighter even outside the boxing ring. 

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan, real name Robert Allen Zimmerman, is an American folk singer who transitioned from folk to rock music in the 1960s. He would infuse rock and roll lyrics, to which he had previously focused, a boy-girl love romantic song, with the intellectualism of classic literature and poetry.

 Dylan hailed as his generation’s Shakespeare, sold tens of millions of CDs, penned more than 500 songs recorded by more than 2,000 artists, performed all over the world, and established the standard for lyric writing.

 In 2016, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “creating new poetic expressions within American song tradition.”

Backstreet Boys

Backstreet Boys’ debut self-titled album was published in 1996. However, their second album, “Backstreet’s Back,” released in 1997, cemented their status as pop icons. The album, which included singles such as “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” went on to sell millions of copies and established the group as a household name.

The Backstreet Boys released “Millennium” in 1999, which had instant successes, including “Larger Than Life” and “I Want It That Way.” The band then went on a world tour, breaking sales records in several places.

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez performing during her Dance Again World Tour in Paris, France in 2012

Also known as J.Lo, Lopez is an actress and musician who began acting in films in the late 1980s and swiftly rose to become one of the highest-paid Latina actresses in Hollywood history. With a succession of pop records, she later had crossover success in the music industry.

Lopez rose to fame after starring in the 1997 movie Selena, which followed her dancing roles in Janet Jackson’s 1993 music video for “That’s the Way Love Goes.” She also danced in the early 1990s variety show In Living Color. 

After taking time to act and focus on being a mother of twins Max and Emme with now-ex-husband Marc Anthony, she triumphantly returned to the world of music in 2011. She and Pitbull released a dance song, “On the Floor,” which generated singles such as “Waiting for Tonight” and “If You Had My Love.”

James Dean

Even when more than 60 years since his tragic death, Hollywood is still looking for “the next James Dean.” The young actor only made three films in his career: East of Eden (1955), in which he played the bad boy brother in a “Cain and Abel” retelling, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956), in which he stepped into the cowboy boots of a nonconformist ranch hand. All of his films became Hollywood classics, but he only watched one, East of Eden, during his lifetime.

He was only 24 years old when a car crashed with his Porsche while traveling along Route 466, killing him almost instantaneously.

The young star’s life and career were cut short, yet his death still contributed to his legend. Dean later represented the sensitive, tortured rebel in his films that fans still relate with today. 


Queen was one of the few bands representing the 1970s rock’s daring innovation and attitude. The British trio tinted their complicated compositions with comedy and bombast, creating a massive, mock-operatic sound – layered with guitars and overdubbed vocals.

This style of music embraces both the exaggerated pomp of prog rock and heavy metal. For years, their records were marketed with the phrase “no synthesizers were used on this song,” indicating their affinity for post-hard rock artists. The vocalists also added a lavish sense of fun to Queen, driving them toward cheesy humor and pseudo-classical singing. This was exemplified by their most famous song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was a British comedian and an actor who rose to prominence during the silent film era of the twentieth century.

Before establishing his fame on the big screen, Charlie Chaplin worked with a children’s dancing team. His character “The Tramp” became an iconic figure of the silent-film period because of pantomime and odd gestures. Chaplin became a director and co-founder of the United Artists Corporation, directing films such as City Lights and Modern Times.

Destiny’s Child

Destiny’s Child grew to prominence as one of the most successful female R&B groups of the late 1990s, even surpassing TLC. But, for a time, Destiny’s Child was known as much for their drama as for their music.

Several musicians, including Rihanna, Meghan Trainor, Fifth Harmony, and Little Mix, have credited Destiny’s Child as a musical influence or inspiration. For example, after seeing Destiny’s Child perform on television, Ciara was encouraged to pursue a career in music. Meanwhile, Ariana Grande named Destiny’s Child one of her vocal influences, claiming that listening to the group’s songs taught her about harmonies, runs, and ad-libs.

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston was, without a doubt, one of the most famous female pop singers of all time. However, her success as a hitmaker was unprecedented. To name a few achievements: she was the first artist to have seven consecutive number one songs. In addition, her 1993 cover “I Will Always Love You” also became the largest hit single in rock history. 

Houston handled large adult contemporary ballads with equal ability, effervescent, fashionable dance-pop, and slick urban contemporary soul. These all-around achievements were barely equaled by a few singers of her day. 

The Carpenters

Karen and Richard Carpenter in 1974 smiling

The Carpenters may not be the most popular band in the 1970s. Still, they were undoubtedly one of the most effortless talented. Their songs are still considered among the best in pop history.

Richard Carpenter and Karen Carpenter, brother and sister, grew up in Downey, California, and were musically inclined from a young age. Richard assisted Karen in honing her singing voice and making demo tapes with her. One of the demo tapes was submitted to A&M Records’ Herb Alpert, who promptly signed Richard and Karen as “Carpenters” after hearing them.

Karen struggled for years with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, which was relatively unknown at the time. She died of heart failure at the age of 32 in 1983 due to complications related to her disease. Her death raised public awareness about eating problems.

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong, an astronaut, military pilot, and professor, made history on July 20, 1969, when he became the first man to walk on the moon.

Armstrong has been fascinated by flight since he was a child. At the age of 16, he received his student pilot’s certificate. Armstrong enrolled at Purdue University in 1947 to study aeronautical engineering on a U.S.Navy scholarship.

In 1969, Armstrong faced an even greater task with Michael Collins and Edwin E. Poe. He was a member of NASA’s first manned expedition to the moon. On July 16, 1969, the trio was launched into space. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong, the mission’s commander, made their step to the moon.

The Beatles

For a little more than seven years, the Beatles had shaken the music world together. They released thirteen albums and several singles between October 1962 and May 1970. 

The Beatles’ discography has sold more records than any other band in history, and their commercial success continues. A collection of The Beatle’s chart-topping songs became the world’s best-selling album in the first decade of the twenty-first century. 

However, the group’s importance is more than just sales figures. Generations of musicians, composers, and producers have been inspired by their music. As once was quoted by Mark Ronson, ‘everything we take for granted – they certainly invented it.’

Michael Jackson


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Jackson wasn’t only the biggest pop singer of his age – influencing the sound and style of the 1970s and 1980s – but he was also one of the 20th century’s defining stars. He is a musician who reshaped American culture. Jackson began his career as the 11-year-old leader of his family’s band in 1969.

The sparkling 1979 album Off the Wall, co-produced by, established Jackson as a mature performer, and the singles “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You” made it a smash hit. Jackson believed that the Off the Wall album had been labeled under the R&B genre despite its success. He returned with Jones to make Thriller – the 1982 album that shattered every music record in the books.


With their catchy tunes, synchronized dancing movements, and frosted tips, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Lance Bass, and Joey Fatone left an unforgettable stamp on the world of adolescent music. 

In 1997, the boy band released their self-titled debut album, which charted thanks to singles “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and “I Want You Back.” They released two more albums, No Strings Attached in 2000 and Celebrity in 2001. 

After that, frontman Justin Timberlake broke up and pursued a solo career. However, the band reunited in 2013 for a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards and five years later for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe was an actress, model, and singer from the United States. Thanks to her humorous ” blonde bombshell ” roles, she became one of the most prominent sex symbols of the 1950s and early 1960s, thanks to her humorous “blonde bombshell” roles. 

Her films had grossed $200 million by the time she died in 1962, even though she was only a top-billed actress for a decade. She has remained a huge pop culture star long after her death. Monroe was ranked sixth on the American Film Institute’s list of the best female screen legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood in 1999.

Michael Jordan

NBA superstar Michael Jordan in 2014

Michael Jordan is largely regarded as the all-time best basketball player. One could even consider him as part of the best athletes of all time. He was a four-time gold medalist for USA Basketball, including two Olympic gold medals, and was voted Male Athlete of the Year twice. In addition, he was the NBA’s face for more than a decade.

His on-court abilities and competitiveness enabled him to achieve feats that confirmed his place in history books. However, he wasn’t always this great. He once tried out for the varsity basketball team during his sophomore year of high school but was not selected. 

So instead, he played for the junior varsity team, earning a position on the varsity team the following year. He went on to play college basketball for the North Carolina Tar Heels, where he scored the game-winning basket in the NCAA Championship game in 1982.

Spice Girls

The Spice Girls is an English girl group that was created in 1994. The group’s prime years were from the summer of 1996 through the autumn of 2000. The Spice Girls, as a five-piece, became the best-selling and most successful girl group of all time. 

They released two multi-platinum albums, “Spice” and “Spiceworld,” scoring six consecutive UK #1 hits (9 #1 hits, including two double A-side singles), one #2 hit, and a Top 20 Comeback Single, for a total of 11 singles. They also appeared in their own motion picture, video game, and commercials such as Pepsi, Polaroid, and Impulse. The total album sales are estimated to be 65 million copies worldwide.


Madonna impacted the course of popular music not long after her debut Top Ten song, “Borderline,” in 1984. Madonna introduced underground sounds into the public throughout her decade-long career, specializing in dance club trends. Madonna recorded many of the pop anthems that defined that decade — “Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl,” “Live to Tell.”