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Bill Bergeman


10 Great American Cultural Icons of the 20th Century

These icons fundamentally altered their respective fields like no one else.

    1. Humphrey Bogart.

    Bogart was one of the first true Hollywood superstars, and he managed to do it by largely playing strong, stoic figures in some of the world's most classic films. One could argue his success was a result of being cast in great films, such as the Maltese Falcon and Casablanca; conversely, an argument can be made that those films were great due to Bogart's remarkable performances.

    2. Bob Dylan.

    There have been many great singer-songwriters in the 20th century, but none have inspired, moved, and even angered, like Dylan. Like all great musicians, he changed his art form and then refused to stay still and went on to change it again and again. He popularized the great folk song movement of the 1960s and followed up several years later by moving to electric rock.

    3. Elvis Presley.

    The genius of Elvis Presley was in identifying the crossroads of several highly-marketable traits and combining them into a force that has lived long after his passing. Taking a sexually-suggestive dance style, classic good looks, a terrific stage presence, a unique voice, and being a white man who could effectively perform blues music at a time when it was a domain nearly exclusive to black artists, the emerging result drove Presley to be dubbed the King of Rock and Roll and arguably the most famous man in the world during his time.

    4. Marilyn Monroe.

    Monroe was far from the first sexual icon, but she did take that designation and sent it to the moon. She was a famous actress and model, but what truly catapulted her to stardom was her dalliances and marriages with some of the world's most famous men, including Joe DiMaggio and John F. Kennedy. Additionally, she represented a certain role model for the budding feminist movement of the 1960s.

    5. Kurt Cobain.

    With his band Nirvana, Cobain introduced the world to a form of alternative rock that became known as grunge in the early 1990s. His mix of dark lyricism, brooding presence, and angry counter-culture persona was a perfect match for the time. It helped that some of the songs Nirvana performed were remarkable pieces of music. Tragically, he ended his life at 27, an act that has only added to his lore.

    6. Jack Kerouac.

    To this day, over sixty years after the book was published. On the Road is a classic road-trip novel that is required reading for every aspiring nomad. Kerouac, along with his peers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, introduced the Beat Movement - a somewhat counter-culture literary movement that consisted of a fondness for cool jazz, recreational drugs, Zen Buddhism, and a general malaise for the mainstream way most people were living in the conservative zeitgeist of the 1950s.

    7. Muhammad Ali.

    Ali is often considered the greatest boxer of all time. Known for his braggadocios persona, his activities outside of boxing often brought him as much notoriety as being inside the ring. He changed his original name, Cassius Clay, in 1964 to express his faith in Islam. Later, after being controversially drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, Ali refused to serve in the Army due to his opposition to the war.

    8. Miles Davis.

    Davis altered the course of jazz history not once, but arguably 4-6 times across his playing career. He ushered in the cool jazz movement of the 1950s, the classic jazz quintet of the late 50s, jazz/classical fusion in the 50s, the free jazz movement of the 1960s, jazz/rock fusion in the 70s, and jazz/pop fusion in the 80s. Oh, and he also fundamentally changed the sound of the trumpet.

    9. Andy Warhol.

    Warhol's pop art painting and photography were so unique, so expressive, and so visually appealing, that he is probably still one of the most well-known artists in the world some 35 years after his death. His most famous works are the Marilyn Diptych, a tribute to Marilyn Monroe after her death, and Campbell's Soup Cans, which were...Campbell's soup cans.

    10. Eleanor Roosevelt.

    Few women in history have been in a position to radically change society for the better, and even fewer worked tirelessly to make it happen, as the former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. One can argue her liberal positions were not always the best way to address societal ills, but even those who do not agree with her political positions cannot argue against her passion and dedication to causes important to her. Amongst her many successes as First Lady and beyond, Roosevelt helped usher in greater rights for women and African Americans, she was a major influence on the many New Deal policies that attempted to address the Great Depression, and later she drafted and helped bring about the passage of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

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