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The 30 Biggest Cultural Events Turning 30 This Year

As Departures celebrates its 30th anniversary, we’re shining a light on the moments that defined the year that it all came together.


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As years go, 1989 was a great one, and not just because it brought us the birth of Taylor Swift—and the moment when Departures came into existence, of course. The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Prize, the Louvre got a glass pyramid, and GPS changed the way we live. But it was also a time of political upheaval and social discourse, as well as cultural developments whose effects we’re still feeling today. Here are 30 game-changing events that are celebrating their 30th anniversary.

The Louvre Pyramid Was Erected

A secret commission, an outraged public, an iconic collection of artistic achievement—the circumstances surrounding one of the world’s greatest architectural feats is rife with enough plot turns for a suspense thriller. When French President François Mitterrand quietly approached I. M. Pei to modernize the Louvre, the Chinese-American architect found himself embroiled in controversy—and that was before he even revealed his design for a minimalist glass-and-steel pyramid in the heart of the Cour Napoléon. But in the 30 years that followed, his game-changing entrance has become one of the world’s most celebrated architectural destinations, a defining symbol of Paris, and a model for historic preservation.

The Mirage Hotel Debuted

It’s hard to imagine a time when Las Vegas wasn’t the spectacle it is today. But in the late ‘80s, the Strip was on the verge of collapse thanks to more than a decade of dwindling tourist numbers. That all changed when developer Steve Wynn debuted The Mirage in 1989. At the time of its opening, the 3,044-room, South Pacific–themed hotel was the biggest in the world, with a man-made volcano erupting nightly, gilded windows tinted with real gold dust, and a 53-foot aquarium with more than 1,000 tropical creatures floating behind the reception area. The stylish excess did the trick, ushering in a new generation of mega-hotels with over-the-top attractions and larger-than-life headlining acts (remember Siegfried and Roy?)—and paving the way for the Sin City nickname that’s come to embody Las Vegas today.

London’s Design Museum Opened

It seems nowadays everyone has more than a passing interest in the aesthetics of everyday forms—or at the very least expects more beauty and functionality from everything from their toothbrushes to their furniture. Much of that is due to British industrial designer Terence Conran, who turned a basement exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum into a standalone temple to the transformative power of contemporary design. Bolstered by the popularity of the exhibition, the museum’s opening launched a series of events that took design out of the art house, turning once obscure designers like the Memphis group, Issey Miyake, and Philippe Starck into household names and continuing to challenge retailers and product designers to step up their game.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Technically it didn’t happen until 1990, when the last slabs were finally chipped away, but the foundation was laid on November 8, 1989, when communist East German border guards began allowing demonstrating citizens to pass into democratic West Germany through the Berlin Wall, a Cold War symbol of oppression that separated families and divided a continent for more than 28 years. It’s destruction signaled the collapse of the political entity known as the Soviet Union, but its effects were more profound: it paved the way for Eastern Bloc countries like Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic to achieve independence and enter the modern age.

The Musical Landscape Was Cool

In 1989, the musical landscape looked very different from the hard-partying material that dominates pop charts today. While Madonna’s "Like a Prayer" and Cher’s "Heart of Stone" launched their careers into the echelons of superstardom, it’s Janet Jackson’s "Rhythm Nation", with its socially conscious lyrics and concept-album framework, that feels most resonant today (two words: Beyoncé’s "Lemonade"). Also topping the charts were The B-52s with Cosmic Thing—the album that put "Love Shack" on every wedding band rotation—and the US debut of the then little known Canadian folk group the Indigo Girls, who have since come to be regarded as champions of the gay rights movement.

The Birth of GPS

Where would we be today without GPS? Probably on the side of the road still trying to figure out how to fold up that giant paper map. But beyond its application in basic navigation, its impact on modern life is immeasurable. When the first of 24 satellites in the Global Positioning System was launched into orbit in 1989, the systems function was pivotal in changing the way we travel, as the US government greenlit it to improve the communication and logistics around air travel. But its standardization of atomic time has made it instrumental in everything from ATM transactions and financial services to Instagram updates and the development of the real-time news cycle.

Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth Fragrance Launched

Before Ariana and Rihanna and Taylor—and Britney and Christina before them—there was Debbie. The bubblegum-pop phenom dominated charts when she debuted in 1987 with Out of the Blue, featuring 10 self-penned songs that made her the youngest female artist to write, produce, and perform a number one single. But her teen-queen status reached fever pitch in 1989, when Revlon cashed in on her popularity with Electric Youth, a fragrance timed to the release of her album of the same name. Not only did it help establish the buying power of teenagers everywhere, it was one of the earliest successful models of the ever-lucrative celebrity-scent marketing machine.

The World Wide Web Came Into Being

For better or worse, every cat meme, fitness-guru influencer, and Kardashian on the planet owes their existence to British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the Internet in an ironically paper-bound document known as Information Management: A Proposal. In it, he argued for the need for a unified computer network, where people could share and access information democratically and without specialized programming knowledge. Fast-forward 30 years, and the Internet has become the single most culturally significant invention of the 21st century. As he told Wired early this year, “The web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more.”

The Dalai Lama Won the Nobel Peace Prize

You’d have to be living under a rock to claim ignorance of Tibet’s cultural and political past, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1989, after an increase in the violent suppression of opposition by Chinese soldiers—and the non-violent championing of an autonomous yet interdependent future by the territory’s spiritual and political leader—the Nobel Committee awarded the 14th Dalai Lama the Nobel Prize for Peace, putting the conflict in the global spotlight and highlighting the importance of international cooperation. Though he still remains in exile, and Tibet is no freer than before, his Middle Way Approach has generated support among religious and political leaders the world over—and proven that local politics is global.

Pro-Democracy Rallies Took Place in Tiananmen Square

Thirty years after the Chinese army opened fire on thousands of protesting students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, there are no monuments, plaques, or commemorative objects dedicated to the hundreds who lost their lives on June 4, 1989—not even the hope of democratic legislation acknowledging their sacrifice. All that remains are the gruesome images of the day—no one could forget the shot of a lone man staring down a parade of oncoming tanks—and the painful realization that even peaceful protests can end in tragedy.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios Opened

Long before everyone started ragging on millennials for their obsession with nostalgia, the Walt Disney Company was commoditizing it on the grandest of scales. Inspired by the Golden Age of the filmmaking and television industries, the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios) was conceived as equal parts theme park and active production studio. Now, it’s more like a marketing machine for some of the company’s largest franchises, from Toy Story to Star Wars, welcoming many of Walt Disney World’s 52 million visitors each year.

Celebrities Were Born

Thirty years ago some of the biggest names in Hollywood were but mere tadpoles in the primordial soup of life, including Taylor Swift, Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, Hayden Panettiere, Joe Jonas, Brie Larson, and Dakota Johnson. Also celebrating big birthdays this year are actress Lily Collins, musical performers Jason Derulo and Jordan Sparks, and pro golfer Michelle Wie.

These Cool Movies Premiered

It’s hard to remember a time when movie releases were more than just comic book franchise reboots and sequels to…comic book franchise reboots, but 1989 was a banner year in terms of cinematic gold. When Harry Met Sally raised the bar for romantic comedies and inspired a nation of thirty-somethings to “have what she’s having.” Harrison Ford cemented his celebrity status as the whip-wielding archeologist in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, while the kooky weirdness of Tim Burton’s Batman paved the way for Christopher Nolan’s cerebral reboot. Michael J. Fox was killing time in Back to the Future II, which became the third-highest-grossing film of 1989, and The Little Mermaid won two Academy Awards and revived the Walt Disney Company’s interest in compelling animated features. And who could forget the original Ghostbusters, Do the Right Thing, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Steel Magnolias, Driving Miss Daisy, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams—shall we go on?

TV Shows Set the Tone

At first glance, it’s easy to argue that we’re in a golden age of television, but take a closer look and you’ll find that we’re still reaping the benefits of the television landscape of 1989. With its ironic humor and idiosyncratic characters, Seinfeld became the prototype for the modern live-action sitcom and created turns of phrase that have achieved legendary status in the cultural lexicon (think close-talker, shrinkage, re-gifter), while The Simpsons proved that animated series could have enough heft to entertain adults in primetime. Saved by the Bell laid the groundwork for a generation of tween-marketed shows on Disney and Nickelodeon, and Baywatch taught us the merits of slow-motion running. But who could predict that America’s Funniest Home Videos, with its user-generated content and taste for laugh-seeking voyeurism, would have the greatest legacy, with an heir apparent in all those viral YouTube videos that won’t seem to go away.

Salvadore Dalí Died

Individuality is king in 2019, but no one had more idiosyncrasies than Salvador Dalí, the always mustachioed Spanish artist who knew perhaps more than anyone else at the time the importance of creating a personal brand. His surrealist work tackled taboo topics and avant-garde imagery, inspiring legions of art and design lovers during and after his lifetime—everyone from Jeff Koons to Lady Gaga claim him as an influence—but it’s his grotesque presentation of unconscious desires that has continued to challenge viewers today.

The Vitra Design Museum by Frank Gehry Opened

There are few more celebrated interior designers than Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, who has been honored with exhibits in such major international museums as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and The Whitney in New York City. But for his first European commission, he was charged with creating a cutting-edge, privately-owned museum for the former CEO of the family-owned Swiss furniture company Vitra in Germany. Dedicated to showcasing interior pieces by Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto, Jean Prouvé, and more, the site stands as an aesthetic departure from Gehry’s traditional use of angular forms and mixed materials thanks to a series of curving walls and its striking white plaster exterior. It also helped highlight the rise of the museum as modern architectural marvel (see The Broad in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao).

New Words Were Documented

The world may never know how the English language survived centuries without official words for the union of a pug and a poodle (a puggle, naturally), gestured, often ironic quotation marks (air quotes), that thing that keeps your hair in a ponytail (scrunchie), and the demographic that came after Baby Boomers (Generation X). Other 30-year-old entries include hypertext markup language (aka HTML), eco-friendly, and multiculti, signaling our collective disdain for pronouncing all of a word’s syllables before FOMO and the phrase “I can’t” landed on the cultural scene.

Nintendo’s Game Boy Premiered

Before the world became enamored with Candy Crush, Tetris tested the attention spans of a generation. Along with Super Mario Land, it was one of the initial offerings on Nintendo’s new Game Boy system, the mobile gaming device that has now reached iconic status. Its longer battery life and durable console outsold the competition and cemented its status in the pantheon of gaming legend, drawing players out of arcades and basements and bringing the sometimes controversial hobby into the light. Its popularity also laid the groundwork for the development of a now $62 billion industry that shows no signs of slowing down.

Sega Genesis Debuted

Long before the Notorious B.I.G. was rapping about Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s biggest rival was lagging in sales and struggling to gain a foothold in the American gaming market—even despite its 16-bit technology, which translated to a superior visual and auditory experience and the capability to convert arcade games to the small screen. But it really took off when it made teenagers and older adolescents its target audience, a marketing strategy that endures today. Also a priority: celebrity endorsements, buoyed by the success of Joe Montana Football, and now iconic characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Ecco the Dolphin.

These Were the Top Ten Baby Names of 1989

In 1989, Jennifer or Jessica were the Emma and Olivia (which is to say the peak of baby names) of their time. Other popular girls’ names included Ashley, Brittany, Amanda, and Sarah, while the highest-ranking boys names covered Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, and David.

Maison Margiela Raised Eyebrows

The French fashion house formerly known as Maison Martin Margiela may have gotten a boost when Jay-Z rapped about it in 2009, but the brand launched in 1988 and has been a favorite of everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Vogue International editor Suzy Menkes. In 1989, the deconstructionist Belgian designer created his signature split-toe shoes for the brand’s debut runway show, a style that continues to polarize people today. They’re a far cry from the baggy acid-wash jeans that defined the mallrat scene.

Dapper Dan’s Olympic Coat Turned Heads

Anyone who’s seen the work of Harlem couturier Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan, can attest to its cultural significance. While he usually outfitted rappers and drug kingpins who had money to spend but weren’t welcome in traditional retail establishments, in 1989, he fashioned a now iconic coat for Olympic track-and-field runner Diane Dixon using bootleg Louis Vuitton leather and mink, a look that was immortalized in a photograph taken in his shop on 125th Street. The puffed-sleeve tunic image reappeared backstage at Gucci’s 2018 cruise show, inspiring a collaboration between Day and the historic Italian brand, and proving that he was ahead of the curve when it came to opening up luxury items to cultural reinterpretation.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Retired

Before Lebron, Steph, and Kawhi, there was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA powerhouse who was legitimately the best ever when he retired from basketball in 1989, at the age of 42. He held records in points scored, shots blocked, and MVP awards won, as well as pioneered the efficacy of sports medicine and physical fitness. He had height but also the kind of agility we take for granted today and found his greatest success as a Los Angeles Laker. But his post-career story has been just as inspiring: in 2016 the writer, activist, and mentor was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work on civil rights, cancer research, and science education.

This Was 1989 By the Numbers

What a difference 30 years make. In 1989, the average cost of a new house was $120,000, monthly rent was $420, and a gallon of gas was 97 cents. At year’s end, the Dow Jones closed at 2753 (at press time it was 25,886). The average income was $27,450, and a U.S. postage stamp would set you back a mere 25 cents (good thing they didn’t have Forever stamps back then). That’s virtually a fairytale to anyone currently living in the country’s urban centers and looking at ever-rising real estate prices and housing costs.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Results in Public Outcry

Alaska’s Prince William Sound became the site of one of the world’s worst human-caused ecological disasters when a tanker owned by what is now known as ExxonMobil ran aground, dumping 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the water and shoreline. The spill severely handicapped local commercial fishing industries and decimated the area’s seabird, otter, seal, and shellfish populations, among others, prompting tougher legislation and stricter preventative measures surrounding the freight of oil and toxic materials, as well as improved technological and human response procedures.

Douglas Wilder Becomes First Black U.S. Governor

It’s hard to imagine President Barack Obama without Douglas Wilder, who won the Virginia gubernatorial race 30 years ago, becoming the first elected African-American governor in the United States, and David Dinkins, who became the first African-American mayor of New York City in 1989. The landmark victories ostensibly made it possible for other less traditional candidates—namely women (and women of color)—to competitively run for public office in the 21st century.

Ayatollah Khomeini Died

The Iranian religious scholar and political leader responsible for establishing Iran as the world’s first Islamic republic became the face of Middle Eastern conflict with the West when he urged followers to overthrow the Iranian government in favor of a Sharia-based rule of law. He also made headlines for his role in the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, as well as his issuance of a fatwa against British writer Salman Rushdie for his novel, The Satanic Verses.

NWA Sells One Million Copies of Straight Outta Compton

Ask any hip-hop fan what the most influential album of all time is, and you’ll likely hear NWA’s Straight Outta Compton on repeat. The group that made household names of Dr. Dre, Eazy E, and Ice Cube resonated with audiences thanks to its bold beats and brash lyrics, which had a hint of menace that made them both politically powerful and socially divisive. But the strategy worked: Straight Outta Compton would become the first hip-hop album to hit 1 million records sold, and the blueprint for gangsta rap and hip-hop impresarios from Jay-Z to Puff Daddy.

Rings Around Neptune Were Confirmed

Everyone thought Saturn was the one with the rings, that is until August 1989, when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft confirmed the existence of faint arcs around Neptune. It turns out that Jupiter and Uranus are also part of the ringed gas-giant club—who knew?—proving that our solar system (and the universe at large) still offers plenty of opportunities for discovery.

HDTV Became a Thing

Though it didn’t arrive on US shores until the 1990s, the world’s first daily HDTV broadcast—ironically an image of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor—occurred on June 4, 1989, in Japan, changing the face of television and making our lives—and Netflix binges—infinitely more satisfying.


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