"Pop culture" is a funny and fuzzy category and it's difficult every year to determine what really counts as a popular or a cultural phenomenon. For the most part, I use this list as a kind of catch-all for the things that I can't list under music, politics or sports... but that means that there's a lot left to cover. So, below you'll find a little bit of celebrity news, a little bit of science, a little bit of literature, a little bit of television news, and a whole lot of other cultural detritus. Before we commence, I do want to point you to Buzzfeed's amazing collection of "The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2011," which is a really striking way to capture the past year. I think next year I'm going to try to give arresting images like those a bit more attention on this blog.
But without further ado, here's the 2011 Year in Pop Culture:
"Winning" with Charlie Sheen
It was just so awful that you couldn't help but watch when Charlie Sheen went completely off the rails earlier this year. The star of Two and a Half Men, one of the highest paid television actors and member of the iconic 1980's "Brat Pack," Charlie Sheen had a lot going for him... but he also, unfortunately, had a weakness for prostitutes, pills, booze and blow. In a series of interviews he gave obviously under the influence, Sheen described himself as being infused with "tiger blood," as having "a 10,000 year-old brain and the boogers of a 7 year-old," and as "not being bi-polar but bi-winning." (Jimmy Kimmel runs down several of his other bon mots here.) Earlier this year, it was pretty much impossible to turn on a television without hearing Sheen say something that would make you cringe with excitement, embarrassment, or fear that you may really have just been transported through a wormhole to a compossible world of insanity. Sheen got fired from his longtime gig on Two and a Half Men, but shortly thereafter seemed to find his way back to the world the the rest of us inhabit. That recovery is surely a good thing for him and his family, though it's probably a major disappointment to the staff at TMZ.
Man vs. Machine on "Jeopardy"
Back in February, a computer program named "Watson" (developed by IBM) competed on the television quiz show "Jeopardy" against that show's most celebrated contestants, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The showdown was described as the "natural language processing" equivalent of the 1997 chess match between IBM's Deep Blue and world chess champion Gary Kasparov. It was also, in a way, a version of the Turing Test (or the Loebner Prize Competition), both of which are meant to measure how close computer programmers have come to creating "artificial intelligence." Earlier this year, I read Brian Christian's very excellent book The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means To Be Alive, which deals with (among other things) the complicated process of trying to train computers to master "natural" human language. Of course, we all know that computers can think faster than us, can calculate in a more complex and sophisticated way than we can, and can store far more information than our little brains can hold. But what computers don't do very well is what we do best, namely, "understanding" the nuances of natural language. And that's what Watson needed to to better than any other computer before it in order to be successful on "Jeopardy." If you're interested in understanding how Watson works, you can read the interview with programmers from NPR, but it suffices to say here that Watson did work. Watson beat both Jennings and Rutter on "Jeopardy," though Watson's errors and mistakes were as interesting as it's win. It was the first ever Man vs. Machine showdown on "Jeopardy," and even though Man lost, he looked pretty strong.
You know, sometimes the kids come up with really cool things to do outside, like parkour, and other times they decide they're just going to stiffen their bodies and lay any-old-place like pieces of wood. The latter is called "planking," and it was all the rage this year for reasons that I still don't quite understand. According to Wikipedia, planking originally went by the (incredibly creative) name "The Laying Down Game." It also has several variations, which include Teapotting, Owling, Horsemaning, Batmanning, Tebowing and Plumbking. No, I'm not kidding. Other than faithfully imitating a wooden plank, it appears that the only other "rules" to the Laying Down Game are that you have to have someone take a picture of you and post it on the internet. Like many other stupid ideas, this one has been taken up by a few less-stupid people, producing what are actually pretty cool images like this one and this one. I don't know, maybe I'm getting old, but I just don't get planking. On the other hand, if I am in fact getting old, planking looks like a fairly decent hobby to take up.
Steve Jobs (1955-2011)
This was a pretty exciting year for Mac-users, what with the introduction of the iPhone 4S (and its talking Siri app) and the iPad 2, but the excitement generated by those new tech toys was far overshadowed by the passing of their creator, Steve Jobs in October. According to his sister, Jobs last words before he passed were: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." That seems fitting, not only because those words demonstrate the instinct for wonder that drove Jobs' professional career, but also because they're the same words that he inspired in millions of people who bought his products. It's really hard to capture how important Steve Jobs was for my generation. He was like our Willy Wonka, only instead of making chocolate, he was our generation's greatest maker of toys. President Obama perhaps said it best, when he noted: "The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve's success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented." Thank you, Steve Jobs, for making technology beautiful, easy to use, exciting and innovative. And thanks for thinking differently.
No More Food "Pyramid"
Remember the food pyramid we all learned in grade school? Exactly how was that organized? What was on the bottom? Were we supposed to eat more of the stuff at the bottom or the stuff at the top? Honestly, do you remember much more about it than that it was a pyramid? Yeah, I don't either. The FDA and the USDA decided that not many of us really understood the food pyramid, so they ditched it this year in favor of a food "plate" that they're now calling MyPlate. The new food plate emphasizes smaller portions, and encourages eaters to dedicate half their plates to fruits and vegetables. First Lady Michelle Obama is a big supporter of MyPlate, which she says goes hand-in-hand with her national exercise campaign to combat childhood obesity called Let's Move. Obesity is not just a problem for children in our country; according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, almost one-third (33.8%) of American adults are obese. In 2008, the medical costs associated with obesity hovered somewhere around $147 billion. The USDA thinks that the simplified MyPlate should help Americans make wiser food choices. Let's hope they're right.
Oprah Winfrey's Farewell Spectacular
After a quarter-century of daytime television reign, Oprah signed off for a final time from The Oprah Winfrey Show in May. The two-part "surprise" extravaganza was a star-studded homage to Oprah, featuring Tom Hanks, Beyonce Knowles, Josh Grobin, Tom Cruise, Patti LaBelle, Madonna, John Legend, Diane Sawyer, Rascal Flatts, Halle Barry, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Jordan, Jerry Seinfeld, Jamie Foxx, Stevie Wonder, Simon Cowell, Rosie O'Donnell, Dr. Phil, Queen Latifah, Maria Shriver, Tyler Perry, Maya Angelou, Alicia Keyes and Aretha Franklin. (I probably left some out, but you get the idea.) Watching the show-- which I did-- it was hard not to think that Oprah is something like The Godfather of the celebrity world. Everyone who is anyone came by to pay their respects to Oprah, fawning and shrieking and cooing and crying in the affective manner that most befits The Queen of Daytime Television. I've never been a fan of Oprah's-- I really can't stand the self-righteous, self-help, quasi-spirituality that she doses out like Ambien-- but even I can't deny that she is a cultural force of a singularly unique kind. I mean, of course she's singularly unique. She's freakin' Oprah. Her "retirement" from the show is anything but, though, as she's simply moved her Empire over to her own network (called OWN, or the Oprah Winfrey Network). Starting in January, Oprah begins what she's calling Oprah's Next Chapter. Meh.
Homeless Guy With "Golden Voice"
At the beginning of 2011, a video of Ted Williams (pictured left) went viral. Williams' was homeless and jobless at the time, begging on the streets for money in Columbus, Ohio. He carried a sign that read: "I have a God-given gift of voice. I'm an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times. Any help would be greatfully [sic] appreciated. Thank you and God bless you. Happy Holidays." As it turns out, Williams' did have a God-given gift of voice and was quickly dubbed the man with the "golden voice." After being discovered by a local reporter, Williams' life took a dramatic turn for the better. He made appearances on several television shows (including Today, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Early Show) telling his story, and he was offered several hig-profile jobs. Then, his life took a turn for the worse, as the rapid launch into celebrity caused the recovering alcoholic Williams to relapse. Several stints in rehab resulted in dwindling job prospects for Williams, but he eventually evened out and is now clean, sober and employed with New England Cable News.
American President Proves He's American
The "Birther" movement, driven by a bunch of lunatics who don't believe that President Barack Obama is really American, received its greatest support back in March when Donald Trump jumped on the Birther bandwagon. For weeks, Trump endlessly demanded that President Obama produce his birth certificate. He threatened to send an investigative team to Hawaii to "prove" that Obama's claims to have been born there were false. He even produced his own birth certificate. After nearly six-weeks of Trump's annoyance, the White House finally conceded and released Obama's long-form birth certificate. (Yes, Obama is American.) Despite having his conspiratorial madness debunked, Trump still declared victory, claiming "I am very proud of myself because I have accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish." Our President, unimpressed, issued one of the best rejoinders of his career, when he said: ""No one is prouder to put this birth certificate to rest than The Donald. Now he can get to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?" Game, set, match to the Hawaiian.
Humanity Reaches 7 Billion
Speaking of births, sometime around the end of October, somewhere in the world, the 7 billionth human was born. The United Nations released a document entitled The State of the World Population 2011 that offers a truly fascinating glimpse of the promises and problems tied up with this milestone. The world population has almost doubled just within the span of my lifetime, and it is projected to reach the 8 billion mark before 2030. The "demographic transition" is the name given to the process, occurring during the past century, which lead to a stabilization of population growth in the more highly developed countries. Because more developed countries have stabilized in terms of population growth, this means that most of the future growth will happen in developing countries that are still struggling to undergo a demographic transition of their own, which would bring birth and death rates in greater equilibrium. Of course, we know that the most challenging economic, social, political and environmental problems that plague humanity are concentrated in the developing world, so we're really going to have to work together over the next 50 years or so to assuage the impact of their population growth. To get a picture of what the impact of 7 billion people is on our shared world, take a look at the excellent slideshow published on The Huffington Post. It's time to start thinking about ourselves as a single human community, for sure.
Harold Camping Predicts World Will End on May 21...
No, Wait, He Meant October 21...
Or Maybe Sometime in 2012...
End of times predictions are always good fun. This year's celebrity doomsayer was (conservative Christian) Family Radio station President and Biblical numerologist, Harold Camping. Camping originally predicted that on May 21, 2011, Jesus Christ would return to earth, the Christian faithful would fly up to heaven (in the Rapture), and five months of fire and brimstone would follow, with millions dying every day, culminating on October 21, 2011, with the end of the world. When May 21 passed without incident earlier this year, Camping declared that a "spiritual judgment" had happened that day, but that the physical Rapture wouldn't occur until October 21. And when October 21 passed without incident... well, let's just say that it was a little AWK-WARD for poor prophet Camping. For the most part, Camping retired from public view (and from Apocalyptic predictions) after the October disappointment. But, this is AMERICA, and we never want for some loony-tune to step up and take the place of a debunked zealot. The new target date for eschatalogical events is December 21, 2012. The so-called "2012 Phenomenon" is based in part on the Mayan calendar, in part on pseudo-scientific astronomy, and mostly confirmed by a quick glance at the Republican Presidential primary candidates. Time to get right with God, folks.
On Second Thought, Mass Fish and Bird Deaths DID Look Kind of Apocalyptic
I had almost forgotten about this until I started to put together my end-of-year lists, but 2011 had a rather inauspicious start when reports of mass animal deaths were turning up everywhere. First, blackbirds literally fell out of the sky in Arkansas on New Year's Eve, followed a few days later by the same phenomenon in Louisiana, and later the same thing in Sweden. (Those deaths were unconvincingly explained as the result of "blunt force trauma" to the birds. To which all the rest of us replied: Whaaaa???) Then, over a hundred pelicans dropped dead in North Carolina. Almost 2 million fish in the Chesapeake Bay died. Then 40,000 crabs in Britain and 150 tons of tilapia in Vietnam. SOMEBODY GET HAROLD CAMPING ON THE PHONE 'CAUSE WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON?! As it turns out, there was no reason to be alarmed. Eminently reasonable biologist E.O. Wilson stepped in with words of comfort for the nonscientific hoi polloi, explaining that mass animal deaths happen all the time. The real problem is that we know about it now because we all have smart phones and the Interwebs. (Wilson: "This instant and global communication, it's just a human instinct to read mystery and portents of dangers and wondrous things in events that are unusual... Not to worry, these are not portents that the world is about to come to an end.") Oh, okay. That makes me feel a lot better. But, seriously, blunt force trauma?
Scientists (Maybe) Locate the God Particle!
I love it when science makes it's way into pop culture. Probably not as much as scientists do, but I'm nerdy enough to have been totally fascinated when various news outlets began reporting that science may have found the "God particle." What's that you say? There's a GOD PARTICLE? That's awesome. Turns out they were talking about the Higgs boson, which is crucial to understanding the origin of mass. Shortly after the Big Bang, it is thought that many particles had no mass, but became heavy later thanks to the Higgs field. The Higgs field is a theoretical, invisible energy field that stretches throughout the universe. It clings to fundamental particles wherever they are, dragging on them and making them heavy. So, in theory, particles can weigh nothing, but as soon as the field switched on shortly after the big bang, they got their mass. The so-called "God particle," the Higgs boson, is the signature particle of the field. Finding the Higgs boson would vindicate the so-called Standard Model of physics, which envisages that the universe is made from 12 basic building blocks called fundamental particles and governed by four fundamental forces. The existence of the Higgs boson is predicted by the Standard Model but it has yet to be found by experiments. The celebrity researchers in this story are at CERN and they're using something called a Large Hadron Collider (pictured above) which is just badass.
People Still Care Too Much About Other People's Weddings
If there's one thing the American public can't stop obsessing over, it's other people's marriages. So, this was a banner year for Nuptialphiliacs as Prince William married Catherine Middleton in a bona fide Royal Wedding AND Kim Kardashian married-- uh, what's his name again?-- Kris-with-a-K Humphries in a American version of a Royal Wedding. The Prince and Princess seem to be enjoying newlywed life quite well, while things went bad quickly for the other Kouple. Kardashian and Humphries split after only 72 days. Because their wedding was a televised media event of the first order, it is speculated that the Kouple earned something like the equivalent of $250K for every day they were married. I suppose it's still possible to believe in the "sanctity" of the institution of marriage, but it gets more and more difficult every year to do so. In a hilariously ironic turn of events this year, Minnesota gays issued an formal apology to Minnesota conservative politician Amy Koch, expressing their regret for threatening traditional marriage and causing Koch to engage in the scandalous infidelities that ended hers. I predict that in 2012 the importance of the institution of marriage will only more closely approximate the importance of the Royal Family. Snore.
Big Writers Pen FAT Books in 2011
Two of the biggest novels released this year-- Haruki Murakami's IQ84 and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom-- were also two of the BIGGEST novels released this year. Although neither of them are quite the mammoth that David Foster Wallace's (1000+ page) Infinite Jest was, Murakami IQ84 weighs in at a hefty 944 pages and Franzen's Freedom is an impressive 608 pages. (For perspective, Roberto Bolano's 2666 sits somewhere between them in terms of length.) I haven't read either, though I did get Freedom for a Christmas gift and plan to dig in soon. In the circle of my bookish friends, Franzen and Murakumi are both favorites, so let me just go ahead and extend my congratulations to all of my friends who have already made it through these mammoths. I didn't get to do nearly enough "pleasure" reading this year. I'm resolving to fix that for 2012, but I have to say that the increasing size of my favorite authors' products are causing me considerable concern. I mean, these aren't books you can just leave in the bathroom without looking like you've got a real problem. On the other hand, my guess is that they make really good doorstops or bookends when you're done!
Bruno Mars Swears He's Not Doing Anything
Last year, my favorite viral video was "Jessica's Daily Affirmation." Rivaling Jessica for pure feel-goodness is one of my favorite viral videos of 2011, which came courtesy of Bruno Mars' "The Lazy Song" (below). First, it's just a damn catchy song. Second, those monkeys are adorable. Third, the lyrics are hilarious. But most impressive of all, I think, is the fact that this entire video was done in a single camera shot. No cuts, no editing. Who knows how long it took them to get it all down, but the final product is super impressive. Fair warning before you watch: this is definitely an "earworm." You'll be humming it for the rest of the day.
And finally, what would a 2011 Year in Pop Culture be without...
2011 Was the Year of the Honey Badger, Stupid
Ah, the honey badger. Watch it run in slow motion. It's pretty badass. The honey badger has been referred to by Guinness Book of World Records as the most fearless animal in all of the Animal Kingdom. It takes what it wants. And for many people in 2011, the honey badger became our spirit animal. It said what we won't, or don't, or can't say. Namely, we don't give a sh*t. The honey badger video that went viral this year was narrated by the fey and foul-mouthed "Randall," much to the delight of us all. It quickly spread through the pop culture undercurrent like a... well, like a virus. Thanks for the metaphor, stupid. Lousiana State University football player Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mattheiu finally broke through the NSFW restrictions on public honey badger talk when his nickname forced sports announcers to stumble all over themselves trying to explain the honey badger without using profanity on national television. Honey badger would've just said what he wanted. Honey badger doesn't give a sh*t. If you didn't see the video, you definitely missed out on one of the best "inside" jokes of 2011. And if you saw it and didn't find it hilarious, you probably have no sense of humor at all.
So, that's the end of the year-end lists for 2011. Here's hoping you all have a safe and happy New Year's Eve celebration. See you all on the flipside.