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Culture's magnetic forces

On the eve of Super Bowl Sunday, the Monitor wondered: Is this the last unifying event in a fractured pop culture?

February 3, 2006

May the Force be with you. There was a time when that phrase was practically a benediction for a nationwide religion. A few years later, everyone wanted to know who shot J.R. In the 1990s, "yada, yada, yada" became a common refrain.

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Not so long ago it seemed as if we all spoke the same pop-culture language. But in an era of 500 TV channels, billions of Web pages, unlimited Netflix rentals, and iPods with music libraries of Smithsonian proportions, popular entertainment has suddenly become mind-bogglingly vast. As the overlap between what we all watch, read, and listen to steadily erodes, the water cooler has become a modern-day tower of Babel, where conversations sound like the jumbled voices emanating from the jungle in "Lost." (If that reference is lost on you then, well, Q.E.D.)

In decades past, major pop-culture moments - the ones that everybody experienced at the same time - acted as an intangible glue that bound us together. "There's a 'we' in all of those; the unum of the pluribus," says Tim Burke, a cultural historian at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "It's harder to get those things as the media fragments."

Which makes Sunday's Super Bowl all the more remarkable.

"It's the largest national event, at least in terms of people doing a common thing at one time in American culture," says Mark Dyreson, a Pennsylvania State University professor who co-wrote the chapter "Super Bowl Sunday: A New American Holiday?" for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Holidays.

That got us thinking: Which other pop-culture phenomena still bind us together? After days of argument, research, fact-checking, and multiple rounds of voting - a process as rigorous as a "CSI" forensics test - the staff here at Weekend came up with a highly subjective, nonscientific list of 10 things that act as common denominators. (The Super Bowl, by the way, came in at No. 2 in our ranking. The Olympics didn't even make the cut.)

1) Breaking news

This is the television that really matters. More than diversion or entertainment, these moments, the rare times we're all watching together, are history in the making: Election night, when arguably the most powerful leader in the world is unveiled (2004 drew 55 million viewers); the tsunami in the Indian Ocean and hurricane Katrina here at home; the Iraq war; and, of course, Sept. 11. As often as not, the news is heartbreaking. But these historic images have the power to galvanize incredible compassion and generosity - and make for television that truly unites.

2) Super Bowl

The numbers are hard to ignore: Four of the 10 most watched shows in history are Super Bowls. In each of the past five years, an average of nearly 90 million people (nearly half are women) tuned into the broadcast. Fox estimates that 133 million people - 10 million more than voted in the 2004 presidential election - watched at some point during last year's game. And it's not just for football fans. Ever since Apple aired its "1984" commercial for the Macintosh computer, ad-watching has become as big a draw as the gridiron battle. So come Monday at the water cooler, mention that amazing play by Ben Roethlisberger or Shaun Alexander - or the latest 30-second spot from Acme Widgets - and await the nods of approval.

3) New Year's Eve / July 4