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?

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.

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

Holidays defined by grand outdoor spectacles can be cultural unifiers. July 4 brings Americans out in rural fields and urban parks to mark the nation's birthday by exploding fireworks in a rite that's more poignant during times of war or national tragedies. Rockets rise again on New Year's Eve as conversations turn to fresh starts and resolutions. The ball drop in New York packs 750,000 people into Times Square, and millions more watch on television as the Waterford Crystal orb descends 77 feet in 60 seconds. Worldwide, billions toss a glance at Manhattan's party, even as each successive time zone triggers its own minutes of midnight revelry.

4) Oprah Winfrey

Arguably the most trusted person in America - even after the James Frey scandal - Oprah's endorsement of a movie, a Broadway play, or an individual (Dr. Phil, for example), has more currency than a Good Housekeeping seal. One study estimates that each Oprah book pick gains about $80 million in retail sales. (Her latest book-club recommendation, "Night" by Elie Wiesel, is currently No. 1 on The New York Times paperback Bestseller List.) Whether she's doling out cars to unsuspecting teachers, or rounding up child molesters by turning her show into a daytime "America's Most Wanted," she's a newsmaker whose clout - all the more remarkable considering she's a woman and black - extends beyond her empire of movie and TV productions, the Oxygen TV channel, and a glossy magazine. During the mad-cow scare of 1996, Oprah was blamed for allegedly dissuading millions from eating that most American of food staples, the hamburger. Heck, she even got people reading Faulkner again. No wonder "Forbes" ranked the media mogul as America's most powerful celebrity.

5) Harry Potter

The Boy Who Lived has created un-precedented cultural magic on a global scale: Entire families camp out in front of bookstores to snatch up the latest installment of the nearly decade-old Harry Potter saga, more than 250 million total. And then they've lined up again as each of the four films has opened, bringing in more than $1 billion in ticket sales. The six books (one to go) have turned Harry and his friends into household words in dozens of languages, encouraging children of all ages to read - what librarians everywhere call a modern classic in the making.

6) American Idol

More than any other TV series on-air, Fox's talent show is a mirror of today's America. (Ignore, for a moment, the front-and-center presence of that opinionated British bloke.) Other popular shows such as "C.S.I." and "Desperate Housewives" - none of which boast the 35 million households "American Idol" draws each week - feature beautiful, white, middle-class characters. "Idol," by contrast, welcomes diversity from all 50 states. It's that diapason of voices, all in search of the elusive American Idol Dream - or 15 seconds of TV fame during auditions - that makes the show resonate with so many. (It's also left more than a few viewers with unwelcome resonance in their ears - thanks, William Hung.) "Idol" spawned a democratically elected, rather than manufactured, worldwide pop star in the form of Kelly Clarkson. She won't be the last.

7) The Oscars

Wherever there's a TV, you can be sure the folks in front of it know the word "Hollywood," no matter what language they speak. And nothing captures the magic of that word like the annual Academy Awards broadcast. Next month, movie fans around the country - and the world - will watch their favorite celebrities vie for the gold-plated statuettes. True, the numbers for the Oscar broadcast have slipped a tad in recent years - 83 million was the high-water mark in 1997 - but what's a few million when your worldwide audience hovers around a billion or so? That's how many folks ABC breathlessly guesstimates tune into the gala around the world each year. If that's not a planet-wide party, what is?

8) Cyberspace hangouts

In the vast sprawl that is cyberspace, several outposts have emerged as the hot virtual hangouts. One is, a city-specific bulletin board founded a decade ago by San Francisco software engineer Craig Newmark. Unadorned to the point of looking generic, this self-policed bazaar lets users post words and images free - whether they're selling an old space heater or seeking a friend. More than 100 US cities or regions in every state are represented, dozens more abroad; the sites rack up a collective 3 billion page views per month. Also rising fast:, a teen-dominated board where users let it all hang out, sometimes divulging more than parents might imagine. The three-year-old site, which claims its membership now exceeds 50 million, pulls more eyeballs than eBay, Google, or Amazon. (No wonder Rupert Murdoch paid $580 million last summer for its parent company.)

9) The Da Vinci Code

Despite the critics, who doubt its veracity and literary worth, Dan Brown's 2003 novel is the book of the new millennium: 29 million copies in print, 12 million North American readers, 148 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List. By wrapping a conspiracy theory presented as truth in a thriller, and placing at its heart a question about the very roots of Christianity, Brown has landed his book in a perfect cultural storm. It finally hits stores in paperback March 28. The movie, pairing Tom Hanks with French sweetheart Audrey Tautou ("Amélie"), slated for release May 19, will only magnify its visibility. So while everyone hasn't read "The Da Vinci Code" - yet - everyone has heard of it.

10) U2

Every generation has its rock 'n' roll superheroes. In the 1950s it was Elvis. In the '60s it was the Beatles. In the '70s it was Led Zeppelin. And ever since "The Joshua Tree" was released in 1987, the heir apparent to the title "World's Greatest Band" has been Ireland's favorite sons, U2. Their albums go platinum almost instantly. Their concerts - full of boomers on down through Generation Next - sell out faster than you can say "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Lead singer Bono is known the world over, as much for his humanitarian work (the Nobel Prize-nominee had breakfast with President Bush Thursday) as for his distinctive, soaring voice. In an age of wildly fragmented musical offerings, a vast number of audiophiles worldwide still find what they're looking for in the unifying power of U2.

What do you think? Was there anything we left off? Did we get the order wrong? Let us know at Weekend

Clayton Collins, Gloria Goodale, David S. Hauck, Stephen Humphries, and Teresa Méndez contributed to this report.

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