List-o-mania grips media

Decade ends with tallies that traffic in trivia

Since the beginning of the new millennium, pundits and cultural observers have been unable to resist the temptation to reflect, review and rank, marking the decade with a neverending stream of top 10 lists … or top 25 lists … or, in a recent case, a top 19.

But as the decade (some call it the “aughts,” others the “naughts”) comes to a close, the obsession with lists has reached absurd proportions, to the point where it’s not even novel to compile a list of lists. Others beat us to it. And despite our whining about the glut of lists, we still reserve the right to make them. (To those on hypocrisy watch, see Variety, Dec. 21, 2009-Jan. 3, 2010).

The problem is that after a decade that many people would rather forget, lists don’t have the same resonance, and certainly can’t top the spectacle of compiling end-of-the-century lists at the close of 1999.

When Billboard reported that ‘N Sync’s “No Strings Attached” was the bestselling album of the ’00s, the music biz was probably pleased with the sales but less thrilled with the creative impact. Also in the mixed-blessing category, “The Jay Leno Show” comes in at or near the bottom of the ratings heap but tops Nielsen’s list of shows with the most product placement activity.

But those lists are at least based on quantifiable numbers, as opposed to the merely subjective rankings that now proliferate. A list of “Top 10 2009 Celebrity Financial Meltdowns” recently landed in our inbox, a ranking that included Nicolas Cage, Randy Quaid and Annie Leibovitz but was really a way for financial guru Peter Dunn (who came up with the list) to promote himself.

At least the AKC’s list was drawn from its own experts and a poll. Many media outlets, in their desire to drive web traffic, have fueled list craziness with rankings based almost entirely on editorial memory or the easily availability of rights to photos.

In recent weeks we’ve seen tallies of the top 10 technologies tormenting Hollywood (you mean there are more?); the top 10 misbegotten media mergers of the decade (given the consolidation of the previous decade, how could there be any more?); and the “10 albums you were too cool to like in 2009” (did anyone even buy 10 albums in the past 12 months?). Lists of top Tweets were so pervasive all year long that there are too many to name.

Time magazine’s website is a full-on repository of ranking, to the point where it had to provide an alphabetical listing of its lists (“fleeting celebrities” follows “fiction books,” natch). Fittingly, David Letterman ranked No. 1 in the Top 10 Late Night Jokes lists, with a riff on his own scandal: “I got into the car this morning and the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me.”

Time’s sister pub Entertainment Weekly also tests the list limits, with its website capitalizing on year- and decade-end opportunities to compile not just the best in movies, TV etc., but 20 Knockout Dresses of the ’00s (Keira Knightleys emerald gown from “Atonement”) and 10 Hotties of the ’00s (Beyonce, Brad Pitt). Mindful that many readers are home for the holidays, EW even threw in a compilation of the 12 Shows You Only Watch With Your Parents, which seems more of a backhanded way of appeasing CBS publicists for the year.

It’s hard to figure out what some lists mean. Time’s list of Top 10 Performing Politicians is not a compilation of effective leaders but of the musical talents of the likes of Orrin Hatch and John Ashcroft.

IMDB, which has a 24/7 ranking called the STARmeter fluctuating like a thermometer, came out with its annual list of the Top 25 Celebrities, as well as the Top 25 Celebrities 25 and Under. (There’s no hope for those over 55, it seems). Not surprisingly, “Twilight” vampire Robert Pattinson tops both lists. But the tenuous nature of fame is all too apparent: Ellen Page and the cast of Harry Potter completely fell off the list.

In other words, read the list. But don’t make bets on it.

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