Although the Oxford English Dictionary traces it back to 1854, the phrase "pop culture" became part of mainstream vernacular in the late 1970s thanks to Bowling Green State University professor Ray B. Browne [source: Fox]. Browne initiated the nation's first popular culture academic department, attracting criticism along the way from those who considered the subject matter little more than trendy detritus.
Undoubtedly, much of pop culture merely clogs up our media and minds like a hairball snowballing in a shower drain. In 2011, for instance, the United States came down with wedding fever, paying nearly as much attention to reality princess Kim Kardashian's nuptial nightmare as it did to the union of bona fide royal Prince William to Kate Middleton -- now the Duchess of Cambridge, of course. In between those spring and autumn ceremonies, we filled up Facebook albums with photos of ourselves lying face down on random surfaces, planking with juvenile abandon.
But as Professor Browne, who died in 2009, would likely admonish, it wasn't all that bad, really. Maybe we still can't seem to scrub Rebecca Black's "Friday" from our frontal lobes, but the stuff of 2011's water cooler conversations contained kernels of credibility and nuggets of noteworthiness. Case(s) in point: 2011's Smartest Moments in Pop Culture.
Melissa McCarthy's Emmy Win
Melissa McCarthy's Emmy Award for "Best Lead Actress in a Comedy" for her role as Molly in the sitcom "Mike & Molly" signaled a larger sort of win for women in Hollywood that began with the May 2011 release of the comedy "Bridesmaids." McCarthy, who co-starred in the film alongside Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, received rave reviews among film critics for her physical and character-based comedic skills. By July, "Bridesmaids" had beat out the "Sex & the City" franchise to become the top-grossing female-centered comedy in cinema history, demonstrating that funny ladies on screen like McCarthy can attract both female and male viewers to the box office [source: Rosen]. Some even questioned whether that big screen breakout helped garner the unexpected Emmy [source: O'Neil].
The President and the Pope Tweet
These days, it seems that with great power comes great responsibility -- and a Twitter account. Why else would President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI turn to Twitter to capture popular attention?
Over in Italy, it wasn't exactly holy scripture, but Pope Benedict's first 140-character instant message was nevertheless a groundbreaking intersection of technology and religion. In June 2011, the pope sent out his famous tweet to promote a news site launched by the Vatican [source: Townsend]. A month later in July 2011, President Obama jumped on the Twitter train as well during an online town-hall event [source: Townsend]. Casually signing his live tweet "bo," the President asked for suggestions on how to cut spending in order to reduce the federal deficit.
Young Darth Vader
The Super Bowl is one of the first major pop culture-shaping events of each year, with spectators glued to their televisions lest they miss a single buzz-worthy commercial. In 2011, one of the best pricey ads that debuted during the annual pigskin showdown borrowed from vintage pop culture to feed current pop culture.
A young child dressed up in a Darth Vader costume stomps around the house with the familiar John Williams "Star Wars" score piping in the background, unsuccessfully attempting to "use the Force" to move various objects. Employing simplistic humor and no dialogue, the car commercial charmed audiences enough to make the Super Bowl spot into an online viral hit. The subtle, but savvy Volkswagen Passat ad, titled "The Force" attracted more than 45 million YouTube views as of December 2011 since its prime time debut. It was even a highbrow hit, earning a Film Gold Lion Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival [source: Nudd].
Zodiac Sign Shenanigans
In January 2011, a Minnesota astronomer broke the terrifying news of a 13th zodiac sign, Ophiuchus. Speaking to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, star gazer and board member of the Minnesota Planetarium Parke Kunkle told the newspaper that a "wobble" in Earth's axis had shifted the alignment of the sun and stars, which differentiates Cancers from Libras and so forth [source: Pappas]. As a result, the accurate alignment of Earth and stars indicated that people born between Nov. 29 and Dec. 17 were no longer bow-and-arrow wielding Sagittarii but serpent bearers of the Ophiuchus sign, derived and later discarded by ancient Babylonians.
Although astrology isn't a revered science, the negative reaction was somewhat understandable, considering 25 percent of Americans believe in horoscopes [source: Braiker]. Media outlets around the country immediately jumped on the zodiac story, overwhelming astrologers and astronomers alike with interview requests as the general public took to social media in outrage against Ophiuchus. Come to find out, however, Kunkle's zodiac news wasn't new by a long shot. A guy named Aristarchus of Samos detected the zodiac-shuffling wobbling of the Earth's axis, a gravitational effect known as precession, circa 280 B.C. [source: Pappas]. But that wobble doesn't make a difference in one's horoscope, astrologers quickly pointed out to inquiring journalists, because the most commonly used zodiac calendar hinges on planetary, not constellation, alignments [source: Braiker].
Almost as soon as the news broke, astronomers and astrologists alike debunked the 13-sign calendar, tossing out Ophiuchus as quickly as he had elbowed in between Sagittarius and Scorpio. Tripped up by pseudoscience, people nevertheless learned about the lesser-known intricacies of astrology.
'Jersey Shore' Gone Wilde
Rebecca Black wasn't the only go-getter going viral online in 2011. Trashy met high-brow with the "'Jersey Shore' Gone Wilde" series produced by the Web site Playbill. The short videos feature professional thespians Santino Fontana and David Furr in Victorian garb acting out scripts stripped directly from MTV's "Jersey Shore" transcripts. The duo transforms Snooki, The Situation and company's absurd obscenity-flecked ramblings and ravings into theatrical gold, delivering their PG-13 lines with the propriety of the utmost gentlemen in a hilarious cultural mash-up.
Ironically, the same year that 'Jersey Shore' went Oscar Wilde, Nicole Polizzi (aka "Snooki") became a published author. Her novel, "A Shore Thing" demonstrated that reality television success doesn't always translate to success in reality. During its first month on bookstore shelves, only about 9,000 copies sold [source: Friedman].
Food Pyramid Reconstructed
After 19 years of attempting to steer Americans in the right nutritional directions, the food pyramid entered retirement in June 2011 [source: Melnick]. During the food pyramid's tenure, the American waistline had expanded, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one-third of adults in the United States were obese in 2010 [source: CDC]. The icon doesn't bear the entire blame for the national obesity epidemic, but critics long complained that it encouraged overeating [source: Knox].
In place of the arguably confusing pyramid, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled "My Plate," a circular icon quartered into fruits, vegetables, grains and protein segments; dairy sits in a small separate circle beside the main "plate." The "My Plate" campaign also coincided with first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to curb America's obesity epidemic.
Some nutritionists criticized "My Plate" for disregarding the protein derived from grains and dairy, and others considered the campaign a waste of $2 million in taxpayer funding [source: Barmann]. Despite the tepid media response, "My Plate" was perceived overall as an improvement. Speaking to The New York Times, New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle commented, "It's better than the pyramid, but that's not saying a lot" [source: Neuman].
The Award-winning, Undocumented Journalist
In a cover story published in The New York Times Magazine, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas confessed to being an undocumented immigrant living illegally in the United States. In doing so, Vargas, who was born in the Philippines and entered the country at age 12, potentially risked deportation and stoked controversy among the mainstream media outlets he had worked for, including The Washington Post and Huffington Post.
Vargas said he was motivated to publish the essay because, at age 30, he was weary of concealing his illegal status from employers and acquaintances, a process which included using a falsified Social Security card. He also used the prominent platform to rally support for passage of the DREAM Act, legislation that would open up routes to U.S. citizenship for undocumented students who were raised and educated in American schools [source: Vargas]. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deported almost 400,000 illegal immigrants, the highest number on record [source: Gomez and Johnson].
Since Vargas doesn't pose a direct threat to national security and has no previous criminal record, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency may well leave him alone [source: Dade]. His on-the-record deception of media organizations may prove a more haunting force, however, since such behavior flies directly in the face of fact-driven journalism ethics. For instance, Vargas originally pitched his essay to The Washington Post, but it was ultimately declined due to his history of lying [source: Shafer].
'Community' Says Beetlejuice Three Times
In November, fans of the NBC sitcom "Community" expressed concern that the network hadn't included the show in its mid-season lineup [source: Moylan]. As of December 2011, the network had yet to officially cancel the sitcom, leaving it in a state of television limbo. During its three seasons on air, "Community" had attracted a diehard fan base that followed its running gags, savvy pop culture references and clever writing with unabashed glee. Perhaps as a thank-you gift to its adoring viewers, "Community" writers brought an inside joke to fruition after three years of buildup, providing a high point in 2011 television.
Characters have mentioned "Beetlejuice" once every season, and in accordance with Beetlejuice lore, on the third name drop in the third season, the striped suit-wearing ghost appeared in the background. Writers for the Web site Reddit first noticed the sly slip, and a video mashup of the three Beetlejuice references quickly spread around the Internet [source: Abramovich].
Government Repeals 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
On Sept. 18, 2011, the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy banning gay soldiers from serving openly officially expired. Originally signed into law by President Clinton nearly 18 prior, President Obama signed the Congressional legislation putting an end to it. Although a majority of Americans supported ending DADT, some politicians and military leaders remained critical of the landmark decision [source: Halloran]. The exact number of gays in the American armed forces is unknown, but research from UCLA estimated that DADT affected about 66,000 personnel [source: O'Keefe].
However, in late November 2011, U.S. Marine Gen. James F. Amos told the Associated Press that the repeal had gone smoothly within his branch [source: Mak and Weinger]. His comments were especially significant since the general had previously testified before Congress in opposition to dissolving DADT. Moreover, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which advocates on behalf of gay military members, hadn't received any reports of post-repeal harassment from soldiers who had decided to come out [source: Mak and Weinger].
Debit Card Fee Debacle
When Bank of America announced its plan for a new $5 fee for debit card transactions, customers revolted. Following the bank's $45 billion taxpayer-funded bailout from the federal government, people didn't take too kindly to being charged -- albeit a nominal sum -- in return. Molly Katchpole of Washington, D.C., became the face of the backlash against Bank of America by starting an online petition to stop the company from levying the debit card fee. Her Change.org petition attracted more than 300,000 signatures, President Obama even spoke out against the fee, saying it was "not good business practice" [source: Gandel].
Soon after, big bank rivals Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase abandoned similar fee plans, and on Nov. 1, Bank of America capitulated as well [source: Bernard]. But that wasn't before some Bank of America customers jumped ship in revolt. Following the $5 debit card fee announcement on Sept. 29, the Credit Union National Association reported 650,000 new accounts, which is attributed to consumer discontent with larger financial institutions like Bank of America [source: Kim].
Who Is Arcade Fire?
When the members of Arcade Fire stepped onto the stage to accept their trophies for Album of the Year, many people watching the Grammy Awards ceremony scratched their heads and thought -- or tweeted -- six little words: "Who the heck is Arcade Fire?" The five-piece band hailing from Canada beat out mainstream heavyweights Eminem, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, along with alt-country Lady Antebellum, for the night's top prize. And although their album "The Suburbs" sold 400,000 copies and had won praise among critics, they certainly were a dark horse winner, unfamiliar to so many that it spawned an Internet meme known as "Who is Arcade Fire?" [source: Abebe].
Despite the public incredulity, Arcade Fire didn't have nearly as tough a post-Grammy storm to weather as Esperanza Spalding, jazz singer and winner of Best New Artist. Since Spalding edged out Justin Bieber, legions of the pop idol's fans took their rage online, vandalizing her Wikipedia page and flooding message boards and comments sections with obscenities and death wishes [source: Wright].
McQueen at the Met
Fashion designer Alexander McQueen's suicide in February 2010 sent shock waves through the industry and triggered an outpouring of posthumous adoration for his elaborate couture confections. In homage to the icon, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized an exhibit, "Savage Beauty," to celebrate the sartorial legacy he left behind. Highlighting the intersection of fashion, sculpture and conceptualization, "Savage Beauty" was one of the most lauded artistic events of the year. As many as 15,000 people per day waited in line to glimpse the captivating wardrobe, which included Duchess of Cambridge Catherine Middleton's wedding dress [source: Cardwell]. Viewed by more than 660,000 visitors, the McQueen exhibit now ranks as the Costume Institute's most popular one to date and the Met's eighth most-popular [source: Sun].
A Tabloid-worthy Tabloid Scandal
Although the roots of voicemail hacking at News of the World trace back to 2005, scandal exploded in June 2011 when British investigators confirmed that journalists at the publication had indeed tampered with people's private phone lines [source: CNN staff]. The tabloid officially apologized for hacking that occurred between 2004 and 2006, but it couldn't shake its new-found nefarious reputation, especially after its admission of hacking into and deleting messages from a murdered teenager's voicemail to trick her parents into thinking she was still alive. A month later, News of the World folded, and British police arrested Rebekah Brooks, former CEO of News International, the British arm of News Corporation, which also owns The Wall Street Journal. Brooks was taken in on allegations of her connection with the phone hacking scandal, as well as bribery to police officers.
The hammer also fell hard on one of the first families of media, the Murdochs. Rupert Murdoch is Chairman and CEO of News Corporation, and his son James Murdoch ran daily operations at News of the World while the phone hacking was going on. The Murdochs have testified before Parliamentary panels regarding their knowledge of or involvement in the wiretapping scandal; at one of the proceedings, a vigilante threw a cream pie in the elder Murdoch's face. The government has yet to press any charges against them, and News Corp. shareholders voted Murdoch and his two sons back to the company's board of directors in October [source: Kim]. Although some have questioned whether the influential family has been adequately held accountable for their possible roles in the scandal, the situation has nonetheless prompted the public to turn a more critical eye on the press. The take-down of Britain's largest tabloid will also undoubtedly go down as one of the most dramatic instances of the media being held accountable for unethical journalism.
Gabrielle Giffords' Post-recovery Interview
Rarely does a top news story as genuinely heartwarming as Gabrielle Giffords' Nov. 14 interview with Diane Sawyer on "20/20" come around. Eleven months earlier, Jared Lee Loughner shot the Arizona congresswoman in the head at point blank range, sending a bullet through her brain and fracturing her skull and eye sockets [source: Webley]. Initially, doctors doubted whether she would walk or speak again, but Giffords has made a remarkable recovery, with her husband Mark Kelly continually supporting and encouraging her. Kelly and Giffords' family has documented her daily recovery process on video, and the "20/20" interview clearly proves the extent of her determination and the brain's incredible capacity to heal itself. Moreover, it's a testament to Giffords' and Kelly's loving, persistent dedication to each other, making it a must-see moment of 2011.
Start a Twitter Revolution
The pro-democracy Arab Spring movement that brought down dictatorial regimes across the Middle East, including Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Syria, was initially spurred by the self-immolation of a fruit and vegetable seller named Mohamed Bouazizi. In December 2010, police in Tunisia forcibly shut down Bouazizi's stand, causing him such distress that he set himself on fire to protest the repressive government and languishing economic conditions within in the country [source: Steinmetz]. As Tunisians began rallying together to oust 23-year President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from office, they wielded social media, particularly Twitter, as a powerful tool to spread their message of liberation domestically and abroad.
A similar thing happened as Egyptians took over Tahrir Square soon after the Tunisian uprisings, calling for the resignation of dictatorial President Hosni Mubarak. In the week before Mubarak left office, Egyptian tweets skyrocketed from 2,300 to 230,000 [source: Greenfield]. Twitter itself wasn't the deciding factor in the success of the Arab Spring movements, but rather a mouthpiece and facilitator that arguably accelerated the pace and amplified the force of the protests. Studies on Twitter's role in Arab Spring have disagreed on the extent of its real-world revolutionary impact, but it's new place as a protest tool is undeniable, as recently exemplified in the West with the Occupy Wall Street movement [source: Greenfield].
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