The first sign that it might be tough for cultural news to attract any attention in 2008 arrived on Jan. 4, a Friday. Britney Spears had been hospitalized the previous day after a late-night custody scuffle with ex-husband Kevin Federline. But despite putting on this Grade A fracas, she was not the most-Googled person in the news.
That honor belonged to Barack Obama, who the same night had upset Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, winning the first contest of the Democratic primary. Both Obama and Mike Huckabee, who won the Republican caucuses, posted better numbers than Britney on Google's domestic-search volume charts, though Spears did manage to edge out Hillary Clinton and John McCain. It was a harbinger of things to come: In 2008, America was riveted by the election, and anything not related to it had trouble grabbing a slice of the American attention span.
So rather than publishing a list of the best or most critically interesting cultural happenings of the year, Slate decided to compile a list of the most distracting: The cultural stories that proved more compelling than the election for even a single day between January and Nov. 4.
Our methodology was pretty simple: We pitted the number of Google searches for a wide variety of cultural products and figures against the number of searches for the top candidates, looking for any story that was more Googled than politics on a given day. (We used Google Insights to compare the terms.) In effect, this means we were looking for cultural figures more searched-for than Obama. (His name was a more popular search term than the other candidates' for most of the year; Sarah Palin held the top spot for a month or so after she was selected as the Republican running mate.) Below is a sample chart that compares various candidates with two of the biggest nonpolitical stories of the year. Google data is displayed on a 100-point scale set by the highest data point on the chart.
Our list may not be comprehensive. We used Insights to gather a list of rising searches in the Entertainment and Arts & Humanities categories in Google Insights for each month and then compared those terms with the names of the leading candidates at the time. We also plugged in all the major movies, albums, celebrity deaths, and culture news stories we could think of. Virtually all of the items we handpicked as candidates for the list also showed up in the organic lists of rising searches that Insight provides. That said, it's possible something fell through the cracks; if you have a story that should be on our list—and anyone can use Google Insights, so please try this at home—e-mailSlate with the suggestion.
As one might expect, toppling Obama or Palin from the top of the search chart was a monumental feat; if it's any indication, Palin was more searched for than sex by the end of August, and Obama even punctured the hegemony of lyrics, one of the most searched-for words of all, when he won the general election. Here is our list of the cultural phenomena that knocked these two—however briefly—off their pedestals:
Cloverfield (released Jan. 18): Critics were unimpressed by this monster flick with a YouTube aesthetic, produced by Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams. But crafty marketing for the movie fueled fascination with it: It was more searched-for than Obama for eight days after his Iowa-primary win.
Heath Ledger (died Jan. 22): After his unexpected death, the Dark Knight star's name reached heights that rivaled Sarah Palin's figures in August. Ledger's death even pushed searches for his longtime girlfriend Michelle Williams above searches for the candidates.
Brad Renfro (died Jan. 15).
American Idol (returned Jan. 15): The seventh season of American Idol debuted during a lull in the early primaries; it was more searched-for than the candidates for two days. As the season heated up and primaries took a hiatus in the spring, searches for the show consistently beat political searches after every airing. The show's May 21 finale generated significantly more searches than the end of Democratic Idol two weeks later.
View chart: January to March, April to June.
Juno (released Dec. 25, 2007): Though it was released the previous December, Juno showed remarkable staying power, peaking a hair above Obama during a break in the early primary schedule.
The Oscars (aired Feb. 24): The Academy awards briefly unseated Obama on the charts. The top two searches were for worst- and best-dressed, respectively.
The Grammys (aired Feb. 10): The annual music awards barely surpassed Obama, who won a Grammy at the event, beating out Bill Clinton. Many queries related to the rehabilitating Amy Winehouse, who won five awards and performed live via satellite from London.
The Office (returned April 10): The popular NBC show topped Obama the day after its return to TV and traded spots with Clinton and McCain throughout its spring season.
Ashley Dupré (outed as "Kristen" March 13): The call girl implicated in Eliot Spitzer's downfall attracted a brief, torrential interest that surpassed interest in the New York governor himself.
Charlton Heston (died April 5).
Rock of Love (season finale, April 13): Searches for the reality-TV show about Poison frontman Bret Michaels' quest for love spiked the day after the season finale, when Michaels chose 37-year-old Ambre Lake. The two are no longer dating.
The Biggest Loser (season finale, April 15): This reality weight-loss show was a more popular search term than any candidate the day after both the penultimate and final episodes aired.
Mindy McCready (affair disclosed April 27): The New York Daily News' report of an affair between the country star and Roger Clemens briefly peaked above politics. Curiously, McCready was several times more searched-for than Clemens. McCready confirmed the affair, while Clemens admitted only that he has "made mistakes" in his personal life.
Miley Cyrus (posed suggestively April 28): Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus had enjoyed candidate-level searchability all year, posting numbers that very closely matched John McCain's through March. When news broke that the 15-year-old had posed topless—though wrapped in a bedsheet—for Vanity Fair, Cyrus rocketed to heights that surpassed even Obama's clinching of the nomination a few weeks later.
Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon (married April 30): Rumors of Carey's marriage to actor/rapper Nick Cannon, which were not immediately confirmed, pushed the new couple to the top of the search charts during a recess in the primary schedule.
Iron Man (released May 2): The Marvel Studios blockbuster was so popular that it surpassed Obama on the search charts twice, first for four days after its release and again the following weekend.
Survivor: Micronesia (season finale, May 11).
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (released May 22).
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