Miley Cyrus, Marc Chagall, and 39 other topics that distracted us—at least briefly—from the election this year.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Dec. 26 2008 11:17 AM

Who Says Obama Was the Story of the Year?

Miley Cyrus, Marc Chagall, and 39 other topics that distracted us—at least briefly—from the election.

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.

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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:

January
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.
View chart.

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.
View chart.

Brad Renfro (died Jan. 15).
View chart.

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.
View chart.

Naruto (ongoing): The popular Japanese manga and animé series occasionally peaked above politics in search volume throughout the year, particularly in January and April.
View chart: January, April.

February
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.
View chart.

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.
View chart.

Lindsay Lohan (bared breasts Feb. 18): Lohan's re-creation of Marilyn Monroe's iconic semi-nude photos for New York magazine netted her one day ahead of Obama on the charts.
View chart.

March
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.
View chart.

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.
View chart.

April
Charlton Heston (died April 5).
View chart.

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.
View chart.

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.
View chart.

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.
View chart.

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.
View chart.

May
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.
View chart.

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.
View chart.

Survivor: Micronesia (season finale, May 11).
View chart.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (released May 22).
View chart.

Dancing With the Stars (season finale, May 22).
View chart.

Lost (season finale, May 29): The enigmatic ABC show occasionally crested above the candidates throughout the fourth season, though the numbers are somewhat inflated by searches for the (unrelated) video game Lost Odyssey. The jump in searches after the season finale is unmistakably attributable to the show.
View chart.

Sex and the City (film released May 30).
View chart.

Sydney Pollack (died May 26).
View chart.

Harry Potter (actor killed May 24): Robert Knox, who played the character Marcus Belby in the sixth Harry Potter movie, was stabbed in a fight.
View chart.

June
George Carlin
(died June 22).
View chart.

The Happening (released June 13).
View chart.

CampRock (released June 20): The Disney original movie upset Obama's figures during the lull after the end of the Democratic primary.
View chart.

Wanted (released June 27): The unwatchable Angelina Jolie thriller crested above Obama during a slow stretch in the campaign. (Note: While wanted is a fairly generic word, other terms in the queries, like review and angelina jolie, suggest the majority of the searches were for the movie.)
View chart.

July
Hancock (released July 2).
View chart.

The Bachelorette (season finale, July 7).
View chart.

Marc Chagall (born July 7, 1887): Huh? Why would the Russian-born modernist artist, who died in 1985, skyrocket to astronomical heights—we're talking Sarah Palin magnitudes—for one day on his 121st birthday? A LexisNexis search for Chagall in early July turned up nothing remarkable, though Chagall also shows up on Nielsen's BlogPulse rankings for rising stars in the blogosphere on that day. Mystery solved: That day, Google displayed a Chagall-style version of its logo on its homepage, which was hyperlinked to a search for Chagall's name. (See more of Google's specialized logos here.) Alexander Graham Bell enjoyed a similar surge in March when Google gave him the same treatment, as did Diego Velázquez in August.
View chart.

The Dark Knight (released July 18): The sequel to Batman Begins steamrolled over political searches for nine days in July, surpassing Obama a day before the movie was released. Several of the stars in the movie, such as Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, rode the wave of interest ahead of Obama for a day or two.
View chart.

Harry Potter (trailers released): The boy wizard spiked twice in July on the releases of trailers and other news from the forthcoming sixth movie.
View chart.

August
Morgan Freeman
(car accident, Aug. 3).
View chart.

Bernie Mac (died Aug. 9): Bernie Mac's death at age 50 generated about as much search interest as George Carlin's, though for slightly longer. Mac's death even topped interest in the conventions.
View chart.

Isaac Hayes (died Aug. 10).
View chart.

Bigfoot (discovered Aug. 15): Two Georgia men who claimed to have found a Bigfoot corpse generated about as much traffic as Obama did on the first day of the Democratic convention a week later.
View chart.

September
Travis Barker
(plane crash, Sept. 19).
View chart.

October
Jennifer Hudson
(relatives murdered Oct. 24).
View chart.

Saturday Night Live (Palin appears Oct. 18): After the sketch show's mock vice-presidential debate on Oct. 4 and the real Palin's SNL appearance two weeks later, searches for it outranked searches for the candidate herself.
View chart.

Honorable mentions
Stonewall Jackson
(discussed on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader Jan. 11): The Confederate general very nearly unseated Barack Obama after Access Hollywood host Billy Bush—a first cousin of the president—incorrectly guessed Jackson's given first name during an appearance on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Bush guessed "Andrew." Many searchers appeared to be looking up the answer themselves, adding the word name to their queries. The correct answer is Thomas.
View chart.

Kristin Davis (sex tape leaked March 18): If images from your sex tape must be leaked, take a cue from Davis on timing: Obama gave his acclaimed speech on race relations the same day her tape was released. Searches for Kristin Davis, who played the wholesome Charlotte on Sex and the City,didn't top searches for Obama but still outnumbered those for Clinton and McCain.
View chart.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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