There is plenty of harsh reality to be found on the Yahoo! search engine, and 2008 was a year, more than most, when reality kept intruding on people's lives and dreams. But you wouldn't know it from the Top 10 Yahoo! searches of the year. It was stunning cheesecake all the way, and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama was the only political figure around the globe who made the Yahoo! list big time with his "Politics of Hope."
Yet even Obama, the first African-American in history to win the U.S. presidency after an exceptionally long, grueling, drastic and topsy-turvy campaign, could only make No. 3 on the Yahoo! Top Ten list. He was bested by Britney at No. 1 and by the phenomenon of World Wrestling Entertainment at No. 2.
As the Yahoo! report succinctly put it, Britney's year "began with a police visit, hospital stay and psych evaluation. She returned under her father's shelter and by summer, settled custody with her ex." After that, it was an unending procession of triumphs. As far as the Yahoo! searchers were concerned, Michael Phelps' unprecedented eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games paled in comparison to Britney's guest appearance on a U.S. TV sitcom, her three wins at the MTV Video Music Awards and the sales records she broke with her new "Womanizer" video.
On top of all that, she relaunched her Web site and, in the best traditions of American sentimentality and kitsch, produced a documentary tracing her fall and rise.
Britney's Year of Triumph as Wall Street collapsed was paralleled by a phenomenon that made even her look classy. World Wrestling Entertainment, with its fake macho play-brutality and lowest-common-denominator melodrama, made it up to No. 2 on the Yahoo! most viewed list. As Yahoo!'s analyst put it with a focused brevity that put most of the world's financial gurus to shame, "WWE produced more events, video games and movies to make up for fewer paying fans, and faithfuls kept track online to maintain its Top 2 status." Beat that, Global Warming.
Obama couldn't match Britney's kitsch or WWE's clout, even with Oprah and Will Smith handling his media strategy. But no other world or American public figure came close to his achievement in holding off Miley Cyrus -- the "Hannah Montana" teen superstar of the Disney Channel and the RuneScape video game -- to maintain his third place showing. Obama also beat out Jessica Alba, "Naruto," Lindsay Lohan, Angelina Jolie and "American Idol" on the Yahoo! Top 10 list -- no mean feat.
There is no end to the cliches, profound and petty, that the Yahoo! list can provoke. But America has been a populist, media-driven celebrity circus in its public life at least since the presidential campaigns of Gen. Andrew Jackson in 1824 and 1828. The endless American appetite for trivialization and kitsch sentimentality has held the wider world in awe and bewilderment for centuries even while it continues to weave its irresistible spells.
Sigmund Freud, after all, was profoundly influenced by his visit to Coney Island, and Adolf Hitler's favorite reading included Zane Grey pulp Western novels. Yet through all that time, the United States continually generated the wealthiest economy in the world with the highest standard of living more widely disseminated among more people than any other society in history had ever aspired to.
At the end of the day, of course, Britney's (mis)adventures and the muscle-flexing, steroid-powered soap operas of the WWE can provide welcome relief but no permanent escape from the challenges and dangers of an ever-more ominous and darkening world. And Obama ultimately will be judged by how he deals with the reality of that world beyond the Yahoo! buzz. But in the meantime, Britney, thank you for brightening our lives.