NEW YORK — Sure, we had wars, natural disasters, a growing populist movement and a presidential race heating up, not to mention the deaths of a technology icon, a silver-screen goddess and a couple of shadowy dictators.
But in the bubble that is our popular culture, a world in which fame is measured not by power, influence or substance but by Twitter followers, YouTube hits and general consumption of cyberspace, we can declare two 2011 winners: a prom king and queen of pop culture, if you will.
Not that Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian are actually a couple — if they are, we missed that, although hey, we hear she's not married anymore. But together, they sucked up so much attention, for better or for worse, that they're the chosen guides for our sixth annual, highly selective journey back through the year's Pop Culture Moments:
You know you're in for a rough year if you're already the butt of Ricky Gervais' jokes at the Golden Globes. For CHARLIE SHEEN, the year starts with his messy personal life already under the spotlight. As the month ends he's in rehab, with his hit show, "Two and a Half Men," on hold. Meanwhile three sisters named KARDASHIAN — Kim, Khloe and Kourtney — are sued by a credit card company after pulling their endorsement for the Kardashian Kard, pilloried for its high fees.
A unique American romance takes a poignant turn when astronaut MARK KELLY announces he will launch into space, briefly leaving his wife, wounded congressman GABRIELLE GIFFORDS, on Earth. At the Oscars, the emphasis on "young and hip" bombs, with hosts JAMES FRANCO and ANNE HATHAWAY falling short and the crowd cheering wildly for comedian BILLY CRYSTAL (and guess who's hosting in 2012?) But for SHEEN, things get really bad. The actor's violence-tinged, anti-Semitic radio rant is finally enough for CBS and Warner Bros., who shut down the show for the season (funny how that happens when you call your producer a "contaminated little maggot.")
"Friday," an amateurish, much mocked but strangely addictive song by 13-year-old REBECCA BLACK, is released as a single. Screen icon ELIZABETH TAYLOR dies, leaving behind a legendary career — and a final tweet, promoting her interview in Harper's Bazaar with... KIM KARDASHIAN. Remember PARIS HILTON, who was famous for being famous when that was sorta unique? "I am the original," she declares. This is the month SHEEN seems to self-destruct, staging an unsettling media blitz and coining new expressions — heck, a new language — with phrases like "Duh, Winning!" and "Adonis DNA" and "Vatican Assassins." His Twitter account gains a million followers a day after it opens. Finally he is fired for good. He files a lawsuit, shops a memoir and announces a national tour: "Charlie Sheen Live: Torpedo of Truth." Will it be funny, or will it be....
... Awful? Why, how did you guess? All that Tiger Blood can't save SHEEN from blistering reviews. Speaking of Sheenspeak, the actor also moves to trademark 22 of his catchphrases. Meanwhile, LARRY KING, asked if he misses his nightly platform on CNN, replies yes — but adds: "I don't miss the KARDASHIANS." And, not a great transition here, but we must mention KATE MIDDLETON: Prince William's new wife is an immediate fashion star and perhaps the savior of the monarchy, after all.
OPRAH WINFREY goes out with a bang, ending her talk show after 25 years with a sincere thank-you, and no cars or trips for the audience. It's on to her new cable network, aptly called OWN. It's a worse month for DONALD TRUMP, who has to sit through President Obama's roasting of him, then announces he won't run for president. (For now.) SHEEN WATCH: The actor tours tornado damage in Alabama, and damage of the career kind comes later this month, when he's replaced on "Two and a Half Men" by ASHTON KUTCHER, Twitter king and the other half of DEMI MOORE. (For now.) But we're burying the lead: KARDASHIAN is engaged, to New Jersey Nets forward Kris Humphries, her boyfriend of six months. She gets a proposal on bended knee amid rose petals, and a big diamond ring.
More good news for the KARDASHIANS: A California judge throws out the $75 million lawsuit by the credit card company. A quiet month for Charlie, so let's mention another guy who gets a lot of unwanted attention: ANTHONY WEINER, who is forced to resign his New York congressional seat following sordid revelations of his electronic misadventures. It's goodbye for now to those dreams of being NYC mayor — NOT winning!
REBECCA BLACK, now 14, releases a second video, the presciently named "My Moment." KARDASHIAN is getting ready for HER moment, next month's wedding, but she has time to sue Old Navy (and its parent company, The Gap Inc.) for using a lookalike to advertise its clothing. For SHEEN, it's time for a TV comeback — Lionsgate Television announces the actor will appear in a new sitcom based on the film "Anger Management." Yes, really.
Can we raise the level of discourse for a moment and salute feminist icon GLORIA STEINEM, who appears in a new HBO film about her much-admired career? Back to Charlie: Can't he get a break? He goes to batting practice in Phoenix and injures his elbow. But it's all a distraction from ... THE WEDDING! Yes, KARDASHIAN and HUMPHRIES marry in a lavish ceremony near Santa Barbara, Calif., to be televised as a two-part special on the E! network in October. Quips DAVID LETTERMAN, about recent threats he's gotten for jokes perceived as anti-Muslim: "How can someone be so angry at a time when Kim Kardashian is so happy?"
Call it the Redemption Tour: SHEEN seems to be making nice all over television, telling MATT LAUER on "Today" of his crazy spring: "It was one of those things where the planets were aligned... like being shot out of a cannon into another cannon and then being just shot out of that one." He tells JAY LENO that he deserved to be fired. And in a surprise appearance at the Emmys, he wishes his old show all the best for the upcoming season. None of this saves him — or his former character — from death: The show reveals the character slipped on a subway platform in Paris and was hit by an oncoming train. And KARDASHIAN stays married — all month long.
Oh NO, we jinxed it! KARDASHIAN files for divorce, only 10 weeks after the wedding and less than a month after the wedding special aired. "I had hoped this marriage was forever," she says, "but sometimes things don't work out as planned." Things are looking up, though, for SHEEN — the FX cable channel says it's picking up "Anger Management." On a much, much more serious note, STEVE JOBS' death of cancer sparks a wave of tributes across the globe. Perhaps the most poignant of all of them: the partly bitten apples appearing in front of Apple stores everywhere, in deference to the company's famous logo.
OOPS! Candidate RICK PERRY'S embarrassing inability to remember the third government agency he'd like to abolish sparks a thousand spoofs. We knew her as a quiet teenager in the White House: Now, the famously tightlipped CHELSEA CLINTON becomes a TV journalist, joining NBC News. A stable month for Sheen — but his replacement on "Two and a Half Men" sees some turbulence of his own with the breakdown of his marriage to DEMI MOORE. It's not often we can quote Salman Rushdie in a lighthearted pop culture piece, so let's go for it: "The marriage of poor kim (hash)kardashian was krushed like a kar in a krashian," tweets the "Satanic Verses" author.
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Coming in just under the wire: Yet another 2011 celebrity marriage breakup, this time comedian RUSSELL BRAND and singer KATY PERRY. On the other hand, congratulations, REBECCA BLACK! "Friday" was the top YouTube video of the year with 180 million views. KARDASHIAN (with her sisters) is part of Barbara Walters' 10 Most Fascinating People special, and the starlet is also the year's third most searched term on Yahoo. As for SHEEN, he also wins something: the No. 7 spot on a Yale Law School librarian's annual list of top quotes. To wit: "I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available because if you try it once you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body."
That seems to say it all. See you in 2012.