August 30, 2007

These Things Matter: The Joy of Listing

Print More

I love making lists. Not shopping lists or Spanish vocabulary lists, but the really important lists, like lists of the best movies of the 1990s, or the worst songs of 2006 or the funniest YouTube videos. Lists like these run through my head all day. Like it or not, conversations with me will often transform into spontaneous sessions of list creation. It can be kind of like High Fidelity, only less relevant and without John Cusack involved.
The odds are pretty good that you love lists too. Lists are literally everywhere. They have become a media phenomenon, taking over television, magazines and websites. Media outlets keep producing them because people keep consuming them. VH1 and the E! Channel have made so many list programs, that it sometimes seems as if they don’t televise anything else. (For the record, VH1’s are better.) The funny thing about the list phenomenon is that for every new list produced, there are just as many critics who lament the trend as inane, boring or both.
But lists are irresistible. I would bet that most of those critics would be just as slow to turn away from the 100 Greatest Songs of the ’80s as anybody else would be. Critics would be best served by saving their criticism, because it is unlikely that the list phenomenon is fading away any time soon.
There is a seemingly infinite pool of potential list topics, ranging anywhere from Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists to VH1’s 40 Most Shocking Celebrity Mugshots. Even better than that, once enough time has passed, old list topics can be remade, or “updated,” as the publications will often say. VH1 has numerous versions of the Greatest Rock Moments on Television. The American Film Institute recently updated its list of the 100 Greatest Movies. Entertainment Weekly has recycled so many lists, they could be the topic of Al Gore’s next documentary. The popularity of list-related content has made many of these channels and magazines complacent. When pressed for a cover story or to fill an empty time slot, the no-brainer decision is to make a new list, or update an old one.
But what really drives the phenomenon is not merely the interest in finding out what the ranking is. Rather, it is the resulting analysis, debate and outrage that the list causes that keep us coming back for more. For whatever bizarre reason, we feel that an injustice has been done when we perceive an omission or flaw in the ranking. It defies sanity that I want to yell at the TV at the so-called “experts” who make the ranking when I don’t agree, but if everyone in the audience agreed, then there would be no need for the list, and the show wouldn’t work. When my outrage is strong enough, I can even fight back. The websites of the TV stations and magazines often offer a spot for a subsequent list to be created based on our opinions. In other words, we’re now essentially making counter-lists to lists.
Sometimes I find it difficult even to figure out just what makes someone an “expert” on these list programs. There is no rhyme or reason as to who is selected to comment on the rankings. Apparently, the criterion for being an expert is the ability to understand English. This is even more apparent when visiting, where any product search of CDs or DVDs are accompanied with links to user-created lists of their favorites in related categories. Browsing those links will inevitably lead to more links to user lists, spiraling into a list-centric online universe.
In the spirit of all of this, it is my task to dutifully provide you, the readers, with a top five list every week on a topic related to my column. Call it my attempt to give back to the list-production community that has provided me with so much. It is my modest aspiration that some people will find my lists semi-reasonable. It is my lofty aspiration that I will receive threats to my well-being on the Sun’s website.
To accompany this delightfully existential first column, I leave you with an equally existential first list, the Top Five Lists to Argue About with Your Friends. If they inspire you to some heated arguments, you can blame (or thank) me later:

5. Best 5 Active Directors in Hollywood

4. Top 10 Rap Songs of the 1990s

3. The 5 Most Watchable Razzie Award Winners

2. All-Time Top 10 Sketches on Saturday Night Live

1. Top 3 Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies