In the span of each human life there are a few resonant moments when the
world conspires to remind us of the passage of time, moments when the clock
is simply too loud to ignore.
For the first time, you notice the late-night television host has a few
references in his monologue that are utterly lost on you.
You realize that most of the music in your car was originally released
on vinyl LPs.
While shopping for clothes you remember that you have perfectly good
shirts in your closet that are older than that sullen salesgirl with the
interesting hair and the tattoos.
I must confess that I recently had such a moment -- where I felt my grip
on popular culture loosening, if not slipping.
Google, Lycos and Yahoo, as part of their ongoing efforts to be the
coolest thing since slicedbread.com, compile and publish stats on the top
search queries they're processing. These greatest-hits lists are instant
snapshots of our fast-twitch, media-driven culture. Yahoo's Buzz Index, at
http://buzz.yahoo.com, tracks the most frequent searches of the day and the
queries that have increased in popularity the most from the previous day.
The Lycos 50, at http://50.lycos.com, is a Billboard-style weekly list of
hits and top movers -- complete with commentary by a professional
chart-watcher, Aaron Schatz.
Google Zeitgeist, at www.google.com/press/zeitgeist.html, charts queries
that are gaining or losing the most traffic that week or month. Yahoo
breaks down the results into a few large categories such as music and
movies. Google also breaks its stats down in a few quirky categories ''top
soccer players,'' ''Serena Williams vs. Venus Williams.'' (On the downside,
some of the Google stats can be more than a month old.)
So what is at the forefront of our collective consciousness these days?
As of this week, it wasn't exactly monetary policy and Middle East peace
initiatives. If the lists were a cultural literacy test in 10 or 20
questions, I earned a ''C'' at best.
It was a simply god-awful realization: While the rest of humanity had
snuck out to a hip-hop concert, I was the rumpled old man left in the back
room, humming Perry Como songs and waiting for the afternoon's ''Matlock''
rerun to begin.
I have a feeling I may not be alone in that realization. All three of
the lists were heavy with teen pop sensations and movie stars who will
probably have the career longevity of a fruit fly. (Tell me: Are Avril
Lavigne and Vin Diesel household names in your household? They were both
among the top queries on the Web this week.)
The global view is equally incomprehensible. To wit: According to
Google, the top music query in Spain for the month of June was Las Ketchup
-- and the No. 3 was Salsa Baile. They're big on condiments in Cordoba.
Lycos, quite mercifully, appends a little explanatory tag on each entry
in the Top 50 for those who somehow missed the latest issue of Teen People.
But a run down the Yahoo list this week proved to be a rocky ride for this
addlepated columnist. Of the top 20 query terms, I came up clueless on
four: Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh! (Japanese anime), Neopets (virtual pets)
and the aforementioned Lavigne (a reputed pop star of the moment).
Maybe it's just me. But maybe it's not.
It's possible that these instant metrics don't really represent the
spirit of the age. Rather they may be grossly over-representing the
hormone-drenched, mercurial world inhabited only by 12-to-14-year-olds.
Think of cultural literacy as a cone. Kids need to be conversant on an
amazingly narrow base of subjects to be considered adequately au
courant by their peers. A few well-muscled action heroes, a handful of
hip-hop divas and they're set. As we age, our interests naturally broaden
and deepen. We oldsters are simply navigating by a larger, more detailed
While they're thinking about Las Ketchup, I'm thinking about Louis
Jordan and Yo La Tengo. While they're thinking ''Blue Crush'' I'm thinking
''Wings of Desire.'' I'll see your ''Powerpuff Girls'' and raise you Lynda
Barry and ''Krazy Kat.'' Yes, I am swimming against the cultural tide. And
no, I do not want to get out of the pool just yet. Still, it's understood
that for every person of my age who's killing cubicle time surfing for
''Stickley furniture'' and ''Cinnabar cabernet'' there are 400 ninth
graders all searching simultaneously for Shakira and Eminem.
They may have me outnumbered but . . .
Wait. They may have me outnumbered but . . . but what? Just gimme a sec.
It'll come to me . . .