Throw the rip-and-read desk calendar away as 2004 vanishes into the history books. Ten or 20 years from now when we look back at this time, how will we react? Will it bring nostalgia -- or just plain nausea? When we consider the pulse of popular culture, this last year was a very mixed bag. It had a few splendid moments, and numerous potential breakthroughs for cultural sanity amidst the dogged persistence of smut, coarseness and nihilism.
Loser: Janet Jackson. Her breast-exposing "wardrobe malfunction" stunt in front of hundreds of millions of Super Bowl fans around the globe brought this woman the kind of infamy only her brother would understand: worldwide attention, worldwide scorn. Sure, it sold some albums, but those sales soon dried up. Janet is just another pathetic Jackson family member who will stop at nothing to stay in the spotlight, even if it means disgracing herself.
Winner: Bill Cosby. After spending decades entertaining millions of children with his brand of marvelous comedy, Cosby has now launched a crusade of passionate speeches urging black children -- and their parents -- to ditch the "gangsta" rap culture that is poisoning the black community in favor of educated, civilized behavior. He's virtually alone, and for his efforts to advance the radical notion of "taste" he has gained the nasty opprobrium of some apologists for cultural nihilism, like the scribes at the Village Voice, for falling "back on what elitists do best -- impose condescending lessons on ethics and etiquette."
Loser: "South Park." The producers of this curdled, malodorous black hole of Comedy Central vomit want to elicit only one sentence from viewers: "Did I just see that on television?" For anyone who thinks television today is not as offensive -- and downright stupid as those "prudes" say it is, we suggest a look at the Dec. 1 episode. At the South Park "Whore-Off" competition, Paris Hilton inserts an entire pineapple into her vagina. A gay man in a biker vest then takes off his pants and puts the entire body of Paris Hilton up his rectum. Remember this episode the next time some TV critic raves about the "talent" behind "South Park."
Winner: Computer-animated movies. "Shrek 2" was the king of the box office in a very hot year for movies, raking in a cool $438.4 million at last count. "The Incredibles" was dazzling, a thrill for adults and children alike, and is closing in on the $250 million mark. "Shark Tale" has grossed $160 million; "Polar Express" stands at $125 million, and climbing. "SpongeBob SquarePants" chalked up another $75 million or so. Once again, Michael Medved's annual question demands an answer: If Hollywood cares only about money, and "G" and "PG" movies are the big money-makers, why isn't Hollywood making more of these films?
Loser-Winner: Howard Stern. The shock jock is no longer "King of All Media" as he flees FM radio in the wake of growing national outrage over his brand of filth over the public airwaves. On the other hand, Stern has announced a $100 million deal with Sirius satellite radio, beginning in 2006, which will make him personally a big winner -- assuming he doesn't bankrupt his employer in the process.
Loser: Viacom. In 2004, Viacom gave us a) the CBS Super Bowl scandal, and contrary to its very public, apologetic statements when hauled before Congress, CBS is appealing the FCC fines on the legal grounds that there was nothing indecent about a woman being stripped topless in front of tens of millions of children; b) the "F" word live on prime time's "Big Brother"; the Victoria's Secret underwear show, which angered millions; and c) an entire year of Howard Stern-MTV-Comedy Central filth. Oh, almost forgot, d) the announcement that it is launching a gay MTV spin-off network in 2005.
Loser: Planet Toys, the makers of "CSI" toys for kids. "CSI" is an adult TV hit in three different versions, each featuring forensic-scientist heroes solving crimes. Planet Toys, however, is marketing its "CSI" products directly to children -- if they're over 8 years of age. What can these little kids get under the Christmas tree this year? How about the CSI Facial Reconstruction Kit, complete with skull, eyeballs, ear holes and modeling clay, where you reconstruct some long-decayed head for identification purposes? "Ho-ho-homicide" was the appropriate headline in the St. Petersburg Times.
Winner: The audiences for "The Passion of the Christ." Mel Gibson deservedly prospered handsomely for his heroic cinematic labors, but the biggest winners were the moviegoers themselves. They came in droves, and then came again, and left quietly, moved to tears, bowed by their humility, inspired to seek greater holiness. Hollywood never embraced Gibson's masterpiece and is already snubbing it at the awards ceremonies. Someday, however, it will just have to accept that it created a masterpiece.
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