They're the top of the pop-culture food chain, which isn't necessarily the same as the cream of the crop. Tens of millions of us have endorsed them with our cash and credit cards, although we might not have embraced them fully with our hearts and minds.
As a group, they reside at the profitable midpoint of American taste and opinion: A movie about a guy who romps around in spandex on Manhattan's rooftops (Spider-Man). A twisted hip-hop ode to American values (The Eminem Show). A novel that envisions the end of the world in vivid, almost jubilant detail (The Remnant). A self-help manual by Oprah spinoff celebrity Phillip C. McGraw (Self Matters: Creating Your Life From the Inside Out). A video game whose latest incarnation rewards quick reflexes and low animal cunning with cool cars, hot babes and other people's money (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City).
On first impression, the only quality these top dogs share is a knack for making cash registers sing in 2002. But look closer, and you'll spot strange affinities among them, echoes of a period that future generations might refer to as the "Year of Living Anxiously." Collectively, they represent a moment in time when the United States alternately swaggered and trembled, flexed its muscles and murmured its prayers.
In our competitive culture, of course, numerical rankings are the cold, hard measure of success or failure, a raw index of national obsessions. We know how easily music merchandisers and Hollywood profiteers can tweak No. 1. We know that people tell pollsters they're watching Masterpiece Theatre when really they're tuned into a World Wrestling Entertainment SmackDown! Yet every year we ask, "Who's on top?"
"Put it this way: You never see somebody putting a sticker on the package saying it was No. 52," says Bruce Haring, the author of books about the music industry's marketing shenanigans. "We're a society that craves the newest, the best, the hottest." Whether it's a populist stroke of genius or a carnival barker's crass come-on, attaining No. 1 means you've somehow persuaded the masses to rise up as one and cry: "We love it! We want it! We'll take it!"
"In the media age, the information age, lists help us categorize things and make sense out of the chaos, even if they're not true," says Lawrence R. Samuel, author of Brought to You By: Postwar Television Advertising and the American Dream. With that caveat, here's a look at what we were really buying this year when we shelled out our shekels for No. 1.
The fear factor
Running through 2002's group of chart-busters and best sellers like a low-grade fever was a sense that bad things were happening and more were likely to come. The clues were scattered everywhere.
Watching CBS' CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which replaced Friends this fall as the No. 1 weekly TV series, we peered over the shoulders of Gil Grissom and his colleague Catherine Willows (actors William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger) as they bantered over DNA samples and spun ingenious theories in emotionally flat-lined voices.
"Nothing's absolute, Gil, even forensics," Grissom's boss told him in a recent episode. Yet the premise of CSI is that each mystery will be resolved within the allotted prime-time hour and the dead can speak to us through their ghostly remains - that every human body has a story to tell. CSI is as much about recovering the memory of those no longer among us as it is about collaring bad guys.
On a more apocalyptic scale, that could also be the theme of The Remnant: On the Brink of Armageddon, the latest installment in a serialized fictional account of the rapture, when Christ's followers supposedly will be summoned up to heaven minus their clothes and dental fillings. Nonbelievers left behind on Earth will face the wrath of the antichrist, fiendishly disguised as head of the United Nations.
The series, called Left Behind, is written by Jerry B. Jenkins and conceived by Tim LaHaye, and it's not only the best-selling Christian fiction work of 2002, but also one of the year's top hardcover titles. In half a dozen years, the 10 Left Behind books combined have sold 36 million copies.
The trade journal Publishers Weekly is still sorting out its fiction sales rankings for 2002. But John Grisham's The Summons, about a boomer law professor's quest to settle some unsavory family business, appears to have the edge over both The Remnant and Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, related by a dead girl looking down from heaven, which caught the chill of last summer's gruesome child-napping and murder incidents.
"My crackpot theory is that it has a lot to do with 9/11," says Publishers Weekly editor Nora Rawlinson. "The psyche of the country is one that wants stories that talk about grieving and death and give a positive spin on it."
You can save yourself - or enjoy the chaos. Just take a spin through Grand Theft Auto III, the best-selling home video game of 2002, or its raunchier offspring, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, released in October.