Review Of The Year: 2011’s pop culture bestsellers

As the year draws to a close, everyone’s talking about the culture that defined 2011. The biggest sellers are familiar to us all – but do they tell us anything about society?

What was your cultural highlight of 2011? Lady Gaga? X Factor? Perhaps Tracey Emin’s latest exhibition? Though not everyone will agree on favourites, with the end of the year comes a clearer picture of 2011’s winners: the biggest sellers in music, film, television and books.

In music, the success story was Adele, who pipped Lady Gaga and Rihanna to the top of the iTunes download charts. In a year that has seen women dominate music as never before, her songwriting is hailed as a beacon of integrity in a world of highly sexualised musical offerings.

In film, special-effects extravaganzas like Pirates of the Caribbean dominated, along with animated family flicks like Cars. Unsurprisingly, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out on top.

CGI was also profitable, but less child-friendly, in the gaming world. Modern Warfare 3, from the wildly successful Call of Duty franchise, throws players into a terrifying imagining of World War III. Its violence and high body count made it the fastest selling videogame of all time.

The popularity of these big-budget games and films, some say, should be no surprise. When we’re struggling with debt and difficulty, the story goes, we want to escape – whether into a futuristic shoot-em-up or a school of witchcraft and wizardry.

Television, too, offers us a different kind of fairytale escapism. In the UK, shows like Downton Abbey and The Great British Bake-Off evoke days gone by – the icing, perhaps, on the wedding cake of Kate and William, whose Royal nuptials attracted an estimated two billion viewers around the world.

Through this veil of nostalgia, however, we’ve been seized by more modern fascinations. Amazon’s top selling book was a biography of Steve Jobs, a testament to one of the world’s most innovative businessmen, released just three weeks after his death.

A cultural mirror?

If we want to learn more about ourselves, sociologists say, we would do well to take a peek at the biggest sellers of the year. If people want to watch shows on baking or royalty, for example, they obviously value tradition, and family. And if millions of people share these sentiments, it shows a trend in society which, when considered with current events, like recession or conflict, can tell us a great deal about how the nation is feeling.

Speculation like this, others say, looks far too deeply into popular culture. People enjoy Harry Potter because high-speed broomstick chases are exciting; they watch baking shows because they like cake. People’s need for entertainment does not change: films, books and music are popular because they appeal to this, not some deep, shared sentiment about society’s ills.

You Decide

  1. Is popular culture a reflection of society?
  2. Is popular culture more important than ‘high art’?


  1. Design your cultural top ten of 2011. Do your selections fit with the year’s most popular – or are they more unusual?
  2. Research the music that was popular in the 1960s. From listening to it, imagine what society was like then. Do you think your speculation is accurate?

Some People Say...

“If something is popular it is probably rubbish.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How are top tens like this compiled?
As the way we consume and purchase media changes, the means of putting together these lists have changed. Books, for example, can be downloaded to e-readers as well as bought; music can be purchased as a CD, downloaded or even streamed. This changes the ratings of films: while the topgrossing film of 2011, for example, was Harry Potter, the most downloaded on iTunes was The Social Network.
Have any of the big sellers this year beaten records?
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is now the third top grossing movie of all time, with Avatar at number one. This year’s other offerings don’t even come close: the biggest selling book – at least since records began in 1998 – is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, while no album has shifted more copies than Michael Jackson’s Thriller, released back in 1982.

Word Watch

Tracey Emin
A contemporary artist, whose solo exhibition recently showed at the Hayward Gallery in London. Emin is famous for confessional art – including the crumpled, slept in My Bed – which frequently uses Emin herself as the subject.
Another word for a wedding. It is distantly related to the word ‘nymph’, a kind of ancient nature goddess.
The ‘gross box-office income’ of a film is just how much money in total was paid by audiences to see it at the cinema. The ‘net income’ is the gross income after costs of production and publicity have been subtracted.


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