Time's political pomp formula works for Top 100

Time magazine’s 2009 Top 100 edition of the “world’s most influential people” is the purest showbiz. But oh, what a show it is.

Two South Africans made this year’s creamy crop—the artist William Kentridge and Health Minister Barbara Hogan.

This already weirdly wonderful combo is sexed up by the fact that Top 100 tributes are frequently written by people more famous than their subjects.

United States rock mandarin Lou Reed—now going more earnestly as a “writer, musician and photographer”—pays homage to Kentridge. The actress Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs for Hogan. Stone is here described as “a longtime Aids activist”. Right.

It’s a winning formula that foxily mixes low pop with high pomp and political worthiness. For every “George Clooney by Bono”, there’s a “Hadizatou Mani by Zainab Salbi”.

Clooney, who gets upgraded from the Artists & Entertainers section to Heroes & Icons, is tagged as an “advocate”, which apparently is not a misspelling of “actor”. Mani is billed as a “former slave” from Niger. You get the picture.

The list goes on, often becoming extremely chummy. Oprah Winfrey writes about Michelle Obama. Diane Sawyer writes about Oprah Winfrey. Arnold Schwarzenegger writes about Edward Kennedy in an article that starts: “How do I describe Uncle Teddy?”

In other cases, the author’s fame is guaranteed to make the reader take notice of a subject that is hardly global household. Like Somaly Mam, a Cambodian anti sex-slave activist. Why would most readers know or care? Because Mam is written up by, gasp, Angelina Jolie. Or what about the profile of two blokes Time simply calls “The Twitter Guys”, by, omigod, Ashton Kutcher.

In measurable terms, Time‘s Top 100 “most influential people in the world” has less credibility than the Guinness World of Records’ man with the longest fingernails. But then, such glossy gravitas allows Time readers to take it all very seriously, while simultaneously forgiving themselves for getting so excited. Genius.

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