Little Falcon Heene of "Balloon Boy" fame surely had no idea he was encapsulating an entire year of popular culture when he told his parents on national TV: "You guys said that we did this for the show."
Seeking fame is nothing new for Americans — after all, it was back in 1968 that Andy Warhol first postulated that everyone would get 15 minutes. What distinguished Heene's parents, or famous party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi, was how they were seeking it: They wanted a reality show. (Fifteen minutes plus commercials, give or take.)
Reality TV has been around for a decade, but this year the genre seemed to seep into our popular culture in occasionally uncomfortable ways. It also gave birth to some of the year's biggest stars: Golden-voiced Susan Boyle, who warmed middle-aged hearts everywhere, and Adam Lambert, who warmed some of them.
And then there were the people who earned fame, or infamy, the old-fashioned way in 2009: Gov. Mark Sanford, Tiger Woods, Kanye West, Rep. Joe Wilson.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Without further ado, our chronological journey through some of the top pop culture moments of 2009:
Yes, a new president is inaugurated in Washington, ensuring at least four years of hipper guests in the White House and cultural ramifications too profound to contemplate. But seven days later in California, one of the year's truly peculiar stories is born, literally: Nadya Suleman, bearing a disconcerting resemblance to Angelina Jolie, gives birth to octuplets, which expand the single mom's brood to 14 and earn her the moniker OCTOMOM. By year's end she is denying reports that she's planning — what else? — a reality show, with — who else? — newly single reality dad JON GOSSELIN. More on him later...
On a happier note, 57-year-old U.S. Airways pilot CHESLEY "SULLY" SULLENBERGER saves a planeful of passengers when he glides his disabled aircraft into the Hudson River, a feat that will garner him rock-star status (and, he'll say later, rock-star sex.)(With his wife.)
Star Olympic swimmer MICHAEL PHELPS is caught in a tabloid photo smoking from a marijuana pipe. Sponsor Kellogg Co. drops him, but he largely survives — and in the summer, following a three-month competition ban, he's the new face of the Subway sandwich chain. Tiger Woods should be so lucky. More on him later...
Surprise! BRISTOL PALIN confirms she's done with LEVI JOHNSTON, and experts, who note that most teen pregnancies end in broken relationships, hope it can be a teachable moment. Pop singer RIHANNA is shockingly beaten by her boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, and initially returns to him, prompting dismay from everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to Oprah Winfrey. Later Rihanna leaves Brown and becomes a voice against domestic violence.
Americans feed their longtime fascination with PIRATES when a real-life pirate saga unfolds in the seas off Somalia. A Washington magazine puts a shirtless PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA on its cover — a long-lens paparazzi shot from a Hawaii vacation — and people ask if the presidential pecs, however buff, are appropriate fodder for a magazine cover. But the real star of the month is SUSAN BOYLE, a plain-looking woman of 48 from Scotland who stuns the world with her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" on "Britain's Got Talent." She's an instant icon for anyone who has ever, well, dreamed a dream. More on her later ...