Mid-April means it’s time for Time’s annual round-up of famous people fawning over other famous people, otherwise known as their list of the world’s hundred most influential people. Personalities from the arts make a respectable showing, accounting for roughly a quarter of the selections. While the whole project is undeniably subjective and news-driven, this year’s finalists are a particularly time-sensitive bunch. Matt Lauer’s spot seems to serve largely as a reminder of the recent renewal of his Today Show contract, rumored to be worth $25 million a year, as Howard Stern notes in his love letter. Adele coasts in on the strength of her Grammy sweep, and a total of five Oscar nominees (winners Viola Davis, Asghar Farhadi, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy—plus Kristen Wiig and Jessica Chastain) make their débuts.
The world of comedy is having a banner year—besides Wiig, Louis CK, Chelsea Handler, and Stephen Colbert all make appearances, as do intriguing one-offs like Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, and Alexander McQueen designer Sarah Burton. But even a cursory look at the list demonstrates why the whole endeavor, while commendable, is intrinsically flawed. Besides the evident strain of gathering as wide-ranging a group as possible (Look, a virologist! An economist! The President! Two Asians who are good at sports!), the list as a whole always ends up having an air of nostalgia rather than progress, a look back at the year that was rather than the year that will be. The over-reliance on this year’s Oscars is only the most obvious example—rising superstar Jessica Chastain excluded.
A lot of the others, though, feel very 2011. Christian Marclay was already a huge hit with his video work The Clock when the Time 100 rolled around twelve months ago, and it is almost impossible that Adele will ever again have as momentous a year as the one she just finished. The Middleton sisters are quickly losing their steam, and people have already moved on from Claire Danes and her unquestionably brilliant turn on the first season of Homeland. Still, there are a handful of names who demonstrate that perfect blend of insight and intuition. Alice Walton almost single-handedly reshaped her hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas, by opening her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art there in November. Ann Patchett is leading the charge against Amazon.com and chain stores with her new independent shop Parnassus Books. And who would deny a spot to New York Knicks point guard and Linsanity spokesman Jeremy Lin, even as his fifteen minutes seem to be running out?
The trouble, in the end, comes down to luck and timing. No one knows where the world will go in the next eight months, and the editors of Time can’t be blamed too harshly for making the calculated decision of skewing broad and safe rather than taking too many risks. And in the end, I like the list, flaws and all—but then, I like lists in general. Still, I imagine the magazine would benefit from moving the annual publication date to December instead, when the year-in-review tone would be warranted. There’s no predicting the future, but there’s always room for another way of looking at the past.