Whether they're ranking America's greatest presidents, best big-screen love stories, or all-time baseball teams, lists exist to get on people's nerves.
If you want to start verbal fisticuffs -- or the real thing, particularly if alcohol is involved -- just start discussing some list claiming ''Seinfeld" is funnier than ''I Love Lucy," or the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were better than the 1985-86 Boston Celtics.
And so it is with Time's list of the world's 100 most influential people, released this week. Meant to represent the ''men and women whose power, talent, or moral example is transforming the world," according to the weekly newsmagazine's editors, there are such usual suspects as President Bush, Apple's Steve Jobs, and Oprah Winfrey. Despots and desperados are represented by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has led the anti-US insurgency in Iraq.
And there are even some genuinely interesting choices -- Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, creators of the ubiquitous BlackBerry, musician and breast cancer survivor Melissa Etheridge, whose appearance at this year's Grammys was nothing short of inspirational, and Jeffrey Sachs, economist and author of ''The End of Poverty."
But as is often the case with these sorts of things, there's an overreaching attempt for relevancy among those listed under the ''Artists & Entertainers" heading.
This may explain why Jamie Foxx and Hilary Swank made the cut. Talented? Absolutely. Both Foxx and Swank won leading-role Academy Awards this year for their performances in ''Ray" and ''Million Dollar Baby," respectively. In his essay about Swank, Paul Haggis, screenwriter for ''Million Dollar Baby," writes ''When Hilary is great . . . you forget she isn't that role. You believe she is the girl who just happened upon the set before the cameras rolled."
Likewise, Oliver Stone, who gave Jamie Foxx his first attention-getting dramatic turn in the 1999 football drama ''Any Given Sunday," compliments the actor's ability to ''sing, dance, do both drama and comedy." Such kudos are fine, even true, but how does this translate into influence, let alone designations as two of the most influential people in the world?
Certainly, it's a safe guess that if Annette Bening and Leonardo DiCaprio had won Oscars in February instead of Swank and Foxx, the latter two would not have made the list. As reviled as they are revered, Academy Awards still hold a lot of sway, even among people who should know better.
Still, the lure of Oscar gold is behind the shaky reasoning that also landed actor-director Clint Eastwood on the list. And Time's managing editor James Kelly admitted as much yesterday during a ''Today" show appearance.
''There's a little bit of lifetime achievement, I suppose, about that one, but he would not be on the list if he had not won the Oscar for 'Million Dollar Baby,' " Kelly told Matt Lauer.
Even more perplexing is that despite its widespread cultural significance -- if one more local news anchor refers to the Red Sox World Series rings as ''bling bling," I'm gonna hurl -- hip-hop received only a single nod under ''Artists & Entertainers" with Grammy-winning rapper-producer Kanye West. Jay-Z also made the list -- not as a rapper, but under ''Builders and Titans," as president and CEO of Def Jam Records. Still, where's 50 Cent, whose album ''The Massacre" has topped the charts for a month, and who became last week the first artist since the Beatles to place at least four songs in the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100?
An even greater oversight was Dr. Dre, whose knob-twiddling genius is the power behind Eminem, 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, and the Game. Even though he keeps a low profile these days, he's been the most potent producer, in any genre, for the past half-decade.
By their nature, lists are designed to infuriate, spark heated discussion, and, let's face it, give magazines and other media outlets an easy way to fill space. Of course, in prompting such discussion, Time already wins. Still, it doesn't mask the fact that this list provides more heat than light, and in stretching for relevancy, just as often comes off as ridiculous.
Renée Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.