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The Top 10 Memes of 2011

The year’s best viral videos and gags, featuring Rebecca Black, Pepper Spray Cop, Charlie Sheen and more

Memes

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Whether silly image macros, viral videos, Twitter hashtags or goofy altered photos, memes have become a major part of contemporary culture. They have the potential to create celebrities, alter the way we speak, and – in many of 2011's best memes – can serve as vehicles for political protest. Here are Rolling Stone's favorite memes of 2011, ranging from WTF silliness to pointed expressions of dissent.

By Matthew Perpetua

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10. Charlie Sheen’s Tiger Blood

Charlie Sheen railed against his Two and a Half Men boss Chuck Lorre on the February 24th episode of The Alex Jones Show, and the result was an epic, utterly unhinged tirade that launched dozens of catchphrases and memes, including "WINNING" and "tiger blood," which the actor used in merchandising his My Violent Torpedo of Truth theater tour. "Who knew [Sheen] was sitting on a verbal goldmine?" Rob Sheffield asked in March. "He's like a volcano that's been dormant for years, until it suddenly erupts to spew tiger blood and Adonis DNA all over a grateful nation." It didn't take long for the Sheen spectacle to tip over from fascinating to sorta gross and sad, but the initial rush of excitement and hilarity was worth it.

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Knowyourmeme.com

9. First World Problems

The First World Problems meme – also known as White Whine – has taken many forms, from a variety of image macros to hashtagged tweets, but the concept is always sharply focused on sending up trivial inconveniences as melodramatic tragedies. The image macros nail the self-deprecating tone, pairing privileged complaints like "I'm so tired of eating at all of the restaurants near work" with an image of a distraught woman or a sullen emo kid sitting in a corner. On a similar tip, the Privilege Denying Dude macro sends up a similar obliviousness with exasperating comments like "Women never date nice guys like me. I hate those fucking bitches," accompanied by images of smug white guys.

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8. The Situation Room

Pete Souza's shot of President Barack Obama and his top staff huddled in the Situation Room of the White House while getting updates on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden may be the single most iconic photo of the year. That instant-classic status was practically cemented by a meme in which the image was altered to include all sorts of characters from pop culture, or in one memorable take, an entire room of Obamas. Even the most ridiculous versions retain the solemn intensity of the occasion, making the absurd added imagery the visual equivalent of someone cracking a joke to relieve the tension in a very grim moment.

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Cover photograph by Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone, John Parra/WireImage/Photo Illustration by John Gara

7. Paula Deen Riding Things

While a lot of 2011's best memes were rooted in serious discourse, some were just totally silly, like the absolutely wonderful Paula Deen Riding Things. An image of the sassy celebrity chef riding on top of Food Network host Robert Irvine was Photoshopped into a variety of contexts, including this alternative version of Mark Seliger's Snooki cover shot from the March 17th issue of Rolling Stone.

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Joe Kohen/WireImage

6. Michele Bachmann Eyes

Shortly after Newsweek revealed a cover story on Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann in August, several of the Republican presidential hopeful's critics fired up their Photoshop to put her eyes – which appear wide and somewhat crazed in the shot – on the faces of other politicians and celebrities. Based on a similar meme featuring the distinctive eyes of character actor Steve Buscemi, the images are extremely silly but also remarkably effective in undermining Bachmann's authority and perpetuating the notion that she's a dangerous, unhinged extremist within the Republican party. 

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5. Hipster Ariel

Much in the same way that Clark Kent becomes Superman simply by removing his glasses, the Little Mermaid becomes a very different person once you Photoshop in a pair of thick framed specs. In the Hipster Ariel meme, the red-haired mermaid spouts a variety of snobby quips, such as "Voices are too mainstream, traded mine for a pair of legs" and the immensely clever "I listened to Belle and Sebastian before they were in Disney movies."

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J. Escobedo Shepherd via Twitter

4. Planking and Fridging

Planking, a meme based upon Britain's Lying Down Game fad, took off in 2011, with people taking photos of themselves lying on top of things as flat as a board. It doesn't sound very exciting in print, but the concept lends itself to creativity and endless variations – though no one can prove the veracity of his claim, even Jay-Z claimed to be "planking on a million" in a rhyme from his Watch the Throne track "Gotta Have It." Rap queen Nicki Minaj created her own version of planking by taking a shot of herself hanging out inside of a refrigerator during a Glamour photo shoot and imploring her fans to take their own "fridging" photos. Other rappers got in on the meme too, with Das Racist emcee Heems posing in this shot, which appeared on his Twitter.

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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

3. Feminist Ryan Gosling

The Feminist Ryan Gosling meme puts a clever spin on celebrity worship, with fans of the Canadian actor pairing images of his dreamy face with text in which he sweet talks ladies with references to feminist theory. The humor is partly wishful thinking – What if the cutest guy around also had a passionate interest in progressive women's issues? – but it's mostly rooted in the likelihood that the dude has never read a page of Jacques Derrida, Gloria Anzaldua or Margot Canaday in his life.

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2. Pepper Spray Cop

Though memes such as We Are the 99 Percent have helped spread the message of Occupy Wall Street, the most iconic meme associated with the movement didn't come along until after it had gained some momentum. The Pepper Spray Cop meme takes a horrifying image of UC Davis Police officer Lieutenant John Pike casually pepper spraying a line of unmoving students at an Occupy protest on campus and pastes it into many classic paintings, from Georges Seurat's masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte toJohn Trumbull's A Declaration of Independence. The meme also includes less subtle images, such as the one where he appears to be spray painting over the American Constitution. While other Occupy memes have been rather strident, this one manages to balance the silly wit of the best memes with an image that sums up the flippant disdain many powerful figures feel for the populist movement.

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1. Rebecca Black, ‘Friday’

Much like Nirvana's video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" 20 years ago, Rebecca Black's clip for "Friday" came from out of nowhere and immediately hijacked the imagination of pop culture. That said, the engine driving Black's "success" – and yes, those scare quotes are necessary – was the overwhelming disdain of the general public for a 13-year-old girl and her extraordinarily dippy pop tune. In a year when cyber-bullying was a hot topic, the treatment of Black by legions of internet commenters was a worst-case scenario, even if it inadvertently launched the fledging singer's career and earned her a role in Katy Perry's video for her hit "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)."

As much as "Friday" could bring out the worst in people, it also inspired hilarious parodies and kind-hearted covers, including a memorable version performed by Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert on Late Night. Colbert and Fallon's extremely joyful cover cut straight to the heart of the "Friday" phenomenon, highlighting the tune's freakishly catchy hooks and wonderfully ridiculous lyrics. ("Fun, fun, think about fun: You know what it is!") Though "Friday" is famous for being "bad," it's really just silly, weird, and off-kilter. Thousands upon thousands of truly terrible or utterly forgettable songs come out every year; it takes something truly special to fascinate even a fraction of the many millions of people who watched the "Friday" video this year.