This column at times sounds a little like a variation of Oprah’s Book Club, because I very frequently recommend books you should read. As you should know if you are a regular reader (RR) of this column, I have a deep conviction that books still matter, regardless of whether you hold them in your hand or turn their pages by swiping the surface of a screen. So, let’s take a look at another book you should add to your ever-growing list.
Derek Thompson, who looks like he’s about eight years old, is a senior editor of Atlantic magazine. When not writing, he appears on NPR, CBS, and MSNBC. His speciality is writing and thinking about economics and media. His first book combines these interests and several others in a very entertaining and thought-provoking meditation on the meaning of popularity in the modern world. According to Thompson, his first book, HIT MAKERS: THE SCIENCE OF POPULARITY IN AN AGE OF DISTRACTION (Penguin Press, 2017), concerns itself with two primary questions: “What is the secret to making products that people like–in music, movies, television, books, games, apps, and more across the vast landscape of culture? [and] Why so some products fail in these marketplaces while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?” In the process of answering these very broad questions, Thompson takes on a tour of pop culture that includes nearly everything from Brahms’ famous lullaby and the rock group ABBA to Star Wars, Hungarian vampires, Taylor Swift, and Fifty Shades of Gray. Along the way, he comes to a very interesting conclusion that “the world’s attention is shifting from content that is infrequent, big, and broadcast (i.e. millions of people going to the movies once a week) to content that is frequent, small, and social (i.e. billions of people looking at social media feeds on their own glass-and-pixel displays every few minutes).”
This shift summarizes the difference between the world we occupy now and the one that we occupied a very short time ago. Just as television “once freed ‘moving images’ from the clutches of the cineplex . . .mobile technology is emancipating video from the living room.” We now live in a world where information and entertainment is immediately accessible 24/7, and in a universe where the Googleplex has made the question “What is that?” completely obsolete. And, needless to say, the meaning of popularity has shifted also. A “hit” that was once defined by a few people is now defined on a global scale. One of the most interesting insights offered by Thompson is a rather surprising one. We would suspect that in a world that is constantly changing, popularity would also be measured in terms of constant change. Thompson finds that this is only partially true. Using the “MAYA” rule, Thompson finds that what makes something popular is a considerable degree of familiarity housed inside a sleekly modern shell (MAYA stands for “most advanced yet acceptable”). The reason a particular song, for instance, becomes popular (and maybe later on evolves into a “standard”) is because it presents the listener with something familiar alongside something different. If it’s too different, chances are it won’t be popular, and if it’s too familiar it might be perceived as old-fashioned or “old school” (not that “old school” isn’t often popular, of course).
Take Taylor Swift’s very popular album, “1989,” for instance. What makes this album so appealing is its very catchy, modern pop sound, but what makes it so acceptable is its fairly consistent song and chord structure that sounds like so many other pop songs we have heard. When I listen to “Blank Space” I hear echoes of so much of the music I’ve grown up with, from the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream” to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” (which sounds like a paraphrase of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey”). How can Swift’s album not be a hit when it summarizes the history of pop music during the past fifty or sixty years without at the same time sounding like an oldies’ album? Even the Beatles, who are generally credited with changing the direction of popular music, worked their magic by appealing to their listener’s familiarity with music from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
One key to explaining why some things are hits and others aren’t is storytelling. According to Thompson, “most people don’t think in percentages. They process the world in stories–actions and reactions; causes and outcomes; post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Any story is better than chaos. In fact, one might say that the chaos of life is a chronic condition for which stories are the remedy.” The better the story, the more likely it will resonate and become a hit. And nearly everything in our experience can be reduced to a story. Just think of the impact the “Star Wars” franchise has made on our culture. And it is based on a story that is anything but original.
Sometimes it takes a little time (often a lot) for something to go from unacceptable to acceptable. Thompson cites Laver’s Law, named after British fashion historian James Laver. You can look this up but the gist is that this transition from unpopular to popular often takes as much as 150 years to fully develop (and perhaps much shorter in the speeded-up world in which we live). For instance, something might be considered “indecent” 10 years before its time, “daring” a year before its time, “smart” during its time, “ridiculous” 20 years after its time, “quaint” 50 years after its time, and “beautiful” 150 years after its time. Think about our infatuation with antiques. Something that might have been considered ugly or even useless during the time of its production might be considered priceless today. This is of course the basis of nostalgia, the yearning to live in a time that probably never existed as we imagine it.
Thompson closes his valuable account by examining the meaning of Walt Disney and his legacy, and especially the influence of Kay Kamen on the founder and the marketing of his empire (how many of you have heard of Herman Samuel Kominetzky?). The influential Mr. Kamen realized early on that in order to maximize his chances of success, Mr. Disney needed to think of his business as “total merchandising,” which is the recognition that “a movie was more than a movie. It was also a shirt, a watch, a game–and, soon, a television show.” Mickey Mouse, of course, is the cheerleader for this concept. What do you think of when the word “Disney” is mentioned? Without a doubt, Disney is a prime example of how things become hits and why the MAYA concept is so powerful.
I urge you to read Thompson’s book as soon as possible. I have just scratched the surface in this column, which I hope will be a hit with you this week.
See you next week with a little meditation on the continuing influence–and hitmaking potential–of The Fab Four.