A few months ago, Vox asked a seemingly simple question: Why is the “Mona Lisa” so damn famous? Is it really that much better than all the other art in the Louvre? The museum contains some of the finest artworks in the world; what makes one particular painting an unmissable, unforgettable icon, while others are something a bored museum-goer can stroll right past without a twinge of guilt?
My colleague Phil Edwards was able to trace the “Mona Lisa’s” particular path to fame — the combined forces of a now-obscure art critic and a high-profile robbery can, it seems, work wonders — but there are thousands of other such cases in the world: cases where something that is perfectly fine, perhaps even really great or perhaps just merely competent, somehow becomes an inescapable phenomenon, while its peers continue to languish in obscurity.
How does it happen? How does a hit become a hit?
In his new book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Atlantic editor Derek Thompson looks at how the “Mona Lisa” became just so famous — and how, for that matter, things like Star Wars, “Rock Around the Clock,” and 50 Shades of Grey became unstoppable monster hits.
It’s a fascinating story, and it’s backed up with plenty of evidence, both psychological and historical. While Thompson occasionally gets tangled up in questions of causality — did this make this object famous, or was it that? — he develops a compelling lens to analyze the weird, borderline inexplicable phenomenon that is mass popularity. He even aims it at the most unique object of mass popularity of our time: President Donald Trump.
Popularity lies in finding the balance between familiarity and surprise
What Thompson finds is that there’s a simple formula for making a product that appeals to the world: Human beings like things that are pleasingly familiar, with a gentle touch of surprise. We like movies like Star Wars that combine genres we already know — Westerns, a hero’s journey — in new and exciting ways (in space!). We like pop songs that repeat the same four chords with a new hook. We like reading books and essays that elegantly confirm ideas we already more or less thought were true, while presenting a bit of new evidence.
This argument isn’t new, as Thompson shows. It’s been made by 20th-century designer Raymond Loewy, who worked from the MAYA principle (“most advanced yet acceptable” — in other words, the product familiar enough to comfort and new enough to surprise); by filmmakers (“You take twenty-five things that are in any successful genre, and you reverse one of them,” a movie producer tells Thompson); and by psychologists, who call it the exposure effect and posit that people overwhelmingly tend to like things they recognize, perhaps on the grounds that if you recognize something, it hasn’t killed you yet.
Thompson’s project is to synthesize the findings of these different disciplines into a single analytic lens, and he does so relentlessly. The downside of that project is that it can lead to pat simplifications, but the upside is that its scope is impressive, and the insight it offers is compelling.
Through Thompson’s lens, repetition can explain anything that’s popular. Human beings love music, he argues, because we love repetition. Any phrase, repeated enough times, comes to sound musical: “Repetition,” Thomas writes, ”is the God particle of music.”
And because we like familiarity, a key ingredient of popularity is repeated exposure. When we see a painting like the “Mona Lisa,” which became a favorite object of modernist parody in the early 20th century and has been reproduced on a more or less constant loop ever since, we recognize it instantly. And recognizing it pleases us: This is something that I know, and therefore it is good.
Hence the massive fame of “Rock Around the Clock,” one of the best-selling rock singles of all time. When it was first released as the B-side of a mediocre record, in 1954, it failed to register. But when it became the soundtrack to the foreboding opening sequence of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, it took off like wildfire. The film was a hit, and the song — which Blackboard Jungle had successfully positioned as the soundtrack of dangerous, delinquent youth — became inescapable.
It was the same song it had been in 1954, when it was ignored, but now it was iconic. It was recognizable. It was familiar. And that made it historically popular.
Some of Hit Makers’ most interesting case studies explore products that never made it big
Thompson is fascinating in his examination of the sad and lovely fable of impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte, who in his time was considered to be on a par with Monet and is now almost entirely forgotten. Caillebotte, Thompson finds, accidentally invented the impressionist canon: He willed his collection of his friends’ paintings to the Musée du Luxembourg, and the seven painters who featured in the resulting exhibition became the core of the impressionist canon: Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Pissarro, and Sisley.
Because the Caillebotte exhibit was one of the first major impressionist exhibits, the paintings shown there became go-to examples of the style: Monet’s “Japanese Footbridge,” Renoir’s “Bal du moulin de la Galette.” Before the exhibit, they were considered lesser paintings — Caillebotte purchased them because no one else would and he wanted to help out his friends — but after the exhibit, they were everywhere, reproduced, analyzed, and admired in art history textbook after art history textbook. And now, of course, we love them, because we’ve all seen them so many times. Caillebotte himself was not featured in the exhibit, and few people know who he was.
Hit Makers is full of stories like that, little tales of products that managed to make it big through a combination of timing and weird circumstances and savvy use of repetition, while their peers never made a splash. But it becomes most compelling when it turns to the story of the biggest and most troubling hit of 2016: Donald Trump, who is now the president of the United States.
Hit Makers charts how President Trump became an unstoppable hit
Trump, Thompson argues, benefited from repeated exposure as much as any politician ever has, both from the familiarity he enjoyed as a reality star before his presidential campaign and from the nonstop media coverage of the nonsense that poured out of his mouth during the campaign.
But he benefited from repetition on a narrative level as well: Trump is skilled at repeating heroic narratives over and over again, narratives that star him and his supporters in a holy war against their detractors. We love these kinds of stories; they’re the most familiar and most popular form of narrative in our culture.
“But it is precisely because great stories are persuasive,” Thompson writes, “that we should be cautious about which narratives to let into our hearts.” What is compelling in a story can become deceptive and downright dangerous in political rhetoric — as when Trump’s narrative of America as a beautiful, virtuous beacon menaced by shadowy foreigners leads to a dangerously cruel and life-threatening refugee ban.
Our love for the familiar is also what leads us to those bubbles that became such a talking point in the election postmortem. “There is a thrill,” Thompson writes, “that comes from reading a brilliant essay that makes a point the reader already agrees with” — and as a consequence, we overwhelmingly tend to avoid the stories and arguments we don’t expect to agree with. We build our bubbles. And then we’re shocked if our candidate does not win, or, if he does win, we’re shocked that the other half of the country is so upset.
Not all of Thompson’s analysis works
Where Thompson occasionally falters is in diagnosing the most salient ingredient in a product’s rise to fame. When he turns to a 2013 New York Times guacamole recipe that calls for green peas and was weirdly inescapable for a week or so in 2015, he concludes that the most important factor in its rise to fame is that it was featured on the New York Times’s website, which many people visit. And when he looks at Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight fanfiction turned best-selling novel, he concludes that the key to its success was the small army of fanfiction readers that gave 50 Shades a built-in audience.
But the New York Times publishes hundreds of articles and dozens of recipes every single week, and few of them reach such a level of cultural saturation that the president is compelled to comment on them — let alone two years after their original publication. And Fifty Shades author E.L. James is hardly the first or the most talented fanfiction writer to try to leverage her fandom readership into a mainstream audience. She’s just the most successful.
What’s mysterious about these examples isn’t how they found their networks, which has been well-documented elsewhere. And no one is asking why the Times’s guacamole recipe spread more than any other guacamole recipe, or why Fifty Shades was a best-seller compared with any other book. It’s why they took off when other products with the same networks failed to do so: why the Times’s guacamole recipe spread more than other articles the Times publishes (again, two years after its original publication), and why Fifty Shades is the one fanfic-to-book story with a successful movie deal. (Cassandra Clare has the Mortal Instruments franchise, but that movie flopped.) For most of the book, Thompson gets that, which is why it’s so puzzling when he drops the ball.
Hit Makers is full of the “aesthetic aha”
Hit Makers is thoughtful and thorough, a compelling book — and one that knows why it is compelling.
There’s a term for the moment when you look at something and for the first time understand it and everything clicks together — the moment a few beats into a pop song’s hook, where you understand the rhythm and you start to get into it, or the moment where you’ve been staring at a modernist painting for a while and it’s starting to come together for you, or the moment when you read an essay’s thesis and feel that it’s expressing something you’ve thought before but have never been able to put into words. Thompson calls it “the aesthetic aha”:
It is not merely the feeling that something is familiar. It is one step beyond that. It is something new, challenging, or surprising that opens a door into a feeling of comfort, meaning, or familiarity.
When you read his description of the aesthetic aha, you have at once the thrill of understanding something you feel that you already know: aha!
We like products that give us what we already know, but fresher, and we like nonfiction books that tell us what we already think, but elegantly, and with evidence. And that’s what Hit Makers offers.