Book of the week
Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction
In 1954, when the novelty song “Thirteen Women” was released as a single, nobody considered it the first salvo in a cultural revolution, said Philip Collins in The Times (U.K.). It was forgettable and quickly forgotten, and its B side no doubt would have sunk into even deeper obscurity if a boy in California hadn’t reached for it one day when his father’s houseguest said he needed a song for an upcoming movie. A year after making no mark, “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley & His Comets, played three times in the hit drama Blackboard Jungle, then quickly rose to the top of the charts. To author Derek Thompson, the tale is proof that no innate quality of Haley’s song explains why it popped. Though the why remains elusive, Thompson’s spirited new book is “full of Thompson does admit that hits in every medium tend to share certain traits, said Tim Sullivan in the Harvard Business Review. People, he writes, both crave the new and fear it, so the sweet spot is a song or movie or book that feels at once fresh and familiar. Even the faces we consider most beautiful, it turns out, are also the most average. But having the right kind of product isn’t everything, said David Holahanin USA Today. Gustave Caillebotte was just as good a painter as Claude Monet, we learn, but no one’s heard of Caillebotte because he didn’t include his own work in a collection of Monets, Manets, and Renoirs he bequeathed to a museum that showed the paintings and thus launched the craze for impressionism. Thompson “wonders all over the place” in his wonderful, wandering book, but he does establish that exposure is key.
At one point, he even claims that there’s no such thing as a truly “viral” hit, said Jonah Berger in The Washington Post. That statement’s not quite true, but Thompson is right that even on the web it’s a very rare meme that reaches a mass audience without at one point being shared by a mass-media outlet or major celebrity. Unfortunately, Thompson rarely slows down to unpack the implications of any one story. Then again, asking Hit Makers to deliver a big takeaway may miss the book’s point, given how often it tells us there’s good money in making old ideas new. “Thompson, after all, seems to be taking his own advice.”