Derek Thompson, senior editor of The Atlantic, tells Nerdette’s Tricia Bobeda about his new book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. He explains what makes Adele’s “Hello” and Drake’s “Hotline Bling” top hits and how Star Wars was almost totally unknown. Derek says “popular” doesn’t always mean “cool”, which is great news for nerds everywhere.
Tricia Bobeda: I go to the Art Institute of Chicago, which I love. It’s one of my favorite places. But I find myself wondering, “Why is that painting on the wall when so many others aren’t?” How do you approach that question?
Derek Thompson: This is the first big story of the book. It’s one of my favorite stories that I’ve found: Why are some paintings so unbelievably famous when some similar paintings aren’t? And I go back to the beginning of the impressionist world, where Monet and Manet and Degas are milling about and being despised by the Academy of France. One of the lesser-known impressionists today is Gustave Caillebotte. He collected a bunch of his friends’ paintings if they wouldn’t sell. He was like a buyer of last resort. And he collects six or seven of his friends’ paintings, and he dies in the early 1890s of a stroke in his early 40s. And he bequeaths all of his paintings to the French government. He said, “I want these paintings to hang in the Museum de Luxembourg.” And the museum says, “No, absolutely not.” And there’s a bit of haggling, and finally they decide “Okay, we’re going to hang your estate in the French museum. For the first time, we’re going to have an exhibit dedicated to impressionist art.” There were only seven painters in that exhibit that Caillebotte had collected. Who were those seven painters? Manet, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Sisely, and Pissarro.
Bobeda: Which are probably the only ones people can name.
Thompson: Exactly! And if you ask art historians today, “Who are the seven canonical French impressionist painters?” they will name the exact same seven. The Caillebotte Seven! What’s amazing about this story is that it suggests a single death in the early 1890s publicly consecrated the impressionist canon. In one fell swoop, all of these pieces of art went to hang in a French museum and so, lo and behold, the next generation of artists studied those seven painters. The next generation of art historians studied those seven painters. And the fun thing about this story is not just what it suggests about our feelings on art — that we love art that’s a little bit familiar, that we love recognizing fame — but also it sort of suggests, in a funny way, that canons are BS. That canons in art might be BS, that canons in literature might be BS, and canons in classical music might be BS. That what we think of as famous, what we think of as the law of culture, was sometimes consecrated by something as accidental as a premature stroke. And I find that to be both a sort of titillating idea, and also inspiring. Maybe we all are one moment’s inspiration plus a public consecration away from creating our own canonical hits as well.
Bobeda: I want to talk a little bit about one of the ways people tried to predict what will be popular. Can you explain what HitPredictor is?
Thompson: HitPredictor and SoundOut are two online music testing companies. So let’s say that, Tricia, you and I make a song together. We can send the song to HitPredictor and they’ll play it for hundreds of people and they’ll come out with a rating. If it’s above 65, they’ll say this can be a hit if it gets enough radio exposure. But here’s the thing: for every song — every one song that scores over 65 and becomes a hit because it plays a lot on the radio — there are 100, 150, 200 songs that score above this hit threshold on Hit Predictor that you and I had never heard of that just don’t get radio exposure. And so in many ways, it’s like the opposite of the Caillebotte effect, right? In the art world, you have two paintings that come out in the 1880s, one of them Caillebotte didn’t buy and wasn’t in his bequest and the other one he did buy, and the latter becomes canon and the former we never think of. It’s the same principle of the power of exposure in music. You take two songs that both have equal catchiness. One of them gets an enormous amount of radio airplay. The other doesn’t. And then we think of the former as this enormous, obvious, world conquering hit and the latter as — sometimes — a bad song. But we shouldn’t do that. Quality isn’t destiny in cultural markets. Lots of times inferior products succeed because of superior distribution.