Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

by Derek Thompson


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A Book of the Year Selection for Inc. and Library Journal

“This book picks up where The Tipping Point left off
." -- Adam Grant, Wharton professor and New York Times bestselling author of ORIGINALS and GIVE AND TAKE

Nothing “goes viral.” If you think a popular movie, song, or app came out of nowhere to become a word-of-mouth success in today’s crowded media environment, you’re missing the real story. Each blockbuster has a secret history—of power, influence, dark broadcasters, and passionate cults that turn some new products into cultural phenomena. Even the most brilliant ideas wither in obscurity if they fail to connect with the right network, and the consumers that matter most aren't the early adopters, but rather their friends, followers, and imitators -- the audience of your audience.

In his groundbreaking investigation, Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson uncovers the hidden psychology of why we like what we like and reveals the economics of cultural markets that invisibly shape our lives. Shattering the sentimental myths of hit-making that dominate pop culture and business, Thompson shows quality is insufficient for success, nobody has "good taste," and some of the most popular products in history were one bad break away from utter failure. It may be a new world, but there are some enduring truths to what audiences and consumers want. People love a familiar surprise: a product that is bold, yet sneakily recognizable.

Every business, every artist, every person looking to promote themselves and their work wants to know what makes some works so successful while others disappear. Hit Makers is a magical mystery tour through the last century of pop culture blockbusters and the most valuable currency of the twenty-first century—people’s attention.

From the dawn of impressionist art to the future of Facebook, from small Etsy designers to the origin of Star Wars, Derek Thompson leaves no pet rock unturned to tell the fascinating story of how culture happens and why things become popular.
In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson investigates:
·       The secret link between ESPN's sticky programming and the The Weeknd's catchy choruses
·       Why Facebook is today’s most important newspaper
·       How advertising critics predicted Donald Trump
·       The 5th grader who accidentally launched "Rock Around the Clock," the biggest hit in rock and roll history
·       How Barack Obama and his speechwriters think of themselves as songwriters
·       How Disney conquered the world—but the future of hits belongs to savvy amateurs and individuals
·       The French collector who accidentally created the Impressionist canon
·       Quantitative evidence that the biggest music hits aren’t always the best
·       Why almost all Hollywood blockbusters are sequels, reboots, and adaptations
·       Why one year--1991--is responsible for the way pop music sounds today
·       Why another year --1932--created the business model of film
·       How data scientists proved that “going viral” is a myth
·       How 19th century immigration patterns explain the most heard song in the Western Hemisphere

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101980323
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/07/2017
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, where he writes about economics and the media. He is a regular contributor to NPR's "Here and Now" and appears frequently on television, including CBS and MSNBC. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


The Power of Exposure

Fame and Familiarity—in Art, Music, Politics

On a rainy morning one fall, I was walking alone through the impressionist exhibit of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Standing before a wall of renowned paintings, I was struck by a question that I imagine many people wonder quietly in a museum, even if it’s rude to say out loud in a company of strangers: Why is this thing so famous?

It was The Japanese Footbridge by Claude Monet, with the blue bridge arching over an emerald green pond that is gilded with patches of yellow, pink, and green—the iconic water lilies. It was impossible not to recognize. One of my favorite picture books as a kid included several of Monet’s water lily paintings. It was also impossible to ignore, on account of several kids scrambling through the geriatric crowd to get a closer look. “Yes!” a teenage girl said, holding up her phone in front of her face to take a picture. “Oh!” exclaimed the taller, curly-haired boy behind her. “It’s that famous one!” Several more high school students heard their shouts, and within seconds a group had clustered around the Monet.

Several rooms away, the gallery held a special exhibit for another impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte. This was a quieter, slower affair. There were no students and no ecstatic exclamations of recognition, just a lot of mmm-hmms and solemn nods. Caillebotte is not world famous like Monet, Manet, or Cézanne. The sign outside his exhibition at the National Gallery called him “perhaps the least known of the French impressionists.” 

But Caillebotte’s paintings are exquisite. His style is impressionist yet exacting, as if captured with a slightly more focused camera lens. Often from a window’s view, he rendered the colorful urban geometry of nineteenth-century Paris—the yellow rhomboid blocks, the pale white sidewalks, and the iridescent grays of rain-slicked boulevards. His contemporaries considered him a phenomenon on par with Monet and Renoir. Émile Zola, the great French writer who drew attention to impressionism’s “delicate patches of color,” pronounced Caillebotte “one of the boldest of the group.” Still, 140 years later, Monet is one of the most famous painters in history, while Caillebotte is relatively anonymous.

A mystery: Two rebellious painters hang their art in the same impressionist exhibit in 1876. They are considered of similar talent and promise. But one painter’s water lilies become a global cultural hit—enshrined in picture books, studied by art historians, gawked at by high school students, and highlighted in every tour of the National ­Gallery of Art—and the other painter is little known among casual art fans. Why?

For many centuries, philosophers, artists, and psychologists have studied modern art to learn the truth about beauty and popularity. For understandable reasons, many focused on the paintings themselves. But studying the patches of Monet and the brushstrokes of Caillebotte won’t tell you why one is famous and the other is not. You have to see the deeper story. Famous paintings, hit songs, and blockbusters that seem to float effortlessly on the cultural consciousness have a hidden genesis; even water lilies have roots.

When a team of researchers at Cornell University studied the story of the impressionist canon, they found that something surprising set the most famous painters apart. It wasn’t their social connections or their nineteenth-century renown. It was a subtler story. And it all started with Caillebotte.

Gustave Caillebotte was born to a wealthy Parisian family in 1848. As a young man, he veered from law to engineering to the French army in the Franco-Prussian War. But in his twenties, he discovered a passion and immense talent for painting.

In 1875, he submitted The Floor Scrapers to the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. In the painting, white light coming through a window illuminates the bare white backs of several men working on their knees, scraping the dark brown floor of an empty room, as the skinned wood curls into spirals beside their legs. But the painting was rejected. One critic later summed up the scornful response when he said, “Do nudes, but do beautiful nudes or don’t do them at all.”

The impressionists—or, as Caillebotte also called them, les Intransigents—disagreed. Several of them, including Auguste Renoir, liked his quotidian take on the floor scrapers and asked Caillebotte to exhibit with their fellow rebels. He became friends with some of the era’s most controversial young artists, like Monet and Degas, buying dozens of their works at a time when few rich European men cared for them.

Caillebotte’s self-portraits show him in middle age with short hair and a face like an arrowhead, angular and sharpened to a point, with an austere gray beard. A grave countenance colored his inner life as well. Convinced that he would die young, Caillebotte wrote a will instructing the French state to accept his art collection and hang nearly seventy of his impressionist paintings in a national museum. 

His fears were prescient. Caillebotte died of a stroke in 1894 at the age of forty-five. His bequest included at least sixteen canvases by Monet, eight by Renoir, eight by Degas, five by Cézanne, and four by Manet, along with eighteen by Pissarro and nine by Sisley. It is not inconceivable that his walls would be valued at several billion dollars in a twenty-first-century Christie’s sale.

But at the time, his collection was far less coveted. In the will, Caillebotte had stipulated that all paintings hang at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. But even with Renoir serving as executor, the French government initially refused to accept the artworks. 

The French elite, including conservative critics and even prominent politicians, considered the bequest presumptuous, if not downright ludicrous. Who was this scoundrel to think he could posthumously force the French government to hang dozens of blotchy atrocities on its own walls? Several art professors threatened to resign from the École des Beaux-Arts if the state accepted the impressionist paintings. ­Jean-Léon Gérôme, one of the most famous academic artists of his time, blasted the donation, saying, “For the government to accept such filth, there would have to be a great moral slackening.”

But what is the history of art if not one great slackening after another? After years of fighting both the French state and Caillebotte’s own family to honor the bequest, Renoir persuaded the government to accept about half the collection. By one count, the accepted paintings included eight works by Monet, seven by Degas, seven by Pissarro, six by Renoir, six by Sisley, two by Manet, and two by Cezanne. 

When the artworks were finally hung in 1897, at a new wing in the Musée du Luxembourg, it represented the first ever national exhibition of impressionist art in France, or any European country. The public flooded the museum to see art they’d previously savaged or simply ignored. The long battle over Caillebotte’s estate (the press called it l’affaire Caillebotte) had the very effect he must have hoped: It brought unprecedented attention, and even a bit of respect, to his intransigents friends.

One century after the exhibition of the caillebotte collection, James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University, counted more than fifteen thousand instances of impressionist paintings to appear in hundreds of books in the university library. He concluded “unequivocally” that there were seven (“and only seven”) core impressionist painters, whose names and works appeared far more often than their peers. This core consisted of Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro, and Sisley. Without a doubt, this was the impressionist canon.

What set these seven painters apart? They didn’t share a common style. They did not receive unique praise from contemporary critics, nor did they suffer equal censure. There is no record that this group socialized exclusively, collected each other’s works exclusively, or exhibited exclusively. In fact, there would seem to be only one exclusive quality the most famous impressionists shared.

The core seven impressionist painters were the only seven impressionists in Gustave Caillebotte’s bequest.

Exactly one hundred years after Caillebotte’s death, in 1994, James Cutting stood before one of the most famous paintings at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and had a familiar thought: Why is this thing so ­famous?

The painting in question was Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette. Standing about four feet high and six feet wide, the artwork shows scores of well-dressed Parisians clustered in an outdoor dance hall, waltzing, drinking, and huddling around tables in the dappled light of a Sunday afternoon in the Montmartre district of Paris. 

Cutting instantly recognized the work. But he wondered what was so inherently special about the painting, apart from the fact that he recognized it. Yes, the Bal du Moulin is absorbing, he granted, but the artwork was not obviously better than its less celebrated peers in adjacent rooms. 

“I really had an aha moment,” Cutting told me. “I realized that Caillebotte had owned not only the Bal du Moulin, but also many other paintings at the museum that had become extremely famous.”

He returned to Ithaca to flesh out his eureka. Cutting and a research assistant went through about one thousand books of impres­sionist art in the Cornell University library to make a list of the most commonly reproduced artists. He concluded that the impressionist canon focuses on a tight cluster of seven core painters: Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley—the Caillebotte Seven.

Cutting had a theory: Gustave Caillebotte’s death helped to create the impressionist canon. His bequest to the French state created the frame through which contemporary and future art fans viewed impressionism. Art historians focused on the Caillebotte Seven, which bestowed prestige on their works, to the exclusion of others. The paintings of the Caillebotte Seven hung more prominently in galleries, sold for greater sums of money to private collectors, were valued more by art connoisseurs, were printed in more art anthologies, and were dissected by more art history students, who grew into the next generation’s art mavens, eager to pass on the Caillebotte Seven’s inherited fame.

Cutting had another theory: The fact that Caillebotte’s bequest shaped the impressionist canon spoke to something deep and universal about media, entertainment, and popularity. People prefer paintings that they’ve seen before. Audiences like art that gives them the jolt of meaning that often comes from an inkling of recognition. 

Back at Cornell, Cutting tested this theory. He gathered 166 people from his psychology class and presented them with paired works of impressionist art. In each pair, one of the paintings was significantly more “famous”—that is, more likely to appear in one of Cornell University’s textbooks. Six times out of ten, students said they preferred the more famous picture.

This could have meant that famous paintings are better. Or it might have meant that Cornell students preferred canonical artworks because they were familiar with those paintings. To prove the latter, Cutting had to engineer an environment where students were unwittingly but repeatedly exposed to less famous paintings the same way that art audiences are unwittingly but repeatedly exposed to the impressionist canon from a young age.

What came next was quite clever: In a separate psychology class, Cutting bombarded students with obscure artworks from the late nineteenth century. The students in this second class saw a nonfamous impressionist painting four times for every one time they glimpsed a famous artwork. This was Cutting’s attempt to reconstruct a parallel universe of art history, where Caillebotte never died prematurely, where his legendary bequest never created an impressionist wing, and where the Caillebotte Seven never benefited from a random historical accident that elevated their exposure and popularity.

At the end of the second course, Cutting asked the 151 students to choose their favorite paintings among fifty-one pairs. The results of the popularity contest turned the canon upside down. In forty-one of fifty-­one pairs, the students’ preference for the most famous impressionist works disappeared. The emerald magnetism of Monet’s gardens, the electric polychrome of Renoir, and the genius of Manet were nearly nullified by something else—the power of repeated exposure.

It’s extraordinary that Caillebotte’s bequest helped to shape the canon of impressionism because he purposefully bought his friends’ least popular paintings. Caillebotte made it a principle to buy “­es­pecially those works of his friends which seemed particularly ­un­saleable,” the art historian John Rewald wrote. For example, Caillebotte served as a buyer of last resort when he purchased Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette. Today, the painting that Caillebotte rescued from obscurity and that inspired Cutting’s famous study of art psychology is considered a masterpiece. When it sold at auction for $78 million in 1990, it was the second most expensive artwork ever purchased. You may find Renoir’s painting to be inherently ­beautiful—I do—but its canonical fame is inseparable from its absurd good fortune to be among the Caillebotte collection.

Mary Morton, the curator of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art, organized the museum’s 2015 Caillebotte exhibit. She told me that a lack of exposure might account for Caillebotte’s anonymity for another reason: Impressionism’s most important collector didn’t try to sell his art.

One of the most important behind-the-scenes figures in impressionist history is Paul Durand-Ruel, a French collector and dealer who served as a one-man clearinghouse for impressionist paintings before they became world famous. His exhaustive efforts to sell work by Monet and others created and sustained the movement while the French salons and European aristocracy considered their patched style a heinous affront to French romanticism. Durand-Ruel found more success among American collectors. “As the industrial revolution and income growth cranked up, newly wealthy people inhabited big new apartments in Paris and New York City,” Morton told me. “They needed decoration that was affordable, beautiful, and widely available, and impressionist paintings were all three.” New wealth created the space for new tastes. Impressionism filled the void.

But Caillebotte does not fit into this story of impressionism’s popularity among the nouveau riche. He was a millionaire, as the heir to a large fortune in textiles, and he had no need to make money from a painting hobby. There are more than 2,500 paintings, drawings, and pastels attributed to Monet. Despite his severe arthritis, Renoir produced an astonishing 4,000 works. Caillebotte produced about 400 paintings and made little effort to distribute them to collectors or museums. He faded into obscurity in the early twentieth century while his peers hung in crowded galleries and private collections, as the echoing power of Caillebotte’s gift rolled through history.

When today’s high school students recognize Monet’s water lilies, they’re seeing more than a century’s worth of exposure and fame. Caille­botte is the least known of the French impressionists. But it’s not because he’s the worst. It’s because he offered his friends a gift that he was willing to withhold from himself: the gift of exposure.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Song That Conquered the World 1

Part I Popularity and the Mind

1 The Power of Exposure 19

Featuring Claude Monet, Adele, and Donald Trump

2 The Maya Rule 46

Featuring ESPN, Spotify, and the First NASA Space Station

3 The Music of Sound 73

Featuring John F. Kennedy, Barack Ohama, and ABBA

Interlude: The Chills 96

4 The Myth-Making Mind I: The Force of Story 102

Featuring Star Wars, Isaac Asimov, and Hollywood Psychohistory

5 The Myth-Making Mind II: The Dark Side of Hits 119

Featuring Hungarian I umpires, Disney Princesses, and Cable News

6 The Birth of Fashion 133

Featuring Taylor Swift, the Printing Press, and the Laugh Track

Interlude: A Brief History of Teens 154

Part II Popularity and the Market

7 Rock and Roll and Randomness 163

Featuring the Mona Lisa, "Rock Around the Clock," and Chaos Theory

8 The Viral Myth 185

Featuring Fifty Shades of Grey, John Snow, and Pokémon GO

9 The Audience of My Audience 209

Featuring Etsy, Bumble, and Moonies

Interlude: Le Panache 224

10 What the People Want I: The Economics of Prophecy 231

Featuring Game of Thrones, Seinfeld, and Shazam

11 What the People Want II: A History of Pixels and Ink 253

Featuring the Tabloid, the Television, and the News Feed

Interlude: 828 Broadway 276

12 The Futures of Hits: Empire and City-State 282

Featuring Mickey Mouse, BuzzFeed, and Kid A

Acknowledgments 309

Notes 311

Index 335

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