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How to make a hit: what Brahms, Donald Trump and Raymond Loewy knew

In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson reveals the secrets of success in the arts, politics and beyond

As Albert Einstein lay dying at Princeton Hospital, New Jersey, in April 1955, he uttered a few last words in his mother tongue. Then he closed his eyes and was gone for ever. The nurse on duty didn’t understand German, so any final insight he might have shared was lost. What was his Rosebud? Einstein’s brain was then removed for scientific study. The New York Times declared its hope that this dead lump of lobes and pinkish-beige matter would “shed light on one of nature’s greatest mysteries: the secret of genius”. But it didn’t.

The doctors and scientists prodding at the brain were looking in the wrong place – for genius, as Samuel Johnson put it, “is like fire in the flint, only to be produced by collision with a proper subject”. Although the word “genius”, as we use it today, derives from the Latin ingenium (meaning “innate ability”), it is both an internal and an external phenomenon. The talented mind needs a proper subject. Yet it also needs a proper context to thrive, to manifest itself, to do its transformative number on conventional beliefs. Genius requires the oxygen of success, and success is a collaborative process.

In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson, a senior editor at the Atlantic, sets out to explore the seemingly simple matter of “how things become popular”. He begins with a lullaby that his mother used to sing to him, which turns out to be a piece by Brahms called “Wiegenlied”. Explaining how this “19th-century German tune” ended up as “one of the world’s most popular songs”, Thompson guides the reader through the interconnected stories of its conception (Brahms wrote it for the child of a lost love), its composition, its reception and its dissemination.

It is in this last area that the mystery of the song’s global success – and of success in the abstract – becomes a little more comprehensible. The French philosopher Roland Barthes announced “the death of the author” as long ago as in 1967, but the habit of seeking an explanation for a work in the man or woman who produced it persists in much cultural writing (as the 20-odd books about Bob Dylan that I own attest). Similarly, explanations for the success of a work often grasp at the creator’s biography and traits, such as persistence, drive and ruthlessness. But here Thompson steps back from the personal and gives readers a longer view. Among the crucial factors that helped “Wiegenlied” become such a “hit” was “a historic exodus of German-speaking families” from their mother country, which “reached an all-time high in the 1880s”. Germans spread across the world, taking their tastes with them.

From here, Thompson broadens his inquiry to include online “viral” content, the artist Gustave Caillebotte’s collection of unloved impressionist paintings (now considered the movement’s canon), tabloid news, the sitcom Seinfeld’s slow climb in popularity, and how changes in news-watching habits led TV networks, in effect, to gift Donald Trump an estimated “$3bn in free media” during his presidential campaign.

Thompson’s discussion is wide-ranging but never incoherent – or, at least, he tells his illustrative tales so well that the disparate elements seem to cohere. Hit Makers is an attempt to define the “rules” governing the “cultural chaos” all around us, but its author seems to acknowledge that chaos by its nature cannot be untangled to provide pat, Malcolm Gladwell-style answers. In a section on the concept of “fluency” – about how human beings are instinctively drawn to familiar ideas – Thompson warns: “It is precisely because great narratives seduce us that the best stories deserve the greatest scepticism.” Caveat emptor.

However, it is hard to be sceptical when reading about, say, the French-American designer Raymond Loewy’s discovery that people “gravitate to products that are bold, yet instantly comprehensible” – a rule that he called “Maya”, or “most advanced yet acceptable”. Loewy applied this rule to his work on sports cars, trains, the Greyhound bus, the Coca-Cola soda fountain, the Lucky Strike cigarette pack and countless other objects and machines that defined the aesthetics of the early-20th-century West. By 1950, Cosmopolitan could uncontroversially assert that he had “affected the daily life of more Americans than any man of his time”.

Loewy’s success rate suggests that a sufficiently insightful mind could see through the chaos and hit home runs at each attempt. Yet, later in the book, the Microsoft network theory scientist Duncan Watts argues: “The same product can become a smash hit or a dud in nearly equivalent circumstances. It’s just a matter of math, timing, and luck.” Thompson supports this analysis with an account of how Bill Haley’s song “Rock Around the Clock” failed when given every chance to succeed in 1954, but almost randomly became the biggest-selling rock’n’roll record of all time a year later. “There is no antidote to the chaos of creative markets, only the brute doggedness to endure it,” Thompson concludes.

If we can’t engineer or even predict success, perhaps all we can do is follow Einstein’s advice: “Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value.” The dude had brains.

"Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular" by Derek Thompson is published by Allen Lane

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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