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
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine