How the Billboard Hot 100 explains the rise of Donald Trump

The scandalous history of the Billboard Hot 100 is the perfect analogy for how Donald Trump's popularity broke the rigid power structure of American politics.

Politics & Current Affairs

As soon as Derek Thompson's book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction came out, he started fielding one particular question over and over: Does your book explain the unforeseen popularity of President Donald J. Trump? Thompson looked through the historical ledger of popularity and found the perfect analogy: the Billboard Hot 100 music charts. From its inception in 1958 to 1991, the Billboard Hot 100 rankings were rigged, controlled from the top-down by studio execs, paid DJs, and record store owners who wanted to move certain stock. Then, in 1991, something changed: record sales and radio play data were tracked for the first time. "Immediately, taste in music changed over night," says Thompson. Hip-hop boomed, as did country music—genres ignored by the white men on the coast. "Music went from being dictated top-down to being generated bottom-up. The exact same thing is happening in politics," explains Thompson. A similar technological disruption—social media, a notoriously bottom-up platform—meant the gatekeepers of political power could no longer control which presidential candidate became the party nominee. Republican leaders wanted establishment candidate Jeb Bush, but the disgruntled voters made their taste known: they wanted Donald J. Trump. The same phenomenon that transformed the music charts is now transforming politics—only in this instance the stakes are much higher. Derek Thompson's latest book is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.

Are you cool or are you crazy? How sociologists define healthy rebellion

Is coolness wearing a leather jacket and slicking your hair back? Or is it "a measured rebellion" within established boundaries? One big thinker tells us that being "cool" is sort of like a cult, at least from a sociological standpoint.

Videos

Are you cool? Senior Editor of The Atlantic Derek Thompson could probably tell you. He's hardly The Fonz, but he's established a definition of cool that holds up in a sociological way. He posits that coolness is a measured rebellion against an established mainstream, or societal norm. A good way to think of cool is how creative some kids could be by rebelling within the rules of a school uniform—it would be silly to show up naked, for instance, but how cool was the kid who popped his collar and wore sunglasses between classes? Super cool. Derek Thompson defines "cool" as bending the rules as far as they'll go without necessarily breaking them, and his talk with us is as fascinating as it is concise. Derek Thompson's latest book is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.

Decoding popularity: Why successful people don't try appealing to everyone's tastes

History is littered with thousands of things that tried to appeal to everyone and yet failed miserably. If you want true success, try to appeal to a core group.

Videos

Senior Editor of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, boils down the science of popularity. He suggests that the best way to reach as many people as possible is to appeal to their inherent outsider nature. Since the cultural mainstream is so fractured, you have to understand that - at best - you're going to reach perhaps 3% to 5% of people. Because out of 240 million Americans, just 4% of that is 9.6 million people. Derek posits that perhaps creators shouldn't appeal to the masses. Instead, he suggests, they should appeal to the niche. Derek Thompson's latest book is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.

Why you believe lies you hear more often

Here's why your brain’s biases are a win for fake news, and a pay day for Facebook.

Mind & Brain

Even if you think of yourself as a human lie detector, there are some untruths that will sneak under the hood. For that, you can thank your brain, and it's absolute adoration for all things familiar, says Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic. One of the oldest findings in psychology history is the 'mere exposure effect', in which merely being exposed to something makes you biased toward it—parents influence their children by playing certain music around the house that they will love their whole lives, or they instill a political preference in them from an early age. You are drawn to what you know, and that bias really matters when it comes to digital media and the fake news phenomenon. Once something becomes memorable, we tend to conflate familiarity with fact. "This is one of the big reasons why it’s difficult to myth-bust on television or myth-bust in journalism, because sometimes the mere repetition of that myth biases audiences toward thinking that it’s true..." says Thompson. "The mere exposure of news to us biases us toward thinking that that news item is true." Facebook has an enormous ethical responsibility in this, he says, because it is the world's largest and most influential news outlet—whether it intended to be or not. Thompson believes there is no algorithmic fix for fake news that spreads via Facebook, only a human one: "The answer to a problem of a lack of human ethics in information markets is the introduction of more humans and more ethics," he says. Derek Thompson's latest book is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.