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.
Derek Thomspon: The first question I got about my book when it came out in February, as I was going around the country talking about it, was, “Does your book explain Donald Trump?” So I had to come up with some sort of answer that addressed that issue. And the answer that I have is: Yes, the story of Donald Trump is the story of the Billboard Hot 100.
So the Billboard Hot 100, invented in the 1950s, is the official register of popularity in music. And for a long time it was essentially fake—it was fake news. They didn’t have live records of what albums and what vinyl was selling week by week, so instead what they did is they surveyed the DJs and the record store owners, and both parties would lie.
The DJs would lie because they were being paid by the studios and the labels, and the record store owners would lie because they had scarcity. And once you’ve sold, say, all of your Bruce Springsteen and you have a lot of AC/DC, then it doesn’t make any sense to tell Billboard that Bruce Springsteen is selling, you need to sell more AC/DC so you tell them that that album is now number one in the charts. So the charts were biased toward the taste of the white man at the labels and toward churn.
And then in 1991 all of that changed. Billboard introduced new technology to measure point of sales data of records and to measure radio play, and immediately taste in music changed over night. Hip-hop and country, overlooked by white guys on the coast, soared up the charts and the churn of the Billboard Hot 100 slowed down dramatically—such that I think that 20 songs that have been in the Billboard Hot 100 for the longest period of time have all come out in the last 25 years.
So essentially you could say that taste in music went from being dictated top-down to being generated bottom-up. The exact same thing is happening in politics. For a long time there was this theory of politics called “the party decides”. And this said that the way that we choose presidential candidates or presidential nominees with the parties is not that the public dictates who will be the party nominees, but rather that elites at the party level decide, and they distribute their messages through scarce media channels like television and radio and the public eats it up. Not altogether unlike the way the labels could dictate music popularity and then radio listeners would just eat it up and like those songs because of familiarity.
But what happened with Donald Trump and Jeb Bush? The establishment candidate that all of the party people liked did terribly, and Donald Trump—who had basically no elite party support—did terrifically within the Republican Party.
And so I think within the party structure you could also say that tastes, which used to be dictated top-down, are now being dictated bottom-up.
And I think we are seeing a groundswell of the bottom across the entertainment and political landscape that, because of the distribution of media channels, is too difficult now for any gatekeeper to control the flow of information from a group of elite people to the masses. Instead everybody has a blow horn, everybody can be a broadcaster, and as a result what you have instead is chaos. And so I think that that is one of the more important phenomenon that we’re seeing, is this revolution of bottom-up that is powered by a technological revolution in distribution.