In The Power of Habit (reviewed here in 2012), Charles Duhigg recounts the story of how the song “Hey Ya” by Outkast became the breakout hit in 2004. Every person in the music business who heard this song believed it was going to be a hit. At Arista Records, executives were singing the catch phrase “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” to each other in the hallways. But when the song was released, it bombed.
Duhigg explains that the tune was not familiar enough to the radio listeners and they would turn the station even before the opening verse was completed.
For instance, when stations played “Breathe” by Blu Cantrell during the summer of 2003, almost no one changed the dial. The song is an eminently forgettable, beat-driven tune that DJs found so bland that most of them only played it reluctantly, they told music publications. But for some reason, whenever it came on the radio, people listened, even if, as pollsters later discovered, those same listeners said they didn’t like the song very much. Or consider “Here Without You” by 3 Doors Down, or almost any song by the group Maroon 5. Those bands are so featureless that critics and listeners created a new music category—“bath rock”—to describe their tepid sounds. Yet whenever they came on the radio, almost no one changed the station.
Then there were songs that listeners said they actively disliked, but were sticky nonetheless. Take Christina Aguilera or Celine Dion. In survey after survey, male listeners said they hated Celine Dion and couldn’t stand her songs. But whenever a Dion tune came on the radio, men stayed tuned in. Within the Los Angeles market, stations that regularly played Dion at the end of each hour—when the number of listeners was measured—could reliably boost their audience by as much as 3 percent, a huge figure in the radio world. Male listeners may have thought they disliked Dion, but when her songs played, they stayed glued.
You see, popular music tunes follow the same sound and even chord progression.
It should be noted that some of the songs in the video are transposed to use the four chord progression even if the originally did not use the chords in the same order (although those same four chords were used throughout the song). But the point of the video is the same as the point that Duhigg makes in The Power of Habit. It’s hard to move the general public away from familiar things.
By sandwiching “Hey Ya” between more popular songs, the record company eventually turned “Hey Ya” into a familiar sounding song and eventually it took off. “Hey Ya” was nominated for Record of the Year and the album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won Album of the Year at the 2004 Grammys. DMC has recently made a similar criticism of the music of Jay-Z and Lil Wayne that the reason those artists are popular is due to the repetitiveness of their songs on the radio. DMC calls this “brainwashing.” It is, sort of. Really what is happening is record companies and radio stations are working in tandem to make these two familiar.
How does this work in readers? Easily. Covers, blurbs, tropes, themes are all repeated in an effort to deliver the Celine Dion fix. And the readers may consistently come away dissatisfied (and they do according to reviews and message board posts), but we perpetuate the commonality of books by returning to the familiar.
“Sometimes stations will do research by calling listeners on the phone, and play a snippet of a song, and listeners will say, ‘I’ve heard that a million times. I’m totally tired of it,’ ” Meyer told me. “But when it comes on the radio, your subconscious says, ‘I know this song! I’ve heard it a million times! I can sing along!’ Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio. Your brain secretly wants that song, because it’s so familiar to everything else you’ve already heard and liked. It just sounds right.
There is evidence that a preference for things that sound “familiar” is a product of our neurology. Scientists have examined people’s brains as they listen to music, and have tracked which neural regions are involved in comprehending aural stimuli. Listening to music activates numerous areas of the brain, including the auditory cortex, the thalamus, andthe superior parietal cortex. These same areas are also associated with pattern recognition and helping the brain decide which inputs to pay attention to and which to ignore.
As noted in The Power of Habit, scientists at MIT learned that “behavioral habits prevent us from becoming overwhelmed by the endless decisions we would otherwise have to make each day.” When you are confronted with thousands of new releases, it is far easier to go to one that looks and sounds like you’ve read before, particularly when it is a book you liked.
I know I’ve discussed this before, but this is why Harlequin has been profitable for so long. Within each of its category lines, Harlequin makes a promise to its readers that they will be getting a familiar product. Harlequin Presents will deliver “about passion and escape—glamorous international settings, captivating women and the seductive, tempting men who want them” where as Harlequin Romance books are about “real, relatable women and strong, deeply desirable men experiencing the intensity, anticipation and sheer rush of falling in love.”
The New Adult books that sell for 99c a pop and dominate the publishing landscape are the equivalent of a category book. Many are derivative of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster. Bad boys with anger management issues who are engaged in underground fighting and find their one true love in the arms of an inexperienced virgin speckle the bestseller lists. Dig deeper and you’ll find that some of the most popular self published titles in the past year or so were Twilight fan fiction, all brewed off the same base of the intensely passionate love one extraordinary young man had for an awkward but seemingly average young woman. The covers, titles, and blurbs all promise the same sort of story, one that resonated so strongly with readers that entire threads and message boards are devoted to finding the next Travis-like hero. (Travis is the male protagonist in Beautiful Disaster, reviewed here). This desire for the familiar is so strong that books that are actual copies of Beautiful Disaster and another popular New Adult, Easy by Tammara Webber, that a plagiarized novel by an unknown author came perilously close to hitting the Kindle top 100 before it was removed by Amazon.
Even when those other books never quite live up to the original, we readers keep going back to the same well because it’s easier and familiar. “Listeners are happy to sit through a song they might say they dislike, as long as it seems like something they’ve heard before.” This isn’t a function of just romance readers. We are just the most prolific of readers but there are readers who love Westerns, cozy mysteries, thrillers, a science fiction books. To the regular science fiction reader, SFF stories are the familiar and Jane Austen is the unfamiliar.
I remember once reading Linnea Sinclair arguing that terms like the ton and pantaloons are just as foreign as a science fiction term. The problem is that readers of romance have long been exposed to Regency related terms (so much so that even inaccuracies become realities) and they have not been similarly exposed to science fiction romance. It’s not that the Alien Hero is too strange to readers, but that they aren’t familiar to readers.
So how does something different ever succeed? “By dressing something new in old clothes, and making the unfamiliar seem familiar,” writes Duhigg.
Publishers have kind of tried to do this with anthologies. The danger is overpromising and underdelivering as well as a reader feeling the subject of a bait and switch. To really make a sea change in publishing, I think you have to inundate readers with the foreign until it becomes familiar. This means publishing not just one book but a slew of them until that thing that is unfamiliar becomes ordinary, or in other terms, oversaturated. Packaging Author A with bestselling Author B isn’t enough. It has to be done over and over and over until people complain of being sick of it.
In fact, you might argue that a publisher and author is not successful until people start arguing the market is flooded and that they are TIRED of all the sameness. (Yes, I realize that this somewhat negates my “Let the Historicals Die” post but there is a point of diminishing returns. At some point, there will be a denouement.).
This does not mean that a different book can’t break the mold and become a genre leader. That will happen but it’s far harder to create a bestseller out of something foreign than it is out of something familiar. Because even while we readers cry that we want something fresh and different, we want it to be fresh, different and, yet, familiar.