Rethinking 'What It Means To Be Popular'

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It used to be that popularity in music could be measured by the Billboard chart. These days, pinpointing success for a song or album isn’t quite so simple. In “What It Means to Be Popular (When Everything is Popular),” The New York Times Magazine's culture editor Adam Sternbergh recently explored how we determine what is popular, and the new and slippery definitions of what popularity means.

Interview Highlights

Adam Sternbergh, on why we might need to rethink the definition of popularity:

Certainly, there’s one way of looking at popularity, which is just by the sheer numbers: What is the movie that the most people went to see? What is the TV show that the most people sit down and watch? But there’s also this sense of popularity, [which is]: To what extent does something sort of infiltrate the cultural conversation? How often do you see the stars on magazine covers? How often do people talk about the show? A show like Girls... has worked its way into people's consciousness completely outsized to its actual viewership.

On how the shift in culture can create megahits like Psy's "Gangnam Style":

Once upon a time, the number one song — the most distinctive thing about it would be how many times you might hear it come on the radio, just over and over again. But now, if there’s a song you like, you can sit at your computer and listen to it over and over again. It creates these outsized hits, like “Gangnam Style,” that song by Psy, which was so huge. And yet in a weird way, I don’t feel like "Gangnam Style" will persist in our cultural memory in the way that some other huge number one hit songs have — though I could be wrong.



On the rise of micropopularity and the opportunity for discovery of new culture:

When popularity was simply a measure of the massive amount of people that liked something, we got this idea that popularity equaled lowest common denominator, that nothing interesting or challenging or prickly or inventive could ever ascend to the number one position. I don't think that's true at all anymore. And in fact, because there's so many little microcategories of popularity now, seeking out the most popular thing in a different niche category can really expose you to a lot of things you wouldn't find otherwise.