If you look through my music collection, you will find that a majority of my albums are "Greatest Hits" albums. Depending on who you ask, this can be either a "good" or "bad" thing.
On the one hand, I could be accused of not enjoying "challenging" music. That Greatest Hits albums are merely a collection of a band's most commercial (and hence, least original) work. The songs that catered to some corporate idea of what was selling at any given point. By definition, "hits" cannot be good music. The audio version of shiny objects to keep the masses entertained.
Others would say, however, that there is a reason that such songs are hits. That they tap into something universal. Something with which we all, (or at least many of us) can identify. Lyrics and sounds that move many individuals, as opposed to moving a nameless mob. Therefore, Justin Beiber by definition produces great music, because he sells millions of records to millions of fans.
Me? I don't take either view 100%. The fact is, I don't know what to make of either hits, or my personal tastes. There are about a million different ways of looking at both what makes something popular, and what it means to be popular. And that goes for songs, books, movies, television shows. You name it.
I consider myself a discriminating, high cultured, well read person. And to that end, I do enjoy Shakespeare. Movies like "The Lion in Winter" and "Beckett". TV shows like "The West Wing". Music by Ralph McTell. Yet on the other hand, I consider a Steve Berry thriller to be among my favorite novels. I listen to REO Speedwagon. I've been a fan of "Strange Brew" since I was a child, and I will still watch Three's Company if it's on.
And you know what? All of those things are/were hits in their respective genres. So which score do I get? The high or the low? Kudos to my intellect for roaring at the antics of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, or reprimands to my platonic appetites for laughing at Jack Tripper?
Turns out, I have no clue as to which score I get. If I have to get one at all. Because I have determined that things that are brilliant can end up being either obscure, or popular. The same goes for some real trash. I know there has to be some sort of metric by which we can distinguish a quality product from junk. I just don't think its status as a hit is that metric.
Certainly there must be something that The Kite Runner and The Di-Vinci Code have in common, as much as literature professors would loath to admit it. Something that makes me stop switching stations when I hear Hey Jude as much as when I hear Fat Bottomed Girls. But what? What?? Certainly nothing that makes me look like a rube. Nor a genius. Because I doubt I am either.
I have struggled with this question for a long time. In the final analysis, the best I can come up with is that the "hits" appeal to a large collection of individuals with their own tastes. At least at first. But then follow the leader sets in, and suddenly everybody has to have it, whether they truly enjoy it or not. This, half of all hits are just people copy catting. Something strikes a chord at first with people, but then becomes mass consumed by the mob after a certain threshold. The same thing with work that gets ignored.
There is, I have concluded, no way of knowing why this happens with some products and not others. So all I can do is continue to read many books. Listen to a lot of music, and keep my Netflix cue updated. And when something speaks to me, I declare it a keeper. No matter how elitist or common, difficult or easy, well known or forgotten it is. If it hits me, then it's a hit. And if that means a greatest hits compilation is in my future, so be it.
Whats does make a hit? Can we know? Is there a science to it on any level, or do people just love what they love; no code involved?