Two Snaps: The Alchemy of Hits

Why do some technological and cultural products spread like kudzu while others wither on the vine? Journalists and academics have written volumes about "stickiness," but even the sharpest manufacturers, publishers, and producers have been rejecting future hits for decades -- often ideas and styles the break normally reasonable rules.  Parker Brothers actually declined Monopoly twice: as the Landlord's Game (a simulation promoting Henry George's socialist tax reform principles, with a cult following in academic economics) in the 1920s, and its ultimate pro-capitalist version, authorized for a pittance by the unworldly original patent holder, in the 1930s. (The developer of that successful revision, or rather inversion, had to market a home-made prototype to convince them.) But if the game had flopped, there would have been many plausible reasons -- too complicated, consumers were sick of monopolies, etc.

Recent tributes to the late composer Vic Mizzy show the power and unpredictability of hits. The LA Times explains how it worked:

. . . [B]ecause the production company, Filmways, refused to pay for singers, Mizzy sang it himself and overdubbed it three times. The song, memorably punctuated by finger-snapping, begins with: "They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky, they're altogether ooky: the Addams family."

In the 1996 book "TV's Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes From 'Dragnet' to 'Friends,' " author Jon Burlingame writes that Mizzy's "musical conception was so specific that he became deeply involved with the filming of the main-title sequence, which involved all seven actors snapping their fingers in carefully timed rhythm to Mizzy's music."

For Mizzy, who owned the publishing rights to "The Addams Family" theme, it was an easy payday.

"I sat down; I went 'buh-buh-buh-bump [snap-snap], buh-buh-buh-bump," he recalled in a 2008 interview on CBS' "Sunday Morning" show. "That's why I'm living in Bel-Air: Two finger snaps and you live in Bel-Air."

It's encouraging to note that budget limits helped make the song such a success.Mizzy was challenged to become a one-man band and chorus, rose to the task, and managed to include copyright ownership in his contract. Mizzy not only had the right idea, he was willing to put hours of work into the right execution.

For whatever obscure neurological or aesthetic reason, the theme song has joined the ranks of the earworms. It's infectious even across species. Parrots learn not only speech but melodies and rhythm from their human companions, and the Addams Family theme song is an avian hit on Youtube, with dozens of versions by cockatiels alone. Here's the best finger snap I found:


  



Creative success is usually a lot of work -- except when it isn't. And in the end, like the Mizzy's Adamses, it can also be a bit "mysterious and spooky."

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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