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Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” hypothesis, outlined in his 2000 book of the same name, describes the complex human forces involved in the viral spread of germs, information and even group behavior. He employs this concept to explain the sudden, surprising re-popularity of Hush Puppies shoes, the precipitous drop in New York City crime rates, and the spread of venereal disease in Baltimore. As an exercise today’s piece will use the template of the Tipping Point to examine the potential strengths and weaknesses in Team Grace’s ongoing strategies and her current fan support, and what might be expected in the future.

Keep in mind that this is a forward-looking comparison. Just as there were already Hush Puppies shoes for sale, or a level of venereal disease in Baltimore, or any of the other examples from which Gladwell draws, this exercise assumes the current-day Grace – three years after AGT and making her way as a singer-songwriter.

Gladwell uses a diverse set of real-life examples to support the three pillars of the theory, which he refers to as The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. The underpinning assumption of the entire theory is that in the complex world of high-pressure marketing and fast-paced information access, people still rely on direct, word-of-mouth contact for a good deal of advice on shopping, cues about emerging social trends, and so on. While family, neighbors, and co-workers form a big part of a person’s interpersonal circle, Gladwell focuses on the critical importance of self-selected friends on these types of transfers. In his book, Gladwell references that “[a] study, done on students at the University of Utah, found that if you ask someone why he is friendly with someone else, he’ll say it is because he and his friend share similar attitudes. But if you actually quiz the two of them on their attitudes, you’ll find out that what they actually share is similar activities. We’re friends with the people we do things with, as much as we are with the people we resemble.” These voluntary social groups that form among nearby contacts at school, work, or other close-proximity social settings are the breeding ground for tipping point activity.

Even though the theory was created at the dawn of the internet age, many of the underlying concepts about the insular state of social groupings still hold, and others are even reinforced. While the technology exists to receive the latest self-taken pictures and pearls of wisdom from a world full of celebrities, the total volume of this information tends instead to keep people focused primarily on the feeds of a relatively small set of their personal idols, and sharing it digitally with their close friends. The monolithic worlds of terrestrial radio and Big Music have been shattered into streaming playlists and boutique satellite channels, which further isolate music lovers from being exposed to almost anything beyond their immediate current favorites. Even the creation of “trending” suggestions on streaming platforms simply work to boil down potential trend-setting movements in music and culture to short lists, which many will selectively ignore in any case if they aren’t made by familiar names and faces.

Gladwell’s premise for the Power of the Few is that viral momentum can be activated by a relatively few socially-mobile and highly-motivated individuals. He breaks these types of people (whom he mercifully does not refer to as “influencers”) into three types: Connectors (people who cross a lot of social boundaries), Mavens (compulsive helpers spreading good ideas) or Salesmen (charismatic convincers). These types of people spread social epidemics between, within and among the groups, and amplify person-to-person transfer of new ideas, fashions, and – of course – opinions about emerging stars in the entertainment world.

When viewing Grace’s current organized fandom through that template, the state of affairs is not particularly encouraging. While Grace enjoys healthy social media and music streaming statistics, those numbers are fairly static and show only moderate growth for an extended period. As useful a source of information and support for current Grace fans as gathering places like the Vandervault and other existing (mostly adult) fan groups are, for the most part, they don’t serve as mechanisms to spread word of her talents to non-fans. These sites are relatively inward-focused, and the fans and superfans within are generally preaching to the converted.
A moderate exception to that rule is some of the “Maven-like” work of Mark Lalonde, in creating a series of videos linking clips of Grace as opening act juxtaposed with images of the more famous headlining acts.

Instead, if it is indeed to happen, the eventual Power of the Few likely will be harnessed by a small number of extroverted and influential people around her own age, in high school lunchrooms or college dorm hangouts, that concurrently decide that Grace is “cool”. Their power, perhaps disconnected from each other but linking together social groups of the like-minded, are those with the best potential for creating a self-sustaining wave of popular fandom.

The second of Gladwell’s concepts is the Stickiness Factor. He states that in marketing and media exposure, the messages and concepts that generate change are those with both high impact and long-term staying power. His examples include historic interactive print-marketing campaigns by the Columbia Record Club and the successful strategy of repetition in children’s programming for shows like Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues.

Grace’s superpower, if she has one, is to be memorable to those who have come across her. The comments sections of her videos are strewn with posts remembering her from her AGT audition, many without even knowing if she won that year. Her signature traits and descriptive aspects could be documented as a growing list of Middle Names, shorthand cues that can jog memories and prompt associations. In the beginning, she was Grace “Next Taylor Swift” VanderWaal, or perhaps Grace “Banana Pants” VanderWaal. For a long period, she may have been simply Grace “Ukulele” VanderWaal. Going forward to a whole new group of people, some with no other frame of reference, she will be Grace “Stargirl” VanderWaal – a condition that may last a long time.

What her label and management are doing during this formative period is following a tried-and-true method of overlapping exposure, coming at potential fans from a wide variety of angles in order to maximize the effect of Grace’s “stickiness”: the age-old music cross-pollination methods of performing as opener for more successful acts, appearing at festivals for those with a variety of musical tastes and interests, and appearing at awards shows to maintain an identity by audiences as a star and by other musicians as a peer. Her many talents provide the opportunity to add hyphens to her occupation (currently singer-songwriter-actress-model-spokesperson), which increases the likelihood of first encounters with new audiences, and reinforces existing associations with new ones. Continued exposure and hard work can only improve her chances to maximize that opportunity for the expected viral “moment”.

The last of the three tenets is the Power of Context. It’s not enough to simply analyze the viral element in the foreground and ignore the characteristics of the target population through which it spreads. Gladwell illustrates the idea using the example of Bernie Goetz’s popular support in the immediate aftermath of his vigilante shooting of four youths on the New York City subway in 1984, within the context of the crime-ridden place and time. He also supports the viral value of context with the story of Rebecca Wells’ book “Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood” and its sudden popularity due in great part to the supportive power of book clubs.

Just as a potential viral music star would need to stand out from the crowd, that person’s potential popularity would need to be seen within the framework of existing stardom. The pinnacle of pop musical popularity, the Fame Bubble of which Grace speaks, is inhabited by the artists that meet the needs and ideals of the target audience. Anecdotally, Grace’s most ardent fans are instead either clustered in the small age range around her own (who see her as a peer), or spread out thinly among adults of all ages including well past the targeted markets (who also view her both with historical context and as a source of great potential).

Per Statistica, pop music is the most popular genre in the age ranges 16-34. In order to climb to the heights of the pop landscape, Grace would need to be more relevant and of interest to that group. From the moment of her first emergence at age 12, ardent fans have wondered and grumbled about the glacially slow pace of her ascendance, and sought to question the strategies of or lay blame upon a variety of culprits. But Grace has not been hidden all this time; in fact, as a working musician and celebrity, she has had a higher public profile than some more popular artists. And certainly, other artists have emerged from obscurity to international fame in that same time period.

A simpler explanation might just be that she has been too young for her target audience. It may be hard for large swaths of the music-consuming public to appreciate the wisdom and talents of or receive life lessons from someone who perhaps most reminds them most of their quirky little sister. As she ages into the 16-34-year-old range as a peer, that particular stumbling block will disappear, and there will be one less obstacle impeding her rise.

While Gladwell’s theory isn’t necessarily a reproducible roadmap for instant success, it can be an interesting way of attempting to gauge current progress and potential avenues for exploration. Should Grace “blow up” dramatically at some point, it’s possible that one or more of his Tipping Point factors were in play.