Reviews | What the Beatles tell us about fame

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Let’s say you’re a musician, artist, or actor who dreams of making it big. How are you doing that?

The standard answer is: Be really good at your craft and you will become famous. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Excellence is a requirement, but often it is not enough.

Let me show the Beatles to explain what I’m talking about. If ever there was a group that could rise to the top based on pure creative genius, it was them.

But that’s not what it looked like at first. Every record company they approached rejected them.

“The boys won’t go,” said representatives of one company. “We know these things.” A dejected John Lennon said they thought ‘this was the end’.

So how did the Beatles pull it off? Obviously, they had a talent that was not recognized. But they had something else: first champions. They had a fanatically committed manager, 27-year-old Brian Epstein. They had two enthusiastic admirers who worked in EMI’s music publishing arm who pushed until the company offered the Beatles a record deal. When ‘Love Me Do’ was released in late 1962 with little support and little expectation from their label, a different kind of champion – fans back in Liverpool – helped create an outpouring of support. for the song.

I take this example from an article by Cass Sunstein that is pending publication with The Journal of Beatles Studies (you knew there had to be one, right?). Sunstein is a famous Harvard law professor who studies, among other things, how information cascades work.

One of the things I take away from Sunstein’s work is that people don’t just rely on their own judgments; they think in social networks. We use other informed people in our network to filter the mass of cultural products that exist. If a very confident member of your group thinks something is cool, you’ll be more likely to think it’s cool. If having a certain political opinion or liking a certain group helps you fit in, you probably will. If a group of like-minded people come together, they will tend to push each other towards a more extreme version of their existing views.

In his article, Sunstein cites a study by Matthew J. Salganik and others that illustrates the immense power of social influence. The researchers recruited about 14,000 people from a website where they could listen to and download 48 songs. Some people were divided into subgroups where they could see how often other people in their subgroup downloaded each song. Sunstein sums up the results: “Almost any song can become popular or not, depending on whether the first visitors liked it or not.” If people saw the first champions downloading a song, they were more likely to download it as well.

In a later experiment, the researchers reversed the download numbers so that the most popular songs suddenly appeared the least popular and the least popular suddenly seemed the most popular. They found that some of the once unpopular songs reached the top of the chart and some of the popular old ones sank. Some songs sounded so appealing that they could regain their popularity in the long run, but for many others, a song’s perceived popularity was more influential.

These discoveries support the work of René Girard, a French thinker who is enjoying a vogue these days. Girard exploded the idea that we are atomistic individuals driven by our own intrinsic desires. He argued instead that we explore the world by imitating others. If we see someone wanting something, it can make us want to want it too. “Man is the creature who only knows how to desire and who turns to others to decide”, wrote Girard.

You can tell a negative story based on all of this: Human beings are mostly pathetic lemmings, carried away by peer pressure. But that’s not how I see it.

The greatest thing a society can do is create its own culture. Every society creates a landscape of stories, symbols, assumptions, iconic works of art, prophets and meanings, and then we live in that landscape. We create our culture collectively, as a community. A culture does not exist in a single mind, but in a network of minds.

We create a culture in response to the most pressing concerns of the moment. Of all the talented people, we elevate those who help us see and understand our current conditions. In the 1960s, millions latched onto The Beatles because they so brilliantly embodied the dreams and values ​​of the collective consciousness of the time.

Artists aren’t the only creatives here. The early champions, who play such a powerful role in sculpting the cultural landscape, play a deeply creative role. They are architects of desire, shaping what people want to listen to and experience.

If you’re an artist, you probably have less control over your becoming famous than you’d like. Social conditions are the key. Perhaps the best questions for the rest of us are: Who am I an early champion for? What dark talents can I help raise? How do I fulfill my responsibility to shape the desires of the people around me?

For most of us, this is how the real creative acts are done.

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