The popularity of the Beatles, informational cascades, and culture developed by champions and conditions

Explaining the rise and fame of the Beatles is complicated but there may still be new arguments to be made:

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So how did the Beatles make it? Obviously, they had talent that was going unrecognized. But they had something else: early champions. They had a fanatically committed manager in 27-year-old Brian Epstein. They had two enthusiastic admirers who worked in the music publishing arm of EMI who pushed until the company offered the Beatles a recording contract. When “Love Me Do” was released in late 1962 with little support and low expectations from their label, a different kind of champion — fans back in Liverpool — helped build up a wave of support for the song.

I take this example from a paper by Cass Sunstein that is awaiting publication with The Journal of Beatles Studies (you knew there had to be one, right?). Sunstein is a celebrated Harvard Law professor who studies, among many other things, how informational cascades work…

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

These findings support the work of René Girard, a French thinker who is enjoying a vogue these days. Girard exploded the view that we are atomistic individuals driven by our own intrinsic desires. He argued instead that we explore the world by imitating other people. If we see someone wanting something, then that can plant a desire in us to want it, too. “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote…

If you are an artist, you probably have less control over whether you’ll become famous than you would like. Social conditions are the key. The better questions for the rest of us may be: Who am I an early champion for? Who are the obscure talents I can help lift up? How am I fulfilling my responsibility to shape the desires of the people around me?

This could be the start of a joke: “How many famous researchers does it take to explain the rise of a set of adolescent celebrities from Liverpool?”

Or, perhaps this simply illustrates Marx’s idea that (paraphrased) “people make choices in circumstances not of their choosing.” The Beatles did their thing but operated within a particular system and time.

More broadly, explaining significant cultural and social change can be complicated. Creativity often builds on the work of people that came before (as the Beatles did). Artists may be creative but not find an opening in the existing system or not be recognized in their time. Even “successful” change can take a long time to develop and be adopted. The Beatles has many things going for them including champions, changes in technology, the rise of teenagers, an ability to put together music and lyrics, etc…but, as noted above, they did not control the whole process nor survive the subsequent pressures.

Perhaps celebrity-led affordable housing is not the answer

Actor Brad Pitt created a foundation that built 109 affordable housing units in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. According to one observer, the project has not gone well:

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Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation built 109 eye-catching and affordable homes in New Orleans for a community where many people were displaced by damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Now this housing development is in disarray. The vast majority of the recently constructed homes are riddled with construction-related problems that have led to mold, termites, rotting wood, flooding and other woes.

At least six are boarded up and abandoned. Many residents have filed lawsuits that are still pending. That is, a nonprofit that built houses with input from Frank Gehry and other prominent architects amid much fanfare for survivors of one disaster then ushered in another disaster…

Brad Pitt, who took credit for launching this organization in 2007 and often served as its public face in subsequent years, was still listed as a board member as of 2018.

Pitt’s lawyers argued that he could not be sued over the housing development’s failings, but a judge ruled in 2019 that the movie star would remain a defendant because of his role as Make It Right’s founder and chief fundraiser.

Housing, plus the decades of policies and history undergirding it in particular locations and in the broader sense, is difficult to address.

This proposed solution is one employed in many American sectors. A celebrity comes in and lends their name and resources to a project. I think I showed a class a documentary Pitt narrated about efforts to rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward.

What happens in the end because of the efforts of the celebrity? Here, the outcome does not sound good: the homes are in disrepair and court cases are pending. The homes that were intended to help are their own problem.

To repeat, tackling affordable housing, even with the help of a megastar, is no easy task.

Celebrities as symbols for different social and political positions

There is a new cultural history of Johnny Cash out this week and I quickly read several reviews. Reading this review, it struck me that one of the important roles celebrities play in American society is they become symbols for particular causes, positions, and groups. But, what exactly they stand for or represent might be hard to pin down as Johnny Cash exemplified:

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In a sense, the paradox lives to see yet another day in Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash, which sets Cash’s contrariness in a new light. Cash, the cultural historian Michael Stewart Foley argues, was not just a country-music icon, but a rare kind of political figure. He was seldom a partisan in any traditional sense, and unlike Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he rarely aligned his music with a progressive agenda. Nonetheless, “Cash, without really intending it, fashioned a new model of public citizenship, based on a politics of empathy.”…

Some readers may walk away convinced that Cash was a Whitmanesque giant, containing multitudes. I often found myself wondering if he wasn’t a two-faced equivocator. The book is a welcome corrective to the tendency to treat the man as so internally contrary as to be a complete enigma. But the cost of rescuing Cash from the metaphysical fog has been to turn him into a plaster saint. Neither does justice to the actual extent of his weirdness…

Drawing on his own experience, Cash might have broken up the central falsity of the archipelago of glass and steel known as the New South: its equation of whiteness with self-sufficiency and Blackness with dependency. What did he do instead? He smiled grimly and talked out of both sides of his mouth. When Nixon asked Cash to play the White House, he accepted the invite, but politely refused the White House’s request to cover “Welfare Cadillac,” a racist novelty song…

Thanks in no small part to Rubin, Cash has been a blue-state hero ever since. Citizen Cash pulls, in a salutary way, a reverse Rubin and reminds us that the hipster-acceptable Cash, who hung with Bono and premiered his American Recordings songs at the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip, represents less than half the man. But Foley amasses exactly the right facts, only to draw exactly the wrong conclusion.

Who was Johnny Cash? There are multiple ways to approach this but since he was a celebrity, a well-known figure for decades, it may not matter who he really was but rather what the larger public made him to be and continues to make him to be. The celebrities have agency and can make particular decisions but to be famous or well-known means that narrative might be out of their hands. Any new commentary or writing about Cash contributes to an ongoing narrative that could continue to change.

More broadly, celebrities can become representations of particular points of view or experiences. Whether in music, sports, entertainment, politics, or other arenas, the celebrities can have individual experiences – and this is part of why they are intriguing to the celebrity industry and the public as they follow their latest moves – but they also connect to larger patterns of interest in society. Where do celebrities fall in terms of COVID-19 and vaccines? Which celebrities align with which political parties and candidates? What do they think about the latest hot topic?

This often means that celebrities become part of ongoing political and cultural struggles because they represent something. They become proxy figures for larger societal questions. Who was Johnny Cash? We are still figuring that out and the social forces and conditions around the conversation influence our answer to this question.

Viewing liked public figures as flawed humans, Paul McCartney and Ben Franklin edition

As a kid, I had a difficult time seeing current or past public figures as heroes or people to emulate. Perhaps this contributed to why I study sociology and often think of people in a collective. As an adult, I wonder about the flaws of public figures and the cultural narrative we see/hear about them versus what is true. Two recent examples with figures I have heard/seen/read about my entire life came to mind.

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Paul McCartney. Reviewing a new publication about McCartney’s song lyrics, an author says:

Reading song lyrics on a page is a definitively incomplete endeavor and in Paul’s case more than most, given that he’s one of the most aurally gifted people to ever walk the face of the earth. McCartney’s best lyrics are marvels of musicality, so expertly fitted to their setting that you almost take them for granted. Consider the beginning of 1965’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” an intoxicating tornado of language and, finally, non-language: “I’ve just seen a face/ I can’t forget the time and place where we’ve just met/ she’s just girl for me and I want all the world to see/ we’ve met, mm mm mm mmm mm.” He wants all the world to see they’ve met; what a beautiful little sentiment. Take, also, “Close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you,” such a perfect opening line for a love song that we forget that someone actually thought it up. He can be a master of evocation—“changing my life with a wave of her hand”—and aphoristic bons mots that stick in your head: “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.” Even better: “You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer,” one of those perfectly McCartney-an phrases that feels like so much more than it actually says.

Paul McCartney has been one of the most famous people on earth for nearly 60 years, and in many ways, he has served as the best model of how to be a celebrity: He’s disarmingly amiable, boundlessly energetic, gracious and graceful in the face of unimaginable fame. And yet, beneath the charm and composure, there’s always been a guardedness to him; it’s notable, for instance, that McCartney’s never written a proper memoir, a fact he acknowledges in the foreword to The Lyrics. He’s carefully curated his public persona on his own terms, a move that’s occasionally mistaken for phoniness, or worse. His seemingly flippant reaction to John Lennon’s death mere hours after John’s murder, for instance, earned McCartney widespread scorn from rock press and fans, a vilification he wouldn’t live down for years. But watching the clip today is just heartbreaking: Here’s a man clearly in the throes of grief, struggling to hold it together in the face of the most ghoulish extremities of celebrity media. In his eyes is a raw and terrified vulnerability that’s impossible to shake.

Yet, Paul has his flaws. After reading a lot about the Beatles, his band mates knew these flaws. By the end of the career, they wondered if his endless interest in showmanship was an act or real. He could be perfectionistic and too flippant with his music. He showed less interest in deeper subject material. That these came out could be chalked up to different personalities and conflict among the band but they have also dogged him throughout his public life.

Ben Franklin is a second figure I have encountered in several ways recently. In reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with several groups of students, Franklin features prominently as an exemplar of the Puritan work ethic. Franklin is largely reduced to a set of aphorisms, admittedly famous ones. I also read through a children’s picture book biography of Franklin and they highlighted several major contributions he made. Yet, Franklin was also a flawed character. He had several long-lasting unrepaired relationships. He was a philander. He seriously pursued self-discipline but he could not achieve everything.

By nature of being revered public figures, there may not be much room for revealing or discussing flaws. Many historical treatments emphasize high points or the better sides of the heroes of the narrative. Yet, all humans are flawed. Many of the greatest figures had traits or behaviors they did not want to share or people did not want to focus on. Figuring out ways to acknowledge this with both living and past figures could be helpful in developing figures that are worth emulating.

Facebook and powerful actors

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ways powerful people interact with the platform differently compared to regular users:

The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.

At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users. In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook. Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.

A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

This will likely get a lot of attention for the different approach to different kinds of users. That elite members are treated differently could get interesting in an era with an increased focus on inequality and the influence of social media.

I am also interested in hearing more about how much Facebook and other social media platforms rely on powerful and influential people. Celebrities, whether in politics, entertainment, sports, the arts, or other spheres, are important figures in society. Elite figures may not be like regular users in that they attract a lot of views and promote engagement among other users. Social media platforms want users to engage with content and elites may provide just that.

Going further, social media platforms have power users. For example, a small percent of Twitter users are highly engaged. Social media use and content generation is even across different users. Should those who generate more content and engagement operate under a different set of rules? Is having provocative users or people who push the boundaries (or even get away with breaking the rules) good for business?

This makes me wonder if there would be a market for a social media platform that puts users on a more level playing field. If we know that certain resources, statuses, and social markers lead to differential treatment, might an online platform be able to even things out?

Local TV market ad celebrities, Bob Rohrman edition

For decades, American television viewers have been treated to (or subjected to, depending on one’s point of view) recurring characters in local television ads. In the Chicago region, Bob Rohrman was a mainstay:

Of all the Chicago auto dealers who ever graced the small screen as their own TV pitchman, few were as delightfully campy as Bob Rohrman.

Rohrman’s low-budget commercials radiated good humor and bad production, featuring his mustachioed and bespectacled face peering out from a variety of goofy costumes, a uniquely awkward delivery and flubbed lines that often devolved into a joyous cackle.

The spots were punctuated by a cheesy cartoon lion and the tag line: “There’s only one Bob ROHRRRR-man!”

Somehow it all worked, turning the Bob Rohrman Auto Group into one of the largest family-owned dealership groups in the Midwest, and its spokesman/founder into something of a Chicago celebrity.

In the era of cable and satellite television, streaming options, declining network television and local radio, and targeted commercials on particular platforms, we may be at the end of local advertising like this. All the advertising then becomes more corporate, slick, tied to national or multinational corporations. And we lose a few public characters who few people may have actually met but who many could recognize.

We purchased a vehicle from a Rohrman dealership several years ago. At no point, did I think about the commercials in that process. But, given the number of Rohrman commercials I have seen and heard over the years, who knows if it influenced me. (I can safely say that other auto pitchmen or dealers, including Max Madsen or the Webb boys, did not lead me to visit their lots.)

Michael Jordan embodied the American value of winning at all costs

An interview with Todd Boyd, featured in ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” included this answer regarding evaluating Michael Jordan’s competitive fire:

I would say it’s American, that’s what I would say. I wouldn’t characterize it as positive or negative, it’s American. I think what Michael represented was an especially American desire to win at all costs, to dominate.

Sports have the ability to both reflect America and lead to social change. Jordan’s example could serve both. He was wildly successful in American terms on and off the court as a winner and earning oodles of money. He helped usher in a new era of global superstars, taking a third-place American sport (behind football and baseball) to global heights, and a lasting brand built around shoes. He is still successful today as an NBA owner.

It can be easy to chalk up his success to his legendary work ethic and a quest to become better when others who had similar skills or athletic gifts took it easier. But, it would also be helpful to place Jordan in his context. He came along at the right time for multiple reasons: he built on the NBA stars of the 1980s, he was around at the spread of hip-hop (also discussed in the interview), he succeeded during an era of capitalist growth (“the end of history” and the demise of communism), and technology helped spread his play and brand (even down to the crying Jordan meme of recent years).

All of this means that Boyd’s answer is two-fold: Jordan exemplifies America (work hard and you will get ahead!) and what it considers success (become a winner and global icon!). Is this what Americans want to promote for their children or in schools or in politics? That is a much bigger debate.

Twenty-first century American life: McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities

An argument that the first decade of the twenty-first century never really ended includes citing McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities as part of our current world:

You might be tempted to cap the perceptual 2000s in late 2008, when Obama was elected president and the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns collapsed, taking down the housing market and much of the American economy with them. That collapse ended the tacky prosperity of the early 2000s, a period when the McMansion flourished, cheap gas fueled a love affair with giant SUVs, and pop culture was overrun with paparazzi shots of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan falling out of Los Angeles nightclubs while wearing low-rise jeans and trucker hats. Meanwhile, Facebook was metastasizing beyond college students, sculpting the basic contours of the digital environment much of the world now lives in. In hindsight, the moment in 2007 when the pop princess Britney Spears cracked under the paparazzi glare, attacked a car with an umbrella, and shaved her head feels like foreshadowing of the cultural brink to come, when none of this would feel so innocent or breezy.

The pairing of McMansions and SUVs continues. Both are still alive and well. Americans continue to purchase large vehicles and like driving (at least compared to alternatives). At the same time, Americans generally desire the largest new houses in the world. While housing prices may be really high in some urban markets, many still desire a starter home and suburban life.

Adding pop culture to this pair is an interesting choice. Do all three of these together suggest bigger is better or that consumption of all things – cars, homes, and people/celebrities – is what Americans want to see and experience? We have many images of celebrities driving around in expensive SUVs and living in large homes. As Americans in general like the idea of large homes, those in the public eye seem to gravitate toward large and showy homes. Their residences, such as those of sports stars and Hollywood stars, are usually beyond what the average American could buy (as are most McMansions).

These three together are likely not going to age well: do people need such large homes, large vehicles, and news about celebrities? Will future generations see this all as rampant excess and problematic? Yet, it is hard to see a future where Americans turn away from each of these three interests: new homes might be slightly smaller than in the recent past but a big shift has not occurred, driving is still necessary for most people to attain success, and celebrities allow consumers to consume people rather than created products.

Comfort of suburbia allows for the flourishing of comedy and creativity?

I recently ran across a Will Ferrell quote where he discusses where his brand of comedy developed:

“I’ve got no dark secrets, I wasn’t beaten up, my parents were kind to me and there was a low crime rate where we lived. Maybe that’s where the comedy comes from, as some sort of reaction to the safe, boring suburbs. Although, I gotta say, I never had any resentment of the place. I loved the suburbs”, he told The Observer.

Right before this quote, the profile suggests this bucolic upbringing is unusual:

Oddly for a comedian, his was a golden and uneventful Californian childhood.

Rather than a reaction to adversity, it sounds like Ferrell had a number of advantages – including later attending USC – that gave him freedom to explore comedy. Or, perhaps this relative comfort channeled his energy into more zany humor rather than dark humor.

I am not sure it is worth a full study to explore the connections between place of upbringing and how this affects comedians but a broader look at place of upbringing and artistic creativity more broadly could provide interesting. Given that America is largely a suburban nation today, are the majority of its creative types from the suburbs or from cities? The biggest cities have long been upheld as more cosmopolitan and cultured places in addition to often serving as homes of clusters of artists and performers. In comparison, stereotypes of conformist and homogeneous suburbs abound even as a good number of those who grew up there would have had opportunities that may not have been available elsewhere.

Another quick thought: how many celebrities and famous today would freely admit “I loved the suburbs”?

Fire-resistant homes, private firefighters, public goods, and inequality

Perhaps designing a home that can hold off wildfires is not the best way to go. Instead, just hire your own team of firefighters:

As multiple devastating wildfires raged across California, a private firefighting crew reportedly helped save Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s home in Calabasas, TMZ reported this week. The successful defense of the $50 million mansion is the most prominent example of a trend that’s begun to receive national attention: for-hire firefighters protecting homes, usually on the payroll of an insurance company with a lot at risk.

The prominence of celebrities in the story may attract controversy but the use of private firefighters is part of a larger trend:

The National Wildfire Suppression Association represents 250 private wildfire-fighting companies, who provide on-demand services to federal, state, and local governments. Budget cuts have forced privatization onto the Forest Service, as the NWSA itself explains. “The emergence of private contract resources—national and regional 20-person firefighting crews, engines, dozers, tenders and other specialized equipment, and support services such as caterers and shower/handwashing units—gives agencies the flexibility they need to increase or decrease support with the most cost effective solution,” the NWSA media backgrounder says.

While Americans generally think certain public goods should be available to all or many (though this is notably missing in certain areas, such as a right to housing), those with wealth often can access different options or better versions of what the public can use. A historian puts it this way:

“Are the present examples (Kanye West et al.) the thin end of a wedge that will lead to the wealthy buying better services in all these realms: education, policing, healthcare, firefighting?” Bailey wondered. “Or are we already a long way down this path?”

I wonder if Americans feel differently about natural disasters, sometimes termed “acts of God.” It is hard for anyone to completely prepare or defend against major disasters including flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires. The wealthy can rebuild and recover more easily but only so much can be done in these situations. This differs from more typical goods or public services people can access where we have much less conversation about buying into higher levels of service or quality.