Author Cass Sunstein unlocks what it takes to be as big as The Beatles

"The number of amazing people who could be spectacularly successful, is really, really high," Sunstein says

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 25, 2024 5:15AM (EDT)

The Beatles during a performance taping for the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
 (Getty Images/	Bettmann)
The Beatles during a performance taping for the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. (Getty Images/ Bettmann)

A book with an intentionally cheeky title like “How to Become Famous” sounds more like the work of a teenaged TikTok star than a 69-year-old Harvard professor, but trust that Cass R. Sunstein knows what he’s talking about here.

During a recent conversation with Salon, the professor, former White House administrator and prolific author of books like "How Change Happens” says that “I’ve never had so much fun with a book” as he did with his eminently readable newest one. Taking the initially explosive, entirely enduring allure of The Beatles as his jumping off point, Sunstein explores the mysteries of why certain figures have made a lasting impact on cultural history. Some — like John, Paul, George, Ringo — have defined their own eras. Others — like Jane Austen and Robert Johnson — have grown in stature over time. What made them connect? And, significantly, why them and not the forgotten others among their talented peers?

Sunstein refuses to settle for simple explanations. “The idea that if you had an unhappy childhood, or if you just spend 10,000 hours on something, or if you really are determined to get on the radio, that it's going to work out,” he says, “is culturally present, but comical.” Instead, he suggests a variety of variables that reveal the complexity of the enduring glory that gives us a Stan Lee or a Joyce Carol Oates. And, as he discusses with Salon, the book is also a meditation on the human drive to contribute and to create. "If your work is remembered," he says, "then you actually helped people."

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You talk in the book about the canon, about what it means to be a cult figure, all of these concepts about greatness. Yet fame, as you acknowledge, is a much more elusive concept, and often, one that is not about the test of time. Why “famous?" And what does “famous” mean to you?

The title is, in a way, a joke. An act of mischief. The idea that there should be a book called "How to Become Famous” strikes me as ridiculously funny, because there is no recipe for becoming famous. The idea that if you had an unhappy childhood, or if you just spend 10,000 hours on something, or if you really are determined to get on the radio, that it's going to work out is culturally present, but comical. 

"The idea that if you had an unhappy childhood or if you just spend 10,000 hours on something, that it's going to work, out is comical."

I wrote a paper for the Journal of Beatles Studies on Beatlemania, which is both a topic about fame and a topic about success. The Beatles, I think, are incredibly great. They are or were spectacularly successful, and they're famous. The origin of my interest was, “How did someone or someones become both super successful and very famous?”

There's Beatlemania, there's Christianity, there's Donald Trump, there's Barack Obama, there's William Shakespeare. And I want to insist that the mechanisms behind the success of all of these are the same. They manifest themselves in different ways. But this is about the imperialism of the mechanisms. 

Recently in the Times, there was a story about how successful and famous Taylor Swift really is. And of course, the benchmark is the Beatles. 

I actually did a fair bit of research on Ms. Swift. I'm a huge fan of hers, and I've been, I'm pleased to say, since 2012, when she sang “Mean” at the Grammys, and and it knocked my socks off. I thought "Who is this person? She's incredible.” Neil Young said Taylor Swift is the real deal. And I think Neil Young is unerring with respect to everything. If Neil Young vindicated my intuition, I thought, “She's really great.”

I did a lot of research on Taylor Swift. She makes appearances in the book, she didn't become the basis of a chapter, because I at least don't know enough about the particular bits that accounted for her success. What I do know is that there's a really interesting story there that's comparable in its interest and complexity to the story of The Beatles, John Keats, William Blake and Bob Dylan. But that's a story yet to be told. 

I love documentaries, like "20 Feet from Stardom” and “Every Little Step” where you can see there is a pool of people who seem to have the same amount of talent. The alchemy then of the circumstances, is not one thing.

The number of amazing people who could be spectacularly successful, is really, really high. To my surprise, the book became, I hope, tolerably political about the amazing people around us and in world history who never made it, and who could have except for something. Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s sister, is a hero of the book, who was possibly in Benjamin Franklin's league, but never got a chance really to read and write that well. There are a lot of people who have been out of sight. 

There are lots of books that do fantastically well, which is a kind of irony that's too perfect, that say that if you go through a bunch of people in let's say, business or in the arts, there's some unifying characteristic that they have. It might be determination, or it might be some setback, or it might be impatience, and this is what unifies the people, and this is the answer. 

That's a prime target of the book, meaning that's sampling on the dependent variable. It would be child's play to show that in, let's say, Washington, DC, if you take 50 people who are doing really well, they share some characteristic, and then to infer that that characteristic is the reason for their success. We could even have a checklist with four things on it and check each of the successful people within a 20 minute drive of where I am right now.

And that would be junk science, because the number of people who have those characteristics who aren't spectacularly successful in Washington DC is really, really large. The fact that the [successful] people share that characteristic tells us exactly nothing about whether those characteristics are the source of their success. 

There’s an old New Yorker cartoon where it's a professor at a blackboard with this big mathematical equation, and then on the right of it there’s the phrase "then a miracle occurs.” That to me is the story of this book. 

When I worked in the White House, I had dinner with President Obama, who's a longtime friend. He said, “CEOs think I hate them. That's not at all true. I don't hate them at all. I like them. But I do notice that some of them are less aware than they ought to be of the fact that their amazingness isn't sufficient for their success. They also got lucky in a bunch of ways.” He went on to say, “Look at me. I hope I'm doing a good job as president, but a lot of things had to break right for me to become president.” That’s something I'm sure I had in the back of my mind when I was working on Beatlemania. 

There’s this fantastic book by H.J. Jackson about Romantic literature, which shows that Blake and Austen and Wordsworth and Keats among others were not thought to be the best of the best in their time. They were good. Wordsworth particularly was well received. But Blake was lost, and Austen was not iconic. She was thought to be one of a trio of very good female novelists. Now many people think she's the greatest novelist who ever lived. How did that happen? That's not to say she isn't the greatest novelist who ever lived, but it is to your point that then a miracle happened. 

If we want to see the things external to the people that helped produce spectacular success, one is champions. If you have a champion who was relentless, and consider that maybe both the literal possibility and apply it for something like a team of champions that can do it. Brian Epstein was essential to the Beatles’s success. Jane Austen had family members who wrote about her after she died, and that turned out to be essential to her success. William Blake got champions long after he died. Robert Johnson, the great guitarist, someone had to like him enough to get a record released, and that vaulted him in his visibility. The precise mechanisms that followed Johnson's records release are not entirely clear. But there were some people who were electrified and who spoke to other people who are electrified. Among the people who got electrified are Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. 

Connie Converse, who is in some ways the hero of the book, is on her way to iconic status because some young guy heard a snippet of her on the radio. He was an NYU student, and then years later decided that there should be records of Connie Converse, and that vaulted her. Champions are really important.

Networks are really important. If there are networks of enthusiasm that can either develop spontaneously or be engineered, that's great. Stan Lee of Marvel Comics is a hero of the book. He was both lucky and brilliant at network creation. He was lucky because there were spontaneous networks of Spiderman and Fantastic Four fans in the 1960s, He basically went to town with networks. Now, could he have done it by himself? No. Were his own efforts and network creation essential? Almost certainly. 

Being prolific helps. Many of our most famous figures, Shakespeare, Blake, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, there's a ton there. That is not enough, but it's helpful. You can have a ton of obscure things; many people do. 

Reading this book I was thinking about people I have discovered later along with the zeitgeist, whether it's Vivian Maier, or Henry Darger, or Eve Babitz. Sometimes the art or the the work does not line up with the moment in history for the person to be discovered and appreciated.

The zeitgeist explanation is true, I'm sure, but it's too easy. It has a little bit of the sampling on the dependent variable feature. We could say “Star Wars” became as successful as it did, because it hit the culture at exactly the time when we needed the kind of lift that “Star Wars” provided. That might be true, but unclear that it's true. The fact that Eve Babitz became as iconic as she has, she clearly connected via Lili Anolik’s book with a time when some of her interests are very salient to us. But I'd be careful about zeitgeist explanations because if Babitz became famous ten years before or ten years later, we could also have a zeitgeist explanation. 

When I saw the movie “Yesterday,” I did not buy into it because I don't think if you released the song “Yesterday” today, it would be a hit. The Beatles are obviously in the canon, they endure in a way that speaks to generations. But this idea that if you plunk that genius in any moment in time, it would rise to the top, that’s not necessarily true. How do you think that changes then the nature of fame, and "the canon?"

First, I agree with you on [the song] “Yesterday.” It’s an improbable choice for a movie that seeks to determine the inevitable success of The Beatles. On the the theory that the Beatles were so surpassingly great that they would have succeeded at any time, they’re just too astonishing, I say that it's not at all clear that's true. I don't say that that's false. I say we just don't know.

There are a few things you can say that are clearly true: If John's parents hadn't been in a romantic mood the night in which John was conceived, there'd be no Beatles. If John had been in a sour mood the day that he met Paul, there might not be any Beatles. If Brian Epstein hadn't become the Beatles’s manager, it's reasonable to say the Beatles wouldn't have made it. They really struggled at the beginning. If the Beatles had started five years later, or five years before, and they just been the Beatles, I don't know how to answer that question whether they would have done spectacularly well. 

Of the musicians in the book, it pains me to think that Bob Dylan’s success was also a product of serendipitous factors. And the serendipitous factors are more interesting than that is if his parents hadn't met there would be no Bob Dylan. He got a really good New York Times review. Did he need that? Maybe so. He hooked up with Joan Baez. Did he need that? Maybe so. That really helped him. I wouldn't assert that these people wouldn't have made it in another time. But I would assert that we don't know whether they would have. 

I want to know about that ephemeral X Factor. When we think about someone like Olivia Rodrigo hitting at a particular moment, speaking to something that was also going on in the culture, it’s their work. But there's also something really interesting about them. There's something about the chemistry of the Beatles. Part of this story of these personalities’ fame is their charisma, their chemistry with us as audiences. It’s not just your talent, it's not just how well you can compose a symphony.

"Why did X and Y and Z make it, and why did A and B and C not make it? That's often just a lottery. "

Danny Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner who was my collaborator for 30 years off and on, recently died, and I have his ghost over my shoulder here. The fussy view is, beware of sampling on the dependent variable. The number of people who have charisma or chemistry — two different things — is extremely large, and most of them never made it. So why did X and Y and Z with charisma make it, and why did A and B and C with equal or more charisma not make it? That's often just a lottery. 

You might say that while charisma or chemistry is not sufficient, there are plenty of people without that to make it. It is necessary. And so it's not a sufficient condition, but it's a necessary condition. Maybe. To have fantastic story really helps. James Dean has a pretty great story and he's charismatic. 

In a sped-up culture where fame is more fleeting, how does that change the canon? How does that change being a cult figure and change our relationship and our desire for fame? Because I wonder also, why do we want to endure in the first place? Why do we want to last beyond our own lifetimes?

I think whatever we think the difference between now and before now is much smaller than intuition suggests. The idea that fame is more fleeting now than it was in, let's say, 1400, Clearly, it's true that you can reach a lot of people in a hurry now, more so than in the history of humanity. That can mean that you can get your name a large number of people's minds more than ever. That can happen faster, whether there's more names on more people's minds, but for shorter times than before. That seems plausible. But I don't know that it's true. 

I read a book the other day where the author asked, "Would you rather have your name remembered and your works forgotten, or your your works remembered and your name forgotten?" The author found that a hard question. I think that's the easiest question ever. If your name is remembered, what good does that do anyone? If your work is remembered, then you actually helped people.

If you do something that people read or care about or learn from, it doesn't matter at all whether they remember your name. But getting famous for doing something good? That would be great. Thank you, Robert Johnson. Thank you, Bob Dylan. Because they're famous for doing something amazing. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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