Why do some bands catch fire while others don’t? Is it a matter of talent? Or are there other factors? Take the Beatles: If they suddenly appeared for the first time on TikTok now, would their exceptional talent be as apparent and embraced as it was in the early 1960s? Would they have evolved creatively to become a revolutionary musical force if they had not first found enormous pop chart fame? Maybe, said Cass R. Sunstein ’75, J.D. ’78, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, and longtime Beatles fan. Writing for The Journal of Beatles Studies, a new academic publication from the University of Liverpool that will debut in September, he argues that as great as they were, the early Beatles needed some “serendipity” to break through. The Gazette spoke with Sunstein, founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School, about the recipe for superstardom. Interview was edited for clarity and length.
Cass R. Sunstein
GAZETTE: Tell me about your interest in the Beatles.
SUNSTEIN: I’ve liked the Beatles for a long time — very much. As much as I’ve always liked and loved them, I’d say my amazement at the Beatles has grown over the last 10 years. The amazingness of their songs — John Lennon and Paul McCartney are both out-of-this-world extraordinary and so different. Ringo is as terrific a rock drummer as there could be for that group. George is extraordinary, too. That these four guys from Liverpool could be who they were is magical, and that Lennon and McCartney met each other in their teens and turned out to be genuinely geniuses — that’s magical.
GAZETTE: You examine the “Fab Four” era of the Beatles to explore the mystery of why some artists become hugely popular while others don’t. Quality is often a reason, but not always. What are some determinative factors, and why is it so hard to predict?
SUNSTEIN: Whether we’re talking about musicians or poets or novelists or actors, the people who really make it might not be better than the people who don’t. What gets the people who make it to make it is often captured by the word “serendipity,” which is a placeholder for such things as who is enthusiastic about what song or what poem at what point in time; whether seven people or 80 people or 8,000 people get excited when that excitement turns out to launch the person; whether the person gets access to economic backing, perhaps because someone happens to read a poem or read a novel or hear a song who thinks “that one’s extraordinary” rather than another one that was also extraordinary that they didn’t read or hear. That role of early enthusiasm, influential enthusiasm, a single sponsor, a group of fans, or just a night when everything goes really well, that is what’s neglected.
Now, let’s think of the Beatles: After they were turned down by a bunch of studios, they almost gave up; the very person who was famously their great producer, George Martin, didn’t think much of them and had to be persuaded to release singles by them. “Love Me Do,” which was their first hit, the studio had no big hope for. It turned out that it did well for reasons that were not related fully to its quality. These and other things probably lost to history could have gone the other way, and who knows?
If it seems a little provocative to suggest that the Beatles could have failed, well, John Keats died thinking he was pretty much a loser and a failure. “Harry Potter” was turned down by multiple publishers. Jane Austen was not thought to be the best of the novelists of her time. William Blake was essentially unknown. Just like the fact that Taylor Swift becomes who she is and (I’m going to make up a name) Mary Johnson gave up at the age of 19. That might not be because Taylor Swift is better than Mary Johnson. I’m a huge fan of Taylor Swift, I should say. I think she’s phenomenal, so this is not a knock on her, and I’d be amazed if there’s a Mary Johnson who’s as good who gave up. But I probably shouldn’t be amazed. There probably is a Mary Johnson who’s maybe as good or good in a different way who gave up. This is about success and failure generally.