The film Yesterday has an intriguing premise: What if the Beatles never existed? Unsuccessful, moderately talented singer-songwriter Jack Malik wakes up one day and is the only one who remembers the Beatles’ songs. Suddenly he can pose as the creator of the greatest music ever written. As a result, he quickly becomes a world-renowned superstar.
The movie itself is a cheerfully silly rom-com; screenwriter Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle don’t have much interest in exploring the music industry or the ins and outs of the creative process. Nonetheless, Yesterdayraises bigger questions about how artistic quality affects artistic careers, ones that may last with us after the credits roll.
Jack is successful because the Beatles’ songs, removed from their original context, still maintain the universal, instant appeal that has canonized them in our non-fictional world, offscreen. Label execs, other musicians, and huge numbers of fans are all won over by “Jack’s” music; when his skeptical parents don’t immediately recognize that “Let It Be” is great, Yesterday chalks it up to their being philistines. Even decades after the Soviet Union disintegrated, “Back in the USSR” still rocks people’s world.
But would “Back in the USSR” really be an automatic, surefire hit if it were released today, into a music scene whose interests have evolved far beyond the Beatles? Is quality in the arts so transcendent that it can overcome all differences of era, culture, and happenstance? Is music a meritocracy — an art form that privileges natural talent over everything else?
There’s good reason to believe that the answer to all three of those questions is no. Wonderful songs aren’t always hits; talented musicians don’t always achieve success commensurate with their abilities. And sometimes a twist of fate lands the less talented (like Yesterday’s Jack Malik) in a position to reap massive rewards.
It takes popularity to become popular — not just quality
We tend to expect that good things don’t always come to the most deserving people. Sometimes the most successful people get that way because they’re in the right place at the right time, or know the right people, or were even born into it. And art is no exception — something that Yesterday’s Jack seems to know well, even if the movie itself suggests otherwise.
Take Austin-based singer/songwriter Mobley, for example. He’s a fairly successful performer who makes a living touring on his original music; though he isn’t fantastically famous like the Beatles, he isn’t floundering like Jack. But Mobley’s position as a working, non-superstar performer is one that’s rarely presented in popular culture.
”People have romanticized ideas about the way things work in music and in the creative world generally, but in my experience, it’s in a lot of ways not especially different from any other field,” Mobley says.
“[So] how can you espouse the idea of a musical meritocracy when the history of music, especially in the Western world, has been so segregated and so exploitative of people who originated so many of those musical forms?” he continues. “Is it meritocracy that it was the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and Elvis” who became music’s biggest hits?
There’s research to back up the notion that fame and fortune comes from more than pure talent. Sociologists Matthew Salganik of Princeton and Duncan Watts of Microsoft have conducted a number of studies to determine what makes a song popular. They discovered that when someone approaches a song knowing only that it’s popular and well-liked within the cultural mass, that person is more inclined to come away liking the song too. This can create a ripple effect, with songs becoming more and more popular because they already are popular. Salganik and Watts’s research suggests that the more visible something is — whether it became that way through marketing, grassroots efforts, or sheer word of mouth — the more highly regarded it is, and the more popular it is likely to become.
Social influence has a powerful effect on which songs become popular. As art is a form of communication we often share and experience socially, it makes sense that we like art that we believe will connect us to others.
Our instincts to spread what we like, and to like what others like, mean that what seem like small advantages for a song — perhaps a well-placed promo on Spotify, or appearing on the soundtrack of a Netflix show — can lead to a big chart presence. A good review at the right time or being used in a viral meme on a slow news day could help more people discover a song just out of happenstance. Songs that get an initial bump can ride that wave, so more people seek them out, buy them, and boost their popularity. This cycle can lead to one song, good or not, becoming a hit, while another disappears into obscurity.
The Beatles were talented, but they also were in the right place at the right time
In the music industry, success is often more about popularity than quality. And although achieving popularity may seem formulaic, doing so relies as much on luck as on calculation. As economist Alan Krueger explained in a speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, “in addition to talent, arbitrary factors can lead to success or failure, like whether another band happens to release a more popular song than your band at the same time. The difference between a Sugar Man, a Dylan, and a Post Break Tragedy depends a lot more on luck than is commonly acknowledged.”
This isn’t to say that a band as big as the Beatles got that way just by being lucky. Talent still does matter, according to economist Robert H. Frank, author of Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. “When you make the point that chance events matter, people insist on hearing you as having said that those are the only things that matter,” Frank told me. “That’s not the message. The people who win generally are very good. If you’re not very good, you generally don’t win. What’s true is that being very good isn’t by itself enough to win.”
The Beatles were very good by most qualitative metrics. But the band’s quantitative achievements don’t mean they are indisputably the most meritorious musicians of all time, or even of their day. More likely, the band also managed to be in the right place at the right time, on top of everything else.
Other critically heralded musicians had no such luck. Consider Buddy Holly, an enormously skilled songwriter who was poised to redefine pop and rock music but never reached the upper echelons of music stardom. If he’d lived long enough to continue developing his sound, he might have become rock ’n’ roll’s breath of fresh air before the Beatles had the chance. But Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, cutting his career short before he could parlay his early success into Buddymania.
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