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There's not an easy answer for 'How To Become Famous'


Why is the "Mona Lisa" the most famous painting in the world? Why are The Beatles The Beatles? Or to put it another way, if today only one person in the world knew the entire Beatles discography, could playing those songs make that person a star? That's actually the plot of the 2019 movie "Yesterday."


HIMESH PATEL: (As Jack Malik, singing) Now it looks as though they're here to say. Oh, I believe in yesterday.

LILY JAMES: (As Ellie Appleton) When did you write that?

PATEL: (As Jack Malik) I didn't write it. Paul McCartney wrote it, The Beatles.


PATEL: (As Jack Malik) "Yesterday." It's one of the greatest songs ever written.

DI MARTINO: (As Carol) Well, it's not Coldplay. It's not "Fix You."

SHAPIRO: That movie offers one of many hypotheticals that the behavioral economist Cass Sunstein explores in his latest book. It's called "How To Become Famous: Lost Einsteins, Forgotten Superstars, And How The Beatles Came To Be." In the book, Sunstein identifies some of the ingredients for achieving fame. He says serendipity is critical, but there's more to it than that.

CASS SUNSTEIN: To have a champion is really great. The Beatles had a champion. Jane Austen and a champion. Bob Dylan had a champion. William Blake had champions, one of the great poets who was, long after his death, completely ignored and then had a revival. That is central - a network of people who think you're amazing. And I'm going to support you, and we're going to become a team. That can be really important. If you're prolific, that can really help. If you can inaugurate a cascade of enthusiasm, then you might become, if not The Beatles, at least Herman's Hermits.


HERMAN'S HERMITS: (Singing) Something tells me I'm into something good. Something tells me I'm into something good.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned Bob Dylan. In the chapter about him, you also talk about a singer who - the point of the chapter is - I had not heard of before. Her name was Connie Converse.


CONNIE CONVERSE: (Singing) People say a roving woman is likely not to be better than she ought to be. So...

SHAPIRO: You can find people who will argue that Connie Converse was as talented, as brilliant a songwriter as Bob Dylan. So what is the fact that Bob Dylan is a household name and Connie Converse is not? Tell us about what makes famous people famous.

SUNSTEIN: A lot of things. So Connie Converse might be a little like John Keats in the sense that this is someone who, in her lifetime, failed but long after became iconic. And she was writing her own songs - folk songs before Bob Dylan at a time when folk songs were really just repetition of old songs. Now, why did she not make it? Why did Dylan make it? He happened to find his way into the cafes in Greenwich Village. She didn't quite make it there. Some of it was he was persistent. Some of it was he was lucky. He got a big review in the New York Times early on. Almost no one else got a review like that from Robert Shelton. He also got to know a very well-known record producer who said, I'm going to take a chance on this young guy, that was named John Hammond. When his first record - that is, Dylan's - didn't do very well, it was called Hammond's folly. That's what it was known as that he signed this kind of scruffy guy, Bob Dylan, who didn't sell many records. And Hammond didn't give up.


BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Baby, let me follow you down. Baby, let me follow you down. Well, I'd do anything in this God almighty world if you'd just let me follow you down.

SHAPIRO: The point is if there hadn't been somebody saying, I believe in this guy even though he's repeatedly disappointing my confidence in him, Bob Dylan might have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

SUNSTEIN: Yeah. It's possible.

SHAPIRO: So in some chapters, you talk about two people of arguably similar talents where one became famous and one didn't. But there is a fascinating example of one person who became mega-famous in one country and was virtually unknown in his birth country. This is the singer Sixto Rodriguez, and a documentary about him in 2012 won an Oscar. The film is called "Searching For Sugar Man."


DAN DIMAGGIO: He was this wandering spirit around the city. When he opened up and sang, you went, whoa. This guy's got it.


SIXTO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) For a blue coin...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We expected big things. And it did absolutely nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How many records do you think he sold in America?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nobody had even heard of him. How can that be? How can that be?

SHAPIRO: So this American singer-songwriter who was unknown in Detroit, where he was from, was - what? - like Elvis in South Africa.

SUNSTEIN: Completely. So Sixto Rodriguez, who's very, very good, was a failed singer-songwriter who gave up basically after a couple of tries and became a construction worker. And he had a family and a pretty good life, but he wasn't in pop music much of anything. In South Africa - and he didn't even know this - he was Elvis. He was Dylan. He was The Rolling Stones. He was The Beatles.


RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) And you claim you got something going, something you call unique.

SUNSTEIN: Why was he so phenomenal in one place and so failed in his home? And the intuition would be, well, he resonated with South African culture and didn't resonate with American culture or something like that. It's a good intuition, but it's almost certainly false. It's that he got some of the kinds of breaks the Taylor Swift got in the United States. He got those in South Africa.

SHAPIRO: And just to be clear, you are not arguing that talent is irrelevant, but you are arguing the talent is insufficient.

SUNSTEIN: Completely. So you can find probably in the airport today at least two books which will say the key to success or fame or something is five things. But those books are - I think the technical word is nonsense because the number of people who have those five characteristics who didn't succeed is probably really, really high. They showed diligence, or they had unhappy childhoods, or they're super-talented, or they were...

SHAPIRO: Or they dropped out of college.

SUNSTEIN: Yeah, any of those. So the idea that they are causally responsible for success can't be shown by the fact that they are correlated with success for some number of people.

SHAPIRO: So for every Muhammad Ali in the world, for every Taylor Swift, for every Beyonce, for every Albert Einstein there is who knows how many people with the potential who did not become Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Muhammad Ali, Einstein. What's your message to those people?

SUNSTEIN: You've identified the heart of the book, and I confess that I didn't find the heart of my own book until very late. And I was interested in the wellsprings of success, not the wellsprings of non-success by amazing people. And there are people all around us - like, people we're passing on the street - who are, in one or another way, potentially phenomenal. And even they don't know that.

SHAPIRO: Do you see that as a thrilling possibility or a heartbreaking tragedy that, for every Taylor Swift, we might be surrounded by 10 people just as talented who can't get a break?

SUNSTEIN: It's both. And the idea that there's all this extraordinary potential out there but, for the grace of God, the people who exploit their talent and get to be iconic wouldn't and the people who don't didn't get the grace of God - that is heartbreaking. But it also gives us a kind of appreciative rise of the eyebrow when we pass people whom we might think didn't make it.

SHAPIRO: Cass Sunstein is a professor at Harvard Law, and his new book is "How To Become Famous: Lost Einsteins, Forgotten Superstars, And How The Beatles Came To Be." Thank you so much.

SUNSTEIN: Thank you - great pleasure.


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Fame, fame makes a man take things over. Fame, fame lets him loose - hard to swallow. Fame, fame puts you there when things are hollow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.