Sunday, January 22, 2017

Not born to run. Why Springsteen was lucky

People don't see Bruce Springsteen for the music. He says so himself.

Here he is on the New Yorker radio hour in November: "I don't get paid necessarily to play this song or that song. I get paid to be as present as I can conceivably be on that particular night, because if I'm there, and I'm alive, I know you're feeling it too."

That's what we will be paying for over the next few weeks: communion, the opportunity to hang out with Springsteen and have him hang out with us, fully present.

We want to be close to him because we know he is one of us. Although talented and driven as a musician, he almost dropped out of high school, he drove busses. He mightn't have made it at all were it not for an extraordinary stroke of luck, which he details in his autobiography.

Asked what he would have done if it hadn't worked out, he says he would have gone back to New Jersey and played in bars.

I've been privileged to see Peter Allen perform twice. As for Springsteen, I didn't go for the music. I went to see him perform, to have him take me into his life. He was the boy who could have been any of us. Try to listen to Cassie McCullagh's Life Matters documentary about her family's memories of him as a boy in Armidale without crying.

Allen was certain he had what it took to get to the top, but he couldn't get close until, balding, with a failing voice and an act that was getting laughed out of gay bars, he was picked up by a manager who thought he could pull something off.

We want to get close to Allen, Springsteen and the rest in part because what happened to them is so unlikely.

If you need to be convinced, check out the Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom broadcast on the ABC last month. It's an account of truly excellent singers - all of them as good as or better than the stars - who didn't make it.

As with Allen, back-up singer Merry Clayton felt that "if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star". She was wrong. Record companies told her she sang gospel and said: "there can only be one Aretha".

In a legendary paper entitled The Economics of Superstars, economist Sherwin Rosen argues that these days the world only needs a few musical superstars, whereas before modern communications it needed one per village.

In Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, economist Robert Frank uses maths to point out that even if most of success is due to talent, the final decisions about who makes it to the top will inevitably be the result of luck.

The implications extend from ministerial entitlements to Centrelink to tax to pay scales. They're worth remembering whenever we are told someone got there by themselves.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald