Thursday, April 19, 2007

Research Project

A couple of decades ago, in one of his annual Baseball Abstracts, Bill James wrote that if a rookie baseball player comes up from the minor leagues and has a big season at the age of 25 or 26, you shouldn't expect that player to then become a superstar; the true future superstars are already in the league by the age of 21 or 22. I was reminded of this rule of thumb when I saw the front page of this past Sunday's New York Times Arts & Leisure section, featuring a big unsmiling photograph of a Canadian singer looking for all the world like a poor man's Cat Power. The woman pictured goes by the single name of Feist, like Donovan or Pebbles or Buckethead. (That's Feist at right, though that's not the picture that was in the Times.) The article appended to this photo claims that Feist's new record (which I have not heard, nor have I heard any previous Feist output) "should transform her from the darling of the indie-rock circuit to a full-fledged star." It also notes, without a trace of ominousness, that Feist is 31, which seems a bit long in the tooth for a pop musician to become a star.

Or is it? I have always thought that James' maxim was as appropriate for rock stars as it was for Willie Mays. Let's take a look at when some of the greats of popular music have hit it big, with an eye toward what the future might hold for Feist.

To be totally unfair to Feist, we'll check out the first ten names on Rolling Stone's Immortals list, purportedly the greatest rock icons of all time, and note how old they were when they had their first Top Ten hit. Here we go:

* The Beatles: Ringo Starr was 23, John Lennon was 23, Paul McCartney was 21 and George Harrison was 20 when "I Want to Hold Your Hand" went to Number One in December 1963.
* Bob Dylan was 24 when "Like a Rolling Stone" went to Number Two in 1965.
* Elvis Presley
was 21 when "Don't Be Cruel" went to Number One in 1956.
* The Rolling Stones: Mick Jagger was 21, Keith Richards was 20, Brian Jones was 22, Bill Wyman (born William Perks, it says here) was 28, and Charlie Watts was 23 when "Time Is on My Side" went to Number Six in November 1964.
* Chuck Berry was 28 when "Maybellene" went to Number Five in 1955.
* Jimi Hendrix never had a Top Ten single, but he was 25 when Are You Experienced went to Number Five on the album charts.
* James Brown was 23 when "Please Please Please" went to Number Five on the R&B charts in 1956.
* Little Richard was 20 when "Long Tall Sally" went to Number Six in 1956.
* Aretha Franklin was 25 when "Baby I Love You" went to Number Four in 1967.
* Ray Charles
was 24 when "Blackjack" went to Number Eight on the R&B charts in 1955.

So of these great artists, only Chuck Berry, who probably deserves some sort of Jackie Robinson exemption, and the least important member of the Rolling Stones failed to make a big dent on the charts by the time they were 25. Surely not even Jon Pareles expects Feist to be the new Aretha Franklin, but this little exercise does show, I think, that if you're going to be a huge star, that talent is likely to evince itself pretty early on.

I will also note that the guys in Panic! at the Disco are all like nineteen.


Kap said...

That chick is hot.

MJN said...

Don’t laugh, but I’ve read that the same age guidelines also apply to mathematicians. Virtually every important discovery or advance in higher mathematics has been made by a young man. The exception would be the great Leonhard Euler, who kept cranking them out for his entire 76-year lifetime.

What does this have to do with rock stars, you ask?

The composition of great music and the discovery of new mathematical truths are both highly creative endeavors. It’s the sort of pursuit that requires risk-taking, a disregard for the old way of doing things, a fresh approach.

Young adults who have little to lose, and who don’t know any better, are the ones who develop exciting new artistic statements. People over 30, with families and portfolios and social standing and plenty of training in the way things have always been, generally aren’t going to make the sacrifices that lead to creative breakthroughs.

When a young hotshot inevitably evolves into an elder statesman, he doesn’t lose his value to society; he just takes on a new role. Experienced mathematicians often function best as professors; old rock stars can become producers.

My point is that the career path of musicians has more in common with that of mathematicians than baseball superstars, whose talents are physical, not creative. Sports stars emerge early because they’re physically better than their competition at every point of their lifecycle. Rock stars emerge young because that’s when their only window of opportunity is open.

T. Nawrocki said...

You would think that mathematicians would benefit from the experience of learning about everything else that has already been discovered, but I guess not. I guess if you're going to have flashes of insight, it's important to bring fresh eyes to a problem.

I don't think the same as true of other artistic endeavors. While some novelists, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, hit it big in their 20s, Philip Roth appears to be in his prime now, and he's 74.

Experienced mathematicians often function best as professors; old rock stars can become producers.

This is best exemplified by Ted Templeman, who was the lead singer for the ultra-fey pop group Harpers Bizarre (who had a hit with a wimpy cover of "Feelin' Groovy"), then produced Val Halen II. You guys probably think I'm kidding, but I'm not.