Superstars are not by accident a conspicuous phenomenon in our culture, but inherently belong to a meritocratic society with mass media, free enterprise, and competition. To make this contention plausible I will use Caillois’s book, Man, Play and Games to compare the mechanisms underlying the superstar phenomenon with a special kind of game, as set out by Caillois.
I half-remember listening to a podcast- it was probably This American Life or Radiolab or Freakonomics– about the popular singers in various Italian villages before the adoption of radio. I don’t really remember it so I’ll tell a bastard recollection of the story.
Each village had their own singers, and perhaps particularly great singers could travel to neighboring villages to sing there, too. The demand for these singers within the villages were pretty high and there was an ample supply of singers. Costs to listen to a singer were not spectacularly high and people were happy to do so.
The radio, though, connected all of these small pools of talent together, and also homogenized the taste of the radio owners. The first radio-owners were the richer families, and so their taste in favorite singers permeated the neighborhoods.
Superstars were born. Demand for these Great Singers pulled them across the villages, amassing fortunes. The difference in virtuosity between these very few top-tier singers and many of their less popular peers was small (and perhaps nonexistent). But the gap in rewards was extraordinary.
It’s the kind of thing that seems to be true everywhere. The whole top tier of a field does especially well, and the “best” players in that tier, relatively speaking (and by the whimsical judgment of the market), get an especially out-sized gift basket. Holding the market’s judgment in high esteem, we then announce that we found the Best Man For The Job, and of course he has earned whatever he is given because we all have (right?).
When I was consoling a friend recently about not getting into a program, I had to remind her that her competence was not really in question. The pool of exceptional talent was simply larger than the slots available, I’m sure. It must be hard to find a reliable signal that any one candidate is truly the ‘best fit’.
It’s the picker’s game to lose.