Louis Menand’s “The Iron Law of Stardom”, from the March 24, 1997 issue of The New Yorker, put forward an interesting idea about stardom, claiming that it is always three years:
There is such a law. It is the law of the three-year limit, otherwise known as the Iron Law of Stardom. This law dictates that stardom cannot extend for a period greater than three years. There is no penalty for breaking this law, for the simple reason that it is unbreakable. It is not just a rule of etiquette, or a statistical norm, or a social-scientific conceit, like theories about the effects of birth order. This is the true a priori, the reality that explains all other realities. It is an iron law.
One obvious apparent counterexample can be disposed of right at the start. “What about the Beatles?” a person might reasonably wonder. In 1964, they appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and immediately went to the top of the charts, where they basically remained until 1970, when the group broke up. “Meet the Beatles” was a No. 1 album (1964); so were “Help!” (1965), “Rubber Soul” (1966), “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967), the White Album (1968), “Abbey Road” (1969), and “Let It Be” (1970). That’s six years, not three…
The number six should give you a clue. The Beatles didn’t overcome the three-year limit; they simply enjoyed two consecutive three-year terms. In order to do this, they effectively had to be two different groups: lovable mop tops (1964-67), followed by hippie artistes (1967-70). If they had remained mop tops after 1967, they would have fallen from stardom, just as they would have if they had remained together as artistes after 1970.
A very small number of stars have, like the Beatles, reinvented themselves once—for example, Madonna, who enjoyed three years (1985-88) as the downtown queen of sexual hip and then three years (1989-92) as an uptown version of the same thing. But no star has ever done it successfully three times.
Once a star, always a star, of course—and that’s the problem. For stardom is not to be confused with being a star. “Stardom” is here used in a particular and technical sense, as the name for a discrete and recognizable episode in the life of a star. Stardom is the period of inevitability, the time when everything works in a way that makes you think it will work that way forever. The dial seems permanently tuned to the frequency at which the individual star is broadcasting. Stardom means (if you are the star) that nothing you do can be asymmetrical with what people want, because you are what people want. Stardom is the intersection of personality with history, a perfect congruence of the way the world happens to be and the way the star is.
The world, however, moves on. The star moves on, too, an animated relic of a moment now past. We often treasure the relic, which is why some people (Elizabeth Taylor) remain stars for decades after their original stardom (1963-66, from “Cleopatra” to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) is over. Stardom is what makes people stars, but although stars may shine forever, stardom always fades. It’s the difference be- tween being recognized in restaurants and being talked about in restaurants.
I wonder if this works in technology. We have dominance, but is that the same as stardom? WinTel’s period of dominance lasted a bit over a decade (1995–2007; perhaps longer?), while Apple’s has been going on for almost a decade (2008–now). Of course, just as Hollywood can have more than one person with stardom, so too can the tech industry. Google’s dominance started when? Has it ended (perhaps a bit with some people—the Snowden revelations really put me off of Google for a lot of reasons)?
Another thought: just as actors experience stardom, can tech leaders? Steve Jobs certainly experienced stardom, & like The Beatles in Menand’s piece, he did it twice: once in Apple’s early days, & later during the hyper-growth brought about by the iPhone. But he was always a star. Bill Gates? During the mid-90s, sure. But after the antitrust trial, he definitely faded. He’s still a star—being the richest guy on the planet will do that—but obviously not central to the industry.
Who’s it right now? Marissa Mayer? No, she’s not central. Sergei or Larry? Maybe at one time, but not now. Tim Cook? Powerful, but carrying an aura of inevitability? The company, sure, but the man? Not to my thinking. Jony Ive? Maybe.
Who am I missing?