Today in Tedium: On October 1st, 1932, legendary baseball player George “Babe” Ruth did something he was famous for. He hit a home run. But this was his most famous home run, one that would be familiar to anyone with a moderate understanding of 20th century American history. “The Babe’s Called Shot” is a part of American folklore, rather than verifiable history, because we don’t know if it actually happened. The Babe says he called it. The pitcher, Charlie Root, says Ruth was gesturing to the crowd. But considering Ruth’s stature as one of America’s greatest sports icons, his version of events won out in the larger public consciousness, even if baseball fans are aware of the full controversy. The weight of fame is not consistent. Some people are “famous”, a rare few are famous. While there is no one path to fame (or its cousins notability, notoriety, and infamy), the potential rewards entice a great many to overlook the risks. And quite a few achieve fame by simply calling themselves famous. Today’s Tedium is looking at the concept of self-referential fame and just what it means to be famous anyway. — Andrew @ Tedium
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“I first met James in Toccoa, Ga., when I was doing a show in that town. James and his group, The Famous Flames, asked if they could sing at intermission of my show. They called themselves ‘famous’ even then. I’ll never forget that.”
— Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard, discussing his first meeting with fellow musician James Brown in 1955, according to an interviewer from The Augusta Chronicle. That such a tactic was notable to someone like Little Richard is interesting as the performer was known for self-promotion and marketing gimmicks. When commenting on his use of makeup and flamboyant attire to Jet magazine in a 2000 interview, he explained, “I figure if being called a sissy made me famous, let them say what they want to.”
Calling yourself famous has a long history and often has a good reason
If you’re a person like me, you have favorite Wikipedia pages. One of my personal favorites is for “Celebrity” because while the concept is clearly defined it is also historically and practically nebulous to the point that the Wikipedia entry goes from definition to academic position paper pretty quickly. And the evolution of the page is quite fascinating.
Using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, the 2016 Wikipedia entry is a bit different, in large part due to British historian Greg Jenner’s 2020 book, Dead Famous: an unexpected history of celebrity. But the 2016 version is also notable for its grappling with the “famous for being famous” set. Kim Kardashian is certainly a celebrity but the 2016 version openly admits to not knowing why. (Though a certain tape is mentioned.) By 2020, the entry is more assured, including a “Process” section laying out the typical path to celebrity. Still, the entry is a strained effort to explain a universally understood concept with little concrete history that directly translates. And while it does discuss types of celebrity, there are forms not yet under consideration.
Self-referential fame is the basic concept of calling yourself famous. If you do it in person, casually during a conversation, you’re unlikely to be believed. If you do it during a song that’s being played on the radio or, more likely nowadays, TikTok, then who can really argue?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept goes back much further than modern media. In the early medieval era, like Beowulf times, English tribes often included a scop, or a gleoman or “gleeman,” whose role, according to a University of North Texas (UNT) overview on the medieval concept of “boasting,” was to “encourage happiness”. In this context, UNT notes, “The boast … was not the hollow promise that our pejorative perspective causes the word to connote, but a proclamation of all the positive and admirable qualities the individual thought himself to possess and the most optimistic possible forecast of his future.”
While obviously not a claim of fame (which is rather distinct from a claim TO fame), this ritual was built on the legacy of the tribe’s heroes, which translated to the scop and, by extension, the audience. UNT clarifies with, “The community was provided with a sense of mission every time a spokesman stood forth and praised the deeds of exemplary heroes and traced the origins of the tribe. Throughout old English heroic poetry, boasting is associated consistently with the best and most noble parts of life. Some critics have interpreted the boasts by Beowulf as evidence of his excessive pride, but his boasts actually serve to illustrate cultural not individual pride.”
While this seems like an early, and understandable, start to the concept of celebrity and self-referential fame, going back further we find roots in Roman and Grecian societies. Across both; athletes, military leaders, gladiators, and the occasional philosopher, were heralded and widely known for their accomplishments. Yet, the clearest act of self-referential fame came from an emperor who needed no introduction, then or now.
Julius Caesar broke tradition when his likeness began appearing on Roman coinage in his lifetime. According to Citeco, an economics museum in Paris, “By doing this, he wanted to show all his subjects that he was the absolute ruler of Rome.” If you have to tell someone you’re in charge, are you really? But if the money I have to use to survive has your face on it, who am I to argue?
In pre-Industrial times, from tribes to empires, self-referential fame was shorthand for the authority of accomplishment. From time to time, people, governments, and businesses get to decide they’re widely known.
I mean, really, who are you to decide what everyone else already knows?
“Advertising law makes an allowance for claims like these. They call it ‘puffery,’ and it’s a carve out from other deceptive trade practices for claims that are so obviously, just exaggerations that the law decides they aren’t objectively verifiable and that no reasonable person would take them at face value. For example, you could say ‘world’s best ravioli,’ but you can’t say ‘under 100 calorie ravioli’—because while the second one is also unbelievable, the calorie count could be verified making the claim an attempt at false advertising.”
— Joe Patrice, senior editor at Above the Law, a well-known outlet for news in the legal community, when asked about the legality of a business claiming their business, or a specific dish, is “world-famous”.
World-famous because you’re famous for saying you’re famous
In the restaurant industry, the phrase “world-famous” abounds. In Los Angeles, Original Tommy’s has a world-famous quarter pound chili cheeseburger, along with a world-famous menu. The top level headings for the website of Times Square outlet Junior’s claims the “World’s Most Fabulous Cheesecake”. And thousands of places from coast to coast feature similar “world-famous” dishes. For a few, it’s actually kind of true.
Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico is renowned for creating one thing: the original caesar salad. Who, exactly, at the restaurant created one of the world’s most popular salads is up for debate. Much like the Babe’s Called Shot, it depends on who you believe. The owner, Caesar, claims he created it on a busy weekend with whatever ingredients remained. A chef at the restaurant during this time claimed he made the salad based on a recipe from his mother in eastern Europe. Take your pick of who to believe but you know what the name of the salad is.
Though restaurants offer a pretty clean example of self-referential fame, musicians offer a focused usage of the term. Major pop stars often release songs on “The Price of Fame”, so much so Billboard created a list of them. The Billboard list is missing an early entry from a budding hip-hop legend. In one of the later singles from Kendrick Lamar’s breakout debut album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, he laments the annoyances of being tangential to famous, “I can feel the changes/I can feel the new people ’round me just wanna be famous”.
This Flobots song includes a boast about how famous they are despite being produced before they were famous.
Performers from The Famous Flames to the Notorious B.I.G. to The Band claimed their notoriety with names evoking, calling on, boasting, of their traditions. To be so bold as to actually claim fame in a work intended for mass consumption takes a bit of ego, even when tinged with a good bit of sarcasm. People still do it. For example, the song “Handlebars” by Colorado outfit Flobots, which includes the lyrics “Look at me, look at me/Hands in the air like it’s good to be/Alive, and I’m a famous rapper/Even when the paths are all crookedy”. “Handlebars” was the breakout single that got the band signed to a major label. It was literally the first thing anyone with the ability to push their work into the mainstream had heard. They called themselves famous, and they kind of sounded like it. (It also hit number 37 on the Billboard Hot 100.)
The Flobots are not unique. Musicians do this all the time. Just look at Pitbull, aka Mr. Worldwide, a rapper and performer notoriously willing to go to Kodiak, Alaska for the sake of being a good sport. To Mr. Worldwide’s credit, he didn’t start using the moniker until six years after his first successful single, though he might have appropriated the “worldwide” concept from Tupac’s lyrics on “California Love”, “Famous because we throw grams/ Worldwide, let them recognize from Long Beach to Rosecrans.” That last point is a bit of speculation and “something you gotta see.” “California Love” itself was a reinvention for Tupac, being one of his first singles after being released from jail, and something of a reminder to audiences that he was still famous.
Calling your shot, declaring your intention, stating your desire to be famous is typically off-putting. Then there’s Freddie Mercury. With Queen’s debut single, “Keep Yourself Alive,” Mercury sang, “Well I sold a million mirrors/In a shopping alley way/But I never saw my face/In any window any day/Now they say your folks are telling you/Be a super star/But I tell you just be satisfied/Stay right where you are.”
One of the interesting things about living in NYC is running into people you recognize but have never met. Celebrity would be one way of characterizing such encounters. However, none of these people are celebrities. They’re actors, or musicians, or politicians, or people that are otherwise notable. When asking one, a regular at a bar I frequent and a moderately known character actor, about the nature of fame, he replied, “Fame is a construct, fame isn’t real, but at the same time, my agent and my manager keep telling me my Q-Score.”
The authority of accomplishment, whether earned or otherwise claimed, is prerequisite to the common understanding of fame. Given a prominent enough platform, anyone can claim fame.
So … is this a good time to mention I’ll be a featured expert on “The Toys That Made America” airing on the History Channel on November 6th?
Congratulations to Andrew on his future fame, and if you ended up enjoying this piece, you can find a link to share right here.
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