Paul Is Not Dead (But He Might Be More Popular If He Were)

A reader named John Grund wrote in to lament the relative unpopularity of Paul McCartney — relative, that is, to John Lennon. Grund bases his assumption on a Google Trends search of the two men’s names. Indeed, aside from the occasional spike, McCartney lags behind his long-deceased mate (Lennon is in red):

“You might think that if McCartney ever had a chance to outdo Lennon in Web searches, it would be now,” Grund explained in his e-mail. “Paul has a new album out, which is being heavily promoted by Starbucks, he’s had a high-profile divorce that has kept him in the news, and he’s been the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, John has, well, been dead for 20 years.”

I must say, I also found Lennon’s dominance curious. I’m not going to open the who’s-better-John-or-Paul can of worms (personally, I don’t care that much, since I’m a Rolling Stones guy; I’m sorry, but you can’t really be both). Still, even if you think Lennon was far more interesting than McCartney, and the better artist, wouldn’t you expect a pop culture icon like McCartney to be racking up the Google searches?

So I asked our friend Bill Tancer of Hitwise to take a look at his John v. Paul data. He came back with a very different picture. “Below is a 2-year chart for U.S. searches on Paul McCartney v. John Lennon. Looks like Sir Paul is doing well v. Lennon. That spike for John is on the week ending 12/10/05, or the 25th anniversary of his death. I’d guess that Paul’s spikes are related to album releases and tours.”

Why the disparity between the Hitwise data and the Google Trends data?

“Google Trends reports searches on the Google engine solely,” Tancer writes, “and we’re reporting searches across all engines (including Google), but in this case, just U.S. search queries.”

So it could be that Lennon is far more popular outside of the U.S. than McCartney. Or it could be that Google Trends for some reason has a bias in favor of dead pop stars versus living pop stars.

Before looking at the chart below, ask yourself this question: If you asked Google Trends to rank searches over the past few years for Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Lennon, and Paul Simon, who would come in last? One of the three dead ones, right? After all, Paul Simon has been releasing records, making news, winning awards, etc., just like Paul McCartney. So maybe he’d lose out to Elvis Presley, the King, but surely not to the others?

Wrong. (Presley is in blue, Lennon in red, Kobain in orange, Simon in green.)

We all know that death can, sadly, be a really good career move. But if Google Trends is to be believed, it’s even better than I would have imagined. All things considered, however, I’d still rather be Paul — either Simon or McCartney.


Meanwhile, John has, well, been dead for 20 years

Actually, coming up on 27 years. Hard to believe it's been so long.


The dead don't much respect McCartney:


I wonder what the peak of popularity is for a dead artist after death. Is it ten years after death? 20? 100? For example, Kurt Cobain just started outselling Elvis this past year. Socrates is still going strong but I wonder how many google searches are on him and how closely that correlates with the end of semester projects/reports.


Perhaps another possibility: People generally hear about what Paul McCartney and other active famous people are up to in the news and on TV, so generally they are up to date and don't feel the need to search for information on them. A lot more (younger?) people will come across names like Lennon and Cobain and feel the need to search for more info, hence the spike.

Another thing your conclusion doesn't take into account is that a lot of people might just be searching on surname, and/or half of them can't spell...|mcartney%2C+lennon&ctab=0&geo=all&date=all&sort=0


on googlefight, 'Paul McCartney' crushes 'John Lennon' 8 million to 3 million.


[Disclaimer: I am also a Rolling Stones guy and George was always my favorite Beatle]
I would suggest that the perceived popularity gap between Lennon and McCartney was also due to the fact that John was clearly edgier than Sir Paul, and I believe most rock fans prefer edgier icons to MOR ones. For example, while Sir Mick has often walked on the wild side, Keith has achieved greater rock icon status as the decades have rolled along (and Keith has remained alive, or at least periodically reanimated to some extent). Similarly, Paul Simon is the least edgy on your list.

Now, had John survived . . . and diluted the edginess of his body of work with more mainstream fare as he navigated his way through middle age . . . such a popularity gap may not have existed.

It would be interesting to compare the sales figures today of John's and Paul's 1970s albums – perhaps more valid than search engine results. Hey, and what about George!?!



the only thing unexplainable in this post is why anyone would like the stones better than the beatles- that's like preferring an almanac to the bible


I'd be curious to see search results for Wikipedia, where people would [presumably] be looking for a biography, not lyrics, pictures, music, fansites etc...

Paul Radtke

An interisting tie-break would be comparisons among recently deceased icons, and compare them to similar idols. My suggestions would be Marlon Brando (before vs after death) and both results against James Dean. Other possibility is James Brown (before and after) against Little Richard, the King, and so on.

another subject, shortly, to conclude, there is no way Paul Simon would ever beat one of those three, a fair fight could be Mick Jagger against them, or... a winner of american idol maybe?


Maybe those results would be different if you picked a living artist who had a lot of fans that aren't in a generation that isn't very internet savy instead of Paul Simon. I mean, of course Kurt Cobain's fans search his name more. They search EVERYTHING more. Try Kurt Cobain vs. Eddie Vedder. Or Notorious BIG vs. Puff Daddy (or P. Diddy).


Mmm, American Idol was my thought - try pitting that lot against Kelly Clarkson, for example. The result says something. I don't know what, exactly, but something all right.


I've heard of all the dead guys in your final comparison, but who is Paul Simon?


Paul Simon?

how soon we forget -- he ran for president in 1988


I don't think the final comparison is a fair one. Elvis, Cobain and Lennon are all more legends than Paul Simon is. Maybe because they're all dead, but they were also stronger personalities and better known to the youth of today. Simon, though a great musician, has always seemed a bit bland to me.


To expand on Chazza (comment #6), I wonder what definition of popularity is being used here. In the old days (pre-2000, say), the popularity of recording stars was mostly measured with the number of "units" they sold. You remember CDs, cassettes, LPs, 8-tracks, etc., right? Because this method measures the number of people who are willing to put their money where their ears are, it has become less relevant in an age of easy file sharing.

The old method also wouldn't be particularly good for measuring the popularity of people like Lennon and McCartney because most of their recordings are quite old. I might play my 34 year-old copy of "Band on the Run" every day, but that wouldn't show up on any album sales report. (I don't, for the record)

If the old measure of popularity is lacking, I fear this new way is worse, however. Simply put, popularity suggests that someone is viewed positively, but web searches are undertaken for many other reasons. George Bush is more "popular" than John F Kennedy, according to Google Trends , but does that mean he is the more favorably viewed president?

The frequency of web searches is an important measure of something, I'm just not sure it is popularity.



Aint it an idiotic question posed by someone who doesnt feel what real music is? Did mozart become popular because of his death? Or did his music grow a way better after he had passed away? Did music by . Lennon become even greater thanks to some murderous moron?


It is simply because there is a lot more news and interactive events at the living one's site. Besides, unlike john's site paul's one emails a ton of letters to be opened.


Speaking of who is better, i believe no comparion is possible between two artists if they are real. They are just of different natures. Paul, for example, he is a festivity that never stops meanwhile John is everyday love. How may these things be compared?

Nad Vega

When the guy is living and active, you don't need to search for info on Google or elsewhere since you get unsolicited details from all sources imaginable. Information that constitutes news comes to you on its own, while information that constitutes history is available on demand and in places that are easiest to find with a search engine. Thus the number of searches doesn't necessarily reflect anybody's popularity at all.


you mispelled kurt cobains last name and wrote "kobain".

"Wrong. (Presley is in blue, Lennon in red, Kobain in orange, Simon in green.)"