Genius at work: what makes a musical genius and why?

In the wake of the recent passing of David Bowie we heard the word genius being used over and over, but why was he a genius? How is such a thing defined? And is it an over-used word when talking about musicians?

“A genius is one who shoots at something no one else can see, and hits it.” – Unknown

Talking about music and musicians, or indeed any art, in a descriptive way is not always easy. Saddled with trying to express the inneffable writers quite ofen resort to prosaically throwing noun’s and adjectives around (such-and-such is a rising star/guitar hero/rock god or this record has shimmering guitars/soaring vocals/infectious energy, and not to mention the hoary old this-band-are-the-new Sex Pistols/Beatles/Smiths cliche) or end up heading for every writer’s good friend, the Thesaurus.

However, if there is one description used more than any other in the annals of music writing it’s most definitely genius. Check out any number of lists you can find on the internet and you’ll see what I mean. Apparently the bar isn’t even particularly high. For example, this one in the NME was chosen by readers and alongside the likes of Donovan and Gram Parsons includes early 90’s indie also-rans The Longpigs and the lead singer of Queenadreena. Now without wishing to bash those who may thnk very highly of both the latter acts, I can’t help thinking that it may be stretching the definition of the word a little.

david bowie playlist on youtube

So what is the definition of the word? The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability” and Wikipedia says “A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of new advances in a domain of knowledge”. In other words this defines genius as the cream of the crop, people with abilities that go beyond the norm to the point where they create something that wasn’t there before.

So did Bowie do that? Most Bowie fans, and indeed most knowledgable music lovers whether they are fans of his or not will agree that he certainly did, especially during his Berlin-phase where he and Brian Eno pushed all kinds of boundaries. You could, by this definition, probably include Captain Beefheart aka Don van Vliet, Miles Davis, and as far as the impact he had on the art of songwriting goes probably Bob Dylan as well. Brian Wilson? Probably. Maybe Ray Davies too. And then there’s The Beatles…

Aah yes, we can’t have a discussion about pop music genius without including the Fab Four, chiefly because they raise some interesting questions. Undoubtedly they were responsible for some of the most innovative and supremely crafted records of their time and beyond. On the other hand take a glance through the various post-Beatles output of all involved and you might be hard pushed to find anything approaching genius but rather some undeniably great stuff surrounded by a lot of songs which aren’t so great (and if truth be told some proper stinkers). So are Lennon and McCartney (and Harrison) geniuses? Or was their greatest work a result of collaborative effort not just with each other but with producer George Martin and his brilliant engineers? McCartney has an effortless gift for melody, no doubt, and Lennon had a unique and powerful artistic imagination when he was at his best, but genius?

the beatles musical genius recording sgt pepper abbey road
The Beatles recording the Sgt. Pepper album – a work of genius?

The point is this: just because people are capable of creating music that could be put on the level of genius it doesn’t mean that everything they do is touched by the same hand. For every ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ there is a ‘Yellow Submarine’; the genius would seem to reside in the art and not the artist. The Beatles achieved genius at times, at other times they didn’t, and we could say exactly the same about Bowie, Beefheart et al. None of which is to denigrate them but rather to make the point that the people we label as such don’t exist in a permanent state of genius, and may only reach such giddy heights from time to time. By some people’s standards they may fall well short of bonafide genius status precisely because in the context of their lives and careers the genius bits represent only a small slice.

Take Prince, a man so prolific he apparently has something like 1000 unreleased or unrecorded songs, and someone capable of playing every instrument and producing himself when he records. That would seem to fall in to the genius category. And then take Michael Jackson, regularly labelled a genius since his death and yet he was no great musician, released a fair amount of guff alongsde his best stuff, and was usually at his best with the guiding hands of someone like Quincy Jones at the mixing desk. Put alongside Prince his talents would seem to pale, and yet use of the ‘g’ word when describing Jackson, especially since his death, has become commonplace. If Jackson is a genius does that make Prince more-so? Or is the best of Jackson enough to make them equals. Are some genius’ greater than others? It’s all getting rather confusing…

Is Prince a greater genius than Michael Jackson?
Is Prince a greater genius than Michael Jackson?

And what of those who proclaim their own genius, such as everybody’s favourite douchebag Kanye West? Whilst it might seem like his greatest talent in life is telling everybody how great he is, there’s also no doubt that he’s been a huge figure in music over the last 10 or so years (not that commercial success has anything to do with things, otherwise we would be discussing whether Ed Sheeran is a genius, when he clearly isn’t) and has made some pretty unique music. Is his complete lack of humility a distraction from his artistic achievements? The question we might ask is will we look back in years to come and forget how much of an arse he is and praise him for his work, or will we just remember a giant arse? (I can almost hear so many of you answering that question right now).

We can look at many other modern artists praised as such and ask the same question. I’ve seen Taylor Swift described as a genius on a few different occasions, but I’ll be damned if I can find any evidence of it in her songs. Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe it’s not there. This Vibe article talks about the 20 greatest musical geniuses since 1993, and includes the likes of Tupac Shakur and Puff Daddy. The whole article implies that these are merely the 20 best geniuses of merely the last 20 years. There are lots of them it seems, geniuses everywhere, and yet that would seem to go against the definition of genius as exceptional or extraordinary. The more of them there are the less special it becomes.

Kanye West - genius, douchebag, or both?

And what of those who may posess the talent but never achieve the fame or recognition to go with it. Unrewarded genius is almost proverbial. Pablo Picasso once said “Genius is personality with a penny’s worth of talent. Error which chances to rise above the commonplace.” So was it down to chance that David Bowie got the opportunities to express himself on a global stage and so many others don’t? Maybe genius is more commonplace than we realise, maybe many of us could have the capacity to express something extraordinary if we could only escape the humdrum of our lives? Or maybe not.

As you can see there are more questions than answers, and genius itself is not always easy to define. So I’ll round things up by asking you, the reader, a question: who are the musical geniuses of the last 50 years or so, and why? Do The Beatles qualify? Kanye West? We’d love to hear your thoughts…

 

 

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One thought on “Genius at work: what makes a musical genius and why?

  1. I think the key for me would be tied to the ideas of originality. There are many artists who are very good at what they do (such as the aforementioned Taylor Swift, etc.) but that is pretty much all that they do. I think that thing that makes artists such as the Beatles, Radiohead, David Bowie, Ween, Robert Fripp and yes – even Kanye West, is the fact that they always seem to reinvent their art. They’re always pushing at the boundaries of their art to find new modes of expression. Bob Dylan’s early albums are fairly traditional folk. He then started to explore rock, country, americana etc. The same with the Beatles – early on they basically where nothing but a Chuck Berry cover band but by the end of their run they had grown into something much larger.

    Of course, if all else fails, you can always just order up a Genius-in-a-box kit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEORcu91LU8

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