David Mitchell: What Constitutes a Musical Genius?

David Michell, Publisher Amalgamation Mag

Of late, I’ve been getting into these passionate debates with many of my fellow music industry peers – some much younger than me, others 40 and up – about who or what is a musical genius.

I’ve said for some time that I wanted to draft an essay from what I’d like to think is a worldly perspective. But in truth I have a very limited or narrow stance on who or what is genius.

By definition, at least per Wikipedia, “a genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of an unprecedented leap of insight.”

Genius comes from the Latin word of the same name, meaning “guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth” or “innate ability.” Those are pretty tall orders and heavyweight definitions to apply to individuals simply because they churned out a string of Pop hits. Typically we see glimmers of genius at childhood. And, I’m not referring to Little Magic who always got a rise from grandma and his cousins while he performed at the annual family picnic.

I’ll give you that some people experience flashes of genius, but music has been so watered down over the years, I even question those flashes. Most of the artists on the radio today couldn’t even tell you what key they’re singing in, or how their tracks were produced. Music standards have plummeted. People don’t comprehend or even learn the fundamentals of music, and even those who do aren’t geniuses. They are students of their field. Some are highly accomplished; others are great and learned artists.

In modern times, I believe Stevie Wonder is a musical genius. I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment. He’s a rarity. Blind since birth, he mastered several instruments, mainly the piano, drums and harmonica. He was at the forefront of embracing technology early on, composed and produced hundreds of remarkable songs (many considered a part of the American Songbook) that contained some of the most melodic, complex chord structures, and yet it’s some of the most commercially viable music of the last 40 plus years.

Genius can be almost supernatural; perhaps unworldly. Now people have asked me is Michael Jackson or Prince a genius. I can’t say yes. I love both of them immensely. Is Pharrell Williams or Kanye West a genius? I decline to apply that term to them either.

You see, we have watered down the English language to a fault, especially when there are words that aptly apply to great artistry like Michael Jackson who I would say is a creative visionary of the highest order. Prince is one of the most gifted, prolific and versatile musicians of our time. Both transcended their peers. I’ve LOVED the music and production of Pharrell Williams for nearly two decades. His wizardry as one of today’s top producers is second to none. “Happy” is an amazingly feel-good song but the production of Pharrell is pastiche and harkens back to the best of the `70s and `80s. In the rap game, Kanye and Jay-Z may be unmatched in their lyrical skills, their insightful poetry and penchant for giving audiences what they want. But is that genius? I was in a discussion where a colleague pointed out that DeVanté Swing (of Jodeci) and Missy Elliott were geniuses. Come on now! Again, not to take anything away from the good music they produced, and the talent they helped to bring to the forefront; some people are very adept at tapping into the hearts and minds of its audience at large, or they’re able to spearhead a cultural movement and speak for their respective generation. I’m not sure that’s necessarily genius, and a great part of what these artists do is via collaboration: with a collective of producers, musicians, videographers, and a large budget at their disposal.

I guess what I’m saying is [that] we need to expand our vocabulary and stop grasping for the easy terms. A BFF of mine recently stated that there are two words that he believed were overused into today’s Pop culture: one is epic, and the other is phenomenal. Hell, I’ll use epic and phenomenal over the label genius any day.



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