Can genius be qualified? I think not, but the question came to light when a friend of mine took exception to my innocent comment when we were out having a drink (okay, a few drinks).
Being a fan of Kurt Cobain, I suggested that Cobain changed his type of music (Rock ‘n’ Roll in its current state circa early ’90’s) in much the same manner as Beethoven changed his style of music (what we now call classical composition). When an individual comes along that alters the course of their field through creativity, a unique perspective, and raw talent, I would say that person is a genius.
Yet, how dare I rank a modern rock star with the genius of a classical composer like Beethoven? Ah, but I do.
I dare because genius cannot be qualified. It’s the same with “unique”. Nothing can be more unique than another unique thing. If I experience two unique events, I cannot say one was more or less unique than the other. In a similar vein, can a “coincidence” be bigger than another coincidence? When Elaine thought so on Seinfeld, her writer client admonished her saying, “There are no beeg coeencideences, or small coeencideences, there is only coeencideence.” Truer words were never spoken.
When I consider the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, I have to wonder why is it a work of genius? Is it the rousing choral arrangement? Is it the triumphant score played by a full orchestra? I say not. Although contributing to the work’s brilliance, the root of genius is not in the arrangements. For me, the root of genius is in the theme, the “Daaa da dee dee ta da-ya, daaa da dee deeee ta-da”. I don’t have the score in front of me, but you get the idea. That’s it. That’s genius.
A simple theme cleverly called “childish” by his no-talent nephew in the movie Immortal Beloved. Why “cleverly”? Because the writer put the words into the mouth of someone who didn’t get it, someone without the sense to see the GREATNESS in four stanzas of music. Something you can whistle, and it’s still great. You can hum it, and it’s still great. Or you can listen to an orchestra play Beethoven’s full score, and it’s as great as great gets.
That’s the root of it. That’s the crux that makes or breaks genius. By creating that simple theme (it does continue, of course), Beethoven created the foundation for one of the great movements in orchestral music.
That all it takes, but it’s oh, so hard.
So, how does it compare to Smells Like Teen Spirit? From the opening chords, Cobain built a theme that caught the imagination of a generation. Reinforced by lyrics of youthful ALIENATION and disaffection, the song brilliantly captures a moment in time that stands the test of time. You can whistle it, and it’s still great. You can hum it, and it’s still great. Or you can listen to Nirvana crank it out at ear-blasting volume, and it’s as great as great gets. For God’s sake, you can hear covers of it from Perry Como to a KAZOO band, and it still holds up.
And that’s the root of it.
Throw in a body of work that changed the course of his genre, and voila—genius.
So the question remains. Was Beethoven a greater genius than Kurt Cobain?
A mute point. To qualify genius is to diminish its meaning. Let’s celebrate both artists, indeed, all artists who alter their fields in ways that make the world a better place.
And that’s my rather unique perspective. You may have a more unique perspective. Have at it and change the world.
Stay Friendly and Healthy.