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How We Kill Geniuses
February 6, 2009 2:41 PM   Subscribe

How We Kill Geniuses. "[Elizabeth Gilbert recalls] a story that musician Tom Waits told her years ago. One day he was driving on a Los Angeles freeway when a fragment of a melody popped into his head. He looked around for something to capture the tune -- a pencil or pen -- but had nothing to record it. He started to panic that he'd lose the melody and be haunted by it forever and his talent would be gone. In the midst of this anxiety attack, he suddenly stopped, looked at the sky, and said to whatever force it was that was trying to create itself through the melody, 'Excuse me. Can you not see I'm driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment ... otherwise go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen.'" Gilbert explores the idea that we might stifle genius by demanding that creative people be somehow larger than life and something more than human.
posted by sarabeth (175 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't recall demanding anything of any genius. The only thing I demand of Tom Waits is that he stay alive. Forever. Or at least until I die. Because a world without Tom Waits is one I don't want to live in.
posted by spicynuts at 2:48 PM on February 6, 2009 [25 favorites]


this is the best thing i've ever heard from a TED speaker.
posted by doobiedoo at 2:50 PM on February 6, 2009


Wait, there's some creative deity that inspires genius? I just came to terms with a godless world. What kind of muses do atheist poets have to call upon?
posted by filthy light thief at 2:50 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well, I've only run across a handful of actual geniuses in my time, and they weren't "pressured" to be great, they excelled because they were driven by their own muses. I guess I can see that if you make a Genius (TM) famous, they might suffer from performance anxiety, but otherwise her observations, are well, kind of inane and specious.

I think this a bastardized quote from some Sherlock Holmes story, but I've always liked:

"The greatest danger to genius is not stupidity, it is boredom."
posted by elendil71 at 2:51 PM on February 6, 2009 [10 favorites]


This sort of reads to me like a way to deploy actor-network theory in a mental health context. Which is interesting, since actor-network theory itself is widely considered batshit insane.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:51 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Nonetheless, when she now feels pressure to produce she just tells herself to forge ahead and do her part and let go of the expectation that it has to be brilliant."

That makes sense to me. Although, I think part of creativity is a craft that you can refine.
posted by rageagainsttherobots at 2:52 PM on February 6, 2009


Someone asked Vonnegut in an interview once "Why do you write?" to which he responded "I can't not write."
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:54 PM on February 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


Everyone knows geniuses create because their father touched their butthole.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:57 PM on February 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


If there was some outside entity that helped Gilbert craft Eat, Pray, Love, I'd wager it was Satan. I can't believe I spent even a single day with that book.
posted by naju at 2:57 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


Newsflash: unique snowflakes also delicate flowers.
posted by one_bean at 3:00 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ah, fuck, I was just about to say something snarky when I realized that this is the Elizabeth Gilbert whose profile of Hank Williams III was fucking, like, transcendent.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 3:01 PM on February 6, 2009


I've had intense periods when I was being very productive, but without the feeling that I was doing anything. I was channeling ideas. I would follow an odd and abstract train of thought over many evenings, trying to forget it. But it kept reasserting itself, so I used to give up, get up, write it down on a whiteboard, photograph it, and go back to watching TV. Five minutes later I'd be up and at it again, completely in the service of the idea. Yet the train of thought turned out to be both profound and productive. And it was about how the individual and the collective are related. So it kind of explained itself:)
posted by stonepharisee at 3:01 PM on February 6, 2009


I don't think you have to be a genius to recognise that there's a divide between intuitively following the process of making and consciously willing something into existence, sometimes the simple act of making or performing over runs your conscious ability to determine what happens, some combination of your ingrained habits, the mood that's taken you that day, what you had for breakfast and the light moving on the walls in the distance compels a glimmer of awesomeness from your keyboard/paintbrush/scalpel/etc. Don't get me wrong, creativity (whatever the field or degree) demands hard work, but it's always elusive and it's a (200 year old) mistake to think that only by individual agency alone do you command the fantastic to appear.
posted by doobiedoo at 3:04 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


filthy light thief: Ha! To quote and also paraphrase my supercrush Carl Sagan, "somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known", and nature is even more mind-bogglingly incredible than the supernatural. Right? Talk about your muses.
posted by sarabeth at 3:04 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I always laugh when I read this stuff. This has absolutely nothing to do with creativity or genius. It has to do with celebrity and money making by large corporations. For every Tom Waits, there are hundreds of undiscovered songwriters and musicians who are arguably better than Waits ever was. The difference is that they are not selling records for a major label. There are no expectations that these people be larger than life. The only expectations that "genius" be larger than life come from the demands of celebrity culture and record sales.

Luckily for us a new paradigm approaches--the rise of D.I.Y. recording and distribution, as well as widespread piracy and copying will soon make the record business obsolete. Instead millions of musicians and writers and even movie makers will make and distribute their work over the internet. A lot less money will be made by the record companies and the extremely small number of "world famous" celebrity-stars. But a lot more people will supplement their income doing what they love.

Unfortunately for those "stars" whose work consists mainly of singing work written by others and who are hyped merely for their good looks and voice, there will be little work or sales for them. Perhaps some of these Brittany Spears types will turn to more creative personal expression and we will see good from them.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:05 PM on February 6, 2009 [12 favorites]


I usually have the hardest time coming up with any kind of creative idea if I decide to just Sit Down And Make Something. Maybe that works for some people, and I'm sure that the discipline of making yourself be productive/making the time/etc. makes sense, but trying to lasso a good idea, any good idea, is usually the quickest way for me to draw a complete blank slate. I think just being a real human being and out in the world, living life fully and enjoying the details, is what inspires me in terms of creative ideas. Focusing on the process = missing the point. Maybe?
posted by sarabeth at 3:09 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


We're all geniuses. It's just that some people, like Tom Waits, are somehow able to pursue their genius, follow-through, and create something.

I imagine we all used to be like Tom Waits 10,000 years ago, before we adopted agriculture and money.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:10 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Amazing. Talk about "magical divine entity" in terms of, you know, God, and MeFi goes batshitinsane and starts Dawkinsing all over itself. Talk about it in terms of some bullshit about "geniuses" (including, thrown in absolutely free, a bullshit etymology of olé) and people go "hey, that's cool."

Also: "Author Elizabeth Gilbert, famous for her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love"? Never heard of her or it.
posted by languagehat at 3:11 PM on February 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


What kind of muses do atheist poets have to call upon?

when world desolves into word
and tongues dance with the joy of discovery
divinity is in our ears,
whispering, "YES!"
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:14 PM on February 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


Addendum: I guess the point I was trying to make a minute ago is that the material for creativity is experience. If you aren't out turning cartwheels, getting lost in new places, getting your heart broken, stubbing your toe, eating a good breakfast at a diner, enjoying the smell of woodsmoke in the air on your walk to work, noticing the color of the sky, etc., where do your ideas come from?
posted by sarabeth at 3:15 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


being on fire / in the zone, cooking with gas, having the mojo

aren't all of these terms hovering around a concept of awesomeness that exceeds purely personal/instrumental capacities? something about the crowd / the music / the vibes / the hotness / whatever ?
posted by doobiedoo at 3:15 PM on February 6, 2009


I liked the Tom Waits anecdote a lot more than the stuff surrounding it.
posted by anazgnos at 3:16 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


This genius was usually killed by being lured off a cliff.
posted by Joe Beese at 3:18 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


just for the record i'm pretty down with divine entities as well, so whatever you throw at me, i'll channel it, just drop it in my zone
posted by doobiedoo at 3:19 PM on February 6, 2009


languagehat: I agree, that was some seriously shady etymology. I think I'm less enamoured of the idea of promoting "genius" as some divine force than I am of discussing the idea that creative people shouldn't be expected to be anything other than that--people who can channel that sort of creative "spark" and make it something, without letting pressure to maintain that spark 24/7 become something that becomes a crushing, intimidating chore. That was what I liked about the Tom Waits bit. I think Gilbert did promote some seriously mixed messages in the article, re: the importance of humanity and, also, the whole genius thing. Maybe my understanding of the piece and its use to frame the questions I found interesting wasn't a 100% fit, but I do think it's kind of a interesting point for discussion.
posted by sarabeth at 3:24 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


This sounds like she's test-driving a new Gladwell-esque type book. It's not insight, it's Gilbert marketing aspirational genius and ready-made excuses. She'll be selling to the masses a book that allows them to rationalize their creative failures by blaming them on an inattentive muse.
posted by william_boot at 3:25 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


With the rise of DIY comes the surge of Everything All The Time. Discerning greatness is still hard, because of all the dreck.

I think some people are burdened by creativity, much like the Vonnegut quote. Others work at it. Many don't try for it, assuming creativity is the task for someone else. Attribute it to gods, demons, or the atmospheric pressure where they reside, but Elizabeth Gilbert's concerns are different.

Gilbert achieved unexpected attention when her book was published a couple of years ago. And this was all very nice, except, since then, everyone has been wondering how she'll ever top her achievement, as if it's all downhill from here.
...
"Allowing somebody ... to believe that he or she is ... the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, internal mystery is just like a smidge of too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche,"she said. "It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all of these unnatural expectations about performance. I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years."


Buh-wha? Swallowing suns? We, the consuming audience, look for continued creation. There is no assumption of godliness within or without. Some fans will attribute godliness to artists they adore, but that's another issue. She's just trying to release the pressure of needing to create more masterpieces of literature.

languagehat - this is the first I've heard of her + her book, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:29 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


In and of itself, not much of substance, but the ideas are fascinating if taken a bit further. I'm in complete agreement with the above poster who wondered how many unknown geniuses (genii?) there are for each genius we have acknowledged as such.

I second sarabeth's comment that maintaining a spark 24/7 can be crushing and intimidating; a spark is short-lived and momentary literally and figuratively, so expecting more isn't possible. Unless you change the definition, which would be easy enough to do... and now I'm going to stop because I've thought myself into a corner.
posted by variella at 3:30 PM on February 6, 2009


Maintaining snark is even more demanding.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 3:39 PM on February 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


Embarrassing article. Genius. Some people have it, others don't. Some lose it, some won't. But this writing is gauzy tripe, and it's sad. To the extent that we kill genius, it's because genius is outside the understanding of most people; it atrophies from misunderstanding, the pains of having to explain things to people who won't get it, and the mediocre expectations which form the focus of much of the world.

The book, by the way, sold a heaps. More than 1700 reviews on Amazon and still in the top 125 or so, sales-wise, after two years is testimony to that. I read everything that comes my way; when a friend of dubious taste lent it to me, I got about 30 pages into it before leaving it aside as garbage.

If it comes up, though, I will begin referring to God / Allah as "the strange external genius that [is] not Tom." I liked that.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:45 PM on February 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


"Nonetheless, when she now feels pressure to produce she just tells herself to forge ahead and do her part and let go of the expectation that it has to be brilliant."

To me, this is all just way too self-conscious. I'm not one myself, but I'd like to think that true genius doesn't give a rub and isn't even aware of not giving a rub. Same goes for pure creativity.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 3:46 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like Pratchett's take on this (and surprisingly similar to the Tom Waits tale), that ideas float like particles through space and that a good idea may hit anyone (or anything) at any given time, but geniuses are like tuned receivers and will get hit with these random concepts more often than anyone else.

Whether they like it or not.
posted by quin at 3:49 PM on February 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


Anybody's creativity is fueled or quenched by the environment around them. What makes geniuses seem distinct is that they are known because of what comes from that creativity, and in some cases there is a lot of money and many careers at stake. Ensuring it stays fueled can lead to baroque excesses when the genius is indulged for the wrong reasons.

Assuming some creative people have a divine blessing and other creative people do not sounds like an excuse for wallowing in guileless hero worship, nothing more.
posted by ardgedee at 3:50 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


She just gave TED a reach around and they enjoyed it.

I love the TED talks. But when the videos pan to the audience and they are all sitting there basking in themselves I feel a little queasy.
posted by srboisvert at 3:54 PM on February 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


Genius is the myth that pyramids haul themselves up around the sleeping pharaoh.
posted by kid ichorous at 3:55 PM on February 6, 2009 [8 favorites]


"If the muse comes to your bedside, don't tell her you'll fuck her later."

-- Allen Ginsberg to me, 1987
posted by digaman at 4:11 PM on February 6, 2009 [22 favorites]


hm. *skeptical silence*

I came into music studies shortly after the discipline(s) had its own version of the "culture wars," namely, the "new musicology" debates. A large part of the "new musicology" demands/complaints were around expanding the canon of "respectable" music that was deemed worthy of study to include lesser-known composers, actually-living composers, female composers, minority composers, non-classical Western music, "popular" musics of various sorts, and so on. One of the main lines of argumentation was that sometime during the late 18th century and the 19th century, we came up with this category of "genius" to help us organize art into hierarchies of value, and since then the concept has persisted as a way of authenticating and perpetuating these hierarchies.

There are certainly people in the history of music (or other arts, or sciences or what have you) that have been remarkable in one way or another, but the term "genius" tends to simplify the complex contingencies that bring success and renown to some music-makers, and not to others.
posted by LMGM at 4:14 PM on February 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


Embarrassing article. Genius. Some people have it, others don't. Some lose it, some won't. But this writing is gauzy tripe, and it's sad. To the extent that we kill genius, it's because genius is outside the understanding of most people; it atrophies from misunderstanding, the pains of having to explain things to people who won't get it, and the mediocre expectations which form the focus of much of the world.

If genius is outside the understanding of most people then surely it can't be accounted for by something as simple as "Some people have it, others don't. Some lose it, some won't"? To be precise I don't think Gilbert is trying to tell you how to become a genius or how to maintain genius, only that contingent situations and settings can exert as much power on your capabilities as conscious willing. In so far as she's arguing against the idea that genius and creativity are all consciously willed, I'm going along with that. Whether or not we are stifling famous people I could care less.

If expanding your ontological schema to include mysterious creative force is too kooky for some (and the blue's enthuasiastic bible snarking seems to offer a clue) then surely you can't discount vibes and moods which are no less ephemeral or transient but carry the power to transform your perceptions on a daily if not hourly basis? This is not to argue that moods and vibes flow from mysterious entity, only that we are not always in control of our thoughts and behaviour, genius included for better or worse.
posted by doobiedoo at 4:19 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I like Pratchett's take on this (and surprisingly similar to the Tom Waits tale), that ideas float like particles through space and that a good idea may hit anyone (or anything) at any given time, but geniuses are like tuned receivers and will get hit with these random concepts more often than anyone else.

Yeah, I always liked that too. See also Jack Spicer and the Martians.

What kind of muses do atheist poets have to call upon?

I think there is no light in the world
but the world

And I think there is light

--George Oppen
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 4:21 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


How do you kill geniuses? Headshots.
posted by klangklangston at 4:23 PM on February 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


filthy light thief: What kind of muses do atheist poets have to call upon?

You could do what Alan Moore does, which is worship a fraudulent sockpuppet of a god.
posted by Pronoiac at 4:33 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


only that we are not always in control of our thoughts and behaviour, genius included for better or worse

I'd guess for better and worse. I've rubbed elbows with a genius or two in my day, and I'd say that to a certain extent, control of thoughts and emotions is antithetical to genius. The creative spark is intuitive. Genius is surrender to that intuitive spark. Where it gets tricky is that the spark is essentially useless without the ability to bring yourself back under control long enough to apply some element of craft or discipline. And to live with few enough complications to be allowed to do it again. And again. Because the spark is addictive. And fickle. That balancing act between surrender and control is sometimes mistaken for madness. And sometimes... it's not a mistake.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:34 PM on February 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


I prefer my hero worship guileful.
posted by everichon at 4:34 PM on February 6, 2009


Also: "Author Elizabeth Gilbert, famous for her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love"? Never heard of her or it.

#1 on the NYT Paperback Nonfiction List for over a year, according to her website.
posted by mrnutty at 4:35 PM on February 6, 2009


I picked up Twyla Tharp's "The Creative Habit" due to some excerpts from 43 Folders, which is becoming a blog on creativity. The book & the blog are both good.
posted by Pronoiac at 4:36 PM on February 6, 2009


I've never killed a genie. I've always found it more practical to trap them in magic lamps for later wish-extraction.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 4:44 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


My best ideas always come when I am in a transitive autopilot state. Driving. Running. Hiking. Fishing. Sometimes when I'm hitting the heavy bag.

And sometimes I dream entire stories. The crazy thing is if it s a good story and some point in the dream I'm actually in a theater watching like it's a play or a movie. Or watching myself dream it. I'll wake up in a frantic search for a pen.
"God. What is it this time?" My wife will groan covering her head with a pillow.
"I had this great idea for a story where Jesus comes back as a chimpanzee in a test lab... er no... wait... GOD DAMN IT WHERE IS THAT PEN!"

Funny story about that. This happens a lot. And when I get an idea I can't get back to sleep. A few weeks back I was having this vivid dream. Something about being in a Victorian era party where they had a seance. everything is all cool. Then suddenly in this dream Houdini and I get in a fight with J. P. Morgan's hired Pinkertons. It gets crazy violent when one stabs me in the back with a screw driver.

I wake up. In agony. I think it's residual dream. So I get up searching for a pen. Becuase it was an awesome idea for a story. But my left side still hurt. Which was weird. So I get up and stagger to the bathroom. Take a pee. Then. My side hurts worse. Like much worse. I stagger back to the bedroom, now sweating profusely. I'm thinking I was really somehow stabbed in an alternate reality by J.P. Morgan with a screw diver.

Suddenly it hurts so bad my legs start cramping. But I still want to find a pen. So I'm tearing through my night stand making a racket. But the pain is just grwoing and growing.

"Honey... can you get up.."

"WHAT NOW! Jesus came back as god damn ferret!?"

"No I... get me a pen..." And I pass out.

So my wife drives me to the emergency ward. Turns out I had a kidney stone. The whole time there I kept asking them for a pen.
posted by tkchrist at 4:49 PM on February 6, 2009 [9 favorites]


Addendum: I guess the point I was trying to make a minute ago is that the material for creativity is experience. If you aren't out turning cartwheels, getting lost in new places, getting your heart broken, stubbing your toe, eating a good breakfast at a diner, enjoying the smell of woodsmoke in the air on your walk to work, noticing the color of the sky, etc., where do your ideas come from?

From working at your ideas. I'm not joking. Composers do this all the time. A old teacher of mine called inspiration 'the i word' and almost forbade any mention of it. I remember going to a lesson in my second week as an undergrad and saying that I wasn't inspired that week so I hadn't done much and he said "I don't care if you're inspired or not, do the work, you find the inspiration later." He also said that "inspiration, if it does exist, needs to be uncovered." Damn good advice for anyone who does something creative for a living.
posted by ob at 4:51 PM on February 6, 2009 [9 favorites]


I thought "Eat, Pray, Love" was revolting. It's hard to keep an open mind about anything Elizabeth Gilbert spews.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 4:52 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like Pratchett's take on this (and surprisingly similar to the Tom Waits tale), that ideas float like particles through space and that a good idea may hit anyone (or anything) at any given time, but geniuses are like tuned receivers and will get hit with these random concepts more often than anyone else.

As a songwriter, I can relate to this in a sense. I don't write much any more, but that's due to turns my life has taken. But when I did write, it could happen one of two ways. The first way was that I could decide to write, and I'd sit down at an instrument and bang at it until it made an agreeable noise -- sometimes this worked, and sometimes it ended in frustration. This first method worked best for me when in the company of other musicians who have the same goal in mind, & we would collaborate.

The second way is that they would appear from thin air, unexpected. The problem with these, is like Tom Waits, they would often come to me at moments when I had no way of capturing them before they were gone again. I think I lost many more of these songs than I kept. They came when the mind was otherwise idle -- like when driving, or performing a mundane manual task, that left the mind free to wander. The best example was a song that appeared, fully formed, verse, chorus, bridge, melody & lyrics in a span of maybe 5 minutes one day, while I was sitting in the library during my senior year of high school. fortunately, paper was at hand, and I had rehearsal with my band that evening. I showed up with song in hand, and it was finished and added to our repertoire in about two hours.

I've dreamed songs and struggled unsuccessfully to remember them in the morning. It's told that Paul McCartney dreamed the melody to Yesterday and woke up in time to make it to a piano & transcribe it. It had the working title of Scrambled Eggs for a while before he put lyrics to the tune, but it supposedly appeared to him, fully formed from the aether. Is this "god," or some divine force, or is it just a manifestation of the human subconscious? I have no idea, and won't pretend to ever know. I find it arrogant to think that I could know, actually.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:52 PM on February 6, 2009


I wasn't aware of how hard it is to be a bestselling author. But then again, I've never been Touched By God like Elizabeth Gilbert has. That poor woman; forced into the role of Goddess by us, the unwitting hoi polloi, locked away in her New England home, reduced practically to tears by the terrible pressure of being so smart. I feel sorry for her really.

But what's to be done? These Genius types obviously need to be isolated from us, or we will crush their spirits. Perhaps if we built a great big tower where they could do all their thinking without any distractions; where they'd never need to interact with their pushy fans (except perhaps to gaze on them affectionately now and then). We'll want to build it out of some precious material to signify how important they are; ivory perhaps.

But until that happens, I guess I'll just have to make a point of not bothering Elizabeth Gilbert. I wouldn't want her to feel pressured. So, Ms. Gilbert, if I see you on the street and I don't come up to shake your hand, it's not because I think you're a conceited drain on society. No, I'm just giving you space. No need to thank me. Just keep doing all that thinking for me; it's better if I don't have to.
posted by Commander Rachek at 5:01 PM on February 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


That's not a real Tom Waits story. That's just a story about a man driving around who can't find a pen, which is far too common place to be a Tom Waits story.

Henry Rollins tells this story in one of his spoken word albums about getting some fan mail that disturbed him. It was from a paramedic. The guy had gone to a house to pick up a dead body and take it to the morgue, but as soon as the paramedic saw the body, he fell deeply, deeply in love with her. He dropped her off and walked away but couldn't stop thinking about her and wondering what she was like. He was just haunted by her and the mystery she represented. It really showed him sides of himself he didn't know existed, which was troubling, and he was seeing signs that reminded him of her all the time on the job, making going to work hard. Was he going crazy? So he wrote to Henry Rollins asking for advice on what to do. How could he get over someone he really never even met?

So Henry reads this letter on a Friday night - because he has nothing better to do on a Friday night - and he figures the whole thing is probably a hoax because after all why would you write Henry Rollins about this? But the whole scenario bothers him, because it simultaneously has very romantic / sad / noble overtones - but also very creepy / bizarre overtones. He's not going to recommend grave robbing, and yeah, probably the best solution is to say "get over it!" but he doesn't want to be an asshole to the guy - he's clearly very lonely and has written a very tender, sympathetic letter. Plus what if the guy is legit? Maybe he's having a mental breakdown on a stressful job, which is another can of worms entirely. Rollins just doesn't feel qualified to be an advice columnist in this instance.

So right after he gets this letter he's backstage at a concert and he sees Tom Waits. And he thinks: My God! I bet Tom Waits will know what to say to this guy, because Tom Waits is a genius. So he tells Tom Waits the whole story, and Tom says, "Oh, that's easy. Just tell him: "Again? Bitch did that to me last week! For a corpse, she really gets around!" Then see if he's so hot to trot."

Now that is a Tom Waits story.
posted by Kiablokirk at 5:03 PM on February 6, 2009 [40 favorites]


Unfortunately for those "stars" whose work consists mainly of singing work written by others and who are hyped merely for their good looks and voice, there will be little work or sales for them.

There's a reason why pop music is popular and it has nothing to do with whether a person writes they songs they sing.

Perhaps some of these Brittany Spears types will turn to more creative personal expression and we will see good from them.

Brittany may not be a genius but she knew how to use what she had and it got her a helluva lot more radio play than your mystical artiste.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:04 PM on February 6, 2009


a conceited drain on society

Buh? I can happily sign on to the "not interested" camp regarding Ms. Gilbert and her work, but I am not clear on where all the spleen in this thread is coming from.

* looks at address bar *

Oh.
posted by everichon at 5:06 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I come here for all my Tom Waits needs.
posted by tkchrist at 5:07 PM on February 6, 2009


LEAVE BRITTANY OUT OF THIS!!
posted by tkchrist at 5:08 PM on February 6, 2009


It's Britney guys, Britney. Brittany is in France.
posted by supercrayon at 5:15 PM on February 6, 2009


She looked at other societies to see how they regard this pressure on artists...
"[It was] a magical divine entity that was believed to live literally in the walls of an artist's studio and would come out and invisibly assist the artist with the work and shape the outcome of the work," she said.


I find it fascinating that this is something Elizabeth Gilbert is fretting about - first off, those who never heard of Eat, Pray, Love must drive or walk to work because if you take public transit, this is the book that you'd have seen a woman reading in every train car for the past three years. (It's been absolutely ubiquitous in the metro Boston area, anyhow). This made me resistant, but enough women I respect foisted it on me that I finally read it and you know? It was ok! Pretty interesting, actually, and here's why: If a competent writer spends a year of her life residing in Italy, India, and Indonesia... that's going to be interesting. It's an interesting year, right? And to me, Gilbert's genius lies in the fact that she was able to sell the book up front and get that interesting year and the writing time thereafter fully funded by a publisher. I am not being sarcastic: That's an incredible thing to pull off. That she's now fretting about ancient muses and writer's garrets is strange.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:18 PM on February 6, 2009


It's Britney guys, Britney. Brittany is in France.

What's she doing in France when AMERICA NEEDS HER SO MUCH!
posted by tkchrist at 5:20 PM on February 6, 2009 [8 favorites]


A lot of frustrated genius in this thread.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 5:20 PM on February 6, 2009


Genius = working really hard when you have a good idea and also the good idea happens to be the right idea at the right time for the society/economy/whatever you live in, unless you're someone like John von Neumann and then you're just a fucking genius, you know what I mean? But it seems like genius is just trying things a lot and getting comfortable with failure, and then something you do doesn't fail, 'cause you've been working really hard at it for a while and then something you do sort of "sticks."

So I don't think genius has anything to do with this ideas floating around somewhere, that's stupid. You get ideas like that floating around because you think about the sorts of things a lot that produce certain pathways in your brain so that ideas happen more frequently than some schmo who doesn't bother thinking about that stuff a lot. Jeebus or the Goddess or "mah myooz" doesn't hand you ideas, you work your ass off at something for twenty years and ideas just pop into your head, and you can fucking execute them because you are not lazy for whatever psychological reason ( _____ ) and if you're lucky, other people like them too, so that means you don't just have ideas but you have taste. Unless, again, you're von Neumann or Mozart, you know? But I guess they are conceptually distinct maybe, as being prodigies?

Talking about killing genius doesn't really make sense to me. I like this post.

So, either what I said or it's just a meaningless bullshit word. I'm sort of leaning towards the latter actually. And this woman sounds annoying, too.
posted by dubitable at 5:23 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Doh. I meant to link here with the text "I like this post," not to klangklangston's profile page, but hey, I'm not a genius.
posted by dubitable at 5:25 PM on February 6, 2009


I think I'm less enamoured of the idea of promoting "genius" as some divine force than I am of discussing the idea that creative people shouldn't be expected to be anything other than that--people who can channel that sort of creative "spark" and make it something, without letting pressure to maintain that spark 24/7 become something that becomes a crushing, intimidating chore.

Yeah, I agree, and I hope I didn't come across as shitting on your post—I was just suddenly struck by the different reaction to this variety of the "divine."

And yeah, I guess she's famous, and I'm just out of it. So it goes.
posted by languagehat at 5:29 PM on February 6, 2009



I imagine we all used to be like Tom Waits 10,000 years ago, before we adopted agriculture and money.


Only in terms of body hair and un-plucked uni-brows.

I'm trying to think of an artist that is malnourished, bloated with parasitical infections, smells like shit and is into irrational ritual violence? GWAR?
posted by tkchrist at 5:33 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I never come up with any creative ideas when I'm reading metafilter or engaging in any other sorts of procrastination. I get my ideas from, as ob put it so well, working on my ideas. Yeah, sometimes they need to marinate and the result comes up while I'm out running or taking a shower, but new ideas come up because you spend a lot of time thinking about ideas.

Another story I'm reminded of is one my high school English teacher told our class about a writer (I don't remember which writer). He worked on his books by setting aside 2 hours a day to write, and did this consistently. Eventually, this fact came out, and someone even published excerpts of his diary in which he discussed his determination to find to hours to write and wrote about times on vacation when he expressed frustration at not being able to get some time away to work for his specified two hours. This revelation ruined his career. We seem to be obsessed with the idea of creative sparks. If I sat around waiting for a spark all day, I'd never get anything done.
posted by deanc at 5:35 PM on February 6, 2009


I also require Tom Waits to stay alive forever.

Since there's no sentient deity-like inspirational sky-wizard-thingie, I'd be glad to go bother Leonard Cohen in its stead. Really, no trouble at all.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:36 PM on February 6, 2009


This was just weird to read. I'm a creative type and I don't relate to it at all.

I mean yeah, I get ideas when I get them, and it's not something I can really force one way or the other. And yeah, sometimes people just get all the little things right and it makes the difference between something good and something "magical." I just don't see why there needs to be some completely imagined explanation, or thought trick, to make it into something bigger. I mean, seriously? That these things even need an extra explanation is strange enough, but to attribute it to some transcendental idea fairy, whether literally or psychologically, is just... I guess I don't understand the appeal.

I don't relate to the argument that it's better for "geniuses" to think that, regardless of whether it's true either. People can't just accept that creativity isn't so easy to turn on and off? It makes people feel better to believe something they know isn't true? Like I said, I just don't relate.
posted by Nattie at 5:46 PM on February 6, 2009


Buh? I can happily sign on to the "not interested" camp regarding Ms. Gilbert and her work, but I am not clear on where all the spleen in this thread is coming from.

* looks at address bar *

Oh.


It's not just that it's the internets and there are no repercussions. I'd like to think that if I saw Elizabeth Gilbert in person I would say to her "You are a conceited drain on society." I might also advise her to do something more useful with her life than talk about how smart she is.

As it happens, I'm pretty conceited, too; furthermore, as an undergraduate, I have no illusions about my (basically non-existent) worth to society. So maybe that was an uncalled for jab. But it really gets my dander up when self-declared geniuses go dithering on about how hard it is because all those stupid people just don't understand what it's like. The fact that she calls herself a genius at all reveals her to be an arrogant pinhead.

I am almost on the verge of being slightly sympathetic to her argument: I was told I was smart a lot as a kid, and I do think it was ultimately bad for me in a lot of ways. But the idea that Gilbert (or anyone) is a "genius" because God thinks she's special is revolting. If I ever do anything relevant in my chosen creative field, it will be because I worked hard and utilized my talents well, not because of some inherent superiority I have over the great unwashed. All this stuff about "divine sparks" and "swallowing suns" is just her way of excusing her inflated sense of self-satisfaction.
posted by Commander Rachek at 6:00 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


What's that quote about the three levels of genius? The ordinary genius is recognized as a great thinker / artist in his or her own lifetime; the extraordinary genius is not recognized until some time after their death; but the truly transcendent genius is never recognized...

I don't know that bestselling authors are geniuses at all, by that metric.
posted by mdn at 6:05 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I work as a creative in a creative industry. There are a few tricks I employ to tease out ideas while brain storming. One I call "strangling the idea gnome." Which is really chronic and frequent masturbation. During this I also sing the Das Panzerlied and stomp my feet in time.

It's not the act itself that get ideas flowing, mind you.

It's the startled disgusted looks on the faces of the other people in the conference room.
posted by tkchrist at 6:06 PM on February 6, 2009 [8 favorites]


So I didn't read the link or most of the comments, but I think the key takeaway from all this is that I'm killing my own creativity by keeping a handheld tape recorder in my car.

no? well then I'm stumped.
posted by davejay at 6:06 PM on February 6, 2009


All this stuff about "divine sparks" and "swallowing suns" is just her way of excusing her inflated sense of self-satisfaction.

Yes, exactly.

Her first error is buying in to the pernicious myth of The Great (Wo)Man. The fact of the matter is that the big, lasting, important ideas that change the course of human affairs - things like drawing perspective or information theory - are not thanks to some lone individual's romantic quest. For most Great ideas whose history I'm familiar with, many people work on them at once and someone gets there first. Everyone else lapses in to obscurity. Sometimes someone looks in a very weird direction, but they're still standing on the shoulders of giants - and almost everyone in a field is sharing the same giants - every physics student in the world has been exposed to same big ideas.

It's hard to talk about these sorts of hypothetical, but I surely if Einstein, Pollack, or Cage hadn't done their thing, someone else with a similar background would have (in some of those cases, we know someone did, but fell a little short).

As far as the mystery of idea formation in an individual - consciousness is a very complicated thing, we know, but we don't need to resort to simplistic stories about daemons or muses. If you want to prevent the "creativity" killing effects of narciscissm, just remind your "genius" that they are a just a conduit (however effective) for the intellectual advances of civilizations.
posted by phrontist at 6:25 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


Wow, and all this time I've been using a gun or maybe an axe if I'm in the mood.
posted by uosuaq at 6:26 PM on February 6, 2009


I'm trying to think of an artist that is malnourished, bloated with parasitical infections, smells like shit and is into irrational ritual violence? GWAR?

I wouldn't call GG Allin an "artist", but...
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:32 PM on February 6, 2009


I'm so genius the article bored me.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:34 PM on February 6, 2009


There are a few types of genius... the first is all too typical in math and science, to the point where things like the Fields Medal won't acknowledge any other. They produce in a very few creative years, most often in the early twenties, and sometimes as late as the mid thirties. One or two insanely major, earth-shattering insights come to them at that point in their lives... and then they spend the rest of their lifespan, however short, as elder statesmen, men or women of insight and wisdom, but not originality and power. Einstein is their poster-child, Keats their poet.

The second type is more rare. It belongs to the crank, the eclectic and eccentric madmen and madwomen who have been accumulating and sifting through insights their entire lives, until, late in their lifespan, they manage to hit on it... the One Big Thing. Only it turns out not be one big thing, but a gradual accumulations of triumph, until the genius can no longer be ignored. Darwin is the archetype, here, and Robert Frost the poet.

The third type is the most rare of all... constant fountain of creativity, someone who was born creating, recognized early for their works, created all their lives, and died in old age with their best work yet beneath their fingertips. Bach is the exemplar, George Westinghouse their engineer, Shakespeare their poet.

That said, if you can have just one good idea in your life, something no-one has thought of before, but everyone wishes they had... then you are a genius, no matter how ordinary you might seem to others or yourself. So, keep thinking, keep dreaming, keep doing!

It may seem like a bolt from the blue, but it's actually your experience and insight, entirely yours, even when driving on the freeway without a notepad.

No-one can kill it except for you.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:37 PM on February 6, 2009 [20 favorites]


Brittany may not be a genius but she knew how to use what she had and it got her a helluva lot more radio play than your mystical artiste.

I am so weary from hearing this argument. Being a so-called genius (whatever the hell that means anyway) and getting radio play/love from the populace have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Nothing whatsoever. I feel like every time I criticize any popular music (It's my job. I'm a music theorist.), including popular music from 300 years ago, I get this argument back.

Newsflash: people also REALLY like the McRib. That doesn't make it food. (Mmm...McRib...)

And for serious, what is Britney Spears doing in this thread anyway? I agree with tkchrist:

LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE.
posted by nosila at 6:44 PM on February 6, 2009


> But the idea that Gilbert (or anyone) is a "genius" because God thinks she's special is revolting.

Oh come on now. She took the classes for above-average students at Lake Wobegon High School.
posted by ardgedee at 6:48 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ironmouth: For every Tom Waits, there are hundreds of undiscovered songwriters and musicians who are arguably better than Waits ever was.

If they're undiscovered, how do you know this? As H.L. Mencken said, "there are no mute, inglorious Miltons, save in the hallucinations of poets."
posted by jayder at 7:08 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


What makes people think of creative people as geniuses or whatever is the fact that typically the only time they encounter them is through their work -- i.e., through a very specific, filtered experience tuned to exhibit their talents. One does not typically see process or the rest of the creative person's life. If your primary experience of a person is their highly attractive creative output, it makes sense that you're going to think of them and respond to them differently than Dave in accounting. And commensurately, one consciously or unconsciously expects "more" out of them than from Dave in accounting. This isn't rocket science (and yes, there's irony in that statement).

One can argue whether this is fair or not to the creative person, but it works both ways; creative people have to be careful not to huff their own fumes and start believing that their output, which is largely the work of process, is in fact that work of genius, and therefore they are behooved to be brilliant at all times. I'm not discounting the flash of inspiration or the unexpected connection, but even those flashes of genius have to be surrounded by hours of ass in chair. The adage of "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration" is actually true. The "genuis" who forgets that -- even the very, very few who might actually be real geniuses -- probably won't be considered to be a genius forever.

Personally, I think this is all fairly silly. As a creative person, I acknowledge my early motivation for creating was not a muse, but the desire to show off and be liked; these days the desire to pay my mortgage and not get a real job also figures into it. I don't particularly worry about being brilliant in my work, since in my experience there's lots of stuff I write I think is really good that no one else likes, and stuff I think is just adequate that other people seem to think is brilliant, and so I recognize that what's "brilliant" is not up to me. What I am for is writing stuff I'd want to read and letting other people sort out the rest. And as for public perception and expectation, having a blog where people get to see me be an ass an a regular basis helps cure them of any idea that I'm brilliant all the time. This is in fact one of the benefits of an online presence.

Whoever upthread described this little talk as a reacharound to the TED audience probably got the right of it, since telling an audience of people more or less convinced of their own exceptionalism that, by golly, even the brilliant should see themselves as, and be treated just like, ordinary folks is just the sort of thing that appeals to the eager, manufactured humility of the self-important.
posted by jscalzi at 7:10 PM on February 6, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm trying to think of an artist that is malnourished, bloated with parasitical infections, smells like shit and is into irrational ritual violence

I thought we'd moved on from Amy Winehouse.

For every Tom Waits, there are hundreds of undiscovered songwriters

I know serious cave researchers who get asked "How many undiscovered caves are there?" ALL THE TIME. It seems possible geniuses are actually rare, when I take a good look around me.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:18 PM on February 6, 2009


creative

Will people people PLEASE stop nouning this adjective?
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:22 PM on February 6, 2009


So what's the big deal with Waits? Isn't he that poser guy with the "I'm so rough" voice?
posted by tarvuz at 7:23 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, as a songwriter I do think there is something to the fact that the ideas get dropped on you. I call it cowriting with God, because for me it literally is.

Usually it's a line or two or a verse or two or a melody or two, then I sit down for half a day and pound it out. But sometimes I finish a song-melody, chords and lyrics-in literally fifteen minutes. That doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

You'd be surprised how many songwriters feel as if the ideas come TO them.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:27 PM on February 6, 2009


Creativity is to a large extent subconscious. What you want to do is give your subconscious mind the right environment in which to produce ideas: Completely surround yourself with thoughts about a subject, get really into it, and then stop thinking about it and focus on something completely different (allowing your subconscious to work undistracted). Get enough sleep, because that's when your brain consolidates memories and pieces things together. And don't restrict your ideas to only really good ones. (Note: this works better if you start off a little high on the psychoticism scale.)

"If 90% of the ideas you generate aren't absolutely worthless, then you're not generating enough ideas." -Michael Artin (probably on mathematics)

"For fifteen days I strove to prove that there could not be any functions like those I have since called Fuchsian functions. I was then very ignorant; every day I seated myself at my work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results. One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions, those which come from the hypergeometric series; I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours." -Henri Poincaré
posted by parudox at 7:31 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can has edit window?
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:35 PM on February 6, 2009


Brittany may not be a genius but she knew how to use what she had and it got her a helluva lot more radio play than your mystical artiste.

I think your mistaking Britany's producer for Britany. She just reads off a lyric sheet and sings. As much as you like her, her actual contribution to the songs she sings is negligible. Her producer's a fucking genius, mystical or not. He or she writes the songs, the music, arranges it and records it. She just sings the vocals.

Some might say she adds her "personality" to the music. Hardly. Here are the solid facts--we know nothing of her personality. One of the great illusions spread by the media is that somehow we know what the famous are like as people. We have no such knowledge. Somehow we are told we know tons about people we have never met. The idea is ridiculous, yet millions believe it.

But my whole point is that this author mistakes popularity for genius and then argues that the pressure of popularity destroys genius. Hardly. The desire to make lots of money off of art and be famous is the problem that's being talked about. If these people did not seek fame, they would not be "destroyed" by our expectations.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:36 PM on February 6, 2009


Ironmouth, while I'm not claiming anything for Britney Spears, are you really saying that a singer can't be an artist unless they wrote the song?
posted by Bookhouse at 8:04 PM on February 6, 2009


Here's the thing... there are a lot of times nowadays where people who can't sing their way out of a paper bag have hit records thanks to ProTools and things like Pitch Doctor. Soooo, that's a pet peeve of mine since when I sing I'm expected to sing pitch perfect for four hours straight along with acoustic instruments. Truth is that despite their voices if Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald showed up on the scene nowadays, they wouldn't have careers so that's a bummer.

BUT, as someone who sings only covers... and most of them written prior to 1950... I do have to protest the idea that there's no genius in that. Ray Charles sang a lot of covers too, y'know. Hell, a genius vocalist can even take a simple song like Tea For Two and turn it into an unique force of nature.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:28 PM on February 6, 2009


This discussion is badly missing a historical account of the modern genius which explains how the external force of the classical genius deity was relocated into the internal capacity of the romantic genius individual. Unfortunately I don't have the academic chops to do it.
posted by doobiedoo at 8:34 PM on February 6, 2009


I think your mistaking Britany's producer for Britany.

Not at all. Lots of people would like to be in Britany's shoes, but very few are. Why is that?

Some might say she adds her "personality" to the music.

No, she adds her own style to the music. That's what every singer does.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:50 PM on February 6, 2009


Ironmouth, while I'm not claiming anything for Britney Spears, are you really saying that a singer can't be an artist unless they wrote the song?

I don't think he's saying that at all. Many singers are interpreters of others' work and have talents that transcend their lack of compositional ability. Look at Lotte Lenya or Frank Sinatra or Dionne Warwick. But they did a lot more than simply turn up at a recording session, warble a few lines and have an engineer pitch adjust and ProTool the lackluster results into something resembling coherency. Spears doesn't represent any sort of artistry, save a kind of being-famous-for-very-little-of-consequence sort of manipulation of fame. She had (or has) some beauty and, to a point, the ability to handle the rigors of fame reasonably well. I'll give her some credit for freaking out and, in a hopeless and tragic sort of way, providing evidence that there's something behind the surface - even if it is nothing really worth discovering.

I'm glad that a few people have pointed out the obvious - that Gilbert's article feels like a self-serving way of both being able to make a roundabout claim that she is a "genius" and to complain about the same. I saw an episode of Dick Cavett a few weeks ago. Bette Davis was interviewed for about 90 minutes. It was interesting; she spoke about herself in a way that was oddly personal and revealing and exceedingly frank by today's standards. And of course, she was, even then, iconic in a way that most of today's stars will never be. My feeling after seeing the show (and I knew very little about Davis), was sadness that standards have fallen so low that most people can no longer recognize basic talent, let alone "genius" or honest humanity. Hence the sad idea that Britney Spears is a media-savvy genius, not a tragic victim or foolish puppet. And it's probably also why it took a while for anyone to call out Elizabeth Gilbert - a serviceable writer with perhaps a couple of vaguely interesting ideas, at best - as a sort of ludicrously self-indulgent character presenting her feeble understanding of "genius" as Truth.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:51 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Miss Lynnster beat me to it. But I'd like to respond to Brandon Blatcher. I have, in many cases, heard demos of songs later recorded by some of the big name no-talents out there. (Who, in many cases, bolster their appearance of credibility by requesting that their name be added to compositional credits for songs for which they didn't write a single word or note.) If I were to sing over a future Britney backing track, I too would add "my own style" to the track. That wouldn't be a good thing, I assure you. Style does not equal talent, let alone artistry. But the fact of the matter is, if I warbled over the aforementioned track and let it stand, I would actually have added more "style" to the track than Britney typically does. Such is the reality of how little many artists, such as Britney, actually have to do with the "art" which carries their names.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:57 PM on February 6, 2009


Why am I reading the same words as you people, but getting totally the opposite message?

How is she conceited? The whole point of the talk is the idea that people who create may find it helpful to detach their own ego from their work; that it is not about them, and they're just conduits that the creativity - and if you're extremely lucky, moments of genius - comes though.

The "mystery fairy juice" is a fucking metaphor. It's a way of thinking of creativity as something outside of ourselves - that is all. She's not trying to convert you to the religion of mystery fairy juice. Bill Hicks says we're all one, and somehow everyone understands and is okay with it.

Genius. Some people have it, others don't. Some lose it, some won't. But this writing is gauzy tripe, and it's sad. To the extent that we kill genius, it's because genius is outside the understanding of most people; it atrophies from misunderstanding, the pains of having to explain things to people who won't get it, and the mediocre expectations which form the focus of much of the world.

How about the breathtaking arrogance in that paragraph? It's because genius is "outside the understanding of most people"? So maybe it's outside your understanding too?

I wasn't aware of how hard it is to be a bestselling author. But then again, I've never been Touched By God like Elizabeth Gilbert has. That poor woman; forced into the role of Goddess by us, the unwitting hoi polloi, locked away in her New England home, reduced practically to tears by the terrible pressure of being so smart. I feel sorry for her really.

Jesus fucking Christ. What has the poor woman done to you? What the fuck has made you so fucking bitter? How did you read that from the same article I'm reading? And it wasn't even written by her! It's someone else's report of and reaction to her talk. So she's "a conceited drain on society"? And you'd say it to her face?

She never said how smart she was. She was saying, if anything, the exact opposite. That it's not about her. And all she can do is put in the work, and hope that the creativity comes through her.
posted by Ira_ at 9:37 PM on February 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm also reminded of David Foster Wallace. I don't know why he ended his life, but I remember reading somewhere that a large part of his despair was because he could no longer write?
posted by Ira_ at 9:43 PM on February 6, 2009


So right after he gets this letter he's backstage at a concert and he sees Tom Waits. And he thinks: My God! I bet Tom Waits will know what to say to this guy, because Tom Waits is a genius. So he tells Tom Waits the whole story, and Tom says, "Oh, that's easy. Just tell him: "Again? Bitch did that to me last week! For a corpse, she really gets around!" Then see if he's so hot to trot."

Now that is a Tom Waits story.


Well, mostly. There's also: "She's hauntin' you from beyond the grave - she did it to me, she did it to you, she'll do it to the other guy. Forget about 'er!" Best advice ever; not so easy to follow (adjusted for non-necrophilic needs, of course).

Re: This article -- I like it, but with a pound or two of salt. My big problem with it is not the G-word (implicit or otherwise), but with the little-g word. The use of "genius" is really throwing it all out of whack, because that's something that sounds inherently egomaniacal (and, in her case, may well be). What's funny about that, of course, is that she's basically arguing that ego is what gets in the way of work. I'm pretty sure that's true. When I write -- and brothers and sisters, I am no fucking genius -- I have to take me out of the story. Like, I'm in the story, because it's my mindscape, whatever, but anything that smacks of self-consciousness -- that shit's gotta go. Because the person who said upthread that pressures to be larger than life are imposed by record companies, etc., is a noble artiste who hates the evil, homogenizing, zombifying forces of commerce and that's great, but s/he's also kind of full of shit, I'm afraid. The only source of pressure to perform that really counts is you, and you don't have to have achieved a goddamned thing to generate that. Actually, you may never have accomplished a goddamned thing as a result of your being so amazingly adept at generating it. I've found that the only way for me to create is to immerse myself in what I'm doing and just try for as egoless a state as I can manage without lapsing into a coma or something.

Is it easier to accomplish if you anthropomorphize your intuition? Oh, probably. In a very real way, it does seem to exist apart from our primary selves anyhow. I dunno, the whole thing sounds strikingly reminiscent of twelve-step groups' higher power; you don't have to turn it all over to God, per se, if God isn't something you believe in, but just something bigger than yourself. And you can defensive and overthink that if you want, but it's a lot easier to quit drinking and drugging if you don't. I think this is the same principle.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:46 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


"warble a few lines and have an engineer pitch adjust and ProTool the lackluster results into something resembling coherency."

Oh, God, when people say that, I think, you have no idea. It's like hearing musicians from the early '80s bitch about how synthesizers weren't real instruments.

ps. I'd rather listen to Britney than the vast majority of jazz vocalists because vocal jazz is boring and entirely unnecessary.
posted by klangklangston at 9:51 PM on February 6, 2009


MetaFilter: strangling the idea gnome.
posted by Zack_Replica at 10:08 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, God, when people say that, I think, you have no idea. It's like hearing musicians from the early '80s bitch about how synthesizers weren't real instruments.

No idea, kingklangston? Maybe so, were it not for the fact that I've been in studios and watched it myself about dozens of times, with "artists" whose names you'd recognize. I say that not because I know anything about ProTools or studio gear - I really don't - but because I've witnessed it. I work in the entertainment industry. The synthesizer argument (not one I'd ever have made myself - too silly) is a poor analogy, as it's entirely a matter of opinion, resting on one's definition of what a "real" instrument is. But many - and I stress "many" - hugely popular singers sing almost nothing on their records. And what many of them do sing is often manipulated to the point where it's unrecognizable from what was actually sung. In fact, I've heard Milli Vanilli jokes (a bit before my time here), like many of us . . . but I've also talked to plenty of A&R guys and even a music company head or two who admit that the real crime there was simply that the two members admitted to not singing on their own records at all, which was common enough the, but even more common now. (It's become more acceptable as the divide between Top 40 pop music and what some might call more "organic" music has increased . . . and technology has made it quicker, cheaper and easier as well.)
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:57 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


How about the breathtaking arrogance in that paragraph? It's because genius is "outside the understanding of most people"? So maybe it's outside your understanding too?

Yes of course, I never said otherwise. And I didn't say it out of arrogance or some self-proclaimed genius, rather because I think "genius" is by its very definition incomprehensible to most people.

Those great leaps of thought that alter the world of man yet stem from a single mind - what I'd call genius - well, they're special because they are so far from what most people understand. Even if one takes a kid's stereotypical idea of something genius - say, Einstein's Theory of Relativity - you'll see that this is true. Most people don't understand it at all . . . let alone have the ability to think about it and discern it's "genius" or not. I've learned about it and can still barely make any practical sense out of it - and most people would never go that far. That's why so many people who've produced works or thoughts or genius die poor, in misery, burned at the stake (add your cliché here) - it's because, as I said before, their work tends to be outside the understanding of most people. I'm sorry you didn't catch my meaning, but nowhere in there was there anything of "breathtaking arrogance" really.

Of course, to the extent that people can agree on genius, much of it is generally agreed upon. But typically, this is decades or centuries after the fact. I'd reckon Einstein's genius was a remarkable example simply because he lived to see it recognized.

She never said how smart she was. She was saying, if anything, the exact opposite. That it's not about her. And all she can do is put in the work, and hope that the creativity comes through her.

Sure, but . . .
The article sums up her philosophy about creativity / genius like this:

Instead of seeing the individual as a genius, we should view the brilliance as a gift from an unknowable outside source -- some might call it a muse, others a fairy or god force -- that visits us on occasion to participate in an act of creation, and then leaves to help someone else.

This is even more pompous than proclaiming oneself a genius - if she'd done that I'd at least admire her chutzpah. Oh, how we all wish we could be visited by a muse or "fairies" or "god force," who would bestow upon us their brilliant gifts! Then, as recipients of this magic, we could transmit to those great masses whom the fairy god force muses dared not approach! We would submit quietly in our mission to do humanity a favor, in our service to these higher beings!

I call bullshit on this. It's a deflection technique to be the one in "temporary" positions of gifts from He-Who-Is-Not-Tom . . . where we would hold the magic, but not be answerable to bad reviews, poor sales, distribution problems or criticism! It's cowardice, masked in the worst sort of false humility.

It makes me long for outsider geniuses like Mark E Smith of the Fall or William S Burroughs or Howard Finster, who plugged along for decades with a fuck-all, take it or leave it attitude . . . secure in their personal missions and life's work and unwilling or not bothered to try to explain it much, because that would only get in the way of doing what they do.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:56 PM on February 6, 2009


"No idea, kingklangston? Maybe so, were it not for the fact that I've been in studios and watched it myself about dozens of times, with "artists" whose names you'd recognize."

Yeah, no, either you have cloth ears or have bought into urban legends, but from having worked with engineers and seen what actually happens with mediocre singers versus hearing that myth repeated over and over again? Nope. You either didn't hear what you thought you heard, or you don't understand how sounds are shaped, or people lied to you.

And as far as not singing at all on albums? No, Milli Vanilli (or Snap) are noteworthy because they're aberrations. If magic could be done, don't you think that Paris Hilton or Katy Perry would sound better? I had an internship where we recorded Big and Rich songs at two different studios with top of the line equipment—I've seen what ProTools can do to a good voice and to a shitty voice.

But to claim that many hugely popular singers—of which there are how many, 30 who are name singers, not with a band, on the charts in a year—to claim that many of them sing next to nothing is absurd, unless you have either a very different sample set or a very different definition of next to nothing.

Seriously, it's like hearing someone claim that magazine covers look nothing like the people they portray—no, you don't understand studio photography. Good makeup, lighting and retouching can make anyone look well above average, just like pitch correction (and when people complain about ProTools, that's what they mean—no one thinks non-linear multi-track editing is cheating, really) can make average singers sound pretty good. But hell, a well-designed studio can get a huge amount of resonance out of even a crummy singer. Anyone who's ever sung in the shower knows that.
posted by klangklangston at 12:02 AM on February 7, 2009


As people have noted, I didn't so much get that EG was casting herself in the genius light.

"Just do your job," she told the audience. "Continue to show up for your piece of it. If your job is to dance, then do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment for your efforts, then Ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow. Ole to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up."

Dunno how much I buy into the "divine, cockeyed genius" thought. Reads like a potential excuse or something in that direction. With things that can be measured or otherwise, it seemingly sets up a prospect of, "Well, Person A accomplished more than Person B because Person A's divine, cockeyed genius was better and/or showed up more often."

In the general sense, this comes across as another person having another go at explaining anomolies. In a country of about 300 million, if a person is one in a million relative to creativity or otherwise, there will be 300 of them. If one in 100 million efforts--at painting, writing a song, writing a book, an athletic endeavor, science/math endeavor--produces something exceptional by measurable standards or otherwise, arguably transcendent, there will be a bunch of them.

How and why it happens? Good question, though the people have have reached unusual levels of accomplishment, in moments or otherwise, have spoken along the lines of "don't think, do," though it seems unfailingly that the "do" comes after considerable basic effort has been put forth. I've read auto racers speaking of this and I've read authors speaking of this.

Striking to have long especially enjoyed a written passage in a book and what I later learned of it. Said author never said much regarding his process/muse/inspiration, did relate a serious reluctance to discuss what he thought was his best work. He felt it was not for him to say, that it was a steep, slippery slope to an uncomfortably egotistical place. He did add, though, that there was one part of one book--and he wrote several--which he could say, "I do think that's damn good."

That'd be the passage that resonated for me, and for a lot of people I've met.

In writing the passage, about something specific that tied into broader thoughts, he came home from the experience he wrote about, sat down cold (literally), typed and it was done at his WPM speed. Straight off the top of his head.

Straight off the top of his head after years of writing, self-editing, working with editors formally and otherwise, reading a ton of diverse authors and types of writing.
posted by ambient2 at 12:45 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


The sterotype of a genius who waits til an idea strikes him is quite rare indeed. It just doesn't work that way....and anyone who has done heavy duty creative thinking, in an field, realizes this.

Or to put it in the words of of screenwriter Somerset Maugham "I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp."

So "geniuses" become such because they sit down every day and do the work, with enough control to throw out the 99% of crap that comes out and find the gems.

That said, what kills geniuses today is not peer pressure. It's a culture of instant gratification. And its a double edged sword; not only will we produce less geniuses as our attention span decreases, but our ability to recognize genius and cultivate it will decrease as well.
posted by The3rdMan at 12:46 AM on February 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


"To make the occupation effective, the ambiguities attaching to the word must be cleared away and its proper meaning brought to light. The proper meaning of a word (I speak not of technical terms, which kindly godparents furnish soon after birth with neat and tidy definition, but of words in a living language) is never something upon which the word sits perched like a gull on a stone; it is something over which the word hovers like a gull over a ship's stern. Trying to fix the proper meaning in our minds is like coaxing the gull to settle in the rigging, with the rule that the gull must be alive when it settles: one must not shoot it and tie it there. The way to discover the proper meaning is to ask not 'What do we mean?' but 'What are trying to mean?' And this involves the question 'What is preventing us from meaning what we are trying to mean?' " R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, Section 5. Systematic Ambiguity.

The problem is even greater in the case of 'genius'. Genius is one of those concepts that you might never be able to settle, not because all known examples of genius cannot be explained (and maybe even with a unified theory), but because there is considerable motivation within the linguistic community not to explain it. This is partly because it is tied up with creativity, and if you give rules for creativity then the creative response is to change what counts as creative. Moreover this is a term for the highest kind of human being we can imagine. Just how many limits do you want to put on that??

Personally I don't want my geniuses to be gods, but simultaneously transcendant and mired in the mud of ordinary human struggle.

I call these concepts (art, creativity, genius) that resist definition 'antipatterns'. The best thing you can do is point at the history and sort-of cordon off an area and say it's in there somewhere. I also have this crazy hypothesis that irrational numbers (e.g. pi) and the sequence of primes are also antipatterns. Maybe someday I'll prove it, since after all, I am a genius.
posted by leibniz at 1:50 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


This reads like a sub-Gladwellian exercise in stating the obvious. Any culture sufficiently advanced to support a creative class can and should recognize the Capricious Muse as part of the process, and allow artists and scientists the space to succeed or fail on their own terms.

Much more worrying is the fact that we seem to have moved beyond that. Our innovative capacity as human beings has been devalued to the extent that a relative mediocrity can get up at a conference, spout something so incredibly trite and self-evident about the creative process, and achieve a standing ovation.

If anything is killing genius, I'll wager it's the notion that anyone can achieve it with a laptop and a few good ideas. In other words, if this is how we perceive genius, then we should be raising the bar.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 5:46 AM on February 7, 2009


Unfortunately for those "stars" whose work consists mainly of singing work written by others and who are hyped merely for their good looks and voice, there will be little work or sales for them

Unfortunately for the small-DIY artists, there will be little work or sales for them either.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 6:42 AM on February 7, 2009


I've experienced both sides of this...

About two years ago, I was idly watching a puff news piece about a group in the East Village holding a little rally commemorating the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The entire news mention couldn't have been more than 45 seconds long. But sometime during that 45 seconds, I suddenly sat bold upright because the complete plot of a 10-minute play featuring a 100-year-old survivor of Triangle scolding people about modern-day sweatshops had just injected itself somehow into my brain. I scrambled to my computer to start writing it, spent the next few weeks polishing it, and it got produced a few months later; and damn, I'm proud of it. It may never get produced again, and it's not perfect, but there's some damn good stuff in there -- and I honestly don't know what part of my brain was working, or even IF it was a part of my brain, when I wrote it.

Because the REST of my writing is actually fairly mundane non-fiction. And THAT work, I produce by doing my homework and reading and studying and plotting and explaining. It's blog posts on history, and reviews of theater, and educational articles on a variety of topics. There is very little clear and direct evidence of any kind of a "muse" in evidence; maybe some little flash of inspiration will let me see how to connect two pieces of information, but I'm the one that did the research to find those two pieces of information in the first place.

at the end of the day, though, both cases required a good deal of me sitting and editing and rewriting and cutting and re-wording and polishing and...you know. And I think that's ultimately the point -- do the damn work, because that's the only way the work will get done. Sometimes you may get very, very lucky and things will fall into place because you've gotten an Idea from some weird unknown corner of your subconscious; but even when that happens, you've got to be sure that Idea can be given to the rest of the world in a form that they can understand, so you've still got to do the work. And if you don't get an Idea that way, well, that just means you have to look somewhere else for it. But the work has to happen no matter what, and that's all there is to it.

I actually like something Stephen King once said about talent and writing a lot better -- he says that if you wrote something, and someone paid you for it, the check did not bounce, and the amount of money they paid you was enough for you to pay a utility bill, then you can officially consider yourself talented.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:06 AM on February 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


First: nothing Gilbert is saying is remotely new, though some of her examples are interesting. If people applaud that, it's because they haven't been paying attention.

Second: If Gilbert's lain with Calliope, then the muse is sullied beyond repair. I mean, come on, if we're seriously going to take 'Eat, Pray, Love' and 'The Last American Man' type dreck as examples of genius then I'm going to get my CPA.
posted by Football Bat at 8:07 AM on February 7, 2009


Christ, no one's answering my radio for a philosophical air strike and we've got material positivism matching wits with confidence intervals, flanked by all manner of cognitive neurology and protestant work ethic and the guerilla anecdotalising bringing up the rear, what a mess.

It's telling that our current notion of creativity and genius hasn't departed a great deal from the romantic reconception of it in the 18th century, this was the historical turning point when the external force of genius as spiritual deity was relocated in the internal capacity of the romantic individual, gifted with extraordinary artistic sensitivity and therefore entrusted to maintain cultural integrity. This idea of individual power and all the contradictions it entails (as variously mentioned above, any moment of greatness can be seen as the distillation of many centuries of accumulated, anonymous contributions and the genius is as much a chance historical cypher as a brilliant overcoming) has stayed with us since.

In fact the idea of freely composing conceptual ideas before giving them concrete expression only makes sense when cultural material has been radically objectified, seen as a body of knowledge, possessing a truth in its own right and detached from the concrete context which gives it meaning and orientation in the first place (consider that previous to the enlightenment the creation and reception of art was inseparable from the various human and divine institutions of power and worship or the occasions for their celebration, there was no such thing as neutral museum space). It's no coincidence that this view of culture coincides with the growing power of scientific explanation, both take their cues from the Stoic conflation of moral and natural reality which were seen to share in the same essence or being by virtue of a universal reason expressed through unchanging laws. The familiarity of this expression comes purely from our own history of Modernity, up until the enlightenment the relationship between moral and natural reality was better understood as a reciprocity so that nature held the capacity for moral understanding, developed as a continuous interpretation of tradition as a permanent receptacle of change.

What the enlightenment does is to combine the historical anxiety/consciousness of the Renaissance with the Stoic idea of a lawful reality such that the performance of these moral laws generates the body of knowledge which it is the job of the individual genius's (now equally detached) radical subjectivity to channel. Cultural integrity is held to rest in ever more sophisticated subjective interpretation of conceptual material rather than in forms of life that participate in truth as open tension between the always changing present and the stability of the past.

And that's my hatchet job on the history of genius.
posted by doobiedoo at 8:20 AM on February 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


If anyone doesn't believe "merely" singing can be an expression of genius, you have no musical awareness. Or does the name "Ella Fitzgerald" mean nothing to you?
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:07 AM on February 7, 2009


Clearly, I am biased to believe that no matter what Tom Waits does, it's genius, but that's just me.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:06 AM on February 7, 2009


Sounds like the entity theory I vaguely recall learning about in a class on the Psychology of Intelligence. Some folks think you either got it or don't, and some believe talent is actually the product of hard work. So somewhere in the Renaissance, we moved to an entity theory of talent (actually by ending the belief in an outside inspirational entity). I would argue that geniuses were tormented before that, though. "Make it rain again or we sacrifice you!"
posted by Eideteker at 10:07 AM on February 7, 2009


If anyone doesn't believe "merely" singing can be an expression of genius, you have no musical awareness. Or does the name "Ella Fitzgerald" mean nothing to you?

What Ella did was great, but not genius. For me genius must involve original creation. The fact you do not share my opinion does not mean that I therefore lack "musical awareness," unless of course "musical awareness" means disagreeing with you. If you wish to make a case that singing another's works can make you a "genius" support it logically without throwing out a name as an argument. How is genius associated with performing another's work? One can surely be great, a titan even, performing another's work, but not a "genius."
posted by Ironmouth at 10:11 AM on February 7, 2009


Not at all. Lots of people would like to be in Britany's shoes, but very few are. Why is that?

There are two reasons.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:16 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's a reason why pop music is popular and it has nothing to do with whether a person writes they songs they sing.

Its called "Marketing."
posted by Ironmouth at 10:21 AM on February 7, 2009


Yeah, no, this is one of those times where even though it's an appeal to authority and one I disagree with (genius is subjective, m'thinks), the idea behind it is right. First off, not only does vocal jazz like Fitzgerald's involve a fair amount of improvisation (hence creation), but it's silly to argue that genius is found only in some Platonic form of writing but not performing. That would mean that folks like, say, Waits (though I'd grouse about him being over-rated too) were only genius when sitting down and inventing the new works, but not genius in performing. There's myriad Motown to argue against there too, and that's especially noticeable because they often had multiple artists perform the same song. Likewise, say, the White Stripes cover of Jolene—Jack White's ability to coax emotion out of a song clearly not written for him is genius just as much as Dolly Parton's writing of Jolene was.

I think when the only real defense you have for your argument is etymological, it's time to reevaluate.
posted by klangklangston at 10:33 AM on February 7, 2009


I think when the only real defense you have for your argument is etymological, it's time to reevaluate.

When a self-acknowledged logical fallacy is the only real defense you have for your argument, its time to reevaluate.

Seriously, skat singers being the only possible exception, there's no case for genius where there is no creation. How could there be? Its like that scene in Anchorman: Ron Burgundy where Steve Carrell's stupid character's response to a definiton of love is to say "I love carpet" and "I love lamp." You start to apply it to everything.

Genis requires creation.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:54 AM on February 7, 2009


I like the idea many posters have kicked around (and, I suppose, Gilbert as well) that half the battle of being a creative person who makes stuff that matters is, well, consistently showing up. I still hold that "genius", or those "inspiration", from my viewpoint, requires that one also get out and actually be a person who has rich, varied experience and a real life. But the "sit down at 9 am every day and be a disciplined person who follows through" portion of the equation also makes a lot of sense, especially when you produce creative work for a living and need to do it consistently. I hope I'm not repeating any previous responses when I note Thomas Edison's sentiment that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. (Cliche, sure, but maybe true.)

Also, as a side note, I'm going to echo a previous poster who disliked the nouning of the adjective "creative". Yes, I understand why that's become popularized, but to me, it's not only mildly snooty, but it trivializes the creativity that can--and should--be possible in any occupation that basically falls outside writing/technological/design disciplines.

I'm a librarian who also works in art and crafts on my own time. Do those creative pursuits, and my educational training in thinking as an artist and designer, inform the way I approach my field and the many facets of research/innovative public programming and service/web projects/problem-solving it involves? Absolutely. As a librarian, am I a "creative"? Theoretically not. It's a small thing, and I don't mean to nitpick, but I think that the formation of a creative class as a category that necessarily excludes many other occupations might be misguided, and might do a disservice to those outside of traditionally "creative" fields which, frankly, could often benefit from more creative thinking. And that, by extension, does a disservice to the public served by those other disciplines. Okay, ramble over. Back to regularly scheduled programming.
posted by sarabeth at 10:57 AM on February 7, 2009


(Sorry, that should have been "those moments of inspiration". Clearly, my editing fails.)
posted by sarabeth at 10:58 AM on February 7, 2009


Also, in support of a "creative class" being a concept that may (counterproductively) ostracize other disciplines, I would like to cite the up-and-coming, pretty important fields of information design and curriculum design for institutions of higher education. Both directly integrate creative thought processes and problem-solving techniques to develop effective communication tools that connect "author" and "audience", much like any other creative discipline, but don't neatly fall into the same box, necessarily. I think the proliferation of interdisciplinary creativity right now is pretty exciting, so it frustrates me a little bit to hear "creativity" being set apart as the sole province of a select few.

Okay, I am really done now. /runs
posted by sarabeth at 11:07 AM on February 7, 2009


What Ella did was great, but not genius. For me genius must involve original creation. The fact you do not share my opinion does not mean that I therefore lack "musical awareness," unless of course "musical awareness" means disagreeing with you. If you wish to make a case that singing another's works can make you a "genius" support it logically without throwing out a name as an argument. How is genius associated with performing another's work? One can surely be great, a titan even, performing another's work, but not a "genius."

Ironmouth, with all due respect... your arguments are making you appear to be someone who has very little actual experience with or understanding of creative genius, musical or otherwise, which when present can rarely be globally limited by such rigid definitions as yours. Leastwise not if someone is really paying attention and fully aware of how far what they are observing expands beyond the norm of what other human beings are capable of when doing their best at the exact same action.

Do you feel there's something you're a genius at? I'm curious because I'm wondering if that might help me to understand the different perspective your command of this topic is coming from.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:15 AM on February 7, 2009


I also think that the dichotomy between performance and creation has not been fully explored in this debate. Except for jazz and a few other improvisational genres, what the listener experiences is performance. People didn't stand around oohing and aahing at Michangelo carving David. Instead they looked at the final product.

My experience of music is more as a creator than a listener. Yes, I listen all of the time, but I play and practice more. My interest is therefore more in the content than in the performance.

Although performances can be great, content is what makes something last, that makes Jack White cover Jolene. It is Dolly's song. Likewise what made the Beatles great and geniuses is that they created something so lasting that others are still reacting to it creatively, either by copying it or avoiding it altogether.

Occasionally, a performance can stray so far from the original to be a creation in itself. But that is very, very rare.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:23 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, I wanted to add... if you don't realize that jazz is mostly improvisation and thus every note is a creation, you're missing the whole point. A song chart is a blueprint. For jazz we write down the chord structure and time signature on a chart and THAT'S IT. There's an implied melody written by the composer that you can follow for the first chorus but then YOU MAKE IT UP. You hear what the bassist is doing, he hears what the drummer is doing, the pianist hears what the vocalist is doing and IT'S ALWAYS DIFFERENT. I couldn't sing a song the same way twice if I tried, it's not what I do.

Let's say you're doing a song... Embraceable You for example. Now if someone is just getting onstage without being a professional they might just jump right into it. Just copying what they heard, right?

THAT'S NOT HOW IT'S DONE BY JAZZ MUSICIANS. When I approach that song I think this: "Should you do it as a ballad? A waltz? Swing it? A samba? In 1/8 time? Blues? Start it out rubato and then go into time in the second 8? Should I do a tag end or ritard it and then vamp out? Which words should I really emphasize to tell the story or should I scat through it and focus on melody? Maybe there could be a bass vocal duet in the beginning and then I'll call the instruments in one by one as I solo with each. Maybe I'll trade fifths and copy what they're doing." But here's the thing... when someone is a genius like Ella... the people watching her don't know any of that stuff is going through her mind or the mind of anyone else on stage. You just watch her and think "Oh, she's just doing something easy." She's up there and it's what she's doing appears pure and simple and the work it took to get there is totally invisible.

In my mind, THAT'S where true genius lies. Making complex and difficult things look insanely easy. It's a trick.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:25 AM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I shouldn't have said "without being a professional." There are a lot of professional musicians who can't do covers. Case in point: most people who cover Dolly Parton.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:34 AM on February 7, 2009


Miss Lynnster:

I am a genius at nothing. But there are some I know who I consider geniuses who are unrecognized. They are musicians.

Personally, I am a songwriter. I wouldn't self apply musician to myself, given the prowess of my lead player. But I write the majority of songs for my band, music and words, so I have a lot of creative experience. I would never class my work as genius, however, becase I haven't got to the point where what I'm doing is really expressing what I want it to. I don't expect to ever get there either, and that's fine with me--I don't have enough talent or luck and I don't have the drive or time to do it even if I did. I do have fun.

But genius must be more than "doing something better than everybody else." Otherwise, it is merely a synonym for "great" To me it means the ability to create original works so powerful that others must react to it in their own creations.

The problem is that so much of what is called genius is really proximity to capital, especially in music. In the modern era, especially in music, commercial success has been the main criteria of artistic worth. Thus, control of the ability to record and distribute music has traditionally been the main ingredient in who gets to be a genius and who doesn't. Often, things that have nothing to do with the quality of the music have nothing to do with success.

That's why the article and talk linked to above was so dumb in my mind. It basically posited that a major problem of genius was that the pressure of commercial success was making it hard to create again--that is only true if your goal has been commercial success. If that's the case, you were never looking for genius in the first place.

I'm looking forward to a new era in music where technology allows DIY recording and distribution, and public tastes will be able to range free, instead of being constricted by the requirements of capital, where the Godspeed You! Black Emperors of the world are widely available and I don't have to hunt for their records.

You have to look at the history of the Billboard Charts to get an idea of what I'm talking about. Originally, the method for determining which was the top songs and albums came from quizzing DJs and record store clerks. The system was ripe for abuse and it was abused with the famous "payola" scandals. However, as computers became more prevalent, Billboard changed their methodology and measured actual sales, bubblegum pop dropped preciptously on the charts and it turned out more original artists had been selling more records the whole time.

In short, I feel that genius must involve creativity or it becomes a synonym for "great." It is more than that.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:07 PM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


All I have to say is thanks, Ironmouth. You inspired me.

Yay for creativity.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:17 PM on February 7, 2009


I do agree with you on Jazz. Its a music that involves creativity and creation every time (although it can get stale night after night I suspect. But my beef was with Britney and that whole thing, not jazz. Indeed, I think my arguments support the idea that there are jazz greats who have no commercial success at all but who are geniuses.

So much of the reaction hasn't been so much engaging my point which is that genius isn't greatness per se, but greatness and originality in creation, but more defending specific styles of music and performances. That's not my point.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:19 PM on February 7, 2009


Miss Lynster,

I think I pretty much excepted jazz singers from my creation comment. You are included in that category, no?

Obviously, one can sing someone else's work in an exciting and new way. I guess I believe interpretation can be great, but genius? I don't feel that way. I'm sorry. I certainly don't mean to insult you personally. You've always seemed quite nice.

The reason I didn't bring my own creativity into it was because I didn't want to get into individual territory defense. I assumed that Britney didn't post here, so I felt it was ok to bring her up as someone who I felt added very little to the creative process for which she gets tons of credit. All of that was in larger service to my main point, which remains that the point advanced by the author of Eat, Pray, Love was wrong--and that she misidentifies her desire to remain popular as a problem of the world killing genius.

I will listen to your version of "Should I Stay or Should I Go" when I get home (all of this typing on a Blackberry!). I'm certain it is going to be great.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:38 PM on February 7, 2009


99% of jazz musicians have no commercial success, that's the nature of the business. You were not focusing on Britney, what brought me into this conversation was when you began making pompous blanket statements about Ella Fitzgerald's lack of creativity.

Anyhow, since it doesn't matter if we agree, I chose to focus my energy on having fun on a Saturday afternoon and creating something musical instead of arguing with your myopic points.

And it was fun.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:41 PM on February 7, 2009


I never said she wasn't creative. I said she wasn't originally creative. Where she is not making up her own lyrics or doing skat singing (which is improvisonational composing) she is interpreting the work of another. I agree jazz is an exception, however, where the relationship to the original creation is nowhere near as strong as the additional creative product added to the song to make it not derivative or mere interpretation. But my point is that these cases are rare, indeed, with jazz being the exception which proves the rule. A few more exceptions can be noted--classical pieces and variations based on folk tunes. But the genius composers had fully non-interpretive pieces too and it is upon those works which their level of genius.

If someone could explain why they think interpretation of another's original work could be genius, it would help me immensely.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:55 PM on February 7, 2009


What kind of muses do atheist poets have to call upon?

Oh, the same ones. The worst thing you can tell a poet is that it, the source of stuff, comes from within. The cultural internalisation of creative agency has the potential to fuck things up in all manner of ways, as most American poets of the tranquilized Fifties demonstrate.
posted by holgate at 1:52 PM on February 7, 2009


Someone asked Vonnegut in an interview once "Why do you write?" to which he responded "I can't not write."

Not write? But then I think,
And for my soul I cannot sleep a wink.
posted by holgate at 1:54 PM on February 7, 2009


Tenacious D in "The Search For Inspirado"
posted by Hat Maui at 2:24 PM on February 7, 2009


and then "Kyle Quits The Band"
posted by Hat Maui at 2:26 PM on February 7, 2009


I never said she wasn't creative. I said she wasn't originally creative. Where she is not making up her own lyrics or doing skat singing (which is improvisonational composing) she is interpreting the work of another.

Uh, you know Shakespeare didn't create most of his own plots, right?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 2:50 PM on February 7, 2009


"When a self-acknowledged logical fallacy is the only real defense you have for your argument, its time to reevaluate.

Seriously, skat singers being the only possible exception, there's no case for genius where there is no creation. How could there be? Its like that scene in Anchorman: Ron Burgundy where Steve Carrell's stupid character's response to a definiton of love is to say "I love carpet" and "I love lamp." You start to apply it to everything.

Genis requires creation.
"

What logical fallacy?

And no, you're defining "creation" wrong. "Respect" wasn't Aretha Franklin's song, but she owned it. She created an experience that's forever identified with her, and that's genius.

Seriously, it's like arguing that no virtuoso classical instrumentalist is a genius, that there are no genius directors, that there are no genius actors. That's a) far afield from actual usage (which is why I dinged on etymology), and b) stupidly limited. It's like saying that there are no genius authors except those who create neologisms.
posted by klangklangston at 2:59 PM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Personally, I am a songwriter.

No point arguing, folks. Songwriters believe that their precious songs, as written, are original, and anyone who performs them is just interpreting (and usually badly). How can a songwriter understand the creativity of performance? It's a different universe.
posted by languagehat at 3:40 PM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


What logical fallacy?

Appeal to authority. You said you were doing it.

Seriously, I just think we have different ideas about what genius is. I apply it rarely and to me it means having the ability to create something so original that it alters the course of things.

For you all, it apparently means great. I think Aretha is great, one of the best, but a genius? No. Einstein, Newton, Cervantes, Coletrain, Dylan, Liebnitz, Plato, Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Mozart, etc. were all geniuses. Original, paradigm-shifting, nothing was the same after they did what they did.

That is genius to me.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:43 PM on February 7, 2009


I'm glad that a few people have pointed out the obvious - that Gilbert's article feels like a self-serving way of

It's. Not. Gilbert's article.

It's an article by a "Kim Zetter", reporting her experience of Gilbert's talk. Reading this thread actually made me enable all the scripts on the page and check again all over the page for a video of the talk, thinking I must've missed it. Because why else would anyone make such personal attacks on Gilbert as calling her "a sort of ludicrously self-indulgent character presenting her feeble understanding of 'genius' as Truth" and "a conceited drain on society", right? They must have more to base on than this article of a few quotes?


because I think "genius" is by its very definition incomprehensible to most people.

Those great leaps of thought that alter the world of man yet stem from a single mind - what I'd call genius - well, they're special because they are so far from what most people understand.


and yet

It makes me long for outsider geniuses like Mark E Smith of the Fall or William S Burroughs

They seem to be comprehensible to quite a few people as far as I know? I thought they are quite influential and loved?


That's why so many people who've produced works or thoughts or genius die poor, in misery, burned at the stake (add your cliché here) - it's because, as I said before, their work tends to be outside the understanding of most people.

I'm going to part tongue-in-cheek but also part seriously suggest that the idea Gilbert is suggesting is genius that you're not understanding. Tends to be outside the understanding of most people, right?


The article sums up her philosophy about creativity / genius like this:

Instead of seeing the individual as a genius, we should view the brilliance as a gift from an unknowable outside source -- some might call it a muse, others a fairy or god force -- that visits us on occasion to participate in an act of creation, and then leaves to help someone else.

This is even more pompous than proclaiming oneself a genius - if she'd done that I'd at least admire her chutzpah. Oh, how we all wish we could be visited by a muse or "fairies" or "god force," who would bestow upon us their brilliant gifts! Then, as recipients of this magic, we could transmit to those great masses whom the fairy god force muses dared not approach! We would submit quietly in our mission to do humanity a favor, in our service to these higher beings!


You are reading pompousness, I assume, because somehow you think she is proclaiming it as Truth. She is suggesting an idea. A way of thinking about things that allow artists to let go of their egos. I'm an agnostic who doesn't believe in the supernatural - but everything she says makes sense to me because I recognise the spirit of what she's saying - that it's helpful to think we serve "genius".

(I also find it interesting that Tom Waits, if her story is true, believes in the same thing - and yet nobody is calling him out on it.)


Is Einstein a good person for coming up with the Theory of Relativity? No. Did Einstein come up with the Theory of Relativity because he worked harder at it than any other physicist? I don't think so. Did Einstein come up with it because he's genetically superior than all other physicists? I don't think so either.

I'm going to say genius touched him. Does that bug you? It's a metaphor - a way of accepting that essentially it's a combination of as yet unknowable factors. It's mostly a combination of factors he had no control over, in addition to his own interest and work.

Gilbert's idea is something I really think is a healthy way of thinking about creativity because it acknowledges that, and separates the person from the work.


I call bullshit on this. It's a deflection technique to be the one in "temporary" positions of gifts from He-Who-Is-Not-Tom . . . where we would hold the magic, but not be answerable to bad reviews, poor sales, distribution problems or criticism! It's cowardice, masked in the worst sort of false humility.

Cowardice? It's not a war. It's not a fight. Nor a competition. (Unless you want fame and fortune, in which case it's a limited market out there.)

I don't know a lot about Buddhism, but is it not similar to the Buddhist idea of detachment of self from the ego? Or do you think they are cowards as well?


The ideas in the article really made sense to me - it's essentially conclusions I've come to myself after struggling for years with being creative. I believe it is a helpful way of looking at things because for the creative person, it removes the ego from the creative work, and makes it easier to both achieve flow/work without self-consciousness, and detach from the expectation that they should always produce work to the same high standard, which can be suffocating. I've spoken to enough people and read enough about creativity to know that this is a common problem - which is why I'm so surprised at much of the reaction in this thread, which not only doesn't recognise but wildly distorts what she is saying.

People who are creative have to work within a society that treats them like they're all on a tv talent show, with every critic eager to be Simon Cowell coming up with the next witty, devastating put-down of their hard work. I'm sick of this society that would call someone who is trying to share her experience and encourage creativity "a relative mediocrity". The lucky ones eventually learn not to care, or to find some distance from this mentality - the others, we just lose. I'm sick of so many people I talk to who tell me they love to write, and then when I ask them if they've ever shown their writing to anyone, lower their heads and tell me no. This is how we kill geniuses. Because most geniuses are not born that way - it takes practice and mistakes and growth and luck and a lot of time. But many potential geniuses, we may never hear from - because they are shamed for daring to try. She's trying to help people, to encourage them to try, to keep putting in the work, and not base their self-worth on it. I imagine the people in the audience understood that.
posted by Ira_ at 3:52 PM on February 7, 2009


Coletrain...

Oh, so you think John ColTRANE is a genius?

Huh. You do know he played mostly cover tunes, right?

So let me ask you this... do you believe that Coltrane's music was made up of chord progressions that had never been used before? Because I hate to tell you... many other people played those changes for decades before. He was just interpreting, which by your argument wouldn't be creative. By your argument, the only genius in jazz would've been the first person to play the 3-6-2-5-1 chord progression that makes up the basis of the entire form... or the person who first played an 8 bar blues scale... not the people who mastered and interpreted the form according to their own individuality and expanded it into an art form of their own making.

If Coltrane is a genius solely based on the way he played his instrument, then how are vocalists less so when they're simply using their body as an instrument instead of a purchased horn? If anything, their talent is even more God given -- most people can master a musical instrument with concerted effort and experience, but a singing voice is something you're either born with access to or you will never have. A singing voice can't *ever* be purchased.

Honestly... I'm sorry Ironmouth, but some of your "points" are so ridiculous they make me want to shake you silly.
posted by miss lynnster at 4:52 PM on February 7, 2009


Although performances can be great, content is what makes something last, that makes Jack White cover Jolene. It is Dolly's song.

It was Dolly's song. Or Dolly and Jack share it. Or it's Jack's song for a new generation. However you want to define it, he cover of it is genius, much like Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt." That they didn't originally create the song is blatantly obvious, but similar to how Picasso didn't create bike seat or handle bars, but reinterpreted them into something else, so can a musician cover a song.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:10 PM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sorry about the mispelling.

I thought I went over jazz already and how so much is added to the original it becomes totally transformed. Like all jazz musicians, Coltrane improvised his melody lines. The chord progression isn't really critical to what makes the music great and original.

Seriously, I don't understand why I can't have my opinion on this. I disagree with you, obviously. But I apply genius more sparingly than you. And I apply it in the sense that very original creation must be involved. Obviously, you don't like that--but why must your definition apply? The very word implies deep, original creation--gen to generate, clan, origin, to create.

Just being really good at something just doesn't cut it for me. Why is it so ridiculous for me to feel this way. I see a lot of examples of people who you consider geniuses, but no explanation why my definition must be wrong.

As for the earlier discssions of directors and actors, I can see some directors who write their own material being geniuses. But there must be transformation that constitutes a really new thing. Thus, Apocalypse Now is a work of genius because the only thing really in common with Conrad's Heart of Darkness is going up a river to get a guy named Kurtz and a theme of civilization v.barbarism. The rest is new, the characters, the scenes, everything.

What I want to know is why genius should not require the type of creativity and not just interpretation. Merely setting up straw men (the only original jazz musician is the one who invented the first primary jazz progression (that's not the only one BTW)) isn't enough. I never said those things. Why is my definition of genius wrong? The fact that it does not include some disciplines you would like to see included isn't an argument why it is wrong to feel as I do. Because I see the word as meaning more than just "really, really good at performing." Indeed, some geniuses are probably not the best performers of their own work. Some (not me) would argue Dylan is not the best performer of his own work. This does not mean he is any less of a genius. His lyrics combined with his lyrical line alone are so good and revolutionary to make him a genius.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:39 PM on February 7, 2009


Regardless of what anyone thinks about Elizabeth Gilbert, I think to some extent pressure is exerted on people in terms of whether they'll ever be able to "top themselves." I would argue that those people often internalize the talk of critics and the public and develop a lot of insecurity- and that the pressure they put on themselves in turn is much more than any the audience would ever put on them. And while we might not care if Elizabeth Gilbert writes anything else, we wonder why Harper Lee never did.
posted by questionsandanchors at 8:08 PM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Thus, Apocalypse Now is a work of genius because the only thing really in common with Conrad's Heart of Darkness is going up a river to get a guy named Kurtz and a theme of civilization v.barbarism. The rest is new, the characters, the scenes, everything."

Right, but Coppola didn't write all that. Further, if you listen to, say, Leonard Cohen's version of Hallelujah, versus John Cale's or (though I don't like it, many do) Jeff Buckley's performance, there is a wild transformation in the work. Or, to knock on your example, Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." That you can't see the genius of performance is the same transformation you're arguing above is bizarre.

If you want to argue that transformation and innovation are the metric of genius, then you have to admit that the transformative power of performance and the innovation of performance technique are valid grounds to argue genius for performers. Arguments that it is not substantial enough can be dismissed either as subjective or based on ignorance.

As to why you can't just have your opinion—well, yeah, you can. But if you share your opinion, expect disagreement, especially if you express it vehemently.
posted by klangklangston at 8:19 PM on February 7, 2009


You can have your opinions and that's fine. But the points I was making about jazz actually expand to other forms of music.

My issue with you is that blanket statements are unacceptable when it comes to judging creativity. It's the antithesis of what creative pursuit is about. You appear to be stuck in your views only seeing things from the perspective of a songwriter, so that's what I'm responding to. True genius is just so much bigger and far less limited than that.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:27 PM on February 7, 2009


I wrote: It makes me long for outsider geniuses like Mark E Smith of the Fall or William S Burroughs

They seem to be comprehensible to quite a few people as far as I know? I thought they are quite influential and loved?

Well, within limits. I named them specifically because they're not totally obscure, so any reasonably knowledgeable person would know what I meant. But even twenty years after writing his most important work, Burroughs couldn't pay his bills with any assurance. Mark E Smith's never been wealthy. Both are recognized largely within small circles, relative to the population. Their work sells consistently enough to remain in print (mostly), but in fewer copies per year than you'd think.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha had moments of genius, for sure, although she didn't compose any of them. "Respect" is an Otis Redding song that was pretty hot stuff in the original. Aretha's version reflected important issues of its time - the changing place of African-Americans and women - in a way that's not even hinted at in Redding's original take - which is kind of a "hey woman, I work all day, could you at least have dinner on the table when I walk in?" uptempo rant. Aretha infused the song with a context and meaning that wasn't there before, and was almost the opposite of what the song originally said. Aretha displayed this genius of contextualization more then once - so you can rule out "fortunate accident" as the explanation! (Don't even get me going on her "Spanish Harlem," another well-known cover she "owned.") Ask anyone who was around and musically astute at the time, and they'll tell you that Aretha was paradigm-shifting, too, and nothing was the same after her, either. You can trace her influence to a lot of crap that exists today, which might be what colors your view so negatively (and inaccurately) . . . but like many brilliant artists, a lot of her genius and originality became so fully incorporated into so many things that it's hard to discern it as distinct any longer. It's worth noting that most of the few people who can claim to have worked with Aretha and a lot of other geniuses in music - Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, Ray Charles - hold Aretha up, to a person, as the definition of 20th century musical genius.

If Coltrane is a genius solely based on the way he played his instrument, then how are vocalists less so when they're simply using their body as an instrument instead of a purchased horn? If anything, their talent is even more God given -- most people can master a musical instrument with concerted effort and experience, but a singing voice is something you're either born with access to or you will never have. A singing voice can't *ever* be purchased.

Right on, and lovely. This has a lot to do with what I meant when I originally said that many people just don't have the ability to recognize genius. When people can't even realize the potential for genius to exist within certain contexts, they'll certainly never see it when it does.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:14 PM on February 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I wanted to add... you can try to placate me by saying that "jazz is different" but I specifically chose a non-jazz song to be creative on just to make a point. My jazz training has really taught me to hear things totally different and more dimensionally, and to use my voice in a way most people don't learn, but I've always been an alternative music girl at heart. So doing a song by The Clash in a completely different format and style than it was written -- not to mention in a modern funk-ish style that isn't anything like most common or standard jazz -- was a purposeful experiment to prove a point.

Creativity doesn't have rules. It's all about what the soul tells you to do if you choose to listen.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:29 PM on February 7, 2009


I actually like something Stephen King once said about talent and writing a lot better -- he says that if you wrote something, and someone paid you for it, the check did not bounce, and the amount of money they paid you was enough for you to pay a utility bill, then you can officially consider yourself talented.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:06 AM on February 7 [2 favorites +] [!]


Well, dang, I'm in then. Kinda low bar for that, but I'm not complaining.


No point arguing, folks. Songwriters believe that their precious songs, as written, are original, and anyone who performs them is just interpreting (and usually badly). How can a songwriter understand the creativity of performance? It's a different universe.

I am a songwriter, and I agree with the above post-it IS a different universe. I sit and listen to a really good singer-it is an ACTING INTERPRETATIVE thing, people. Every word, every phrase, in the mouth of a great singer, is crafted to interpret and present meaning. And it is way, way way harder than it looks/sounds.

An example: Santa Baby by Eartha Kitt. She purrs and growls and turns each phrase until it gleams with the polishing. Now imagine the same sung by Britney.

I rest my case.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:05 AM on February 8, 2009


"A singing voice can't *ever* be purchased."

I missed this before, but that I disagree with. Training and experience, and, yes, good production techniques, very much can make an average voice into a good voice. And for the majority of music, an average voice is good enough.
posted by klangklangston at 9:38 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ironmouth: Einstein, Newton, Cervantes, Coletrain, Dylan, Liebnitz, Plato, Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Mozart, etc. were all geniuses. Original, paradigm-shifting, nothing was the same after they did what they did.

Well, as a point of fact, Einstein, Newton, and Mozart all elaborated on existing prior work. For Einstein it was Maxwell and Lorenz. Newton was drawing from Kepler and earlier work done in mathematics. Mozart was certainly influenced in his forms by contemporary peers.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:47 AM on February 8, 2009


Outsider geniuses are geniuses by virtue of being outsiders not in spite of it, otherwise they'd just be common garden geniuses who'd overcome their outsider positions. So in that context it's no surprise that the majority of people won't recognise Burroughs or Smith, you have to be tuned to a particular adversarial or counter cultural attitude to have sought that kind of stuff out and then to have marinated in that tradition and those sentiments for long enough to develop a taste and sensibility.

In so far as Aretha Franklin's contributions are unrecognisable it's because the particular context of her artistic interpretations (turning a chipper misogyny into feminist defiance) are as alien to the mass as The Fall's British post punk and most geniuses will be destined to exile as we turn historical consciousness into just another sub culture. Ironically the only geniuses capable of persistence will be those responsible for the objectivisation of culture (in the name of ever expanding rationality) and the architects of our current predicament. All the perceptive insight in the world can't replace the tacit knowledge you gain from participation in a tradition, which is both the root of artistic creativity and the ability to understand it at once.
posted by doobiedoo at 10:10 AM on February 8, 2009


I guess that reverses the thread title to mean how geniuses will kill us
posted by doobiedoo at 10:19 AM on February 8, 2009


here's Bob Lefsetz on Jennifer Hudson, posted today. Very apropros to this discussion.
posted by Hat Maui at 5:52 PM on February 8, 2009


I missed this before, but that I disagree with. Training and experience, and, yes, good production techniques, very much can make an average voice into a good voice. And for the majority of music, an average voice is good enough.

That's true. But the point of this post is genius, not talent-challenged people who can be made "good enough" by technological tricks. That's a totally different topic.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:03 PM on February 8, 2009


Haven' tyou all read that article on 10,000 hours hard work = genius?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/nov/15/malcolm-gladwell-outliers-extract
posted by mary8nne at 6:19 AM on February 9, 2009


No point arguing, folks. Songwriters believe that their precious songs, as written, are original, and anyone who performs them is just interpreting (and usually badly). How can a songwriter understand the creativity of performance? It's a different universe.

Uh, because most songwriters perform their own work. Usually in different combinations, tempos, speeds and vocal styles. Its not like I just write them down and never perform them. Usually the composition is "live," i.e. I sing out words and play chords or a instrumental line until I find what I want. It isn't any different than what any other singer or performer is doing.

Nobody inteprets my work (OK I guess my bass player sings my songs at home). We're not talking about my work here. We're talking about a definition of genius and who can and cannot be one.

I'm not saying singers who do not compose the words or music that they sing can't be creative. I'm saying that to be a genius, you need to originally create something of yourself. Merely singing something someone else wrote in a different manner is not enough to be a genius. Is it creative? Yes. Can a person be a genius only doing that? No.

However, if the singer is compositional, i.e. skat, singing an original melody line, that is compositional. A person who did this sort of singing, is an original composer and could be a genius. Its as simple as that.

Well, as a point of fact, Einstein, Newton, and Mozart all elaborated on existing prior work. For Einstein it was Maxwell and Lorenz. Newton was drawing from Kepler and earlier work done in mathematics. Mozart was certainly influenced in his forms by contemporary peers.

Everybody elaborates on prior work. Somebody invented language and mathematics. Your extending my theory way farther than I intend to make it seem wrong.

What hasn't happened is anyone telling me why my theory is wrong. Not by giving an example of your favorite, but telling my why it is wrong.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:13 PM on February 9, 2009


Its as simple as that.

In your mind it is, but not to anyone else. Not that that concerns you, because you've made up a definition that satisfies you, and that's fine, but stop pretending you somehow represent standard usage and the rest of us are being illogical and bizarre. It is you who are (by the standards of pretty much everyone else here) bizarre; you're welcome to your world, but don't try to drag us into it.

And knock off the "nobody's telling me why my theory is wrong" bullshit. Nobody could possibly tell you why you're wrong to your satisfaction, because you use your own definitions and interpretations and don't accept anyone else's. Again, that's fine, but there's no need to be so smug about it, because you are not the Voice of Reason, you're just a songwriter with peculiar ideas.
posted by languagehat at 1:29 PM on February 9, 2009


you're just a songwriter with peculiar ideas

d00d - It's like you know me!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:07 PM on February 9, 2009


Not to mention that when a songwriter looks down that much on what other people have to offer his creations and don't see what a collaborative effort music is but only sees their contribution? Well, they usually write crap songs. The greatest composers often wrote/write with particular vocalists or musicians in mind for a reason... songs are only as good as the people who bring them to life. When it comes to that, if someone has serious talent that transcends, they can read the phone book and turn it into a masterpiece.

Case in point: this versus this. Although I suppose it's hard to tell which person is more talented, it's relatively easy for a serious person to judge which was blessed with serious musical genius.
posted by miss lynnster at 2:21 PM on February 9, 2009


BTW, when I say that songs are only as good as the people who bring them to life I'm not saying that there aren't masterpiece songs and crap songs. But if a crappy performer is playing a great song, it's still crap. And great talents can turn crap songs into gold
posted by miss lynnster at 2:24 PM on February 9, 2009


"Nobody inteprets my work (OK I guess my bass player sings my songs at home)."

You're interpreting your work.

Let me put the genius argument this way—I think some soliloquies in Shakespeare are genius, the way he manages to both advance the plot, elaborate the characters, push the boundaries of the form and meter, all while creating a more universal resonance. I think because he does this frequently, though not necessarily consistently, he deserves to be called a genius.

Does this preclude an actor who plays Hamlet from also being a genius? No. It means that the actor's genius is in a different realm, a different field. His genius applies to how he conceives and communicates the meaning of the text in relation to his real world surroundings. There are actors who are able to bring insight to a text in a way that would never be found purely in the words.

"What hasn't happened is anyone telling me why my theory is wrong. Not by giving an example of your favorite, but telling my why it is wrong."

Because experimental data backs up natural selection as the… Oh, god, I'm sorry. I just saw you ignoring all the opposing arguments in order to continue your quixotic defense of an idea that's at best bizarre and thought you were a creationist for a moment.
posted by klangklangston at 2:51 PM on February 9, 2009


In case anyone still cares: the video of the actual TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert: A different way to think about genius.
posted by Ira_ at 4:36 PM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


My definition is far from peculiar:

A genius is an individual who successfully applies a previously unknown technique in the production of a work of art, science or calculation, or who masters and personalizes a known technique. A genius typically possesses great intelligence or remarkable abilities in a specific subject, or shows an exceptional natural capacity of intellect and/or ability, especially in the production of creative and original work, something that has never been seen or evaluated previously. Traits often associated with genius include strong individuality, imagination, uniqueness, and innovative drive[citation needed]. The term may be applied to someone who is considered gifted in many subjects[1] or in one subject. Although the term "genius" is sometimes used to denote the possession of a superior talent in any field, e.g. a particular sport or statesmanship, it has traditionally been understood to denote an exceptional natural capacity of intellect and creative originality in areas of art, literature, philosophy, music, language, science and mathematics.

That's wikipedia's definiton. (Sorry no link, working off a Blackberry)

There are very few geniuses by definition. Jack Black's version of "Jolene" isn't genius as was stated above. Is it so powerful that it represents a brand new way of doing things which changes the very basis of the way things are done and everyone else reacts to it? No. How could it be. It isn't a synonym for "totally fucking awesome." If it was, there would be tons of genius around.

Someone else mentioned Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower." Not genius. Great, but not totally changing the way people view rock and roll forever. Genius shakes the earth, nothing is the same thereafter.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:20 PM on February 9, 2009


Man, this thread has become far less interesting and inspiring than it should've been.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:26 PM on February 9, 2009


Oh why not, the view, among others "What I want to know is why genius should not require the type of creativity and not just interpretation."

There's the whole problem--"require." The idea that one person can say what it should and should not require is simply foolish.

The matter at hand is not whether Austin is the captial of Texas.

There are different opinions 'bout this and more than one of them is reasonable.

At times like this I think of eggs. I do not like eggs. I do not eat them. I understand that some people who like eggs and eat them.

I also understand that some people can come across as intransigent.
posted by ambient2 at 4:16 AM on February 10, 2009


We're all geniuses, that's right. Or there are no geniuses. Anyway, Tom waits's stories are not to be taken too seriously. Or maybe more seriously than that.
posted by nicolin at 5:02 AM on February 10, 2009


"There are very few geniuses by definition. Jack Black's version of "Jolene" isn't genius as was stated above. Is it so powerful that it represents a brand new way of doing things which changes the very basis of the way things are done and everyone else reacts to it? No. How could it be. It isn't a synonym for "totally fucking awesome." If it was, there would be tons of genius around."

You ignore the "masters and personalizes" clause.

And no, if you're arguing that "All Along the Watchtower" didn't change the way people looked at rock and roll (or folk or guitar playing or Dylan), you're simply wrong.

An even better example would be Hendrix's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

But what I'm really objecting to here is this: "How is genius associated with performing another's work? One can surely be great, a titan even, performing another's work, but not a "genius."" That's flat wrong, even by the definition you gave above.

The rest of your argument I have no real problem with, from rereading what you're saying here. But I think that particular part is deranged.
posted by klangklangston at 11:04 AM on February 10, 2009


About creativity & fighting mounting pressure to measure up: Ze Frank, on brain crack.

Several important discoveries & inventions have been popped up in multiple places at nearly the same time. See Wikipedia's list of scientific priority disputes. Charles Fort talked about steam engine time. He's the namesake of forteana for inexplicable phenomena.
posted by Pronoiac at 11:10 AM on February 10, 2009


Genius shakes the earth, nothing is the same thereafter.

Frank Sinatra was the Robert Oppenheimer of pop. Discuss.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:14 AM on February 10, 2009


The video for the talk, via ted.com instead of Youtube.
posted by Pronoiac at 12:00 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Funny, Pronoiac - I was just thinking of that Ze Frank video because of this, and meaning to look it up again. The video doesn't seem to be working for me right now for some reason, even though I can watch the videos on all the other days. At least there's the transcript.
posted by Ira_ at 12:25 PM on February 10, 2009


The video is much better than the article.

I'm reminded of a relatively recent study, in which children who accomplished something were either complimented on their talent or their effort. When harder tasks came along, the former kids gave up sooner.

Externalizing some things can lead to less passivity. I've heard that people viewing depression as this external thing deal with it better. Thinking "I have a depression" is less passive than "I'm depressed." Better living through self-deception, possibly.

Ira_ - Whoops, should've tested.
posted by Pronoiac at 12:33 PM on February 10, 2009


Good artists borrow, great artists steal. Artistic genius is knowing what to steal and how to apply it. It's mathematical genius that is all about the new ideas.
posted by magikker at 11:11 PM on February 10, 2009


Ah, I found the NYTimes article:
Jonathan Adler, a researcher at Northwestern, has found that people’s accounts of their experiences in psychotherapy provide clues about the nature of their recovery. In a recent study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in January, Mr. Adler reported on 180 adults from the Chicago area who had recently completed a course of talk therapy. They sought treatment for things like depression, anxiety, marital problems and fear of flying, and spent months to years in therapy.

At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and reinterpreting each person’s unique life story. Yet Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being — who had recovered, by standard measures — told very similar tales about their experiences.

They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.
(via) - Kottke wrote about other benefits of a shift in perspective. All in all, looking at your story in the third person seems really helpful.
posted by Pronoiac at 9:09 AM on February 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Whoops, I hit post instead of preview. It looks like I added extra blockquote space.

Anyway. I was going to add, "so says SCIENCE! so there. suck it haters."
posted by Pronoiac at 9:20 AM on February 11, 2009


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