by Julian Ring, special to ClevelandClassical.com
Prince Rogers Nelson, one of the most influential artists of the 1980s and ‘90s, died April 21 at his studio in Minneapolis. When the news broke, friends and fans were in disbelief. The pop icon was only 57, seemingly healthy, and prolific as ever. In the hours and days after his passing was confirmed, an intense wave of grief rocked the music world. Suddenly an idiosyncratic, genderbending black superstar was gone. There had never been, and would probably never be, another like him.
Paul Lorin Kantner, founder of the band Jefferson Airplane, died January 28 in San Francisco. A handful of major publications, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Billboard, ran obituaries about him. Friends and colleagues, among them the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Kantner’s bandmate Grace Slick, mourned him. His musical ideas were zany; his guitar playing was masterful and oft-imitated. Jefferson Airplane defined the San Francisco sound and the psychedelic rock era.
The late April headlines attempted to summate, however concisely, the legacy Prince left behind:
The New Yorker — “The Impenetrable Genius of Prince”
VICE — “Prince Was a Genius No Matter How You Define It”
The Boston Globe — “Prince’s iconic, purple reign of genius”
But the headlines for Kantner read:
The Guardian — “Paul Kantner remained a revolutionary to the end”
The Huffington Post — “Remembering Paul Kantner”
ArtsJournal — “Why’s Nobody Mourning Paul Kantner?”
“Genius” — a word associated with inflated IQs, bestowed upon MacArthur Grant winners, and uttered in the same breath as Mozart, da Vinci, and Feynman — is a superlative now assigned to a man who sang about masturbation and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Kantner, arguably as influential in his own way, has received no such treatment — a sign, perhaps, that “genius” may be a loaded term.
How do we define musical genius? Surely it’s more than just a synonym for technical ability. There’s little debate that Prince was a hugely skilled musician — just listen to the coda of Let’s Go Crazy or any of his extended live guitar solos. He performed many of the instrumental parts on his early recordings. And his songwriting prowess was evident from the dozens of hits he penned over the years.
The same could be said of Kantner — a talented guitarist who helped write genre-defining hits like White Rabbit and Somebody to Love. If technical ability were all there is to it, every virtuoso would be a genius. But you have to be more than just a great player and songwriter to earn the title. Your contributions during your lifetime, no matter how groundbreaking, don’t necessarily make you a genius.
There’s also a part of the word that hinges on influence: how long your achievements stand after you’re gone, how much others draw upon your advances to further their own work. Prince and Kantner can each claim a certain amount of longevity when it comes to sound and style. Prince opened the door for the sexually-charged fusions of pop, R&B, and funk made by everyone from The Weeknd to Lady Gaga to Daft Punk. Kantner’s psychedelic visions formed the bedrock of bands like Tame Impala and Animal Collective. There are a staggering number of contemporary artists indebted to both Prince and Kantner. Still, one of them is called “genius” while the other is not.
How do you become influential, anyway? Luck. Savvy, too, but a lot of it is luck.
What I’ve come to realize is that those we talk about operating on a higher intellectual plane are also the most popular artists of their generation. Genius does not give rise to popularity, but the other way around. David Bowie was also called a musical genius, as were Beethoven and Bach. Whether they died mere months ago or centuries, there’s a correlation between the popular conception of how much they “changed” music and their level of popular success. Bowie can’t have been the only space oddity in a tight white suit in the early 1970s, but because he hit it big, he ends up being an influencer. We call him “genius.”
None of this is to detract from the accomplishments of any musician so honored. Prince, Kantner, Bowie — they were all monumentally talented and more than deserving of the recognition they receive. But the “genius” moniker is talent plus influence, and influence is originality plus popularity. You can shred and be totally unique, but if you don’t have a big record contract to enable you to reach millions, you might not be hearing the G-word anytime soon.
Julian Ring is a music journalist and critic from the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NPR Music, The Wall Street Journal, Consequence of Sound, The Owl Mag, Cambio and The Oakland Tribune, and he has blogged for the Recording Academy since 2010. Ring graduated from Oberlin College in May, 2016, where he majored in English and served as an editor-in-chief of his college newspaper, The Oberlin Review. He regularly contributed live recording and videography to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and has previously worked in digital publishing as an editorial editor at the New York-based artist development company Creative Spotlights. In June, he will join Pandora Media as an associate curator. He enjoys playing guitar and bass, hiking and getting lost on Wikipedia.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 30, 2016.
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