I love the Bud Light “Real Men of Genius” campaign that’s been running for years. You know the one I mean; the announcer salutes “Mr. Cargo Pants Designer” or “Mr. Beach Metal Detector Guy” while the over-the-top 80s hair band singer wails in the background. (Sidebar for future “Jeopardy” contestants: that voice belongs to Dave Bickler, former lead singer for Survivor.) They’ve produced hundreds of them with no end in sight, which may annoy the hell out of some people but makes me strangely happy. (As usual, the commercials are better than the beer, but that’s a topic for another day.)
In addition to the sheer entertainment value, the campaign got me thinking about what makes a real man (or woman) of genius. “Genius” is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, probably so much so that it’s lost any meaning. Sure, it still applies to guys like Newton and Einstein and Hawking. But when we go beyond the hard sciences, we’re on shakier ground.
Never ducking the hard questions, I’ve decided to tackle the issue head on. I foresee this as an intermittent series of articles, but who knows? By the time I finish this one, I might be bored with the whole subject. We’ll see.
In the meantime, let’s start with music. I think most of us would agree that a Mount Rushmore of modern-era musical geniuses would feature Dylan, Lennon and McCartney (on a good day), and…who? Ray Charles? His nickname was “the Genius,” so maybe that’s a no-brainer. You could certainly make a case for Paul Simon. Or Michael Jackson. (Does it help to be nuts?) Or Brian Wilson. (Ditto.) Or, if you wanted to go back farther, Chuck Berry, who might have invented rock ‘n’ roll. Looks like we need to add another mountain. One thing’s for sure, the standards have to be pretty darned high. It’s like the difference between getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame and every other hall of fame.
So I guess we’re getting into criteria. What exactly makes a genius? Popularity? It helps, but look at all the minor talents who’ve somehow managed to captivate the public. Madonna comes to mind. What about staying power and its twin, influence? Buddy Holly’s brief, meteoric career echoes to this day. And then there’s innovation. Dylan and the Beatles never settled for the status quo, constantly evolving and experimenting, even at the cost of alienating some fans. I suppose we’d better add courage to the mix.
And where does pure talent come into play, the ability to craft a song in a way that makes people laugh or cry or feel wistful or want to jump around and bang their heads against the wall. Can you be a genius if you don’t write your own material? I’ve never heard a better singer than Aretha Franklin, but she didn’t write her own stuff. Is it possible to be a singing genius? I’m just asking.
Speaking of women, why can’t I think of any to add to my list? Is it me, or is rock that much of a boy’s club. I admire Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon. But do they fit the criteria? Will we be humming their tunes a hundred years from now? (I won’t, but it has nothing to do with them.) As you can tell, I have lots of questions, but very few answers. I’m counting on you to help.
And how about all the underappreciated geniuses? In my next column (see, I’m not bored yet), I’ll write about Randy Newman. Kids, go ahead and Google him right now. Then we’ll talk.