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5% Inspiration 95% Exaggeration: The Overuse Of The G Word
The Quietus , August 13th, 2012 06:50

Ain't nothing but a 'G' thing... Johnny Sharp (né Cigarettes) explains why the G-word has become overused to the point of meaninglessness

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There are a number of over-used words and phrases that infest 21st century popular culture like a plague of brands. One such word is "genius", which has now been employed so liberally that it is as profound and meaningful as David Cameron starting a sentence with 'Let me be perfectly clear…'

We will draw a discreet veil, while holding our nose in distaste, over the popular cultural trend of using the 'g' word as an all-purpose superlative, fit to crown anything of which one is vaguely approving, from a Chris Moyles radio skit to a particularly resonant fart.

My issue with the word is in relation to its more enduring use, when talking about music. I'm talking about the effusive label that has long been awarded to the most talented artists of their generation. And Pete Doherty.

The problem with this term can be summed up by one fairly reliable rule of thumb: By the time the popular concensus confers the "genius" tag on a musician, they will invariably no longer deserve it.

Because people talk about "genius" as a noun, as if the label doesn't just describe an individual, but partly defines them, like phrases such as "a towering beanpole", "a mouth-breather", or "a homicidal maniac". As if they were born that way and will die that way or at least, once awarded the title, like a knighthood, they cannot lose it unless they are exposed as a Russian spy or get convicted of indecent acts with a Shetland pony.

Even in the most deserving cases, its use has been excessive. Let's consider just a handful of the popular music figures with whom the word is most often associated - Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Prince and David Bowie. In all cases, you could make a strong argument for saying that they were geniuses during the extraordinary creative peak period of their careers. But to a man, they sure as hell ain't now. None of them are making records that even come close to the incandescent brilliance of their peak period.

The reason they were given the tag in the first place was because they enjoyed a period of intense creativity, innovation and work of such extraordinary quality and originality that it seemed to be the result of some magical, indefinable natural gift they possessed.

That mystical, inexplicable quality that we associate with genius might be why we think its essence is within the musician, rather than the music. But it's perhaps most accurate to say these once-exceptional artists made music not in the status of genius, but in the state of genius.

And that state, to one extent or another, is a fleeting one. Genius is a fickle mistress who shows up, might hang around for a year or two if you work hard at the relationship and don't get distracted, but she's never been the marrying kind. Soon enough you'll get tired of having to do all the running, then you'll come home one night to find she's upped sticks and shacked up with an aspiring singer-songwriter from Pontefract.

If we believe there is some meaning in describing an individual, rather than their work, as genius, as a noun rather than adjective, then we have to accept that no-one is born a genius, and in popular music, barely anyone over 30 dies as one, either. Plenty of people have the accolade inappropriately thrust upon them, but in truth it can only be something that you achieve. And you're only as genius as your last genius record.

Why am I bothered about splitting these semantic hairs? Well, partly because the use of the 'g' word as if it were some sort of lifetime achievement award can be very dangerous, and allows those bestowed with the title to rest on their laurels, seemingly indefinitely.

As I type these words, Shane MacGowan is probably holding court in a bar, looking perennially around one pint of martini away from lapsing into a coma, being bought an endless supply of drinks by wide-eyed admirers. "I'd just like to say I think you're a genius, Shane,” they simper. “Can I buy you a drink?” The fact that he has made precious few utterances of "genius" in a quarter of a century since the Pogues split matters little to those who are content just to touch the rim of his glass.

I can't help wondering whether, if a few more people had asked him why he pissed such a formidable talent up the wall, it might have helped him to get his act together again*.

Similarly, Pete Doherty made some very good records with the Libertines, and even as his musical output dwindles and his artistic quality control slides steadily off a cliff in inverse proportion to the demands of his well-documented lifestyle, he has no shortage of friends and admirers around him to reassure him that his rambling, cack-handed acoustic ditties are every bit as brilliant as his output during The Libertines' peak, and if he fancies another quick chase of the dragon before breakfast, they can offer him a very reasonable price.

So I beg of you, pop pickers – genius is a very rare and special thing. On the rare occasions you happen across it, treat it with care and attention.

*DISCLAIMER: If all those well-wishers have helped either McGowan or Doherty abuse themselves to the point of leaving a less-than-beautiful corpse since this article was written, then in fact they do, did and always will embody the very essence of genius. I take it all back, and I am available for television interviews in which I will use that very word in several neatly enunciated, succinctly-phrased soundbites in return for a modest fee.

Johnny Sharp is a music writer formerly known as Johnny Cigarettes, and is the author of Mind The Bollocks, a book available now on Portico books which lovingly examines 50 years of people talking nonsense about music

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Aug 13, 2012 11:12am


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Aug 13, 2012 11:51am

Pete Doherty is definitely NOT a genius.

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Aug 13, 2012 1:23pm

Its overuse also seems to have robbed the world of a much more appropriate (and indeed legitimate) word, ingenious. The one thing you can always take from someone adjectivally using "genius" is that neither object nor subject is genuinely a genius - and usually in no way ingenious.

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Aug 13, 2012 2:05pm

It's bad, but it's no "iconic".

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Aug 13, 2012 2:06pm

shane's ongoingnessness is some sort of medical genius, SURELY?
I'd like to see P-Do still propping up the bar when he's Shane's age. McGowan must be at least 85 now. Oh....he's 57

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Aug 13, 2012 2:47pm

a Chris Moyles radio skit to a particularly resonant fart,
that's just about the same thing isn't it?

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Aug 13, 2012 2:55pm

Really? It's just the use of the word genius which leads famous artists to grow complacent, not the endless ass kissing involving every other complimentary word one can utter? Are people ever going to stop whining about semantic shift? The answer to both is probably not.

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Aug 13, 2012 3:14pm

Good call Mr. Sharp, perhaps we need to follow up calling someone a genius with a little current day reality (which you quite accurately pointed out). Something along the lines of "you were a genius until you became the current high maintenance, arrogant little bitch of a person you are now."

By the way, Genius, was watching Liam's hip new rock n' roll band play his brother's song on the telly yesterday.

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Aug 14, 2012 5:31am

... and while we're at it that's enough on Steve fucking Jobs already, Charlie Rose!

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Johnny Nothing
Aug 14, 2012 7:44am

Is an artist as good as their last record, their next record or the one they're currently working on? Does this question make sense? Will it rain tomorrow?

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Aug 14, 2012 9:30am

The whole Shane McGowan-is-a-genius thing surely reached it's nadir when his girlfriend (or was she his wife?) published that book of " conversations ". 200 pages of semi-coherent bollocks as I recall. Among his stray thoughts was the claim that Samuel Beckett could not be considered a great writer because he liked cricket???
I think the book was mistaking McGowans talent as a poet for his less noteworthy cache as a raconteur or even a thinker.
Also around the same time there was that BBC documentary which showed Shane arrive at a pub and having failed to find the doorway unassisted being usherd to the bar where the assembled prayed silence while the mighty one slurred his way through some turgid song of the road.
I find the Pogues a lot harder to listen to nowadays partly because of the inflated claims made about their frontman. The other members of the band are shamefully overlooked.

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Aug 14, 2012 11:36am

I would say a musician puts 10% of momentary thought into their work, the other 90% of the time they are a patsy. That should be true of all artists though in some way right? Just that music is perhaps the most emotionally powerful and resonant.

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cindy V
Jan 13, 2016 10:43pm

Genius is that rare fruit which remains crisp and eatable 100 years past it's expiration date.

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