Was Glen Campbell a genius? What is a genius?

On Aug. 8, country-western musician Glen Campbell died after battling Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81.

I have been listening to Campbell’s music for the past 15 years or so, and I really enjoy the big “Nashville Sound” that powered his hits in the late 1960s. The orchestras and arrangements used back then—mostly earlier in the 1960s and late 1950s—are both somehow beautiful and terrifying to me at the same time. The country music of that era makes me feel like I’m at a wedding and a funeral simultaneously.

Anyway, lots of people—those in the music industry and fans—have been seemingly coming out of the woodwork saying Campbell was a genius guitar player. Perhaps he was. Depends on who you ask.

It got me thinking: How do we determine who is a genius? I think it’s one of the most overused words in our language that ought to be reserved for only the most special people, such as Albert Einstein.

I’m not sure there’s one way to single out a genius. I think defining a genius is akin to defining what is and isn’t art: We know it when we see it, but everyone has different standards. And someone could be a genius without ever impacting the world—what if someone with incredible skills or intellect never discovers his or her genius, or if he or she does discover it, chooses not to share it? Couldn’t a genius live and die without anyone ever knowing?

One could argue that part of what makes one a genius is innate ability—was Campbell, for example, a naturally gifted guitar player, or did he have to practice a lot to become so proficient? How do you measure that? And if you could, might genius somehow lie in the incredibly hard work it takes to be the best there is in a given field? That could be argued, too.

But what if you’re composing music, and you can’t hear or see? Would Ludwig van Beethoven, who lost his hearing later in life; Brian Wilson, who for most of his life has only been able to hear out of one ear; or Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder, both of whom couldn’t see, be better candidates as geniuses? Does Campbell having full command of his senses detract from his accomplishments when compared to these other musicians?

The truth, to me, is that we’ll never really know if Campbell, or any of his contemporaries, for that matter, was a genius, especially in terms of something as fickle as popular music. Beethoven died in 1827, and 190 years later, we’re still talking about him. Maybe that’s the mark of a genius?

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