Who writes a better song, The Basher or The Bard? Each septuagenarian has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, each has built his respective iconic body of work consistently for over fifty years, and each has acted badly in a bad, bad movie. So, would you take “Like a Rolling Stone” to the desert island before “I’m a Believer?” Diamond’s is a perfect song, and Dylan’s is a pompous mess. If we polled the Trop readership, I’d bet money that Dylan wins by a margin of sixty percent—at least—and the third century scholar Longinus would agree with us (yes, us). I’d like to present one of the great questions of neoclassical criticism in his own words: “…Which is to be preferred in [pop music], great writing with occasional flaws or moderate talent which is entirely sound and faultless?”
The classicists didn’t see eye to eye on pop music. Aristotle was a rap guy—or, a fan of genre art—and Plato pretended to hate everything in order to keep his interlocutors focused on his beloved philosophy. The neoclassicists, whom we’ll place roughly between Horace and Alexander Pope, sweep Plato’s trickery under the rug and start with the assumptions that beauty exists, that some things are more beautiful than others, and that beauty can be analyzed and judged. From there, they seek to delineate the rules to which all great artistic creations adhere. While we could build a series of analogies between the virtues of writing poetry or prose and the virtues of writing music with lyrics, I’d like to focus for now on why we and the neoclassicists tend to value genius over competence, or why we tend to value the work of Dylan over the work of Diamond.
In Longinus’s On Great Writing (traditionally translated as the grander but less precise On the Sublime), the author suggests five sources of expressive virtue, the first two of which regard what can’t be taught: conceptual strength and passion, which for our purposes we’ll correlate with genius; and the next three pertaining to the kinda stuff they teach in MFA programs or the Berklee School of Music, all of which we’ll ignore by name and correlate with competence. Think of genius as the thing that separates the artist from the audience, and competence as what ingratiates the artist to the audience. To tie too pretty a ribbon around this package and deliver it to pop music, we could gauge competence by record sales and genius by critical approval. Diamond has sold records well into nine figures, and Dylan is deemed so cool that he doesn’t even have to take his sunglasses off when he shakes the hand of the Leader of the Free World.
What makes Diamond so competent and Dylan so genius? I think this is best explained by considering what happens when other artists cover their songs. Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” sounds like The Monkees, “Red Red Wine” sounds like UB40, and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” sounds like Urge Overkill (or, it looks like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction). A masterfully competent song can mold itself to the stylistic temperament of whoever interprets it. A Neil Diamond song can take the form of a chanting baseball stadium, a bar full of drunk sorority girls, and just about any entrepreneur with a sequin shirt. When Axl Rose sings “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” it sounds like a dipshit in shorts “hey”ing all over a Bob Dylan tune. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”? Hilarious. Hell, Johnny Cash himself has to play by Bob Dylan’s rules when you hear “Girl from the North Country,” a duet so strange that the North Country they’re talking about probably ain’t on any map you’ve ever seen. The Band knocked “Tears of Rage” out of the park, and Jimi Hendrix made an icon out of “All Along the Watchtower,” sure, but those recordings are still conspicuously Dylan, because a genius song is inseparable from the genius who conceived it.
But this doesn’t explain why we respect genius more than competence. If anything, the previous examples suggest a case for the opposite. Shouldn’t we place a higher value on what is so precise that no one can misunderstand it, and so congenial that everyone can make it her own? No, says Longinus: “…nature judged man to be no lowly or ignoble creature when she brought us into this life and into the whole universe as into a great celebration, to be spectators of her whole performance and most ambitious actors. She implanted at once into our souls an invincible love for all that is great and more divine than ourselves.” Just what’s so goddamn cruel about “jewels and binoculars [hanging] from the head of the mule?”* Fuck if I know, Bob Dylan haters, but you might as well ask what Mt. Everest means. We know how it got there geologically, just like we know how The Voice of a Generation had a drug-addled idea and wrote it down, but the only thing we can really say about it is that it stands taller than all the other things piled up on this rock. Jewish Elvis built the pyramids, but Blind Boy Grunt midwifed the stuff that inspired them. Competence is man made, but genius is a force of nature.
But let’s not take anything away from those great creators of pop music competence: who writes a better melody than Barry Manilow**, a better arrangement than Quincy Jones, or a more infectious party song than will.i.am? Cool and intelligent people will always poo poo on competent work, and they always have, out of an unconscious resistance to conformity. We don’t hate on Nickelback because “How You Remind Me” is a bad song—it’s not; we hate on them because they dress like douchebags and the needles on our bullshit meters go haywire when we hear a PRS guitar or an affected, growling vocal. We all love Britney Spears, right? Is it because we’re just so funny when we pretend to have a good time dancing to her music, or is it because she has an intuition for choosing and interpreting good songs? Nothing becomes wildly popular unless it’s competent, and the geniuses would serve themselves to study what’s popular in order to tighten up their own work.
Longinus says: “…since the avoidance of error is mostly due to the successful application of the rules of art while supremacy belongs to genius, it is fitting that art should everywhere give its help to nature. The two together may well produce perfection.” Kendrick Lamar made the best album of 2012, not because it was the most original sounding thing or because it was the hottest thing in tha club, but because it combined genius and competence into one sprawling, perfectly crafted offering. Like OK Computer, or Sign of the Times, or Blonde on Blonde, or maybe even Hot August Night (I hate live pop music, but that one’s a gem), the best stuff is forgiven some the excesses of genius—bombast, filler—and is preserved by the attractiveness of competence. Choosing Bob over Neil does not depreciate the value of diamonds, but it tells us something about creation that Longinus put best:
[W]e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. […] We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.
*cf. “Visions of Johanna,” Blonde on Blonde, Track Three.
**Everybody with a TV knows the jingle for StateFarm Insurance, but few can sing it precisely. Go ahead, give it a try. Make a recording and post it.
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.