Michael Jackson: The Serendipitous Genius (Part 1)

Posted: July 19, 2013 in Random Thoughts
Tags: , , , ,

The marvelous bi-weekly blog known as Dancing with the Elephant (here on WordPress) has generated many interesting analyses of the art of Michael Jackson and in so doing, has also generated a slew of interesting comments and contributions; every week’s topic is no exception.

The typical scope of the topics perhaps is exceptional, though.

For example: The concepts recently introduced by guest author Eleanor Bowman, which present Michael Jackson as potential poster child for the philosophical nuance known as Immanence, require a whole lot of research on my part just to get my head around them. They are new to me. In addition to thinking about her multiple lanes of premise, I found myself wandering onto the side street she reiterates, voiced by many others before: that of Michael Jackson as Genius.

Not really a side street though, that topic.

More like a freeway… with on-ramps and exits and intersections going in every direction throughout his life. And not just a few collisions.

So – what makes a genius?

Nature? Nurture? Accident?

Is it all there waiting, like DNA, for the right chemical signal, to be freed and available and take predetermined form —- or does that signal simply fire the starting pistol, leaving the details of the race entirely up to the participant?

Is the master chef already a genius before ever picking up his first utensil and choosing the ingredients to combine? Or does his intelligence allow him to understand innately that each ingredient matters, has a place, and can combine to form an unforgettable, dynamic and aesthetically-pleasing whole… and in the application of this theory, demonstrate his genius?

Was Michael Jackson potentially more of an “accidental genius”, created by a congruence of societal, familial and music industry coincidences, overriding his individual creative choices?

As a youngster I was introduced to the theoretical exploration called “IQ” – intelligence quotient. The school system of the day had what they considered the practical means to deal with the nebulous IQ concept: the IQ test. Like so many things in our society the attempt was thus made to translate individuality into statistics and tidy boxes of types or measurements.

IQ however is merely a measure of potential – no guarantee is made of functional use of intelligence, and therein lurks the inherent problem of typing: intelligence (perhaps merging eventually into genius in the fast lane) is simply theoretical unless applied to something.

With intention!

When Michael Jackson entered the world, it was clear from the start that he was going to be different.

Photos of him even as an infant show a vivid intensity and intelligence pouring out of those arresting soulful eyes.

Baby Genius

Because of the Jackson family’s eventual fame and prosperity, which removed Michael from their modest beginnings and economic struggle while he was still small, they also necessarily became an isolated and insular social unit, one which concentrated upon work and goals for success that didn’t include much social life.

Looking (somewhat judgmentally I admit) at the other members of his family, it seems clear that Michael had no sibling or parental relationship that equaled or echoed his high level of native intelligence, so for that stimulation he had to look outward to school or reading or meeting new people also within the boundaries of his insulated artistic world.

Michael’s career truncated any educational goals in the formal sense; no attendance in the hallowed halls of higher education, but instead, serendipitously, the entire world opened up into his campus. To his credit he also became a voracious reader with eclectic and universal interests, boundless curiosity, innate empathy towards people who suffered, and startlingly mature clarity of vision to see where systems were unjust or did not function, all of which found their way into his later creative work. His youthful remarks about poverty clearly show the expansion of his sensitivity, perception and yes, functional intelligence.

Still, his fame and popularity continued to challenge his opportunities to communicate with other people to talk about the issues that interested and concerned him. In interviews he mentions his longing to just walk up to someone on a street corner and have a normal conversation. (Even his required canvassing in the community per Jehovah’s Witnesses requirements had to be done in disguise and rather surreptitiously.) The world became fascinated with him very rapidly.

What his family DID provide however was (positive and negative) creative stimulation and a sense of competitive innovation – happily, there was no shortage of that within the Jacksons, and, serendipitously, the other people who helped to create their early musical career were themselves able to add their creative ingredients to the genetic soup in which Michael’s genius began to form. He has been described as a “sponge” – curious, observant, and extremely quick to grasp new concepts and methodology.

His amazing level of native uninstructed musicality was certainly born with him to some extent, and people often refer to that alone as genius. Though cause is still a relative biological / physiological mystery, he was another in a line of recognized musical prodigies who intuitively understood what music was, how it was structured, how musical elements function, how to create music and how to effectively share it — and in his case he apparently needed no formal instruction other than coaching by his producers to learn the lingo of music and communicate ideas to other musicians and creators.

It has been suggested to me that once he began to explore composing himself, (based upon his uncanny ability to hear the entire piece he was creating in his head, all parts and tracks, and the fact that he did not read music nor use any form of musical notation with which to communicate the songs to his co-creators but rather did it vocally), and also in noting his obsession with the smallest details in every song, that Michael’s prodigy may well have leaned toward the musical savant – it’s an interesting though unprovable premise and harkens back to that “nature or nurture, born-with or learned” continuum.

So the question remains: Does pure instinct reflect genius?

No genius exists in a vacuum. The germ of Michael Jackson’s genius grew legs with his growing grasp of practical application for that intuitive ability, and his ability to apply it grew with every person whose input he studied and assimilated, assessed and accepted or rejected, experimented with, listened to, read about, reverse-engineered, imitated.

The deep and abiding hunger for communication, for learning, for sharing concepts, was clearly there all along. He had ideas. Was fairly bursting with them! How then, to express them?

Seems to me that self-expression was his life-long challenge, and the musicality that determined his likely path of expression was his to enjoy and share from birth. But the true genius of Michael Jackson lives largely in his notable ability to open himself up to serendipity – learning whatever he could from everything he encountered in his life.

Undoubtedly any artist must develop a strong and healthy ego in order to believe in himself and survive an atmosphere as competitive and money-based as the recording industry, but Michael managed to set his aside in favor of the serendipitous gifts presented to him by genuine collaboration and learning from others.

No barriers (other than personal safety, which he often ignored) seemingly were built by him in the way of his learning. No “yeah, but…” was allowed.

Like that of children, with whom he resonated so deeply, the spirit of adventure and openness and surprise and awe never left him. He never stopped learning and never got enough.  Because he was energetically open, the teachers always presented themselves to further his genius – thus I think that his deliberate intention and ever-expanding résumé of talent essentially overrode any “historically accidental” aspect to his career.

There is a hackneyed phrase which says “When the student is ready, the Teacher will come.” I think MJ was always ready and no teacher was ever ignored if the experience was useful and useable for him on an emotional and intellectual level. He built his life lessons, as do we all, bit by bit and the next upon the previous. Thus – in the right place at the right time, his serendipitous genius for learning and building upon his natural gifts devised a uniqueness of expression that will prove timeless. He is himself an Unfinished Symphony, to which any interested party can add their own personal remix. That is his triumph and his tragedy.

Passion, eloquence, vision, innocence, and the quality of “being different” in forms of expression have come to elicit cynicism, ridicule, fear and suspicion in our current culture – a deadly combination that threatens to feed the downward spiral I sense in human development. Michael Jackson spent his life caring about everything around him rather than judging or blaming, and trusting human nature rather than finding fault with it. Significantly, he came to recognize serendipity as a strong ally to his native gifts, his success and his goals – and stepped up to his place in history by choosing to trust it, take advantage of it and not look back.

That, I think, translates the potential called intelligence into the functional application known as genius.

For the detail-oriented:  (from Wikipedia): (bold text mine)

Serendipity means a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise”; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it. The word has been voted one of the ten English words hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company.[1] However, due to its sociological use, the word has been exported into many other languages.[2]

The first noted use of “serendipity” in the English language was by Horace Walpole (1717–1797). In a letter to Horace Mann (dated 28 January 1754) he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon), from Arabic Sarandib, which was adopted from Tamil “Seren deevu” or originally from Sanskrit Suvarnadweepa or golden island (some trace the etymology to Simhaladvipa which literally translates to “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island”[3]). Christophero Armeno had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian, adapting Amir Khusrau‘s Hasht Bihisht[4] of 1302.

A “genius” is a person who has exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight. There is no scientifically precise definition of genius, and the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate. The term is used in various ways: to refer to a particular aspect of an individual, or the individual in their entirety; to a scholar in many subjects (e.g. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz or Leonardo da Vinci[1] or a scholar in a single subject(e.g.,Albert Einstein or Srinivasa Ramanujan or Stephen Hawking). Research into what causes genius and mastery is still in its early stages, and psychology offers relevant insights

Genius is expressed in a variety of forms (e.g., mathematical, literary, performance). Genius may show itself in early childhood, as a prodigy with particular gifts (e.g., understanding), or later in life. Geniuses are often deemed as such after demonstrating great originality. They tend to have strong intuitions about their domains, and they build on these insights with tremendous energy.

One usage of the noun “genius” is closely related to the general concept of intelligence. One currently accepted way of attempting to measure one’s intelligence is with an IQ test. The label of “genius” for persons of high IQ was popularized by Lewis Terman. He and his colleague Leta Hollingworth suggested different scores as a cut-off for genius inpsychometric terms. Terman considered it to be an IQ of 140 on the Stanford Binet, while Hollingworth put it at an IQ of 180.

In addition to the fundamental criticism that intelligence measured in this way is an example of reification and ranking fallacies,[9] the IQ test has also been criticized as having a “cultural bias” in its interpretation despite assurances that these tests are designed to eliminate test bias.

MJ's Report Card

NB from the author of this blog: After high school graduation I was accepted for MENSA, the “genius club”, for which you must test and score at or higher than 98% of the tested population. What did this prove? That I could take tests!



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