A management consulting firm called Synectics came out this week with a publicity-stunt "survey" of the top 100 living "geniuses." If you're keeping score, Philip Glass tops the musical world, coming in at #9. The rock contingent shows a decided baby-boomer bias. Jazz? No geniuses left, apparently. Dolly Parton squeaks in at #94, though.
Lists like this tend to be pretty silly, and this one is worse than most, with a methodology so flimsy that I question this firm's proficiency at consulting anybody on anything. But the survey does point up something interesting. The first criterion on Synectics' list of five defining traits of genius is that old favorite, paradigm shifting. And I realized that paradigm shifting might just be the one thing that unites the past century or two of music history.
The term "paradigm shift" became famous from Thomas Kuhn's 1970 study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Notice the word choice, though: not scientific process, or discovery, but revolution. That's a post-Romantic bias revealed right in the title, but the effects of Romantic thinking (heck, let's gild the lily and call it the Romantic Revolution) are so deeply ingrained in modern society that we don't even see it. That might be why 20th and 21st-century music history seems so fragmented and variegated: we take for granted the one universal feature, the way every turn of the musical wheel—jazz, atonality, minimalism, rock, historically-informed performance, neo-Romanticism, &c.—claims (or is claimed) to have shifted some paradigm or another.
I don't think this is by definition good or bad, it's just an observation: the societies we live in are, at their core, products of the Romantic era, and I don't see that influence ebbing anytime soon. (In a lot of ways, it's bound up with the spread and solemnization of democratic processes.) But it is a big change from, say, the 1600s, when a composer like Sweelinck was widely recognized as a genius, not because he was an innovator, not because he was a revolutionary, but because he did what everyone else was doing so much better than everyone else did. That's a contrast with the current touchstone for musical genius, Beethoven. It's an open question whether Beethoven's innovations were popular, or whether Beethoven was popular because his penchant for innovation so well embodied fashionable Romantic ideas. I suspect the latter—the really inventive late stuff didn't gain very much traction at the time. But his is the kind of impact that musicians of all stripes are still, consciously or subconsciously, being judged against.