SHOULD WE RETHINK THE TERM “FLAWED GENIUS”?

There’s a thin line between creativity & insanity that is seldom visible.


When Phil Spector died in prison earlier this month, the consensus seemed to be that, beyond anything else, he was a flawed genius.  However, this seems to be a rather generous way of describing a man who spent his final years behind bars as a convicted murderer. 

Indeed, the BBC initially tweeted: “Talented but flawed Producer Phil Spector dies aged 81.”  Many other media outlets also seemed to relegate this rather big ‘flaw’ below the importance of his art. While CNN omitted the detail completely, writing: “Grammy-winning music producer Phil Spector dies of natural causes.”

Yes, it is true that Spector was a highly influential figure in pop music culture, but should that take precedence over his most severe crimes?  Regardless, the latter should certainly not be dismissed as a ‘flaw’.

A flaw is a blemish, an imperfection.  Elvis Presley being unable to make it through live performances of Are You Lonesome Tonight? without laughing is a flaw.  Spector’s murder of actress Lana Clarkson is not.

Of course, Spector is not the first artist to be tarnished with the ‘flawed genius’ tag and he won’t be the last.  But does the term trivialise more serious behavioural issues? 

Vincent Van Gogh – perhaps the archetype of the ‘flawed genius’.  He cut off his own ear.  He committed suicide.  Forget the art and all the romanticism. That’s not a man with a flaw, that’s mental illness. 

George Best – one of the greatest ever footballers, another ‘flawed genius’.  His drinking put an early end to both his career and ultimately his life. That’s not a flaw, that’s alcoholism. 


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By Hal Fish: music COLUMNIST



Kanye West – lately his erratic behaviour, such as his unsuccessful run for presidency, has left him dismissed as a ‘flawed genius’.  Yet he has revealed he has bipolar disorder.  The ‘flawed genius’ label means he is looked at as a talented musician with an overblown ego, as opposed to someone who probably needs to be treated with great compassion. 


Defining Mental Health

The list goes on and what it really tells us is that there are a lot of people who have issues with their mental wellbeing.  The talent within an individual should not diminish the importance of their mental health.  The term ‘flawed genius’ disagrees with this statement.  Which is why it’s a reductive and harmful phrase.

Tales of Spector’s unhinged behaviour were numerous long before his conviction.  In 1997, when producing Leonard Cohen’s album Death of a Ladies’ Man, Spector was said to have fired a pistol in the studio.  Biographer Dave Thompson recounts Cohen’s response as: “Listen Phil, if you’re goin’ to kill me, kill me.  But don’t f*ck with me ears.  I need ’em.”

Now this makes for a great anecdote, but had that behaviour been viewed as something more sinister than just the action of a ‘flawed genius’, perhaps Spector would have been treated as the dangerous man he was. Perhaps he wouldn’t have gone on to kill somebody.

Perhaps if we stopped saying “Oh, they were a flawed genius,” and instead tried to understand the actions taken by the individuals in question, then we could better identify the mistakes of the past and not see them repeated in the future. 


MACKAYAN: SHOULD WE RETHINK THE TERM “FLAWED GENIUS”?