Talent can certainly be judged in retrospect. It is difficult to see the lasting impact of a musicians work on the cultural ethos without a prolonged period to examine their efforts. However, that does not imply that a popular musician’s talent cannot be assessed during their lifetime. A musician may have created a great work of art in their youth and have grown to see its influence on cultural discourse.
Talent is a subjective term and is perceived differently by different audiences. Talent is also a culturally determined value, what one culture sees as brilliant work of art another may see as failure.
There are many examples of great popular musicians who had a lasting impact on their craft before their death. Even before his death, Duke Ellington was cited as one of the most important musicians in the America. Jazz music was still in its early stages of development and Ellington brought it to the forefront of American music in his performance at Carnegie Hall. We see Duke as talented for two reasons: the strength of his music, and the barriers he had to overcome to spread the music. Ellington himself lived to see his influence on other Jazz musicians who followed in his footsteps. While we treat him with a new kind of reverence, there was no doubt of his talent. Our reverence for Duke Ellington is not solely based on his musical ability, but the cultural forces he had to fight. It is possible that we can more accurately assess the pure musical ability of Ellington in retrospect, but we are listening to the music anachronistically. Therefore we may miss out on the details that made his work a staple of American music in the first place.
Fame may cloud honest assessment in many cases but that does not imply that several generations must pass before evaluating their talent. many musicians are deemed talented precisely because they can accurately capture the culture in which they are living. The Miles Davis Album Kind of Blue, the best selling Jazz record of all time, is thought to have captured some cultural moment of the late 1950’s. Today we have great reverence for this album, but the album was not without praise in 1959. Miles Davis has only been dead one generation, but his influence on American music is hardly overestimated. In his final years, people touted Miles Davis as one of America’s defining musicians who had the courage to explore new territory in Jazz while laying the groundwork for new genres. Davis’ contemporaries were able to speak to his great talent. Perhaps the impact of the music could not be accurately assessed during Davis’ lifetime, but his talent could not be ignored.
The most revered musicians in the western cannon have survived the test of history. However, the test of history is far more complex than a simple test of talent. There are many talented musicians who never become discovered and many untalented musicians who have lasted generation simply due to their relationships with the authors of history. Records (and here I mean written records) may illuminate varying opinions of “talented” musicians. Mozart wrote music for the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and while we see him as talented today, if he had been born into a different set of circumstances we may have dismissed his work. Mozart may have fallen by the wayside if the Empire had lost a battle or two. He may have been talented, but hegemonic forces dictate what we perceive to be talent.
This claim relies on the position that talent can be objectively measured. Music is an art form and different kinds of music appeal to different kinds of people. In may cases it seems that musicians that we deem the most talented only apply in a narrow subset of genres.