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History’s top ten teenaged talents

Tavi Gevinson’s first blog, Style Rookie, received about 30,000 visitors a day. She was interviewed by The New York Times and given front-row invites to shows at New York and Paris fashion weeks. Her opinion was sought by everyone and anyone interested in fashion.

All this was when she was 12 years old, an age when most kids are wistfully saying farewell to My Little Pony and contemplating falling in love with a member of One Direction.

At the ripe old age of 15, Chicago-born Gevinson developed a new-found maturity, put away childish things such as fashion, and founded Rookie, a wildly successful online magazine.

She also acts, has given a TED talk and, naturally, hangs out with uber-hipster Ira Glass. This week, the 17-year-old is in Australia to speak at the Opera House on the future of journalism.

If we’re lucky, she might just be given a Nobel prize soon, then retire having achieved everything humanly possible and leave the rest of us to get on with feeling old, bitter and unsuccessful.

And just when you were feeling intimidated by the outrageously smart Gevinson, here is our pick of teenage creative geniuses throughout history. This is not so much intended to inspire as to remind you that if you haven’t made it by 20, you should probably just give up trying.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)

Regarded by many as the greatest classical composer, Mozart wasted no time demonstrating his freakish musical talent, picking out chords on the piano at the age of three. He famously knocked out that ditty beloved of nursery mobile manufacturers everywhere, Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star, at five years old, an age when most kids are coming to terms with using a knife and fork. At 14, he penned Mitridate, re di Ponto, a three-act opera that is still performed today.

By 17, he got the gig as court musician for the ruler of Salzburg. Among other achievements before leaving his teenage years, he composed his five violin concertos, some string quartets and a series of church compositions. According to The Oxford Companion to Music, even at this age he was ”a complete master in nearly every genre and had the makings of an international reputation”.

Beyond the teens Mozart lived until only 35, when he died of a mystery illness, but his output was astonishing. Concertos, sonatas, chamber music, Masses, symphonies, operas and organ music flowed from his pen during his short life.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

The English poet and political theorist developed a reputation very early on as a somewhat … unusual … child. Quiet, withdrawn and bookish, he was bullied mercilessly at Eton before winning over his tormenters with pranks that included running an electric current through the door handle of his room and blowing up a tree with gunpowder. ”I could not descend to common life: the sublime interest of poetry, lofty and exalted achievements, the proselytism of the world, the equalisation of its inhabitants, were to me the soul of my soul,” he wrote of his schooldays. By 18 he had published his first gothic novel, Zastrozzi. This was followed by an anonymous book of poetry and another novel, St. Irvyne. The following year he was tossed out of his Oxford college after writing a scandalous pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism, which was the first material printed that attacked Christianity.

Beyond the teens Shelley’s output of poetry, prose and political writing in his colourful but short life is legendary. Chambers Biographical Dictionary concludes he was an ”inspirational polemicist” and a ”poet of genius”.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Somehow, it seems, the painting giant skipped the finger-painting phase and went straight to knocking out masterpieces. Later, he said: ”I never drew like a child.” His father was an art teacher but, by the time Pablo hit 13, he admitted his son’s talent already overshadowed his own. At 14, he produced a significant work, Girl with Bare Feet, which astonished those around him with its maturity. That year he also blitzed the exam to get into the senior art course at La Lonja art school in Barcelona.

Beyond the teens No sign of burnout here, with Picasso going on to become one of the most influential and best-known artists of the 20th century. As he put it, with characteristic humility: ”When I was a child, my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll end up as the Pope.’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.”

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91)

The French poet is perhaps the ultimate precocious teenager, in that he did all his writing before he was 20. When he was 16, he published his first book of poems, and also ran away from home in north-eastern France to live in Paris, where he became part of the decadent movement (and, frankly, if you have to join a movement, this sounds like the one to join). According to Chambers Biographical Dictionary, he devoted this part of his teenage years to ”leisure, drinking and bawdy conversation”.

He was 17 when he began an affair with Paul Verlaine, another poet 10 years his senior. Things got a bit messy when Rimbaud tried telling Verlaine ”it’s not you, it’s me”, and Verlaine shot him in the hand (he was subsequently jailed for attempted murder). The shot in the hand also proved a shot in the arm for Rimbaud’s writing, and many of his greatest works come from this period.

Beyond the teens Rimbaud famously quit all forms of writing at age 20 in favour of travelling the world as an explorer, soldier and sometime gun runner. At 37, he contracted a leg infection and died after the limb was amputated.

Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950)

The greatest male dancer of the past century was knocking the socks of balletomanes before he turned 10. Born in Ukraine, his parents were noted dancers. His father in particular was admired for his leaping ability, something that later became Nijinsky’s trademark. He was nine when he started at St Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School. A high-spirited lad (he was once expelled after an unfortunate incident involving a catapult and the hats of passers-by), he got through school largely on his astonishing dancing ability. By 17 he was a soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre, appearing in classics such as Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.

Beyond the teens Nijinsky went on to become a ballet superstar, in particular as the leading dancer in Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. He had a famously complicated and turbulent private life and left the stage aged just 29, when he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Judy Garland (1922-69)

According to Garland (nee Frances Ethel Gumm), she was ”born at the age of 12 on a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot”. But even by that tender age, the kid from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, was already a stage veteran. At just 2½ years old, her obsession with performing was apparent when she sang Jingle Bells at her father’s theatre and had to be physically removed after the seventh rendition of the song. As a youngster she went on to tour and make several movies with her siblings as the Gumm Sisters. She was snapped up by MGM and made several musicals with Mickey Rooney before being cast in The Wizard of Oz in 1939. She was just 16 when she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Dorothy Gale in what was to be regarded as one of the greatest musicals. By 18 she was already under the care of a psychiatrist.

Beyond the teens Garland’s well-documented battle with booze, drugs and depression began almost immediately after The Wizard of Oz. But despite her personal torments, she went on to make movies including Meet Me in St Louis, Easter Parade and A Star Is Born. She overdosed on barbiturates in London aged 47.

Anne Frank (1929-45)

When one considers precociously talented teenagers throughout history, it is impossible to ignore the work and tragic life of Anne Frank. Frank was 13 when her father gave her the book in which she wrote the diary that was to become her memorial. Shortly after that, the family was forced to hide themselves in a secret suite at the back of an Amsterdam office. They were betrayed less than two years later, and Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. When the diary was discovered and published after the war, it became one of the most significant works dealing with the Holocaust. The maturity and insight of Frank’s writings have made the work a classic, read by millions. There is much unintended pathos in her diary, such as this fragment: ”I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” One can only speculate what she might have gone on to achieve had she not been murdered at the age of 15.

Keith Jarrett (1945-)

One of the greatest-living jazz pianists, Jarrett wasted no time starting his career; he began taking piano lessons aged three. Even then he showed a remarkable aptitude for the instrument. He also had perfect pitch (the ability to recognise and name individual notes with no reference pitch). He began composing almost straight away and at six he played his first complete concert, which included two of his own compositions. At nine, he had a gig at Madison Square Garden and by his early teens he was getting professional engagements. To this point, Jarrett’s focus had been on the classical repertoire and in his mid-teens he was offered the chance to study in France with legendary composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger, which he turned down in favour of a jazz career.

Beyond the teens Jarrett went on to play with jazz royalty, including Miles Davis and Art Blakey, as well as leading many other ensembles of his own. He is also famous for his solo improvised performances, including the ground-breaking Koln Concert, the best-selling recording of solo piano music.

Stevie Wonder (1950- )

At 11, most children make extra pocket money with a paper round. By that age, young Steveland Judkins Wonder had already signed for Motown Records. Born in Michigan, Wonder was a premature baby and an incubator accident left him permanently blind. Not that his disability held him back. Just to underline his prodigious early talent, his first album (released when he was 13) was titled Recorded Live: The 12-Year-Old Genius. The Berry Gordy-produced album went to the top of the Billboard chart as did the single Fingertips.

While still a teenager, Wonder recorded smash hits including For Once in My Life and Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Your’s. He also wrote Tears of a Clown, which became the signature song for Smokey Robinson.

Beyond the teens Wonder’s post-prodigy career has been punctuated by massive hits and a willingness to experiment with different genres beyond soul music. Tracks such as Sir Duke (with its catchy horn riff that has bedevilled generations of school bands) and Superstition more than made up for kitschy outings such as I Just Called to Say I Love You.

Kate Bush (1958-)

Like so many 13-year-olds, Kate Bush spent a lot of time writing her own poetry and lyrics. Unlike most 13-year-olds, her adolescent scribblings were rather good. In fact, as it turned out, they were extraordinarily accomplished. At the age of 14, she met Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who was impressed by the teenager with the unique voice and recorded some songs with her at his home studio. She signed to EMI shortly after that and was on top of the British charts at the age of 19 with her debut release, Wuthering Heights, which, depending on your viewpoint, is a classic pop song of romantic genius, or one of the most irritating earworms ever released.

Beyond the teens Bush has proved to be anything but a one-hit wonder. Her songs have featured in the British top 40 on 25 occasions. She was also the first female solo artist to have an album go straight to No.1 in Britain. Earlier this year, she was made a CBE for services to music.

Tavi Gevinson will speak at the Opera House on Sunday.

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