A book review? Seriously?
Yes. But not a fuddy-duddy academic style review, or something you might find in the newspaper. More of a discussion of Jason Hartley’s The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Times? (2010 – I have the Kindle edition), a book primarily directed at the music fan.
Hartley’s premise (or at least his Overt premise…) is pretty simple: some artistic geniuses are so good at what they do that even when they appear to produce something seemingly terrible, that in fact in all likelihood they’re simply so far ahead of their time or the prevailing trends that its us as the audience that isn’t really ready to see how actually great it is. There are some people who are so talented that sometimes they do things that seem to suck, but in fact don’t. It’s our tastes and preferences that in fact suck. These artists are said to be Advanced, as opposed to their lesser, though often very talented in their own right, peers, who are in fact Overt.
There’s certainly a bit more to it than that, and even an Advanced artist can do things that are in fact Overt (or at least appear Overt to us… when in fact it may very well be us who are not Advanced enough to see it for what it is). But what Hartley is trying to do is identify those artists, primarily focusing on musicians, who are so far out ahead that we should look at (and listen to) everything they do with in the mindset that it is, in fact, probably brilliant. Even if at the time we think it sounds like a pile of crap.
Hartley identifies five “musts” that an artist progresses through on the road to Advancement:
1. They must produce their work over a period of 15 or more years. In essence they need to have established themselves as artists for a period of time so we can properly evaluate them. That excludes a lot of amazing performers, and though 15 years is somewhat arbitrary, I see Hartley’s point here. Can a “flash in the pan,” or someone with only two albums, really be considered Advanced? A brilliant artist, yes. A genius, perhaps. Just not an Advanced Genius.
2. They must alienated their original fan base at least once. Doing so shows that the artist advanced beyond the original work that attracted their fans in the first place, and generally did so knowing they’d be pissed. And frankly didn’t care.
3. They must be unironic. Seeming to do something unexpected solely for the sake of doing something unexpected is Overt, not Advanced. It kind of smacks of a superiority complex too.
4. They must be unpredictable.
5. They must “lose it” in spectacular fashion.
Hartley identifies a few other themes that often seem to appear in the Advanced. They often have a look that involves long hair, black leather jackets, and sunglasses. They tend to find or express their religion, often in very public ways, but the also frequently “sell out” to the dismay of their fans. But are these really necessary, or just coincidences? Either way, they spice up the discussion.
As an example, consider someone who Hartley did not discuss in his book: Johnny Cash. Cash certainly met the 15 year requirement doing his first recording in 1955 and producing music for almost 50 years, and he certainly had plenty of hits under his belt and was wildly popular. He also cultivated the Advanced look, wearing his slicked back hair somewhat long in the back, donning sunglasses, and wearing black so much he became know as “the man in black.” He recorded two hit records inside prisons, which seems highly Advanced and unpredictable (at least the first time he did it). He sort of sold out doing commercials for the oil and gas company Amoco in the middle of the gas crisis during the 1970s, and his drug abuse and philandering alienated a portion of his fan base and hurt his popularity and certainly qualify as losing it. His joining with country stars Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson to form The Highwaymen was Overt, since it’s too easy to be successful with other super-talented musicians (though don’t tell that to the guys who formed Baby Face in the early 1970s), but Cash became unpredictable late in his life, taking on some projects out of left field such as an album of covers that included songs written by Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails (highly Advanced!), as well as doing a reading of the entire New King James Version of the New Testament, which is both Advanced and meets the religion requirement. He sure seems to meet most of the criteria for Advancement.
The Advanced Genius Theory evaluates a number of musicians including Lou Reed, Sting, Bono, James Brown, and Billy Joel. Hartley also considers artists in other fields including the fine arts, writers, actors, directors, and athletes, but the theory was designed with musicians in mind and that’s the most entertaining portion of the book to me. It’s at the conclusion, though, where Hartley makes his own Advanced move and clarifies the real message behind Advancement. The ultimate outcome of any discussion of the Advanced or Overt merit of an artist is that it forces you to think. And not only think, but look for reasons to like an artists’ work, not for reasons not to like it. Don’t assume just because your favorite musician put out an album you don’t like (today) means that he or she has lost it. It may very well be that they’ve advanced well beyond you, and it will take you some time to catch up. Have you ever re-visited an album you didn’t like originally, only to find that it’s absolutely amazing? I know its happened to me. Paul’s Boutique was a departure from the party album Licensed to Ill, and I felt like the Beastie’s had lost their minds. But when I listened to it again maybe five years later… wow.