Everybody is familiar with the feelings of cultural growing pains. One of your favorite artists puts out something you have a lukewarm response to, and then they end up collaborating with someone you find hideously untalented. You hear their music in a context you don’t expect and can’t control; maybe at a football game, or in a car commercial. Instead of simply ignoring it, and enjoying what made you like them in the first place, you take it as evidence that the artist has lost the plot and taken a turn for the worst.
The thinking behind The Advanced Genius Theory treads in this same territory, but instead of focusing on the artist, it turns the critical focus around to the listener. The logic goes: if someone was a genius, they always will be. How can you, who have produced no masterpieces, question the decisions of someone like Lou Reed or Bob Dylan who has produced multiple masterpieces? Maybe the problem lies within your frame of mind? Perhaps their genius has just advanced beyond your comprehension?
Before going too far, I should make clear that this book is not academic and humorless. It’s jocular, clever, sometimes outlandish, but always grounded and breezy. Writer Jason Hartley co-“discovered” Advancement with his buddy, Britt Bergman, while discussing post-Velvets/post-Transformer Lou Reed over pizza, trying to “figure out what makes a guy go from singing about heroin to rapping about waffles.” The solution is The Advanced Genius Theory, which posits that your favorite artists haven’t “mysteriously lost ‘it’, they’ve just changed ‘it’ to something that is harder to appreciate.” Advancement is manifested differently in different media, but follows a general pattern of early under-appreciated innovation, many years of success and acceptance, and then a period of (apparently) less-than-stellar work that ruins their reputation and causes devotion to turn to disinterested alienation among their fans. George Lucas, Steve Martin, Leo Tolstoy, Andy Warhol, Woody Allen, and Marlon Brando are examples of Advancement outside of music, but music is given the most definitive treatment in the book.
The internal consistency of the theory emerges from converging evidence based on a clustering of advanced qualities that seem beyond coincidence. I don’t want to give too many of these away, but they have to do with hairstyles, wardrobe choices, religiosity, and sobriety. Anything that gets in the way of truly expressing the self like drugs, alcohol, or other band members, will hinder Advancement.
Sitting back while Hartley elaborates the theory and reasons whether so-and-so has Advanced or is a even a candidate for future Advancement is a true pleasure. If you and your friends have ever taken an absurd idea to the extreme, The Advanced Genius Theory should strike a chord with you. For instance, one night my buddies and I came along a copy of Face Value by Phil Collins and “discovered” Collinsization, which is simply playing Phil Collins to one of your friends when they don’t expect it (and it predated the Rick Roll by a good 5 years). So that night we called our one friend who admitted the first cassette he owned was Invisible Touch, and another friend who is English and so was guilty by geography, and simply played a little “In the Air Tonight” and “I Missed Again” into the telephone. It was such a fun humiliation game that we spent the rest of the night hashing the theory out: If you hear Collins, it’s Collinsization, but if you hear a Genesis song it’s Genesicide, and if you listen to Phil Collins on purpose it’s called Sussudiocide. In those years it wasn’t strange to see someone cover their ears and run out of a bar to avoid the humiliation. Debates carried on about whether you could be visually Collinsized simply by seeing his face, or if his voice and/or drum breaks were the only valid means to the end. Side theories developed such as Enomunization, or the idea that listening to Phil Collins in small doses as the drummer on Brian Eno’s solo records makes you less susceptible to harm through Collinsization. It is this rigorous and imaginative spirit that Hartley channels when detailing Advancement.
The converse of Advancement, Overtness, is another key idea in the book. Each advanced artist first goes through a period of being Overt. Overtness includes having a narrow view of what constitutes good art, (absurdly) decrying the sell out, being artistically obtuse or difficult to understand (often to hide the fact that you have little to say, and to allow the audience to become co-creators as they fill in the blanks), and being transparent about artistic or intellectual intentions, often by assuming the form of an archetype who is strange yet easy to relate to. Michael Stipe, mumbling his lyrics while not printing them in the recording’s packaging is a classic Overt. Although when introducing Overtness Hartley claims that it doesn’t mean bad, it just means not Adavanced, and goes on to name plenty of great Overt art, he slips later in the book and delivers some Overt descriptions as pejoratives, which is how I like it. I had to laugh at myself when reading this book because he takes digs at critics for good reason, and also because I’m Overt quite often. One of the few additions to the book I could think of was that I might make a distinction between Overtness as a strategy for fitting in and Overtness as simply a stage any earnest person is bound to pass through. Before understanding what is real, one must first understand the difference between real and manufactured mysteries, and true belief in the Overt will eventually allow you to understand what is Advanced.
This questioning of the established lenses and frameworks for understanding art and pop culture is a thoughtful feature of an already fun book, regardless of how seriously you take the author. I get tired of hearing artists say in interviews “I don’t want to say what my songs are about because it should be all about what the person takes away from the experience.” Actually, I want to hear exactly what a song is about, and it would be best if it came from the person who wrote it. I want the lyrics decoded. I want to know if an artist is for real, or if they’re just making me put in all the effort. In essence, that’s what a critic should be sussing out.
The best way to do this book is to read it and then turn friends on to it so you can have your own conversations about when you stopped following U2 or R.E.M., and whether or not Bono or Michael Stipe could Advance if they’d just go solo. Why not see if you can listen to that new Sting collaboration all the way through? Just looking at the huge diversity of names in the index assures you that if you enjoy pop culture, than this book should be interesting to you. But it isn’t just interesting, it’s hilarious and provocative, and Hartley does a wonderful job of articulating his ideas. Anybody who can draw a valid comparison between Trent Reznor and Roy Orbison is Advanced in my book.