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August 11, 2010

Book Notes - Jason Hartley ("The Advanced Genius Theory")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Jason Hartley's The Advanced Genius Theory puts forth an interesting hypothesis, that even though the true advanced geniuses in the arts may seem to eventually slip, it is our own critical response to their latter works that is lacking. Though I didn't agree with all his examples, I did enjoy the book from its first page to the last.

This is one of the year's most thought-provoking books about music and pop culture. Some will agree and others will disagree with this book's theories, but The Advanced Genius Theory is sure to spark debate and discussion.


In his own words, here is Jason Hartley's Book Notes music playlist for his book, The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time?:


About six years ago, Chuck Klosterman wrote an Esquire article that brought the Advanced Genius Theory out of my bedroom and into the larger world. Though I did a terrible job of explaining it to him, he managed to summarize the spirit of theory perfectly, writing, "When a genius does something that appears idiotic, it does not necessarily mean he suddenly sucks. What it might mean is that he's doing something you cannot understand, because he has Advanced beyond you." Hopefully the following list of songs will add to your understanding of the theory, and you will then start on a journey of self-discovery that is Advancement.


1) "Original Wrapper" - by Lou Reed

Around 1992, at a Pizza Hut near the University of South Carolina, my friend Britt Bergman and I spent an afternoon trying to figure out what had happened to Lou Reed. Why the mullet, black leather jacket, and sunglasses? What was the reasoning behind the Honda Scooter commercial? And how can the same guy who wrote "European Sun" end up rapping about waffles (in "Original Wrapper")? At some point we arrived at the idea that if VU had been unsuccessful in their day because they were ahead of their time, maybe Reed was ahead of our time in the late 80s and early 90s. Since then we've learned that the look, the commercial, the embrace of new sounds, and the disdain for fans' expectations are all hallmarks of a special kind of artist: the Advanced Genius.


2) "Jokerman" - by Bob Dylan (live version on "Late Night With David Letterman")

The journey from Lou Reed to Dylan was a short one: both were credited with expanding what was possible in a rock song in terms of length and lyrical content; both embraced leather and sunglasses, both changed their sound radically, enraging or just disappointing their fans; both were given up for dead in the 80s; and both had "untraditional" voices. "Jokerman" came out in the middle of Dylan's supposed fallow period, where contemporary studio aesthetics sometimes masked the brilliance of Dylan's songwriting. In this live version, however, he asked a bunch of young guys to play "Late Night" with him, and they blew the roof off the joint, as Letterman likes to say. The highlight is when Dylan goes to play his harmonica solo, but it's in the wrong key, so he goes over to his harmonica collection, grabs the right one, then launches into the solo as if he were playing in a bar around the corner instead of a network TV show. The whole performance is pure punk rock, and it makes you realize that it was merely our lack of imagination that prevented us from understanding 80s-era Dylan.


3) "If I Can Dream" - by Elvis Presley

Britt and I realized that Reed and Dylan had at least one Advanced predecessor in Elvis. One of the keys to Advancement is a sincere love for rock'n'roll (as opposed to a fashionable or ironic embrace), and Elvis pretty much invented what a rock'n'roller is, even if he didn't exactly invent the genre itself. Of course, Elvis turned his back on rock to make movies, which just about everyone believes destroyed him as an artist. But then he got bored, and returned to rock in what is only the greatest TV variety show ever made, the '68 Comeback special. The leather-clad, raw, acoustic set is what is generally accepted as the high point of the special, but that part was easy for Elvis. He had done that kind of thing his whole life, and it didn't require him to stretch as an artist. The song "If I Can Dream," however, is highly produced and its power comes from the emotion of his performance rather than the less-nuanced power of his older hits (that also had the extra help from nostalgia). What's more, he stands virtually still, as if Ed Sullivan was his choreographer, yet his physicality is almost overwhelming. In short, Elvis in '68 would have blown away the pre-movie Elvis.


4) "Time After Time" - by Cyndi Lauper, performed by Miles Davis

The Advanced make decisions that are inexplicable, not only to their fans, but to just about anyone who knows anything about music. Miles Davis was certainly Advanced--he fused jazz with rock, wore leather and sunglasses, had a quasi mullet, did a Honda scooter commercial--and certainly made baffling decisions, none more so than his choice to cover a Cyndi Lauper tune. I've spent a lot of time trying to figure this one out, but I've decided that the explanation is simple: he liked the song and didn't care if people thought he was foolish for covering it. So his choice to do the song is not evidence that he had lost touch with who he was "supposed" to be as an artist, it actually shows that he had become a pure artist, faithful only to his own vision without regard to anyone else's opinion.


5) "Interstellar Overdrive" - by Pink Floyd, performed by Camper Van Beethoven

The opposite of Advanced is "Overt," which is when an artist creates work that is easy to understand and has an obvious intention. Overtness was originally meant to describe art that was overtly weird just to be weird, which is, of course, not weird at all. The original "Interstellar Overdrive" was overtly weird, but it was written by a mentally ill, serial drug abuser (Syd Barrett) and, therefore, it was genuinely weird rather Overt. But the cover by CVB is Overt because they were using Barrett's actual strangeness in a calculated effort to appear authentically strange themselves. This is not to say that I don't love CVB's "interstellar Overdrive," because I do. It's just perfectly clear what they were trying to do.


6) "All for Love" - by Bryan Adams, Mutt Lange and Michael Kamen, performed by Adams, Rod Stewart, and Sting

Far from clear is everything Sting has done for the last 25 years. I tried to pretend that he isn't Advanced because it is so hard for me to like almost anything he's done as a solo artist. However, his work with the Police was so incredible that I have to grant him Advanced status, no matter how bland, pretentious, or lute-filled his latest work might be. In the case of "All for Love" I can only assume that he did it for the challenge of collaborating with artists that would be deemed unacceptable by his original fans. I haven't been able to like the song, but because he is Advanced, I know that I eventually will. Until then, I'll just have to admire his courage and brace myself for his next move.


7) "When Love Comes to Town" - by U2

I had high hopes for U2 in the Rattle and Hum era. Throughout the movie the band shows its commitment to Advancement, whether by defacing fountains with Advanced slogans ("Rock and roll stops the traffic"), covering Bob Dylan, visiting Graceland, and, perhaps best of all, performing with B.B. King. Not many people can take the leap from "An Cat Dubh" to "When Love Comes to Town," so U2's fans were understandably distressed and many dismissed the movie. But instead of continuing in this Advanced direction, U2 chickened out to go back to Overtness with Achtung Baby, and Bono created a faux-Advanced ironic persona designed to make fun of his image as sanctimonious Christ figure. Though the move worked--they have maintained their hold of World's Most Popular Band--the turn to conventional awesomeness was a repudiation of Advancement for U2.


8) "Third Uncle" - by Brian Eno

Eno is known for being U2's producer/collaborator, but he also made two of the best Overt albums of all time, Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), the latter of which features "Third Uncle." The song has basically just one part repeated over and over with increasing intensity, has no real chorus, includes wacky angular guitar solos, and its lyrics are barely audible and apparently nonsensical. With so much obvious weirdness in one song, you might assume that the effect is annoying. But Eno is one of the rare artists who can make Overtness consistently interesting (David Byrne is another). The thing to remember is that all Advanced artists are geniuses, but not all geniuses can Advance.


9) "Take Me Home" - by Phil Collins

To achieve the Advanced state of mind, you should start out with songs that you hate by artists that you love. Listen to the songs over and over until you finally understand their greatness. It may help to start out laughing at how bad the songs are; if the artist is truly Advanced you will slowly stop laughing and start genuinely loving the music. Once you've learned to love Advanced music, something amazing happens: you can like everything, even by non-Advanced artists. Your attitude changes from "why shouldn't I hate this song" to "how can I like it?" It also allows you to like openly the songs you previously liked in private. In my case, it's "Take Me Home" by Phil Collins. This song can make me cry, but whereas I used to shed tears of shame, now they are tears of joy. Embrace the Advanced Genius Theory, and we'll weep together.


Jason Hartley and The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time? links:

the author's blog
Wikipedia entry for the book
excerpt from the book (on Mick Jagger)

Creative Loafing Atlanta interview with the author
Crib Notes review
DOA review
Flagpole review
Jacobpedia review
Literary Detours review
Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes review
Rhombus review

DOA interview with the author
Nada Mucho interview with the author
Paper Cuts playlist by the author
Shelf Life interview with the author
Speakeasy article by the author (on Paul McCartney)
Spin article by the author (on Lou Reed)
Spin article by the author (on U2)
The Week essay by the author on his favorite books


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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