Book Review: Jason Hartley – The Advanced Genius Theory (Scribner, 2010)
Jason Hartley’s debut book is interesting and infuriating, ridiculous and thought provoking, challenging and dismissible. “The Advanced Genius Theory” began life as an on-going conversation between Hartley and the theory’s co-inventor, Britt Bergman, initiated in a college hangout and developed in the hallways of Spin magazine and on Hartley’s Advanced Theory Blog. The theory’s basic tenant is that genius doesn’t decay; it only advances its manifestations beyond that which the rest of us can understand. In Hartley’s topsy-turvy world, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music isn’t an incomprehensible attempt to fulfill a contract, it’s a record so advanced that the typical Velvet Underground fan can’t recognize its brilliant anticipation of industrial music. Bob Dylan’s mid-period albums, not to mention difficult-to-comprehend commercial endorsements, aren’t signs of a creative doldrums; they’re the products of a genius at work.
What immediately comes to mind is that, despite their declarations to the contrary, the proponents of the theory are little more than contrarians. The contortions to which the author resorts stand in contrast to the more generally accepted interpretation: inspiration is fleeting, genius decays, and many artists’ later works pale in comparison to their peak moments. The writing teeters frustratingly between humor and argumentation, invoking false analogies, hasty generalizations, straw men, affirmed consequents, and other logical fallacies. The book is filled with unsupported hypotheses, which can be either funny or irritating, depending on your particular opinion. The book works best when the author’s tongue is planted more firmly in cheek, such as for his descriptions of Miles Davis’ film and ad work, and his wrestling match with Sting’s post-Police catalog. The more ridiculous the assertions, the funnier the book gets.
Perhaps the most fun you can have with the theory is applying it self-referentially to the book itself. Hartley, for example, criticizes some writing at VH1’s Best Week Ever blog and dismisses artists like the Replacements, the Clash and Eric Clapton by virtue of his personal taste; one is quickly led to wonder whether these are simply too advanced for the writer to appreciate. In that self reflection the theory reveals its value as a conversational instigator, providing a framework for advancing subjective opinions towards supposedly objective evaluations. ‘You don’t understand because you’re not advanced’ is a funny retort, but not exactly a compelling argument. The qualifications of advancement seem arbitrary, and Hartley’s positions often seem calculated to stir up controversy. Then again, perhaps the entire Theory of Advancement is itself too advanced to be understood from only a single reading of this book.
That said, Hartley does offer up some compelling analysis. He recognizes that the way in which you relate to an artist’s output depends on the age at which you find an artist and the point you enter their creative stream. Those who latch on early, particularly before fame has been bestowed, relate to the artist differently than those whose relationship is the by-product of such fame. Those who discover an artist in their own young years may find their later disaffection a by-product of changing life circumstances rather than a decline in the quality of artistic output. This isn’t in itself surprising, but the different stages of affection and alienation through which Hartley suggests one can travel is an interesting proposition. Hartley also identifies interesting characteristics common to many mature artists, and though much of the book reads as a contrarian’s apologia, the threads of insight will keep the reader continually off balance. Are they serious? Are they joking? The answer seems to be yes, in both cases.
Though Hartley’s nailed down the theory for contemporary pop music, the general statement remains as elusive as Einstein’s sought-after unified field theory. Advancement, in its current form, generally excludes musicians born before the 1940s, and its application to non-musicians is an afterthought. The theory’s extrapolation beyond the original pillars (Lou Reed, Sting, Bob Dylan, etc.) is riddled with inconsistency and episodes of theory yielding to fact. Hartley’s Andy Kaufman-esque commitment to character is inscrutable, intriguing and irritating. Readers will find themselves progressing through stages of denial, anger, bargaining and perhaps even acceptance, nagged all the way by kernels of truth that are simmered a bit too lightly in absurdity.