Jason Hartley’s Advanced Genius Theory (“are they out of their minds or ahead of their time?”)was hatched over a pizza with his friend Britt Bergman as a way to explain why musical artists like David Bowie and Lou Reed are seen as brilliant in the beginning and slightly kooky as time goes on. EW spent some time talking to him about the theory — and the book.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you explain the Advanced Genius Theory as simply as possible?
JASON HARTLEY: It all kind of comes down to there’s a certain level of genius that is so great that it should always be trusted, no matter what the appearance is. So for instance, most people think of artistic geniuses starting out early, making their great statements when they’re young, then as they get older their work seems to decline. The idea behind the Advanced Genius Theory is that there are certain people who start out great and they get greater and greater, but they’re so great that we don’t understand them.
Who’s a good example of this?
Bob Dylan is the perfect one. There are a lot of components of the theory, and some superficial characteristics, and he meets basically all of the foundations and superficial stuff. The foundations are you have to have a long career; you have to be working on your own, you can’t be in a group; you typically end up selling out like doing a commercial; and also you seem to completely lose your way and you also embrace religion. Bob Dylan does all these things.
He starts out a folkie, more or less a Woody Guthrie imitation. People start to pick up on it and he does really well, and then he decides he’s done with that and he goes and writes rock music, then country music. All of a sudden he becomes a born-again Christian, which is pretty challenging. Really the basis of it is these advanced geniuses are always challenging their fans, because they’re really listening to themselves. They’re doing what they want to do; eventually that turns everybody off on them.
The original fans usually go first. The pure folkies were like, He’s playing an electrical guitar, I’m done with Bob Dylan. Then he gets all these fans with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and then he does the country records which weren’t as well received, and then he hits people with this pure born-again Christian music. Basically by that point everyone’s really mad at him. The ’80s were just a lost decade as far as everyone’s concerned. I think he’s a victim more of that decade than so much as his artistry declined.
Then there was the resurgence and everyone started to think he was great again, and just as they were really embracing him and he was doing Time Out of Mind. Then he did Victoria’s Secret and Cadillac commercials. There was this, how could this voice of the generation do these commercials? But all of these things are for a reason, and that reason I think is he was just doing what he wants. At first when you look at it, you think doing this commercial is a horrible thing to do, but there’s not much more subversive act than Bob Dylan doing a Victoria’s Secret commercial. Then of course he did this Christmas album recently, and in the video he’s wearing a long blonde wig. So that’s Bob Dylan in a large nutshell!
The point is, all the stuff that seems bad eventually people kind of come around to. You go back and listen to the Christian stuff, and it was produced by Jerry Wexler who had the amazing soul background, and what they put together was a pretty good soul record, which dealt with topics he had been talking about throughout this whole career, just through a different lens. He had been talking about the Bible forever, it’s just that everyone assumed he was just using it as an artistic inspiration rather than finding something more within him.
Eventually he didn’t want to obscure himself anymore, and that’s what the advanced do. That’s why it’s so scary, when all of a sudden they’re not catering to their fans, it’s really disappointing to the fans because they’ve come to connect with the artist. When the artist themselves breaks the connection, its doubly painful.
I know one of the rules is, it has to be someone with a long career, but is there anyone from now that probably fits the bill? When I think of someone going off the rails, I think of Britney Spears. That leads to the question of, Where does possible mental illness come into play?
Definitely an interesting point. With Britney, she wasn’t really innovative. Unfortunately her early career started when she was a child; she never was really given that room to be innovative. She was in the Disney shows and all of a sudden she was out there dressed in the Catholic school girl outfit and on the cover of Rolling Stone. But the point about mental illness is good because when you think about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, he is a perfect candidate and I think he’s advanced, but I also think he’s dealing with mental illness. The key point of advancement is these guys know what they’re doing. It’s not like they’re thinking, Wow, everyone’s looking at my 35-piece band and thinking, that’s great. They know that people are going to be mad about it, they just don’t care. They’re not doing it to make people mad, they’re doing it to make themselves happy.
What about Lady Gaga? She’s innovative, but at the same time people talk about how she takes ideas from artists like Madonna. Does she have the potential to become Advanced?
I think so. Going back to Bob Dylan, he was Woody Guthrie. That was who he was. She certainly has a talent for penetrating all the noise but she’s Madonna plus cocaine-era Bowie. But who knows. In ten years she might have put together an amazing body of work beyond that. The thing about advancement, you can never predict what they’re doing to do, which makes it a little difficult to know who’s going to be advanced. But she could go into different genres, move away from music, maybe write a great novel. There’s all these things she can do. Maybe put out a country record. The main thing is it can’t really be the opposite of what is expected of you. If everyone expects you to go one way and you go the opposite way, it’s basically doing the same thing. It doesn’t take much imagination to do the opposite. But to do something that is completely off the spectrum like a Victoria’s Secret commercial or a Christmas record and all these other seemingly crazy things, that’s really challenging to predict, so it’s hard to say out of the younger people. Usually there are clues in retrospect, like Lou Reed.
Are there titles you’ve retracted?
I’ve retracted and given back the title to Sting so many times I can’t even tell you. I have no idea what to say about that guy. The Police were so incredibly good, to me, they’re probably one of my top three or four bands of my life. Part of that is I discovered them when I was young. That’s one of the things that a lot of the Advanced suffer from; you discover them when you’re young and you’re excited about music and it changes your life. Then ten years later when you’ve moved on, you may have a family or career, your own interests, and Sting puts out a new album, you’re not going to be as excited about it. It’s got to be quite incredible for it to penetrate your nostalgia. But Sting is just really confusing. The thing is, he put out a lot of slow jazz kind of music that baffled me, but he does the 16th century lute music. You can call that whatever you want, but that’s a pretty gutsy move. Then he did a Christmas record a lot of people never heard of.
Has anyone gotten back to you and said, ‘Yes, I am a genius’?
Chuck Klosterman wrote an article about this theory in Esquire several years ago, and from what I understand, and I don’t know if this is true but Chuck wrote an article about it, but Val Kilmer saw that Chuck thought he was the most advanced actor, so he invited Chuck out there. I also think David Lee Roth called Chuck to say, ‘Am I advanced?’ But he’s quasi-advanced. You’ve got to read the book to get into all of that!
If an artist calls you up that has most of the requirements to be an advanced genius, like Prince, and says, ‘Explain me to me,’ would you do it?
Absolutely. Prince is definitely advanced as far as I’m concerned. One of the great instances of his advancement is when he played the Super Bowl, which is an advanced thing to do. All of them end up playing the Super Bowl in some way or another, or a lot of them do. Embracing sports is an advanced thing to do. With Prince, he plays the Super Bowl, plays a medley, part of which is playing a song by the Foo Fighters that I’d never heard of. This from a guy who has a thousand songs to choose from, so he chooses a kind of obscure song from the Foo Fighters. Then he does a press conference after the performance. I’ve never heard of a band giving a press conference after the game. Someone asked him a question, and then the band went into a song and didn’t answer any questions. They just played music.
That sounds pretty advanced. Plus, he changed his name to a symbol. That right there…
Yep. And called himself a slave while getting millions of dollars from the record company. He’s something else. Apparently he also has a basketball team on his grounds, Paisley Park. I hear rumors of that. I used to work at Spin, so you hear a lot of good ones.
Do people ever argue with you? Do they say, ‘So and so isn’t Advanced, what are you talking about’?
First they dismiss the idea completely, and think I’m joking. I say no, I’m not joking. Then they get mad at the idea, because they think Well, if you’re just saying that everything they do is good, then you’re giving all the power away of discernment. Once I tell them Well, the reason why I feel like it’s ok to say that whatever Lou Reed produces is going to be good is because he did good work for 25 years and why would he all of a sudden become wrong, then they’ll kind of be mad. Then they’ll come back to me an hour later and say, What about Prince, and I’ll answer. Then they’ll come back later and say, What about George Clinton, and I’ll say No, he’s not, and they’ll get mad again. Then they’ll come back with a few more guesses and once they’re right few times, they become addicted and won’t leave me alone! That’s usually what happens. Some people won’t even entertain the idea, and I think that is to their detriment.
What made you decide to write this book? Were so many people asking you for the rules you decided to make this handbook?
Partially that. People kept asking about it after basically 15 years or so of talking about it. Different people would ask, and it always seemed to catch on with people. I’m not necessarily great at figuring out what people care about. I can’t pitch articles, I can’t do any of that stuff, but this seemed to have some broad and lasting appeal. It wasn’t a purely commercial idea, although selling out is advanced, so I’m not ashamed to say it. [laughs] It struck me that it did have some appeal, and when I started to bat the idea around I started to see that there was more to it, and it started to develop as a more holistic look at art and genius and our perception of those things. It started to be more of a way of life and a way of looking at life than just a way to explain Lou Reed’s bad haircut.
What should people at home keep in mind when using this theory?
Choose someone that you genuinely love, whose later work you genuinely hate, sit down, listen to it, give it all the same amount of space you would have when you were just discovering this artist and listening to their best work, which means listening to it over and over again. If you want to start out listening to it sort of ironically, laughing about how bad it is, that’s fine too, because you will probably find that by spending more time with it, you’re going to discover things that you would not have otherwise. I liken it a lot to when you get a new album by somebody you really like, typically you’ll gravitate to the song that might be a hit or a single or whatever. That’s also the first song you start not liking. Then some songs that you ignored when you first listened to the album, they sort of grow on you, and become your favorite. Like with Lou Reed, I listen to his advanced work more often than I listen to the Velvet Underground, because I enjoy it more. So, figure that out!