Never Trust a Genius
An Interview with Jason Hartley
By Ben Allen
Ever wondered how Lou Reed could release a double album of nothing but guitar noise and feedback and still have it advance his career? “What the hell was Bob Dylan thinking doing a television spot for Victoria’s Secret?” Or, “what would motivate Brian Wilson to release a rap song entitled ‘Smart Girls’ in the late 80’s?”
Your immediate reaction might be something like “most artists occasionally create work that sucks, and don’t always make the best decisions.” I too, felt this way for many years.
Now what would you say if I told you there was a theory that would allow you to appreciate all of the work by your favorite artists? Twenty years ago, Jason Hartley came up with one.
In 1990, he and a friend developed The Theory while dining at a Pizza Hut. Although he has been writing and talking about it for years, he gained an increased level of exposure when Chuck Klosterman published an article attempting to explain The Theory in Esquire Magazine in 2004.
Recently, Simon & Schuster published Hartley’s first book, The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time? I spoke with Hartley to help explain further what all this means and if The Theory is for real.
NadaMucho.com: See if you can explain Advancement Theory in 30 words or less. Go.
Jason Hartley: There are certain artists who are so good, for so long, that it is foolish to dismiss them, no matter how out of touch, ridiculous, or crazy they may seem.
NM: That was exactly 30 words, nice work!
JH: I’ve been talking about it for almost 20 years, so I’ve had a lot of practice.
NM: Don’t you think it’s possible that even geniuses create subpar work on occasion? What about when they retrospectively declare their previous efforts as “garbage?”
JH: First of all, never trust a genius, especially an Advanced Genius, when they talk about themselves. Not only do they lie all the time, they also judge from their own Advanced perspective. That’s why they talk disparagingly about their work (except for their latest work, which they inevitably describe as the best they’ve ever done).
Answering the first half of your question second, yes, it is possible for geniuses to create subpar work. But “subpar work” by Advanced Geniuses is more interesting than other artists’ well-received output. Of course, the trick is identifying when an Advanced Artist does actual subpar work. But that’s hard because we are so behind them in terms of our ability to understand their work. Ten years ago, no one would have argued with you if you said that Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was worthless, but now people are starting to get the hang of what he was doing. So maybe the Advanced never do subpar work. I guess the point is that I don’t think many of us are in a position to judge.
NM: Isn’t a little pretentious to explain music being brilliant just because the general public isn’t smart enough to understand it?
JH: Only slightly less pretentious than dismissing an album by Bob Dylan.
NM: What is it about sunglasses, mullets and leather that the Advanced find so appealing?
JH: Very good question. There is definitely something mystical about that combination. Unfortunately I am not Advanced, so I just see these as outdated symbols of rebellion.
NM: So you’re saying it’s impossible for “normal people” to understand an advanced artist’s sense of style?
JH: I guess I am saying that, yes. It might be more accurate to say that we don’t understand the “why” of their style.
NM: Does anyone who creates art have the potential to Advance, or is it just something they’re born with?
JH: Pretty sure you’re born with it, but I’ll say that any genius who is innovative, makes great art for 15 years, enrages their core audience, and maybe wears a leather jacket on top of it all has the potential. But the thing to remember is that you must, must, must do incredible work for a long time to be considered.
NM: How has the response been to your book? Are you finding there’s many new converts to The Theory?
JH: Response has been almost universally positive, though I got some funny negative comments when I did a piece for the New York Times book blog. My favorite is “One word for this ‘theory’: retarded.” Another commenter wrote that it’s obvious that I’m not a musician, even though I have been for about 25 years. But those are exceptions. Usually people embrace The Theory because it is about embracing things rather than rejecting them, which is sort of rare. (Notice I don’t say “these days” because it has always been that way). The thing is that all of us secretly enjoy things that violate our own personal aesthetic—guilty pleasures—and though secrets are fun to have, it’s also nice to unburden yourself and declare for all to hear that “Take Me Home” by Phil Collins makes you feel like crying because it is so beautiful.
NM: In the book you also talk about artists being “Overt.” What do you mean by that? Who are some of the most overt artists?
JH: Overt, in its original sense, meant simply that someone is obviously trying to be weird. Think green Mohawk. An Overt artist is someone whose intentions are easily understood. For instance, artists who depend on shock value are extremely Overt because shocking people takes very little imagination. Marilyn Manson is a great example of a purely Overt artist. The stuff he did to shock people back in the day now seems quaint, but if you look at, say, Andy Warhol’s soup cans, they are still shocking. (Even when the Advanced are Overt, they’re still pretty Advanced). So Manson was just trying to be weird, while Warhol was actually being weird.
But remember that the Advanced go through an Overt phase. Lou Reed was very Overt when he was in The Velvet Underground. Radiohead is still Overt, but they’ve made great albums. Overt isn’t bad, it’s just obvious. Sometimes obvious is wonderful.
NM: What kind of album would Radiohead need to release in order to Advance?
JH: If I can predict it, then it’s not Advanced. And, of course, they would have to break up because a band can’t Advance. It can only be an individual.
NM: Once an artist has become Advanced, is it possible for them to create “overt” works of art?
JH: No, though it appears Overt. The reason it isn’t Overt is because you don’t know why they are doing something Overt because they are Advanced. It may SEEM like you know—often people will say that they are trying to appeal to a younger audience or have “returned to form”—but they always end up surprising you with their next move.
NM: I’ve encountered a lot of resistance and even hostility while trying to explain The Theory to others. How do you respond to these folks? What is it about the theory that is so upsetting?
JH: Some people feel like I’m making a mockery of good taste (which I sort of am). Others think that I’m devaluing their favorite artists’ good work by celebrating the “bad stuff.” People don’t like to be told that they’re wrong or that someone is smarter than they are (I’m not smarter, the Advanced are). I think, though, that a part of it, perhaps a large part of it, is that people sense that there is more truth to it than they’d like to admit. It’s like when you’re writing a novel, and you’re 250 pages in, and someone gives you a valid comment that forces you to go back and basically rewrite the whole thing. The book is better, but you still hate the guy for a while.
NM: How sincere are you about all of this? Is there a certain element of humor inherent with The Theory? How can you honestly say you appreciate Sting’s late career smooth jazz phase?
JH: I don’t say that. I say that it’s possible to appreciate it, but I haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m 100 percent sincere, even when I’m joking.
NM: You’re in a room alone with Lou Reed. He’s strumming a tiny, headless electric guitar, wearing impenetrably dark glasses, and a skin tight leather jacket. What do you say to him?
JH: What is the best doo-wop group you’ve ever heard, and is it possible to find that group’s record anywhere?
NM: Really? That’s it? You’ve got the opportunity to pick the brain of arguably the most Advanced human on Earth, and all you want to ask him about is doo-wop groups?
JH: It’s the only thing I can think of that might generate an honest (and not hostile) response. Plus, I don’t know much about doo-wop.
NM: Who is the most Advanced Star Wars character?
JH: Obi Wan. Rebellious Jedi, recluse, reunites with the son of his old friend (like Led Zeppelin playing with Jason Bonham), lets himself be killed by Darth Vader making us think, “No!” and turning out to be right in the end. What’d you think, Jar-Jar?
NM: Nah, George Lucas including Jar Jar in Phantom Menace was an Advanced move on his part, but the actual character seems Overt. What about Chewbacca?
JH: Exactly what I was thinking. As for Chewbacca, I’m going to have to say no because he’s just a sideman. Max Rebo* is the real deal, though.
*For those of us who are not complete nerds, I did a little research and discovered that “Max Rebo” was the leader of the “alien pop music band” that performed exclusively in-house for crime lord Jabba the Hutt. You know, the blue elephant guy.
The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time? by Jason Hartley was first published in May 2010, and is now available at all major book outlets.