Review: The Advanced Genius Theory

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in Culture, Music

Jason Hartley (co-creator and author of The Advanced Genius Theory) and I have a lot in common: he’s from the South, he was an English major, and I’ve eaten many times at the Pizza Hut in Columbia, S.C., where Hartley’s “advancement theory” came into being. Perhaps these coincidental biographical similarities explain why I find his theory so fascinating.

The Advanced Genius Theory sets out to be the manifesto of Advancement theory, a theory formed in the ’90s that spread to possess a sort of underground status among rock critics before being popularized by Rhombus favorite Chuck Klosterman in a 2004 article for Esquire magazine entitled “Real Genius.”

Advancement theory rests on the principle that there are artists (musicians, directors, actors, writers, even athletes) who were hailed as Geniuses and who put out such good “art” for such an extended period of time that it is impossible that they would somehow lose it.

Oftentimes these artists are said to have lost the genius they once had. Whether it be by releasing a “bad” Christmas album or coming out of retirement to play for the Washington Wizards, these artists alienate their fans and are often critically panned. Advancement theory teaches us that these moves which are universally considered to be bad are really not; The fact is the artist in question has simply “Advanced” beyond our understanding.

In his manifesto, Hartley goes on to lay down the rules of Advancement, as well as dedicating a significant amount of time to explaining who is Advanced, who is Overt (the opposite of advanced), and who is somewhere in between. While seemingly ridiculous, Hartley defends his thesis by citing countless examples and evidences to prove that Advancement is, in fact, a credible lens through which we can view and analyze popular culture.

What is perhaps the most interesting thing about Advancement, though, is its subjectivity. Hartley himself goes on to say that what he considers Advanced other people may not, and vice versa. By discussing the theory with anyone, you open Pandora’s box and you are destined for countless late night arguments about whether Kid A was very overt or borderline Advanced.

In the end though, Advancement theory provides us with a very optimistic view of the world, forcing us to reconsider what we once considered to be “bad,” and challenging us to find new ways to appreciate and understand art. In reality, what Hartley asks isn’t that we believe in his theory, nor that we suddenly love Sting. Instead, he is asking us to open our minds and approach all art not asking “Why shouldn’t I hate this,” but by asking “How can I like this?” — and that was his most Advanced move of all.

4 out of 5 Bob Dylan Christmas albums

The Advanced Genius Theory is available at bookstores everywhere and in a variety of e-book formats. For more information about Advancement theory, you can visit Jason Hartley’s website.

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