On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s first album, I would like to introduce you to the only concept that can adequately explain the arc of his career since the release of that record: Advancement.
“Advancement”, or the “Advanced Genius Theory” as it came to be known in my book, came about as a result of a conversation I had in 1992 with my friend Britt Bergman about Lou Reed’s mullet, his Honda scooter commercials, and the generally dreadful music he had been making for the last several years. We wondered how someone so great could have gotten so terrible, so quickly. Somehow, we arrived at the idea that if Reed was ahead of his time in the 1960s, then maybe he was still ahead of his time in the ’80s and ’90s. That would mean that his music was still great, and we were repeating the mistake made by the people who passed on the Velvet Underground and Nico in favor of the Monkees or Sgt. Barry Sadler. And if that were true of Lou Reed, of course it would be for Bob Dylan as well, whose 1980s output was arguably even worse that Reed’s. Or was it even better?
From that conversation grew an entirely new way of looking at music and, eventually, everything. It’s a worldview that is essentially the opposite of the idea expressed by Sick Boy in the movie Trainspotting: “Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed.” The Advanced Genius Theory says that Sick Boy had it all wrong, that Bowie and Reed hadn’t mysteriously lost “it,” they just changed “it” to something that is harder to appreciate.
Our view was that some artists are above criticism and that there was a need for a new vocabulary beyond “good” and “bad” to explain their output. For instance, the early stage (the “good” phase) of an Advanced Artist was called the Overt Period because the artist’s intentions were clear. For Bob Dylan, this would be the folk years before he went electric. There was nothing ambiguous about what he was trying to do, and because he is such a genius, he was a complete success. But his particular brand of genius made him tire of that success quickly, which is why he had to invent new obstacles to overcome, which explains why he would “betray” the folk community that embraced him first and embrace rock and roll.
Britt and I recognized the significance of asserting that some artists should not be questioned, so we developed strict guidelines for what it took to even be considered for Advanced status:
• The artist must have done great work for more than 15 years – plenty of artists can make a few good records, but it takes a genius to stick around 15 years. Dylan has been around for more than 50 years, which is why he is mega-Advanced.
• The artist must have alienated his or her original fans – the Advanced thrive on change, especially in ways that annoy the people that like them the most. His going electric is the obvious example, but I’m partial to his decision to appear in a Victoria’s Secret commercial.
• The artist must be completely unironic – Advancement only works when the artist seems to be the only one who isn’t in on the joke, because it is only later that people realize there is no joke.
• The artist must be unpredictable – Advanced artists don’t do what is expected of them, but they don’t do the opposite of what is expected of them either. Once again, the Victoria’s Secret ad. Only Advancement can explain that.
• The artist must “lose it,” spectacularly – the Advanced never go away, with each new project seeming more impossibly self-indulgent, grandiose, and out-of-touch than the last. Take a listen to his Christmas album if you need some help understanding that.
Even with these guidelines, it’s not easy to accept the idea that you have no right to criticize an artist, even one as inarguably great as Bob Dylan. But once you have embraced Advancement, something amazing happens: You start to like everything. This is what we call the Advanced State of Mind. When you have achieved it, you will, of course, appreciate the most challenging work by someone like Bob Dylan, but you’ll also experience with an open mind the parts of popular culture that otherwise might have tormented you. For example, “We Built This City,” movies based on TV shows, TV shows based on movies, radio commercials featuring two people pretending to have a casual conversation about a product, and cable news.
What’s more, though you like everything, you don’t necessarily lose the ability to discern between levels of quality. You can still have “good taste.” It’s just that the question becomes how much you like a work of art rather than whether you like it. This is far superior to traditional good taste, which is predicated on what one rejects. The Advanced accept everything, including everything the Overt enjoy—acid jazz, abstract expressionism, French New Wave, NPR—but they won’t ruin your party by insisting on playing music no one’s ever heard of. So not only will Advancement give you back your favorite artists and help you enjoy things you’ve always hated, it will get you invited to more parties.
In some ways, the Advanced Genius Theory is much too complicated to explain in a short article or even a book. Even Britt and I, after hundreds of conversations over 20 years, still argue about who qualifies: is Neil Young Advanced? Leonard Cohen? David Byrne? David Johansen? David Lee Roth? But the core of the theory is actually quite simple and, I think, obvious: Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan know more about making good music than I do. So if they do something that seems like a bad idea, maybe I’m the one who is wrong. And why not give them the benefit of the doubt? In the case of Dylan, the worst thing that can happen is that I’ll like some “bad” music, while the best thing is that I get to enjoy an entire decade’s worth of his music that I might have otherwise rejected because the production was too slick. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.