Last month I visited Pittsburgh‘s Andy WarholMuseum, and among the exhibits there was Lou Reed: New York, a collection of Reed’s art photos. The one on the right is typical of his interests and technique as a photographer: he likes cityscapes, lots of open air, night and dusk scenes, and the intersection of natural and man-made light. They’re nothing special. They’d have no reason to hang in the WarholMuseum if Reed and Warhol didn’t have such a close relationship, and they probably wouldn’t rate much better than an MFA show at a second-tier college if somebody not named Lou Reed had taken them. But they’re OK.
Problem is, Reed decided to give this particular photo a title—Gorgon—that makes it at least ten times worse. Instead of settling for a competently shot photo of a skyline, Reed employs the horseshit-generating powers unique to aging rock stars to turn it into a hacky cliché. Right, I get it—the city is seductive yet soul-killing monster. I guess I’m supposed to figure that those skyscrapers are snake-like tendrils. Maybe if I squint. To his credit, Lou does help that process along by making his picture slightly blurry.
Most sensible people can write all this off as a spasm of pretentiousness—an old-fart rocker entertaining himself in new ways as he confronts his fading legacy, like John Mellencamp painting or David Lee Roth talking. But because Lou Reed is involved, a certain tribe of music critics might be compelled to wonder: Is this Advanced? Fans of Chuck Klosterman’s work are probably aware of the concept: he wrote the defining text on it, which you can read here.
I use “defining” loosely, because I don’t think Klosterman defines a thing. I’ve read the piece about a dozen times, and I still can’t make heads or tails of it. Consulting with the two advocates of Advanced Theory in the City Paper offices hasn’t helped. Here’s what Klosterman says: “Advanced artists a) do not do what is expected of them but also b) do not do the opposite of what is expected of them.” The problem here is immediately apparent—what does opposite mean? What’s the opposite of what’s expected of, say, Mick Jagger? Recording a klezmer album with former members of Skrewdriver, I suppose; by Advanced logic anything that isn’t that and also isn’t a Rolling Stones record is Advanced. Why this is an exciting or useful prospect for critical discourse escapes me.
Worse, the definitions of Advanced shift. On Monday the White Stripes played a free show in St. Johns, Newfoundland, where they played exactly one note and left the stage. This seems Advanced enough for me. It was unexpected, and it also wasn’t the opposite of what I’d expect from the White Stripes—oh, say, a note-for-note rerecording of the Human League’s Dare. But this one-note gig, I’m told, isn’t Advanced; it’s Overt.
Here’s Klosterman: “If a band is overt, they appear Advanced. However, they are actually the opposite of Advanced, because their seemingly inexplicable decisions are driven by guile.” (Let’s not look too closely at the tautological wormhole generated by talking about the opposite of something that is defined by its non-oppositeness.) By “guile,” he seems to mean “an urge to be showy and pretentious”—the Darkness, the Flaming Lips, and Kurt Cobain’s collaboration with William S. Burroughs are all Overt in his book. But if that urge isn’t what I expect, and isn’t the opposite of what I expect—if, for instance, that urge plays out with the White Stripes playing a one-note gig in Newfoundland—isn’t being Overt Advanced?
I’m being deliberately silly, but then so is Advanced Theory. At heart it’s a method by which music writers can overthink old artists, expend ridiculous amounts of energy showing off what they think of them, and assign more weight to them then they deserve. It’s Ren Faire for rock critics.