This week in Advancement Jason Hartley digs into some Advancement Theory fundamentals and examines how “Moneyball” thinking can apply to rock and roll.
Not a ton of stuff going on this week (and I’m getting ready to go to Ireland to see Bob Dylan), so I thought I’d give you an excerpt from my book to help you understand the Advanced Genius Theory a little better:
A while back I talked about how my opinion of R.E.M. was temporarily damaged by their popularity among people I didn’t respect (particularly a guy who stole my friend’s hat). This affected my feelings about not only the music that appealed to the mainstream audience, but their earlier music as well. This is not unique to me or even fans of Advanced Artists generally. It is difficult for any of us to avoid allowing later work that we don’t like to make us stop liking earlier work. If an artist can create something that is genuinely horrible in the latter part of their careers, then maybe I need to question whether the early stuff is good too. It makes perfect sense, right? It does, but not the way you might think.
Advancement theory says that instead of judging early work filtered through later work, we should look at later work filtered through early work. We’re still on fairly solid and familiar ground here; most people tend to give the benefit of the doubt to their favorite artist, at least for a while. The part of the Advancement formula that causes the most controversy, though, is that it is possible for the early work to be weighted so heavily that it is impossible for the later work to be anything but great. I can understand why people would be reluctant to accept that, and I think that the root of this reluctance can be traced to our relationship to the past and present.
Of course it would be ideal if we could judge art devoid of any context at all, from how it was received by critics to how good-looking the artist is (a frequently unacknowledged factor in our appreciation of art). But since that’s just not possible, we have to do the best we can to analyze performance correctly. This leads us to Bill James.
James, as you may know from the book “Moneyball”, was a security guard/statistician who wanted to understand how to evaluate baseball players in a way that tested conventional wisdom and subjective observations, which had long ruled professional scouting. What he found was that scouts often discarded a player’s past performance if he had the physical attributes scouts deemed important. This meant that players who were tall and strong (and yes, good-looking) but put up mediocre numbers were valued more than little ugly guys who produced consistently. What James found was that a bigger predictor of a player’s success than his height, speed, or arm strength was past performance. If a player is mediocre while in the minor leagues, he will most likely be mediocre in the major leagues, even if he appears to have the potential to be great. Likewise, if a player tears up the minor leagues, there is reason to believe he will do the same in the majors, no matter how little or ugly he is (it’s amazing Lenny Dykstra ever found his way on the diamond). The Advanced are the littlest, ugliest players around.
Something else James found that relates to Advancement is how a player’s value was being judged, or at the time, misjudged. What he realized after breaking down the numbers was that the traditional success metrics—batting average, RBI, stolen bases—were misleading, while less-exciting statistics, like total on-base percentage, made for a more accurate gauge of a player’s worth. Basically, scouts and general managers would discard players who were contributing the most toward winning games for players who only appeared to be contributing. And what’s more, sometimes they were getting rid of the truly productive players for mediocre players who looked as if they should be able to put up the big (but deceiving numbers) that seemed so attractive. This was too radical for many to accept, especially for those whose living depended on the conventional wisdom. But when James’ theories were actually applied by Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, he found that he could put together a very good team without having to pay exorbitant salaries because other teams didn’t see the value of the players that fit the James mold, therefore there wasn’t as much demand for those players. Another disciple of James, Theo Epstein, took these principles to the Boston Red Sox, leading to their first World Series victory in 86 years.
Something similar happens when conventional wisdom is applied to Advanced Artists. In the case of rock’n'roll musicians, for instance, youth and energy are valued by the average critic more than experience and technique, so the worth of a band like the Killers is inflated simply because they are new on the scene. Conversely, the new work by an artist like David Bowie is undervalued because he has been around for a long time. If it’s possible for a scout, someone whose whole life is spent evaluating baseball players, to misjudge how good a player is, even though he has reams of data at his disposal, I think it is probable that we can be wrong about our judgment of art, which is far more subjective than baseball.
No column next week, as I’ll be in Ireland. But in two weeks, I’ll tell you all about the Dylan show.
For more on Advancement, check out Jason’s book The Advanced Genius Theory.