This week in Advancement, Jason Hartley discusses a Prince, and the rarified art of career suicide.
If you know about the Advanced Genius Theory you are probably aware of what it takes to be Advanced, and Prince meets the requirements pretty much across the board:
• He has been great for more than 15 years, embraced religion, turned his back on his early music, became irrelevant, had a comeback, embraced rock’n'roll, worn black leather, sported dark sunglasses, and had long hair in the back in an unironic mullet
• He has been ahead of his time on a consistent basis and embraced technology: he was talking about using the Internet for music distribution as early as 1996
• He has irritated his original and biggest supporters, not only by making music they probably wouldn’t enjoy or understand but by suing many of them who ran websites that promoted him
• He put out a disc (Lovesexy) that had no individual tracks because Prince believed it was important that his music was heard as a single piece. This pissed off his record company, which is an Advanced thing to do
• He played guitar in a band that backed up a singer no one had heard of
• He was so inspired by a Brett Favre-led victory, he wrote a song about the Minnesota Vikings
• He covered the Foo Fighters during his Super Bowl halftime-show performance.
Okay, we all know the brilliant/kooky things he’s done. But the question I kept asking myself while reading a new book about Prince is whether his odd decisions, especially the ones that seemed “bad” for his career, are the reason we still care about him. Is it possible that committing career suicide in a spectacular way has a similar effect to actually dying, which makes you seem more important in retrospect? I think so.
Let’s look at Elvis Presley. He committed career suicide more often than Bud Cort in Harold and Maude, yet his legend only grew stronger with each new attempt. (I guess his fans were like Sunshine Doré.) This is perhaps by design. Advanced Geniuses like Elvis (or was it Colonel Tom Parker?), Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Madonna, and Prince seem to have an innate understanding of when to appear and re-appear, when to change looks and sounds, when to antagonize their fans, and when to show them love, plus they know how to manipulate the media to maximize the duration of their relevance and the size of their myth.
Coming back to the Prince biography, the author states that he is not interested in delving into the mind of Prince, favoring the approach of merely telling us what happened. Yet he cannot refrain from characterizing records as disappointments or successes. However, what constitutes a success shifts throughout the book. The author is either appreciative or dismissive of Prince’s willingness to experiment in different styles of music.
Sometimes the “return to form” albums are bad because they are like the old Prince, while sometimes they are good for the same reason. An artist as successful and innovative as Prince will always be doubted by his fans and critics no matter what he does. Given this, he might as well do whatever he wants. I’m beginning to think that there is some calculation to the actions that seem to be purely self-indulgent.
Perhaps the Advanced Genius understands what fans want better than they do themselves, so while their initial reaction to, say, being sued by the artist they have devoted their lives to following may be negative, the bond they have with that artist is actually being strengthened. It’s kind of like when you love someone who is mean or indifferent to you: there’s just something about someone not caring about you that makes them attractive. And, of course, if they aren’t available, that’s even more attractive.
So by doing crazy stuff, the Advanced get the benefits of being dead and attractively indifferent, but there is another (related) benefit: we are all convinced that they could have achieved so much more had they only made “better” decisions. Just as we think of all the great music Buddy Holly would have made had he lived or how fantastic it would have been to make love to that beautiful girl in comp lit who only talked to you when she needed your notes, we imagine that an Advanced Artist would have made music even more brilliant that their best work, if only they had focused.
Then that imagined accomplishment becomes our true measure of the artist’s greatness, and because the accomplishment exists only in our minds, it is perfect. In a perverse way, the Advanced Artist seems greater by not meeting fans’ expectations. And at the rate that Prince has disappointed us in the last 20 years or so, he could end up being seen as maybe the greatest musician who ever lived.
I hope to interview Jason Draper, the author of the Prince book, so look for that in the coming weeks.
For more on Advancement, check out Jason’s book The Advanced Genius Theory.