Musical Auteurism: Recognizing Genius

Several weeks ago, my article “Paul McCartney: An Auteur” caused quite a stir. In that piece, I attempt to position Paul McCartney as an artist of the highest standard, one whose entire body of work must be taken seriously. Many of the comments I received criticized my lack of reasoning and found fault in positioning McCartney as a man who can do no wrong. I also received some feedback asserting that the Auteur Theory can only be applied to film due to the director’s position within a system of producers, screenwriters, actors, etc. The reasoning behind rejecting auteurism in music: it is laudatory that a director working within a Hollywood studio system would be able to consistently leave a personal stamp on each of his films, but what is so impressive about a musician placing a personal stamp on his/her solo albums? This logic is sound; however, I wish to apply another aspect of the theory to music. Instead of using auteurism in the sense of a distinct creative vision persevering through studio interference, I believe it can apply to music in the way it forces an audience to evaluate an artist’s entire output.

Without this theory in place, I may not have been aware of many “lesser” films by great filmmakers. I recently viewed Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York. Based on its disappointing box office returns and lukewarm reviews, one would think this was a poorly received, self-indulgent, and anachronistic musical not worth watching. Rather than approaching it as a stand-alone film, auteurism forces us to perceive it as part of something greater: an important step in the development of a filmic genius. Placed in its proper context as the coked-out, artificially retro experiment between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, New York, New York becomes a must-see.

I see no reason why this aspect of Auteur Theory can’t be applied to music. An album should not be examined as a stand-alone entity, but rather a piece to a larger puzzle. The artist’s personal and musical history must factor in the appreciation of a serious work. And all works by an artist/band containing genus must be considered serious works. You would be right to say that the Auteur Theory cannot directly be applied to music. The musician does not shine in the spite of writer/actor/studio involvement like a film auteur can. Given this, perhaps the word “Auteur” is not the best word choice for this form of musical criticism. There are other connotations François Truffaut’s auteurism held that could be applied to music; however, specifically the genius identifying. I believe one could alter Truffaut’s famous one liner to my preferred brand of musical criticism: there are no good and bad albums, only good and bad musicians. In this way, I believe the greatest musicians can transcend the status of a rock star or a popular artist into the realm of fine artists.

In an AVClub interview a few years back, Paul McCartney had the following to say about Bob Dylan: “In The Beatles, he was our hero. I think he’s great. He hit a period where people went, ‘Oh, I don’t like him now.’ And I said, ‘No. It’s Bob Dylan.’ To me, it’s like Picasso, where people discuss his various periods, ‘This was better than this, was better than this.’ But I go, ‘No. It’s Picasso. It’s all good.’ Whether it’s bad or good, it’s all Picasso.” This explicates my ideas better than I could myself. Why shouldn’t Dylan’s different eras be considered a part of a larger narrative in the same way a master painter’s are, with each one given the utmost respect and study? If you apply this type of thinking to the artist’s deemed genius, then a much more rewarding experience is given to each of their works. The genius’s personal history and musical chronology become extremely relevant when examining a work this way. Thus more context is created for the appreciation of a work. Smiley Smile sounds awfully different if you didn’t know about the SMiLE project. The Rolling Stones’ shift from R&B-inspired Beatle imitators to a visionary fusion of blues, country, and hard rock can only be appreciated when you witness the subtle progression (with a detour at Their Satanic Majesties Request). Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska sounds brave, considering the super-stardom he delayed until Born in the USA by leaving it stripped down.

The most important aspect of this type of criticism: “lesser” albums by genius artists become far more important. The 12th or 13th greatest Dylan album deserves more attention than the best Cat Stevens album, for example. Much more of an effort must be given to jarring experiments like Self Portrait or Love You than if they had different creators. Time Fades Away, Fresh, and Gaucho, a few of my favorite albums of all time, are ones I may not have found without this model. The Beach Boys catalog is one best suited for this thinking: Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, Sunflower, Surf’s Up, and Love You are all top notch. However, a common line of thinking is that the group lost the plot after the SMiLE collapse. This is completely inaccurate, and I feel a widespread shift occurring in regards to the perception of these albums. Music listeners are returning to these albums years after they were derided as out of touch with the Deja Vu‘s or the Electric Ladyland‘s of the day, and they’re realizing that these works are timeless masterpieces of pop music.

The music criticism of the 1960s and ’70s got a lot of things wrong. Casting off the Beach Boys in favor of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Doors and lambasting classic albums like McCartney and Ram are the two most glaring mistakes that pop into my head. To me, it is clear which artists, in hindsight, from the ’60s/early ’70s truly were prodigious: the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, David Bowie, and (if you include his ’80s work as well) Bruce Springsteen. I would pit these seven artists against any and all comers. While there are many other great artists from this period (Stevie Wonder, the Byrds, Sly Stone, Simon and Garfunkel, Marvin Gaye, the Velvet Underground, the Zombies, Nick Drake), these most clearly scream “timeless genius” to me. I am sure there will be many disagreeing comments regarding this stance; however, I welcome an open debate.

Not that Rolling Stone is the harbinger of taste that it once was, but I think its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list gives an accurate glimpse at the old school rock criticism that I am attempting to refute here. Instead of trying to satisfy different genres and high profile (but not very good) albums in sticking with a boring, generic form of music criticism, I say let the cream rise to the top. Any honest “greatest albums of all time” list would have no shame crowding the top of the list with the true giants of music. I would take Station to Station any day of the week over London Calling, Darkness on the Edge of Town over Dark Side of the Moon, Ram over Ramones, Tonight’s the Night over any Led Zeppelin album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers over any Jimi Hendrix album, and so on and so on.

An album is not an insulated document, but rather something that breathes and grows within an artist’s discography. I challenge music fans to not simply find songs or albums that they like (though certainly that has a completely worthwhile place), but to find entire discographies (from acknowledged classics to forgotten albums) to grow with over time. Witnessing a musical genius grow, expand, devolve, re-emerge, bomb, and experiment throughout their life is an exhilarating thing to be a part of. Applying Truffaut’s supposedly film-specific ideas to music allow this experience. While it may seem easier to simply listen to each artist’s “best” albums, the reason you stick with a McCartney or a Dylan through a career filled with triumphs, polarizing works, and embarrassing efforts is because even at their worst, they still contain something that lesser artists do not have: genius.