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Subtlety, details and bridges - not just hits
Why some things are memorable and historically important, but most in modernity will not be
“The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity. The believing man is the original man.”
― Thomas Carlyle
While listening to Sasha - Airdrawndagger (fantastic album and timeless, meant to be listened in-full start to finish to make sense, add it to your playlist) I had one of those nice metacognitive moments that struck me. Enough that I stopped working on what I was doing, saved my place and fired up Substack to write it down.
The insight is simple…
Everyone is too focused on trying to make ‘hits’ and ‘go viral’ but not enough on the moments between. The small, subtle details are all but glossed over. A string of ‘all bangers’ means none of them stand out, because there is no room to breathe and contemplate. It’s unnatural and inorganic.
The main theme of the movie, song, marketing campaign – is always second tier to the details. It’s the subtle, small, refined elements that make something worth listening to again, reading twice or watching repeatedly. It’s those tiny parts that upon first glance seem insignificant, but after further inspection reveal the depth that went into them. It is always the detail that astounds and inspires. Detail is what survives time.
Because so many are trying to create hits and work on the obvious elements it’s common to hear similar progressions in music, common story lines in movies and media brands focused on the same topics.
Consider three quick examples:
countless spy movies
innumerable jazz songs
infinite true crime podcasts
Just how many of the works in each of these categories blatantly copy each other in terms of main theme? Quite a few – even the ones we’d classify as creative and high quality. This is okay, but in all cases it’s the details which define how memorable they are, not the main plot, theme or classification. All of the above examples can be fertile areas for great works but somewhat counterintuitively, it’s not really about the main idea, it’s about the execution of the details.
Further, ‘hits’ in each of these categories (and most things) already exist. So you’re not going to create a new hit in anything overnight, nor should you try. Instead, stop focusing a majority of your time on the main elements which audiences expect and anticipate. Those things are easy/common to create and of little value. Flip it and instead pay relentless attention to the detailed, subtle elements. Spend 80% of your time there and 20% on the main theme. A good producer makes ordinary become extraordinary through detail.
Without detail, you’re just ‘creating content’ that’s expected and procedural. And any work done this way is the antithesis of art and feels like joyless, paint-by-numbers drivel churned out by AI, even if you didn’t even use AI. You shouldn’t waste cycles creating that which is empty because it doesn’t make people think nor evoke change, life is short and it’s just not worth the time. It doesn’t rouse anyone to subscribe, form a relationship with you or join your cause because there is no value to be gained. No value, as there are already too many others just like it, so why should we care? You need to have a real opinion on the work, to the point it can easily be drawn back to you.
With an unstoppable mass of works being created for both intrinsic reasons and profit, the concepts that will stand out tomorrow are from people who – whether conscious or of it or not – are focused on subtlety, details and bridges, not hits and obvious components. They are telling a unique, less heard story consistently over time.
The subtle elements are where originality lives
“What is the point of being on this Earth if you are going to be like everyone else?”
— Arnold Schwarzenegger
Everyone has heard the adage there is new under the sun and everything is simply a derivative work. Essentially, any work we create is derived from the experiences within our lives or the other creative works we are consuming (and remember, just like if you take in low quality food your body functions poorly, the same holds true for your mental state if you ingest low quality art). Your output is at least some % a function of input. And while what we have experienced plays a role in shaping what we produce, especially the main themes, the subtle elements are where you have a chance to be truly original and create something unique to you. In other words: yes, someone may have written a story similar to what you are about to write or has written a song with similar chords, but the details of yours are the chance to stand out. No one can accurately duplicate them, just like no one can perfectly match your personality.
Nearly everyone else is focused purely on hits, you should play a different game
Most people are actively trying to make the next big hit. This is exactly why they won’t succeed. It’s not even necessarily they’re trying too hard, it’s that they’re focused on the wrong thing. You simply don’t have leverage in the world to create a hit until you have done something which sparked interest initially (or if you have million $ marketing budgets behind you — this works temporarily). It’s the reason why an unknown animator can create a stunning 5 minute short-sequence which gets millions of views and acclaim from industry players, providing leverage necessary to gain funding to create a full-length piece. It’s why a writer pouring their soul into an obscure niche 100 or 1,000 words at a time is gaining book deals and speaking gigs. In both cases, they aren’t trying to create hits – but due to their focus on something small they can win big.
Bridges connect and give larger moments vital context
The concept that ‘there is never a dull moment in music’ applies across all creative domains. Bridges string together the hits and provide contrast. Without them there are no peaks because you can’t have them without valleys. Listen to the album I linked at the start of this post and you’ll see what I mean (side note: if you aren’t listening to full albums anymore, your soul is deeply empty and starved for nourishment, but this is easily fixable).
Subtle ideas and side projects can evolve into hits
“Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while working.”
— Henri Matisse
How many times have you taken a seemingly auxiliary thought and decided to flesh it out into a larger project? That’s how brainstorming generally works and you should embrace and encourage similar jumping points to occur within your own mental processes. You have to start something if you want to do anything.
Create for the nerds/true fans, not the masses
The masses don’t want detail. In fact, they won’t even notice it. They’re just paying attention to them main theme and wouldn’t think to consider the details living beneath the surface. They’re just scrolling mindlessly and don’t want to dig deeper into anything or anyone. You probably won’t convert them anyway. Subtlety is there for those who care. There’s a reason too much popularity has driven many an artist mad, and I find it impossible to believe anyone reading this far in a post about creative really wants this.
It’s those detailed and all too rare movies, books, albums, blogs that have that layer of subtlety to them I return to again and again. They do far more for me than the obvious hits. And if you just like the obvious hits, you might be a goldfish.
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