A few years ago, the slog of hacking old information into new packages was really getting to me. I was tired of trying to find new ways to say the same damn things about marketing, goal-setting, productivity, or business models. And I was even more tired of finding more ways to talk about those same damn things on social media.
It felt like my intellectual life revolved around churning out cookie-cutter thoughts.
One thing that is distinctive about an information political economy is the way it instrumentalizes difference rather than sameness. The farmer and worker produce units of commodities that are equivalent within their kind. What I call the hacker class has to produce difference out of sameness. It has to make information that has enough novelty to be recognizable as intellectual property, a problem that landed property or commercial property does not have.
— McKenzie Wark, Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?
I wrote a short (for me) post in January 2021 about my content malaise. For context, this is when everyone was talking about Clubhouse. Clubhouse, remember that?! In this post, I shared the woefully unoriginal intention to focus on "conversations and ideas" rather than "platforms or tactics or algorithms." The intention might have been unoriginal—but it was sincere.
I declared that my new strategy was to only publish or consume "remarkable content." That meant no more scrolling just to scroll. No more making stuff just to catch people in their scroll. No more spending precious brain power on coaxing the algorithm to do my bidding.
The response to that post caught me off guard. Apparently, I had plenty of company in my frustration with the milquetoast, formulaic drivel that dominated social platforms. I even delivered a TEDx talk on the topic.
Obviously, my personal declaration—and even the intentions of many who shared my creative exhaustion—didn’t change the state of discourse on social media. But what it did change was how I made stuff (i.e., content but pretty much everything else, too) to share. My focus on remarkable content also changed how I consumed things others shared. I started to pay more attention to how others plied their craft.
What Makes This Remarkable
So today, I’m starting a new little series—What Makes This Remarkable—to share what I’ve learned and how I apply it, as well as offer some prompts for how you might apply it, too. This series is an episodic craft talk about remarkable work. I want to share some of my favorite videos, podcasts, books, and more with you by breaking down what makes them, at least to me, remarkable.
If you're a free subscriber to What Works, you'll get a meaty and useful excerpt of each edition. If you're a premium subscriber, you'll get the full episode plus "Remarkable Homework" at the end, with prompts for how you can apply what I talk about in that week’s edition to your own work (whether or not you’re a content creator yourself).
My hope is that this series will offer creative provocation to other content creators—as well as anyone who is eager to challenge themselves in their work (or play).
What Makes “60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s” Remarkable
My daughter is a champion road-tripper. She made her first cross-country road trip when she was 4 years old—from Pennsylvania to Oregon. She’s done Pennsylvania to Montana twice, PA to Maine and back once, and countless shorter trips. Rarely do I hear an “Are we there yet?”
And what would a road trip be without music? Luckily, not only is she accommodating of long stints in the car, but she also has an eclectic taste in music. When she was little, she loved George Harrison. Later, she discovered George Michael and WHAM. Then, she got into Fleetwood Mac.
A few years ago, I introduced her to The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks). She fell in love. The kid can sing 95% of the words on the albums Fly, Wide Open Spaces, and Gaslighter. Her current favorite song is Sin Wagon. Don’t quite know what to make of that…
She's a little fuzzy on my personal favorite Chicks album, Taking the Long Way. I’d belt out “Not Ready to Make Nice” with all the righteous indignation I could muster when that album came out. It was quite cathartic for me during a difficult time.
We got to see The Chicks (and Ben freaking Harper) play HersheyPark Stadium in August. I bought tickets in the same spot I always do—second section from the stage, about halfway up, in the bleachers. It’s close enough to have a good view—but not so close that tickets break the bank.
We got to the stadium when the doors opened and promptly made our way to the merch stand and adult beverage pavilion. After grabbing t-shirts and IPA (for me, not for the 15-year-old), a venue rep approached us with a clipboard. She asked us where we were sitting, and, of course, the first thing that ran through my head was, “How are we in trouble already?”
I pointed towards the bleachers.
“How’d you like to sit front and center?” she asked.
I was a bit speechless. I looked at Lola, who was understandably a bit nervous about being in the thick of things. We took the tickets. The seats were incredible. And the concert was bonkers good—I was hoarse for 3 days afterward.
During our last road trip, a quickie down the Easter Shore of Virginia to see my mom, I queued up an episode of 60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s—specifically, the episode about “Goodbye Earl.” “Goodbye Earl” is The Chicks’ song that details domestic abuse, revenge, and poisoning by black-eyed peas against the backdrop of a subversively cheery and upbeat pop-country song.
When the episode was over, without my prompting, Lola decided that she wanted to listen to another. And then another. And another.
I think we listened to at least 10 episodes during the trip there and back. We tackled Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" (naturally), Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!", Green Day's "Basket Case," TLC's "No Scrubs," and more iconic songs.
I am very late to 60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s, hosted by rock critic Rob Harvilla. I found the show thanks to a quick post that Charlie Gilkey made recommending an episode. The first episode came out in October 2020—as many first episodes of podcasts did—and it details Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know."1
I already knew I was going to listen to this show—but opening with Alanis? I was sold.
The timing was perfect—mid-December—when I knew all my usual listens were going to be taking time off. 60 Songs could be my holiday binge-listen.
And oh, it was. It is, in fact. I’m still binging.
I listened to a few episodes just geeking out on the ‘90s-ness of it all. Then, I started to fall in love with Harvilla's style and delivery. And then, I realized how carefully crafted each episode was. Harvilla is a masterful writer with an infectious passion for music.
That's what makes this show remarkable.
Appreciation Sans Nostalgia
I have no nostalgia for the ‘90s. I appreciate what the ‘90s gave me and who I became in that decade. And, yes, it's ‘90s music that I put on when I'm feeling blah. Give me some No Doubt, some Alanis Morissette, some Cranberries, even some Sheryl Crow—and I'm likely to pep right up.
But not because I'm feeling nostalgic. I don't have any desire to go back to the time when those artists were climbing Casey Kasem's Top 40 chart. I just love the music.
I tend to be cautious when it comes to media that whips up feelings of nostalgia. Nostalgia is often weaponized by reactionaries to get us to remember (and long for) a past that never was (see also: MAGA). Nostalgia is derived from ancient Greek words that essentially mean a painful yearning for home. "Acute homesickness," as Google puts it. Nostalgia is a "mythical story" about the past. It hearkens back to something we no longer have, but without acknowledging that we never had what we lost in the first place.
When Rob Harvilla describes his life in the ‘90s, he strikes no note of nostalgia. He's about 4 years older than I am—he was in college while I was in high school—which means he had slightly more independence than I did by the middle of the decade. But otherwise, I can totally relate.
Harvilla's delivery makes it clear that he, too, appreciated what the ‘90s gave him. But nonetheless, has no interest in returning to those days. This tone gives him the chance to tell mortifying stories with humor and sincerity. In the "Wonderwall" episode, Harvilla recounts the time he tried to sing the massive Oasis hit during karaoke:
I can't decide if that's because I'm off-key, and he's trying to be helpful, or if it's because my whole vibe is so morose and catastrophic that he's making me sound even worse on purpose so that I get booed off-stage faster. Problem with that, though, is the crowd booing would require energy and a perverse sort of enthusiasm.
But no, it's like I've sucked the joy—the very life—out of the room with a giant cartoon Acme vacuum cleaner. Just silence. Dead-eyed, motionless silence. I could hear myself sweating. I could hear all the pint glasses sweating. The vowels.
Don't be like me.
Now, I've never done karaoke. I don't have a personal analog for what Harvilla is experiencing here. But I've done other embarrassing things. Plenty of them. I've taken myself too seriously. I've overestimated my own talent. I have no nostalgia for those experiences. They offer no sense of "home," let alone one that I could be homesick for. But I do appreciate them.
An emotional throughline
I've shared before that the emotion I always have in mind when I'm writing is relief. When I approach a subject, I consider whether there's a way for me to explore it so that I can make even one person out there feel some sense of relief. Maybe they feel relief that they're not the only one. Or that they finally have language for something they couldn't quite articulate. Or maybe, even ideally, they just stop worrying about something because they decide it just doesn't matter.
What's beautiful, to me anyway, is that I end up feeling the relief, too. I'm not always happy when I finish a piece, but I'm relieved to have thought the thoughts and gotten them down on paper. I'm relieved that I found words for something I couldn't articulate before. I'm relieved that I can stop worrying about the jumble of questions that had been occupying my brain space.
I can't know whether Harvilla has a particular emotion in mind when he's scripting this show. But if I had to guess, it would be profound appreciation. Even when he covers a song like the Spice Girls' "Wannabe" or Los Del Rio's "Macarena," he does so with palpable gratitude. The man clearly loves and appreciates music.
To hit that note of appreciation so consistently in each episode, to leave the feeling of appreciation with the listener week in and week out, that’s remarkable.
Harvilla's passion for music—and thus his appreciation for some truly great (and some guilty pleasure) music—is gleeful. I'll get back to the passion piece in a bit.