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Pop Hacks! Make your Creativity and Others Work For You

The following is from my semi-regular newsletter The Smoke(ler) Signal

— Ritualize creativity. Far and away the first reason I hear from students and my own head for why creative endeavors don’t happen is “I can’t find the time. I’d like to write/draw/paint/record more but practical shit always get my attention first.”

Solution:  Pair creativity with practical shit. I’ll take a few notes after parking my car. I take a few photos while running a stupid errand. I sketch or doodle for about 90 seconds before morning meditation.

Creativity happens regularly when it feels regular. If it’s workaday, like brushing your teeth, it will happen as often as you brush your teeth. If it must be special and mind blowing and a great communion with the muse every single time, well how often does “mind blowing” happen?

Read long and short. I’m in the middle of reading a mammoth book right now and while it’s magnificent, it’s also dense, slow and the size of an adult raccoon. Which means I can usually do about 5 pages a day before collapsing from reader’s exhaustion then gazing with lust at the stack of shorter, more fun books that taunt me from the nightstand.

I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time reader. But in this set of special circumstances, I’ve taken to reading my mammoth book and a shorter, fun book at the same time, I get to read the fun one after I’ve finished 5 pages of Gigantor. Candy after broccoli.

Apple Trailers. You wanna know what movies are coming out, even to just add them to your Netflix Queue? Apple Trailers updates every Monday. I watch 15 minutes of trailers on Monday before getting to work and feel like Roger Ebert. And no, I don’t find trailers spoil the movie for me. Usually all I remember from the trailer is the decision to see the movie or not.

— Music Discovery: Ancestors and Descendants. The AllMusic database is Wikipedia about musicians before Wikipedia existed. More importantly, each artist page (here’s Prince) has a section that lists that artists’ main influences and whom they influence, their parents and their children, musically speaking.

If you find yourself having a hard time discovering new music, start here. Pick 3 of your favorite artists, see who influenced them and who they inspired. You won’t be straying too far from what you already like, musically speaking but you will also have kicked out the back door and gone outside. Which is a great start.

The Creative Ramp. Every creative endeavor that seems hard has easier, quicker pieces to it–playing scales on a musical instrument, warming up your voice to sing, taking notes to write. Always start with that simple stuff. Because trying out camera lenses or comparing paint colors is easy, right? It’s photo spreads and finished novels that seem hard because they require several staircases to ascend.

Don’t try and broad jump to the top step. Begin with a slow, gentle ramp. then turn and look behind you. You’ll be further up than you think.


How to Use “Best of” the year Lists

Cribbed from my monthly newsletter The Smoke Signal, your guide to consuming pop culture smarter. 

December is the month of Best of 2015 lists, all 7 million of them. It can be crazy intimating which ones to pay attention to, how much and what to do with the three dozen, “ohh I missed that’s” these lists are meant to stir up. So this issue’s Pop! Hacks! will be all about how to make Best of Lists work for you. 




 NPR Music’s Best of The Year coverage is both thorough, varied and beautifully organized, by genrecurator, by song or album. Their website also has an app which will play their favorite songs of the year in random order. Let it run for a half hour while returning emails and see what new music you discover. Rule of thumb (ear?): Look to discover 2-4 new artists, half in your favorite genres, half in genres you  know less well. If you’re music skews toward one genre, focus there. I usually take 30 seconds and crosscheck the artists I discover with the Village Voice’s legendary Pazz & Jop poll, just to see if I’m being an over-40 white guy cliche’ and swallowing whatever NPR hands me.

Once you’ve found 2-4 new artists you like, stop looking. Explore the other work of those artists on the  streaming music service of your choice. Make new friends not new music you say hello to in the hallway.    

Sit-down meals not snacking. 
If reading 2015’s “big books everyone talked about” is your priority, the New York Times Notable Books of the Year coverage will more than suffice. Again, 3-5 titles that stir your interest. More than that and by the time you finish them, it’ll be March and 2016 bookish temptations will already be clawing at the front door. 

For a more personal  take, Maris Kreizman, who runs publishing projects over at Kickstarter does a magnificent Best Books list that I return to year after year.  

Drilling into genres, the NPR Book Concierge does a great job overall. Paste Magazine usually picks a few categories to dig into each year with great flair. The AV Club’s best of coverage of comics and graphic novels is as dependable as an old friend. The folks at Book Riot do both great 30,000- foot Best-of-Every- Book-You-Can-Imagine reporting and strong by-genre lists as well. I also dig these Best Books by Women lists over at LitHub

Tempting here to just wait and see what gets nominated for your Oscars or Golden Globes’s and catch up on films you missed. Don’t. Award nominations too often focus on movies released after Thanksgiving and whose studios spend a king’s ransom on publicity campaigns. Instead of catching up on great movies, you’ll be wasting time catching up on 2015’s Best Movies at Stuffing the Ballet Box. 
Instead, make a quick trip through Rotten Tomatoes Top 100 movies of 2015 or Roger’s annual  Four Star Reviews feature. Focus on movies you’ve heard of but didn’t get a chance to see. Then for films you haven’t heard of but would like to try, watch their trailer on Apple Trailers.
If you like something, add it to your queue of record (Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, a legal pad) immediately to remember it.