Learned is a blog-via-email about pop-culture and languages and information tools. It's about understanding more and it's about being better.

Learned #42: Yoga Bear

In which we get fit.

As I've written, I don't really make New Year's Resolutions. Not in the classic sense, anyway. But I do make goals. And, just like everyone else, my goal is to get into shape. I've lost weight before. I've even gotten into (a slightly better) shape before. But nothing has stuck. I've done different sports and routines and I always get bored. I hope this time will be different.

Yoga has been popular for decades, but in the past ten years or so, it's hit a new high of people doing it all the time and recommending it to you so often that you just don't want to hear another word about it. I blame YouTube. The number of channels and practitioners using YouTube to both teach and sell you on lessons is approaching the infinite.

So, for those who are sick of their friends telling them they should just give yoga a try, I sympathize. I'm not going to be preaching to you in this issue, I'm just going to tell you why I've started, what I hope to gain, and point you to the resources I'm using in case you have been unsure of starting too.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Yoga me, baby!

  • What We're Reading: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Alternatives

Let's get to it.

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

What We're Learning:

Yoga me, baby!

Zen AF.

What is yoga?

Everyone kind of knows what yoga is, right? You do some stretches and breathe a lot and some dude who smells like he bathed in patchouli oil lectures you about all your bad choices in life.

Here’s wikipedia:

Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India. Yoga is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophical traditions. There is a broad variety of yoga schools, practices, and goals in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The term "yoga" in the Western world often denotes a modern form of Hatha yoga, which includes the physical practice of postures called asanas.

Riiiigghht. I understood some of those words…I think the key is in the last sentence - Western yoga is usually a form of Hatha yoga. However, following the wiki is not very helpful in this case as it goes into a lot of detail about where the tradition comes from and what it means, when all we’re really concerned about right now is that most of the yoga classes you see offered at your gym (or on YouTube) are based on this form and, in modern, practice, it is more physical exercise than spiritual teaching.

Why did you choose yoga?

Three different things converged in my head over the course of last year that finally convinced me to try yoga.

The first is that a good friend of mine went from being thin but not fit to being climb-up-every-mountain fit over the course of a year, all by diligently practicing along with a YouTube series.

The second came out of my obsession with Korean reality t.v. shows - one of the ones I watched featured a Korean pop star who badgered everyone in her life into practicing yoga with her. To a person* they all walked out of the experience feeling better.

And third, I watched a bunch of these videos. There, Diamond Dallas Page teaches his own brand of yoga originally designed to help athletes with long, sustained traumas (wrestlers, football players, etc.) overcome their injuries. He progressed to helping people with disabilities and the severely obese. And, man, those success stories are inspiring.

Now, all of these come with caveats. In the first case, my friend was not fit, but he was not fat either. He ate fairly healthily and already went for long walks on a regular basis. But, yoga helped him with joint pain and his flexibility and stamina. In the second, it's a t.v. show. It's possible that everyone was edited to look like they enjoyed the experience, but I'm assuming a lack of malice and taking it at face value. In the third case, many of the people who found success also worked a diet and did additional exercise, so it wasn't just yoga, but I'm pretty sure it helped.

What are the benefits of yoga?

Flexibility, mainly.

Depending on who you ask, yoga can do everything from decreasing your stress to making the dead stand up and sing. But the truth is, there are two kinds of answers you’ll find: the testimonial and the lowered expectation, depending on your source. Keeping that in mind, here are some interesting articles I found:

But, here’s the TL;DR: Yoga can reduce stress, strengthen muscles and bones, strengthen circulatory and respiratory systems. None of which should be surprising. After all, any daily exercise combined with a healthy diet should provide many of the same benefits. The difference between yoga and other forms of exercise (aerobics, weight lifting, etc.) is the focus on flexibility and breathing.

How to start?

If you’ve made it this far and are really keen to start your own practice, here are a couple more resources you can check out:

Good luck!

What We’re Reading:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by Douglas Adams

“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

The preceding quote is, as anyone who’s read the 6-volume trilogy knows, the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything.

I first read the Hitchhiker’s Guide when I was about 14. I’ve read it several times since and enjoyed it all over-again every time the series is changed into yet another t.v. show, radio show, or movie. And, in another few years, when it’s been re-shaped into a virtual, choose-your-own-adventure, Netflix-only, live stage-play, I’ll enjoy it once more. In the meantime, if you haven’t read these books, do yourself a favor and do so at once. If for no other reason than this handy bit of advice regarding towels:

“…it has great practical value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you – daft as a bush, but very, very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

Fine. I’m off to go read it again…


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Big Fat Quiz of the Year

It’s a very short rabbit hole this week as there’s really only one entry due to my annual obsession with Channel 4’s The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, hosted by Jimmy Carr.

What you need to know:

  1. This is a panel show, a type of variety common on U.K. t.v. in which comedians and celebrities discuss various topics while throwing in as many jokes and witty observations as possible. It’s like a cross between a late-nite show and a game show in a lot of ways.

  2. The Big Fat Quiz of the Year has been held every year since 2004 with a few specials and spin-offs along the way. My favorite spin-off is The Big Fat Quiz of Everything.

  3. Jimmy Carr is the British comic who’s laugh sounds like a drunken seal.

  4. Some kind souls have uploaded many of the episodes to YouTube, including the official channel.

That’s it. Stay safe, stay healthy. Learn something.

Learned #41: 2019

In which we make some predictions.

Happy new year!

Welcome to 2019. Ready to make grand pronouncements and extreme resolutions? All set to change your life and yourself into the person you’ve always wanted to be? Ready?

Yeah, me neither.

I really enjoy New Year’s here in Japan. It’s a very relaxed, peaceful time to enjoy family and stupid t.v. specials and traditional foods. There is no talk of resolutions or goals and that is a fantastic thing all by itself. It takes the pressure off.

That said, while I don’t really go in for resolutions, I do like to take the time to look at my goals and the processes I’m using to try to achieve them. In other words, it’s time to take stock and figure out what I want to do in the next year and how to go about doing it.

In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: Resolution, Smesolution

  • What We’re Reading: Getting To Done

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Predictions

Let’s get to it.

What We’re Learning:

Resolution, Smesolution

Let’s start with a big question: Where did the practice of making New Year’s resolutions come from?

History.com says that the practice of making resolutions can be traced back almost 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During the planting season, they would make promises to repay debts and return borrowed items and so on. Those ideas make their way through several centuries and cultures until…

For early Christians, the first day of the new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future. In 1740, the English clergyman John Wesley, founder of Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service, most commonly held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Also known as known as watch night services, they included readings from Scriptures and hymn singing, and served as a spiritual alternative to the raucous celebrations normally held to celebrate the coming of the new year

As the practice grew, the resolutions themselves changed:

New Year’s resolutions have become a secular tradition, and most Americans who make them now focus on self-improvement. The U.S. government even maintains a website of those looking for tips on achieving some of the most popular resolutions: losing weight, volunteering more, stopping smoking, eating better, getting out of debt and saving money.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those resolutions except that unless they’re paired with achievable goals, we won’t be able to stick to our resolutions.

Here are three takes on making and keeping resolutions:

The New York Times Smarter Living says resolutions should be:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Achievable

  • Relevant

  • Time-Bound

Psych Central adds three key concepts:

  • Keep it Simple

  • Receive Support

  • Put Yourself in Charge

And Fast Company gives us a little bit of a counterpoint in making three more negative sounding suggestions:

  • Find Motivation

  • Make Failure Painful

  • Plan for Setbacks

Here’s the thing - all eleven of those steps are how you achieve any goal, resolution or otherwise.

The temptation is always to aim big: I’m going to lose weight! I’m going to get in shape! I’m going to write a novel! I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail in one trip! In fact, here’s Wikipedia’s list of the most common resolutions. See if you can spot yours!

  • Improve Physical Well-being

  • Improve Mental Well-being

  • Improve Finances

  • Improve Career

  • Improve Education

Hands up, who’s looking for the all-of-the-above checkbox? Just me? The truth is, all those things are possible if you plan correctly and thoroughly. Which is the real challenge.

Looking Back

So, how to plan out a resolution, or set of goals, or a goal, that has a chance of being met? For me, the key is in looking back and I’ve got a couple of tools I’m going to recommend.

Year Compass - The Year Compass is a lengthy (seriously, it takes a couple hours to do) set of worksheets designed to help you decide what is most important to you, right now, and to help you brainstorm your way towards setting those realistic, doable goals that will ultimately achieve your over-arching one. It’s free and it’s available in both to-print and digital forms.

Gameplan 2019 - Essentially the same idea as Year Compass but a little more gamified. Once you’ve finished answering all the questions, an email with your agenda is sent to you. And, of course, you should sign up for their app so you can track your progress. I don’t like this one quite as much as I like Year Compass, but it’s still a good tool, especially if you live and die by your calendar.

Multi-year Journals - Keeping a diary is one of the best forms of self-care and self-therapy there is. Finding the time to keep one is a struggle for all of us. One product that’s emerged in recent years is the multi-year diary. Laid out in three or five or ten year increments, you can see how you were feeling and what you were doing on this day a year or two before. It can help you find roadblocks and places where you’ve just been spinning your wheels; it can help you find places where you need to let something go or move on from something so you can do something better, or at least different in the future.

So that’s that. A little bit about the history of grand, New Year’s resolutions and how we can keep them. If you feel the need to set one in the first place. My goals haven’t really changed: get into shape, make creative things, study better, learn more. How I go about these goals, though…well, I’ve got some worksheets to fill out.

What We're Reading:

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stree-Free Productivity

by David Allen

First things first: you've heard of this book. Second, the subtitle is an absolute lie. Those two things being said, this is a great read when you're thinking about goals and targets and how to achieve those things.

You've Heard of This Book

Getting Things Done is second only to The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and, maybe, The Art of War in the productivity hall of fame. The GTD method has been developed from the initial book into a full system of productivity hacks, tricks, and strategies to make you the lean, mean, goal-achieving machine you were always meant to be. That said...

The Subtitle is An Absolute Lie

There is no such thing as stress-free productivity. The mere fact of being concerned with how much you're getting done makes the phrase an oxymoron. And that's the catch-22 with all these productivity systems - you can get so lost in trying to build your methodology that you end up getting nothing done. It's important to keep in mind the end goal and make sure that you're organizing your day and your plan to get to actual results and not just a perfectly clean desk.

But Still...

GTD is a good place to start. The methodology has been so developed and workshopped by hundreds of thousands of users that there are countless ways to tailor the core ideas to your goals. But, like with anything, you've got to start with the basics (Which probably means going back to Sun-Tzu. Seriously.) and this is as good a set of basics as any.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:


The flip-side to reflection is prediction and there's no better time to do that than at the beginning of the year. I, however, have no predictions at all. The future is a dangerous, uncomfortable place and I'd just as soon meet it as it arrives. Other people though are not so pragmatic. Here are some of the prediction lists and think-pieces I've been reading:

Motherboard asked 105 experts what worries them most about the future and what gives them the most hope about the future. My advice, read them in that order.

Most Worrying Answer:

Learned #40: 2018

In which we read some lists.

Year-end lists have been with us for decades now, going all the way back to the mid-1800s at least. Personally, they're one of my favorite reading tasks of the year; they give me a good way to catch up things I missed or re-visit things I had forgotten about. But, because every magazine, blog, lifestyle site, and social network has its own set of lists, there can be a lot to get through.

So, this week, we're taking a small break from the usual format to take a look at some of the "best of" lists that have caught my attention over the past month or so.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: What Was Best This Year?

  • What We're Reading: The Year in Reading, 2018

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: The Year in Music, 2018

Let’s get to it.

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

What We're Learning:

What Was Best This Year?

2018 marked a few personal anniversaries for me: I turned 43, my wife and I celebrated 13 years of marriage, and my kid turned 3. I also returned to school as a student for the first time in 25 years, got a couple of new gigs, and started a few new projects, like this newsletter. Some parts of this year were good, some parts were bad, most I don't remember all that clearly.

Thus this round-up of all the best-of, worst-of, remember-this, don't-forget-that lists that I've been reading for the past month. Like most people, I imagine, I'm not actually all that fussed that the calendar year is changing, but I do find this to be a good time to reflect and plan and see what we can do differently this next go round. So, here are some interesting things to think about:

52 Things I Learned in 2018

Tom Whitwell's yearly list is always worth reading. It's interesting, covers a wide swathe of technology and science reporting, and generally teaches me something new every year.

99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn't Hear About in 2018

Buried in amongst the political quagmires was a lot of good news regarding conservation efforts, global health, living conditions in poorer countries, and clean energy. Angus Hervey, at Future Crunch, put this list together and it’s worth saving for dark days. Relatedly, Mauro Gatti has begun illustrating some good news stories on his Instagram page.

The Best Things on the Internet in 2018

You’d think that as much time as I spend on the internet, I’d have known all of these. As it is, I knew exactly one of the memes, stories, and general feel-good weirdness that the internet can beget and that the A.V. Club has listed here.

Distiller’s Favorite Whiskeys of 2018

I don’t particularly care for social media, but I do like whiskey. Distiller is a small social network for reviewing and researching booze. The editors combed through user reports and put together a nifty list of whiskeys I’d like to try. I’ll be honest, I usually write this letter with my audience in mind, but this entry is just for me…

Information is Beautiful Award Winners 2018

The things artists can do with large data sets both fascinates and inspires me. Whether it’s redrawing maps to more accurately reflect the way the area is used or just creating an easy way to visualize something as complex as an artist’s mind, the concepts and skills on display here are truly stunning. Many of these works are worthy of display as art in and of themselves; for further reading, check out /r/dataisbeautiful on Reddit.

Everything Else

And then there was everything else. Here are just some of the countless year end posts that I’ve come across and enjoyed.

There are, of course, thousands more. Just check your favorite blog, website, newsletter, or Facebook group. If you find an interesting one, let me know as I’m always willing to expand my reading coverage. In the meantime…

What We're Reading:

The Year in Reading, 2018

Screenshot from NPR’s Book Concierge.

2018 was the year that tsundoku (1) entered our cultural vocabulary. It’s a Japanese word that doesn’t translate cleanly into English but it basically means you buy books and let them pile up unread. The end-of-the-year book lists coming out right now won’t help any of us with our tsundoku problems, but there are worse things in life than having too many books around.

That's Jason, over at Kottke.org, in his preface to his annual round-up of several Best Books of 2018 lists, from such diverse places as The New York Times, NPR, The Guardian, Bloomberg, Buzzfeed, and Slate. I can add The New Yorker and the Atlantic to that list, but if we're being honest, the books on my Tsunodoku list don't overlap much with those best-of lists.

To get to the books and reading I liked this year, it's better to take a look at Goodreads where the readers voted up a list of their favorites from the year. Their list contains one of my favorite books from the year - Charles Stross' The Labyrinth Index, as well as Stephen Hawking's Brief Answers to the Big Questions - but what is far more apparent from all those lists is just how few books from this year I have made time for.

Don't get me wrong, my to-read list is so long it has to be measured in miles, but when it comes to reading, I feel like most of my immediate reading takes place on the web. And I really doubt I'm alone in that. So, turning from books specifically to reading in general, here are a few more lists to add to your tsundoku (2) pile:

A few other thoughts on my reading habits this year:

My reading stats, as collected on Goodreads.

I managed to finish a paltry 21 books this year with 8 marked as "currently reading" as the year closes. That's down from 22 last year and 41 the year before, which, again, speaks to how much of my reading I do online and how much more non-fiction I read than fiction these days.

That said, my absolute favorite book that I read this year was Glen Cook's Port of Shadows. It's not a book that I can recommend easily; it's the 11th book in a series that reaches all the way back to 1984, but having been a reader of the series since I first found it in 1990, I was ecstatic to have a new volume to devour.

  1. You can re-read my own take on the word "tsundoku" here, in Learned Issue #20.

  2. I use and recommend (in Learned Issue #23) Instapaper as a great way to save and organize all this reading.


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If you like what I’m doing and what to support this newsletter, click on the subscribe button above. The free version gets this very newsletter sent to your inbox every week. The paid subscription lets you add comments and likes to every issue.

Down the Rabbit Hole:

The Year in Music, 2018

I've reached an age where new music doesn't find me quite as easily as it used to. Instead, I've got to go out and find it and that requires time and energy that I don't often have.

That's where these end of the year lists come in handy. They give me avenues of exploration to travel down in search of something new, or, at least, new-to-me. That said, the lists this year have a few favorites and the most listened-to tracks in my library are ones that I found this year appear on none of the lists.

But the two biggest discoveries for me this year were both cover songs - one of a Joy Division classic performed by a raucous brass ensemble, one a Black Sabbath ballad re-done as a soulful R&B tune. Enjoy.

End of the Letter:

The Year in Movies, 2018

I only saw three movies in the theater this year - Avengers: Infinity War (loved it), Solo: A Star Wars Story (thought it was okay), and Bohemian Rhapsody (enjoyed it). But, like with music, these best-of lists give me something to look forward to whenever they hit Netflix…

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Have a great New Year’s and learn something.

Learned #39: Santa-esque

In which we dress up a bit.

I’ve played Santa exactly twice in my life: when I was nine, for the school Christmas play and again last week for a local pre-school’s Christmas party. All in all, the second experience was a lot better if for no other reason than I got paid.

I’ve been asked several other times over the intervening years to take on the role, but, the thing is, being Santa is a terrible gig. And I’m not talking about babies peeing on you or older kids trying to yank off the beard or besotted grannies trying to sit on your lap. No, what I mean is it’s the worst kind of immersive, improvisational, free-form role there is. No matter what you do or how you do it, you’re doing it wrong for at least some part of your audience.

Christmas has become a little bit of a battleground in the culture wars in recent years, and I’m not going to get into all of that nonsense, but I as I accepted the gig last week, I wanted to look a little bit about the role of Santa. We have lots of ideas about Santa. Who he is, where he came from, what he means to the season and to kids the world over, and all those answers vary from culture to culture.

So, as I set out to don the red hat and assemble the reindeer, I thought we’d take a look at just who is this Santa guy, anyway?

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Have Suit, Will Santa

  • What We're Reading: Three Christmas Books

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Santa Facts

Let's get to it.

Photo by Roberto Nickson (@g) on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

Have suit, will Santa.

Santa. Red suit, black boots, big belly, booming laugh, sack of presents. It's a pretty familiar image. It's also one created almost entirely through advertising. And those reindeer? They only have names because of a nineteenth-century poem and a twentieth-century novelty hit. What about cookies and milk? Pretty much only in America. In fact, it turns out that just about everything we know about Christmas' non-secular traditions (Santa, his elves, and reindeer) is completely fabricated and recently at that.

How great is that? For me, this means that I can pick and choose from every little bit of Christmas lore I've ever heard, add in my own ideas and stories, stir it all together and, presto-chango, here's a new take on Christmas!

Not that this is a new idea. Every year there are dozens of hot-takes on Santa and everything else Christmas in the form of new movies, t.v. specials, holiday-themed episodes of sitcoms, books, comics, probably podcasts, too... But, for a lot of us, those major media versions have a weight behind them that usually gets summed up as, "someone got paid to make that, therefore it is more legit than my cobbled together version."

The author gets ready for work.

But the cobbled together stories are the really fun ones. Take, for example, my recent dive back into the red suit: I met with the daycare staff and they ran me through their concept. Santa's sleigh had become stuck in the ice. The children at the daycare found out about this catastrophe when Santa answered their letters saying he wasn't sure he would be able to deliver presents to them in time. The kids then wrote another letter giving suggestions for how to get unstuck, including directions for making a fire.

The idea being that when I, as Santa, appeared in the school, well, you get it. Christmas saved, presents inbound, cookies and milk, ho ho ho, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

I had some questions:

  • Where is Santa from?

  • How many reindeer pull his sleigh?

  • What does he like to eat and drink?

  • Is he married?

  • Are the elves his kids or his friends?

Now, if you know me, this might sound like just the sort of pretentious, actor-y, getting-into-character crap you would expect from someone who takes any sort of creative work too seriously. However. I've been working with small kids for a while now, and I've been around Japan at Christmas time for even longer. Thus, here are some of the things I have been told about Christmas by Japanese kids, here in Japan:

  • Santa is from Norweigh.

  • He has anywhere from two to one-hundred reindeer.

  • He likes sushi and green tea.

  • He is not married.

  • But somehow, the elves are all his children.

As it turns out, the daycare's custom take on Santa hewed closely to the standard American: North Pole, nine reindeer, cookies and milk, Mrs. Claus, friends & co-workers.

As it turns out, I didn't need any of that information. Instead, I stuck to the script. I made my entrance with a hearty "Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas!" and found my seat and told the kids that I was very grateful for their letters because I had copied their instructions for making a fire and freed my sleigh from the ice. I read out their names, handed out presents, and skedaddled. All's said and done, I've made less money for harder work.

But I'm glad I asked. Because even though it was a case of me over-thinking things, it reminded me how much fun it can be to take all the folklore and myth-making that surrounds Christmas and tailor it to your own situation, be it teaching, for your own kids, or just because you felt like it.

With that in mind, I’ll say Merry Christmas and hope that Santa, or your conception of him anyway, brings you everything you want and maybe even something you need. Cheers.

What We’re Reading:

We’ve got a troika of books this week, all dealing with the origins and traditions of Christmas.

The Battle for Christmas

by Stephen Nisselbaum

From the Amazon description:

Anyone who laments the excesses of Christmas might consider the Puritans of colonial Massachusetts: they simply outlawed the holiday. The Puritans had their reasons, since Christmas was once an occasion for drunkenness and riot, when poor "wassailers  extorted food and drink from the well-to-do. In this intriguing and innovative work of social history, Stephen Nissenbaum rediscovers Christmas's carnival origins and shows how it was transformed, during the nineteenth century, into a festival of domesticity and consumerism. 

Christmas, a Biography

by Judith Flanders

From the Amazon description:

Christmas has always been a magical time. Or has it? Thirty years after the first recorded Christmas, the Pope was already warning that too many people were spending the day, not in worship, but in partying and eating to excess. By 1616, the playwright Ben Jonson was nostalgically remembering Christmas in the old days, certain that it had been better then.

A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions

by Mark Forsyth

From the Amazon description:

We don't know that the date we celebrate was chosen by a madman, or that Christmas, etymologically speaking, means "Go away, Christ". Nor do we know that Christmas was first celebrated in 243 AD on March 28th - and only moved to 25th December in 354 AD. We're oblivious to the fact that the advent calendar was actually invented by a Munich housewife to stop her children pestering her for a Christmas countdown. And we would never have guessed that the invention of crackers was merely a way of popularising sweet wrappers.

All three of these books offer the history of our Christmas myths and stories without making it a battle (titles aside). There’s no insistence that we say Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays nor urging to do things “the right way.” Instead, we’ve just got three takes on history and how it collides and blends with culture resulting in new ideas and new traditions.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Santa Facts

Learned #38: Live to Tape

In which we watch some concert films.

By the time this issue of Learned is sent out, Bruce Springsteen's "On Broadway" will have been available on Netflix for about 24 hours. Which means, by the time you read this, I will have watched it approximately 4 times, pausing only to catch quick cat-naps in which I dream in technicolor visions of the New Jersey shore. Or something like that.

More seriously, this particular concert is being lauded all over the place as both a transformative performance by Springsteen and as a decent-to-good concert film. Which has got me wondering, what makes a good concert film?

Maybe it would be better to ask, how is a good concert film different from a recorded live performance? Is there anything inherent in the format that makes "Stop Making Sense" any better than Nirvana's MTV Unplugged? And, continuing that, is there anything that makes the film any better than Eminem's performance on Jimmy Fallon?

Is a recorded performance like Charles Bradley's moving take on Changes for KEXP radio a concert film? I mean, Bradley explains his reasoning and talks to his audience...for that matter, how about NPR's Tiny Desk series? Or Triple J's Like a Version? Those are concerts, and they are often very good, but are they concert films?

I don't really have an answer yet. I can rattle off a list of favorites and I can tell you that a film is more than just a performance but I can't really tell you how. Or why. And that's why this week's issue is all about the art of concert films.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Live to Tape

  • What We're Reading: 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Live at Jools’

Let's get to it.

What We're Learning

Live to Tape

Wikipedia's category page for concert films lists 268 entries. At a quick glance, I have seen maybe a tenth: The Song Remains the Same? Yes. Sign O' the Times? Sure. We Are the Champions: Final Live in Japan? No, but I'd like to...

What's maybe more interesting about that page, is the other categories it links to:

Some entries are cross-linked between lists, so, Woodstock counts as both a "documentary film about music festivals" and a concert film, but Eddie Murphy Raw does not. So, I'm confused. Just what is a concert film?

T.V. Tropes has a good answer:

Filming a concert by a musical artist, group or any other sort of performer(s) (comedians, acrobats, stage musicals,...) is essential for many entertainers. It shows off their skills and gives the fans who weren't able to watch a concert in person to get a grisp (sic) of the experience they missed. Audience Participation and a Concert Climax are also a huge part of these events.

By that definition, all the other things I mentioned - performances recorded for radio stations and posted to YouTube, t.v. shows dedicated to live performances, etc. - should be counted as concert films as well. Maybe not single song performances for variety shows, but small sets, sure, why not?

Unless you want to get pedantic about the definition of film, that is. Critic Ben Brock happily includes Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, as well as the whole of MTV’s Unplugged, with the caveat that it’s a cheat because, “it’s a TV concert after all.”

But I don’t feel like that’s quite a necessary distinction anymore. We’ve got so much media now, and recording is so easy, that YouTube is full of full concerts that have been simultaneously recorded professionally and by thousands of fans on a variety of phones. But that brings us back to the bigger question - what makes a good concert film?

One idea comes from Ashley Clark in their introduction to an article called 10 Great Concert Films:

cinematic artistry, superhuman performance, socio-political relevance – or a combination of all three – these concert films all deserve their reputations as classics of the form.

Or, how about this definition from Josh Jackson, writing in Paste magazine:

While the concept of a concert film is simple, dating back to 1948’s Concert Magic featuring violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a great concert film requires inspiration from both director and performer, a collaboration that unifies the best qualities of filmmaking and music.

Skirting the issue a little, concert listings site StellarShows.net lists the following criteria for a great concert:

  • Venue with an Intimate Atmosphere

  • Planned Out Show

  • Comfortable Atmosphere

  • Passionate Artist

  • Element of Surprise

Presumably, then, a good concert film would capture all these disparate elements as well as add a certain something to the mix.

To that end, here’s a good list of concert does and don’ts, which includes things like “do get multiple angles, don’t put your mic in front of a speaker.”

But I think if you put all these things together you can come to the conclusion that a great concert film takes a great performance and elevates it beyond the level of just good camera angles and nice lighting.

Ben Brock, again:

The concert movie is a strange and ambitious thing, marrying live music to moving pictures and permanently fixing a fleeting, one-night-only live event for the masses so that you can recreate it alone, on tape, whenever you like. It’s a noble objective, but a difficult one.

I haven’t really found an answer beyond the paraphrasing Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it. But within that caveat are certain similarities across various lists of bests: great concert films take a performance and elevate it somehow, whether that’s by stripping away everything until just the performance is left, like in Stop Making Sense, or in capturing the atmosphere and surroundings that created the performance, as in Gimme Shelter or Shut Up and Play the Hits, or in subverting the art of filmmaking itself like in Awesome! I F*ckin’ Shot That!

Here’s the list of articles I consulted to put this all together:

But I’ll close by saying that I think the era of the big concert film, like most of the ones cited here, are coming to an interesting crossroads. Now that everything is being recorded and uploaded, it’s going to be up to a new generation of artists to steer the genre away from theatrical releases to new formats and media. I’m curious to see where it goes from here.

What We’re Reading:

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

by Robert Dimery

I love books like this - basically just a long, long list of great records you might want to listen to; these are the kinds of books I like to have on my shelves to just take down and glance through when I'm in need of inspiration, motivation, or just a break from the daily grind.

This particular book* is a pretty thorough list of generally-agreed great records from the mid-50s onwards. From the publisher's description on Amazon:

The ultimate compendium of a half century of the best music, now revised and updated. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is a highly readable list of the best, the most important, and the most influential pop albums from 1955 through today. Carefully selected by a team of international critics and some of the best-known music reviewers and commentators, each album is a groundbreaking work seminal to the understanding and appreciation of music from the 1950s to the present...

As I alluded to above, the best way (for me, maybe for you) to read the book is to choose pages at random. In other words, don't try to make it straight through the book from cover to cover, instead, use it as a discovery tool to find records you may have overlooked or never gotten around to hearing. Used that way, the book can be a great addition to even the most die-hard music lover's bookshelf.

Oh, and don't pay any attention to the bombastic title, which I loathe as there is absolutely nothing you must do before you die save live the best life you can for whatever that means to you. It really is a great book, it just has an idiotic title.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Live at Jools'

These days, there's one t.v. program in particular that has taken up the mantel of live music and held it up as the aspiration for dozens of young artists and bands: Later with Jools Holland. Jools started out as a pianist, arguably gaining most of his fame during his stint with Squeeze, before turning to television hosting. His program has been running in one form or another for nearly 30 years and has featured outstanding performances from dozens, if not hundreds of musicians. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.

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