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Give The People What They Want 11 min read

Give The People What They Want

On the wisdom of hit songs at concerts, plus wildfires, nature writing, new media empires, and plumbers and plumbing.

By Cary Littlejohn

Sometimes, the mantra to “give the people what they want” is good advice. Don’t be coy, don’t hide the ball, don’t make this more complicated than it need be.

On Saturday, I saw this mantra lived out to great effect.

I braved the heat (which was particularly oppressive after a few blissful days of mild temperatures) to attend an outdoor concert at Arrowhead Stadium (home of the Kansas City Chiefs) to which I purchased tickets for my girlfriend’s birthday back in the spring. The concert in question? Stevie Nicks and Billy Joel. And what a concert it was.

But the mantra was lived out in this simple lighthearted statement from Billy Joel: “So I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news. I’ll tell you the bad news first. The bad news is we haven’t recorded anything new for you. But the good news is we won’t be playing anything new.”

The mantra was further epitomized in the way they both ended their respective sets. Nicks, who took the stage first in the worst part of the heat while the sun as still out, ended with “Landslide,”  which if the song itself didn’t cause eyes to well up all on its own, her heartfelt shoutout to Fleetwood Mac member Christine McVie, who died last year, surely did.

Joel, by comparison, ended his set proper (he’d come back out and do a five(!)-song encore) with his timeless tune “Piano Man,” and we knew it was coming as he slipped the harmonica holder over his head. Everyone who wasn’t already standing got to their feet. 

The sounds of the crowd singing back to them is what sticks with me. The stands were packed with rabid fans of both artists—women of all ages in peasant dresses, big hats, capes, fingerless gloves, and gypsy-ish tattoos of all sorts (think feathers and dreamcatchers and stars); middle-aged men air-drumming and air-piano-ing and singing along. They sang back the hits, at various levels of intensity, but when it came to those two songs, they were the clearest examples of that sensation that’s imagined by all of us regulars out here that consumes and fuels performers: that euphoric feeling of hearing your own words echoing back at you, over the music of your own band, offered up with love and adoration.

I remember an interview by a young John Mayer, out on tour for his first album, when he said he’d play “No Such Thing,” his first single, as the second or third song of the evening, eschewing that time-honored tradition of saving the “best” for last. He didn’t want the concert to be a build up to a single song; if fans had come simply to hear that one, he’d give it to them early and they could take their leave. He wanted to play for those who were there for it all.

While I don’t think I’ve ever been a person who goes to a concert for a single song, I could understand his reasoning behind that. And it’s not like he was withholding the song from fans; he was just upending a common concert convention.

But when Nicks’ and Joel’s sets ended, on such an unquestionable high, it was easy to remember how the convention came to be. The hits are hits for a reason, and they seldom, if ever, disappoint.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. If you were to casually glance at the news, you’d likely come to the conclusion that the world is afire. Not in some metaphorical sense (though that may well be true, too), but literally: The devastation from wildfires in Canada and Hawaii is staggering. This episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily relays one man’s harrowing account of coming face to face with the blaze in Hawaii and then zooms out to give a little perspective of how things got to be so bad.
  2. All of the fire talk in the news sent me back to Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, his telling of Montana’s Mann Gulch fire from August 1949. Could this be the single best story about nature ever told? Quite possibly. That’s my take, and I know that I haven’t come close to reading all of its nearest contenders. But Maclean’s prose is something special. It’s lyrical beyond measure, but also supremely conversational, and study it as I may, I’m not sure I’ll ever come close to uncovering the secret of how he does it.
  3. I thought about the question of whether Young Men and Fire was one of the best pieces of nature writing I’d ever read for two reasons: 1) a New York magazine piece (sadly with it’s HTML broken but the page still viewable) from 2014 that posited that Maclean had “written the wrong story” (and itself a beautiful piece of writing) and a responding piece for Knight Science Journalism at MIT’s 40th anniversary (which, side note, I absolutely love as a convention, this sort of back-and-forth argument of letters) and 2) a recent piece by Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker entitled “The Problem With Nature Writing.” In it, he says:

Sometimes I consider it a failing, a mark of writerly competition, that I’d so much rather take private joy in birds, and in nature generally, than read another person’s book about them. But I’m also mindful, as a writer, that we live in a world where nature is rapidly receding from everyday life. There’s an urgent need to interest nonbelievers in nature, to push them toward caring about what’s left of the nonhuman world, and I can’t help suspecting that they share my allergy to hymns of devotion. The power of the Bible, as a text, derives from its stories. If I were an evangelist, going door to door, I’d steer well clear of the Psalms. I would start with the facts as I saw them: God created the universe, we humans sin against His laws, and Jesus was dispatched to redeem us, with momentous consequences. Everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike, enjoys a good story. And so it seems to me that the first rule of evangelical nature writing should be: Tell one.

  1. The longer you live, the smaller your world gets. Not in a stunted way; hopefully, a long life leads to the opposite—endless adventure and constantly expanding horizons. No, I’m talking about the increased frequency with which you will hear stories, and more importantly, be part of stories that make you shake your head in wonder and say, “Wow, small world.” Such was the case when I was taking in the recent news about Michael Oher, the famed subject of The Blind Side (both the book by Michael Lewis (which Malcolm Gladwell calls a near-perfect book) and the film adaptation, for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar). None of this is the small-world part for me. It was, in reading on the third or fourth day, learning that my former boss from my days as a practicing attorney was being quoted as part of Oher’s legal team that made me stop and say, “Well I’ll be damned. Would you look at that?” This podcast episode from ESPN Daily is a great overview of the controversy, and this written article is one that quotes my old boss.
  2. I find the topic of the “masculinity crisis” endlessly fascinating. Not entirely sure why, other than the intellectual thought exercise it poses. I’m not the father of a young man nor am I a young man myself anymore, but the pitfalls that befall so many men today were popularized during my youth. Video games and extreme online-ness were increasing in popularity due to technological advances made while my friends and I were coming of age. The online bro-guru personas that have come to dominate Youtube were not a huge leap for many of same type as those young men, already extremely online and isolated and looking for direction, and this Mother Jones piece explains some of the biggest names in this supposed “manosphere” and points out that many of these men draw a lot of their viewers based on talking points that aren’t just anti-feminist but simply anti-woman.
  3. This isn’t a perfect comparison and I know that, but the truly troglodytic opinions and views of many of these men trying to show younger, disaffected men how to be seem only slightly less evolved than some of the personalities making a name for themselves at Barstool Sports. Barstool was recently in the news as being on the other end of the massive deal between ESPN and Penn Entertainment, having been the original prom date for Penn but having been ditched for the cooler, hunkier, more popular upperclassmen in ESPN when it came to a sports gambling partnership. Dave Portnoy, Barstool’s somewhat-infamous founder, bought his company back on the cheap. Vanity Fair recently published a story (gone to press before the ESPN deal went through, most likely) on Erika Ayers Badan, the (surprisingly enough) female CEO of the raucous sports media empire geared toward guys who, according to Portnoy, “love sports, gambling, golfing, and chasing skirts.”
  4. Barstool represents a certain type of new media empire, that much is true. From the Vanity Fair piece: By the numbers, Barstool has more than 100 podcasts, YouTube shows, and social media series; 95 personalities; 65 advertisers; 17 content verticals; countless merchandise sold; and more than 230 million followers across social media. Its 1.2 million annual pieces of content and 5 billion month video views reach a third of 18-to-34-year-olds.” But I greatly prefer the decidedly smaller reach of Vanity Fair’s famed former editor Graydon Carter’s Airmail newsletter, stories from which I sometimes share in this newsletter. It’s described in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article like this:

Air Mail—Carter has used classic airmail envelopes as bookmarks for decades, and thought the name sounded both “jet age” and “internet age”—debuted in July 2019, billed as the weekend section of a nonexistent international newspaper. It was emailed to a subscriber list of around fifteen thousand people with the subject line “Graydon Carter here…” It was stylish, in a nostalgic way; the target reader was “somebody with an active passport, somebody affluent, who has great curiosity about the world—and not just the New York–Boston-Washington orbit, but beyond that,” Carter told me. There was a story about a château that had become “the scourge of Provence,” a piece by John Lahr on a David Mamet play searching for depth in a Harvey Weinstein type (“Nowadays, in fractious and fragmented Great Britain, between the Brexiters, the Remainers, the MeTooers, and the L.G.B.T.-ers, the air is thick with the ecstasy of sanctimony”), and a list of celebrities who had a “great” week.

  1. Here’s a recent example of work from Airmail. A mid-length piece about the Concorde, the luxury supersonic jet airliner, that was retired after a fateful crash in 2000, which is one of those things I remember about it, though on the periphery. Like, perhaps one of the news weeklies we got at the time, either TIME or Newsweek with the iconic fiery photo on its cover. I don’t remember it perfectly, but I remember the realization that something I didn’t understand was coming to an end. This story tells of a rich and interesting backstory, one I didn’t expect to be so intimately tied up in espionage, and it contains a staggering amount of interesting information overall, which is the most a person could ask for from a publication. The Flight of the “Concordski”
  2. A tortured chain of events and associations to arrive at this one but bear with me. On the way home from the FedEx St. Jude last weekend, my brother was trying to remember a video clip he’d seen. It was of a British man, he said, and he was asked what he would say if he met God. The man’s response: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?” Without more, I proffered a guess. Christopher Hitchens? I said. My brother didn’t know if that sounded right so he went in search of the clip. It turned out to be Stephen Fry. This reminded me that I’d been halfheartedly working my way through Sherlock Holmes, the audiobook on Audible that Fry narrated and which totals more than 60 hours of listening time (he’s fantastic, by the way). The first story, as many a great mystery do, begins with the discovery of a body, dead and from mysterious circumstances. Which brings me (finally) to my actual recommendation: A short essay in The New York Times by author Amor Towles titled “All Hail the Long-Suffering Cadaver,” in which he writes about the role of the dead body in detective fiction and how it’s receded from the spotlight as the genre has developed and changed.
  3. Harper’s is now my leader in the clubhouse for favorite magazine, simply because it published my favorite writer “working” (I put in scare quotes because I don’t actually know how much writing he actually does for a living now, like he once did for GQ): John Jeremiah Sullivan. And he showed off why I love him and his style so much: by taking a totally and thoroughly innocuous (borderline boring) topic and making you pay attention to it by sheer force of his storytelling ability. It’s about — wait for it — plumbers and plumbing issues at his house. But take my word for it: I put it last in this list because I want it to be the thing you read, the thing that stays with you, because it’s just that damn good.

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

In Support of the Marion County Record

Wyoming Deserves Better

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.


8/15: Full Circle

8/16: Justified: City Primeval; OLDBOY


8/18: Top Chef, S11 (2); POLICE STORY 2; Full Circle (2)

8/19: Top Chef, S11; Stevie Nicks and Billy Joel in Concert

8/20: Full Circle (3); Young Men and Boys-Norman Maclean