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Why Do Bands Still Perform Encores?

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Encores have become concert standard issue. Artists pencil in a big hit or two at the back end of their set list, walk off stage, wait for fans to shout for the encore, act surprised, play aforementioned hit songs in all their encore glory, rinse, repeat. So what killed the spontaneity of the encore?

BIGWIG BEGINNINGS 

Musical encores (the word is French for "again") date back to at least the 19th century, when bigwig aristocrats in concert halls would request a song to be played again, since recorded music wasn’t available. Encores would honor extraordinary classical musicians for extraordinary performances.

Encores would often also act as instant replays instead of bookending a concerto or opera—an orchestra might repeat a section of music that garnered audience applause in the middle of a concert.

And forget saving the hits: Encores played at the end of a show were often lackluster in comparison to the actual program. According to University of Missouri Professor of Music History Michael Budds, “In the fine arts tradition, a performer will put on an hour and a half show of grand proportions and difficult material while the encore will exist simply to please attendees.”

TAKE A BOW

The tradition of encores also dates back to the early days of Broadway. Audiences would call back actors during curtain calls to take an extra bow, according to Middle Tennessee State University recording industry professor Paul Fischer. When singers and musicians caught up to theater in popularity, encores became a second performance at the end of a set. Acts would typically reprise a favorite song—that’s where the whole “again” part fits into the equation.

BACK WHEN ENCORES HAD VALUE

When rock concerts exploded in the 1960s and ‘70s, encores were saved for performances that deserved to be commended—held for momentous shows. Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, refused to let the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll play encores to keep fans wanting more (the catchphrase “Elvis has left the building” originated as a reassurance that the rocker wouldn’t come back for an encore).

Another Elvis (Costello, the British proto-punk,) would have his manager blare loud white noise through venues’ loudspeakers to clear out fans hoping for an encore. In the 1970s, The Who would only encore when a show was “exceptional.” The Beatles didn’t play encores because of a necessity to book it after shows for fear of mobbing fans.

THE FALL OF ENCORES

Former Washington Post columnist David Segal puts the blame for encores becoming cliché squarely on Bruce Springsteen. In a 2004 column, Segal stated, “It was the Boss who transformed the rock show into an iron-man event, playing four-hour marathons, staggering back to the stage with the E Street Band time and again, their sweat and stamina part of the spectacle.” That iron-man style—Bob Dylan has closed shows with four encores, and The Cure are known to have played up to five—took away from the spontaneity of the encore.

Encores are also pre-planned for logistical reasons: The Guardian says that the precise planning behind encores stems from the need to be “tailored to things like the curfew, contractually required set-list lengths and the fact that the encore has to be tied in with the lightning and computer visuals.”

Some bands embrace the encore ritual. Some hate it. New Order frontman Peter Hook compared playing a set to having sex—and the encore to “being forced to having another go after you’d had an orgasm.”

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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