Anyone for fag chords?
February 4, 2012
A few years ago, I read an autobiography whose subject briefly crossed paths with John Cougar Mellencamp. In a discussion relating to song-writing, Mellencamp was quoted as expressing a dislike of what he termed ‘fag chords’. From time to time, this absurd comment pops back into my head and I try to fathom it. I think I’m getting close. To solve the mystery, it’s important temporarily to disregard the homophobic slur and its mad connotation that a chord can be gay, straight or bi-sexual. A chord has no sexual impulse whatsoever. The second interpretation that we can dispense with is that there are certain chords that are preferable to gay people and certain chords that are preferable to straight people.
So, after some consideration, I’ve concluded that Mellencamp was referring to diminished chords, augmented chords, suspended chords, and any form of inverted chord. And I find myself thanking God that I don’t live in his reality; a reality in which there would be no Steely Dan and no Sondheim, a world in which everything is root triads and where the only permissible deviation is the occasional minor 7th. I imagine waking up in this curious and hostile world, in which Mellencamp is the angry little potentate, to find that chord progressions are similarly limited by law, and composers are only allowed to go tonic-dominant-tonic or tonic-sub-dominant-tonic. And the rules for melody are just as confining, but let’s not go into those today. In this oppressive, embittered reality, people with ‘book lerning’ (sic) are sneered at and persecuted, and any form of elegance, complexity or ornamentation gets you shot. Anyone playing or listening to jazz (or merely suspected of same) is immediately sent to one of Mellencamp’s numerous gulags and never seen again. Lest anyone think that I’m being fanciful here, let’s remember that church used to punish people for using diabolus in musica – the forbidden augmented fourth.
Maybe a lot of listeners don’t hear the individual notes in a chord anyway. In fact, I’ve often wondered how many people wouldn’t hear the difference if you sang them Happy Birthday with minor chords underneath. And I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted by Mellencamp’s obvious equating of ‘fag’ and ‘sophisticated’, but for now I’ll be friendly and go with flattered