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

6 Responses to “Anyone for fag chords?”

  1. Tim Murphy said

    Sadly, there seem to be very few fags/queer in jazz (Patricia Barber, Billy Strayhorn, that percussionist whose name I can’t remember, and a few others). But the notion that a chord has a sexual orientation is kind of silly, really. And to think I used to think Mellencamp was cute when I was in high school *shudder*.

    • Thanks Tim. I suppose if one expanded the field to include artists with jazz leanings of any kind then the list would be longer…Charlie

      • G.H.Bone said

        Fag chords are indeed a curious notion! But regarding gay jazz musicians, I couldn’t resist mentioning Cecil Taylor. Taylor’s approach to harmony is so individual and extraordinary that one wonders what Mellencamp would make of it. Example here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99Pia-qNs6Q

      • Thank you! What an interesting find and a performer with whom I’m hitherto unfamiliar. At the time of writing, I had just wanted to express my distaste for that macho view that says that intricate, complex, sophisticated music is bad.

  2. G.H.Bone said

    I’m glad that you liked Cecil Taylor. I’ve been lucky enough to see him perform in London several times over the past few decades and they have been unforgettable experiences.Taylor is capable of freely improvising lengthy structures that are entirely convincing. I’m at a loss to explain (or even properly understand) what he does harmonically. Much of the time the chords he uses are so dense that they are more note-clusters than orthodox chords, and yet what he does makes sense and has real musical drama to it.

    Regarding your thoughts about “sophisticated” music, I certainly agree. Related to this is the commonly held attitude that “rock” music is somehow adult whereas pop music is seen as something for the kids, or for less intellectual people. Yet, so often – and I grant you that this is a generalisation – if you consider rock music, once you’ve stripped away the dirty guitar sounds and the macho attitude, you are left with simplistic, repetitive three-chord songs in an unchanging four-to-bar, while some pop music (consider some of the better Abba songs for example, or “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls) shows an admirable level of craftmanship and imagination. As I said, this is a generalisation, so I wish neither to impugn rockers nor elevate popsters unduly, but simply to say that we should listen to music properly and not just engage with its surface elements.

    Sorry to leave such a long comment, but I would like to add one note about Mellencamp. I had a brief search on the web looking for references to the “fag chords” remark. I found nothing, but this is not surprising since you said that you read the remark in a book, and it presumably hasn’t found its way onto the web yet. But I did come across a reference to one of his songs being adopted by the US National Organisation for Marriage which opposes same sex marriage. Mellencamp had his lawyer write to the NOM saying “that Mr. Mellencamp’s views on same sex marriage and equal rights for people of all sexual orientations are at odds with NOM’s stated agenda [...and he would request that NOM...] find music from a source more in harmony with your views than Mr. Mellencamp in the future.”

    I hold no brief Mellencamp, and know little about him, but I thought this should be raised in fairness to him. One can only assume that the “fag chords” remark was just some throw-away remark and perhaps intended to be humorous.

    • Slightly out of action at the moment, but thank you for the very absorbing response. Will reply properly when I get the hang of the various adaptations I have to live with at the moment.

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