Three chords, one hit wonders, and other disagreements

Every time I hear a musician complain about the huge percentage of modern music created using only three chords, they expect it to elicit shock. Only three chords! Our modern music is such a travesty! Gone are the days of true talent! Something something Mozart mumble mumble time signatures.

I would like to submit that this is, actually, fucking amazing.

Or maybe it’s flurbing amazing. Now that I have a toddler with a knack for expanding her vocabulary, “fuck” is “flurb” and “shit” is “snap,” even when it doesn’t make sense, as in “Modern music is a steaming pile of snap.”

Look at how many songs use only three chords, and probably also have snare drum on two and four with eighth-notes on the high hat. Look at how many things musicians can express using even that small number of tools.

Four colors of CMYK ink can generate thousands of colors that create thousands of images. Twenty-six characters create the whole English language of thousands of words and thousands of works. Three chords with a snare on two and four isn’t on that same level, but it still amazes me.

Constraint is an artistic tool, but we’re only supposed to see the results as legitimate in certain cases, by certain artists who have been validated and are intentionally slicing away options in an ascetic prison of their own work. And yes, it’s awesome when rock bands use weird time signatures. And yes, all artists who love their craft should work to improve it.

But maybe “I’m a pissed-off punk, and no one told me how to play this guitar so I’m figuring snap out myself” is only another form of constraint, just without the self-awareness. Maybe you’re only allowed to use constraint as an artistic tool if you say things like “Constraint is an artistic tool.”


I believe everything I wrote above, and yet I would also append “in theory” to much of it. Even after years of chilling the fuck out, I hate the music I hate. Let me get a few things out:

Nirvana grates on me, as does anything much influenced by Nirvana.

I think the Beatles are overrated, and I don’t care if The Jam stole their bass line because “Town Called Malice” is an awesome song, and I think that U2 is a watered-down version of better bands from the same time and place.

I continually forget that people actually listen to Top 40 pop music, and that’s how it became the Top 40 in the first place.

Because you can rely on an event DJ to have no other good music besides David Bowie, the part of my own wedding I anticipated the most was picking the music. I can admit that along with a love of music was a petty desire to exact revenge upon those who had musically wronged me at weddings and other events in the past with all their YMCAs and their cotton-eyed joes and various 1:20 dilutions of misogynistic hip hop with the aforementioned Top 40.

The original title of this post was “Thoughts on music from a recovering pretentious snob,” and I went on so many tangents as I tried to write it that I had to split it into two separate documents, one entirely about hating country music in New England.*


One hit wonders usually aren’t. There’s this attitude that the band made one song and then fell off the face of the earth**, or that they made one song, and it alone rose above the festering trash heap of the rest of their work. What it actually means is that one song fit mainstream taste, not that the rest of the band’s work isn’t solid or true to their artistic vision, and possibly not even that the band sold out.

Everyone knows A-ha’s “Take on Me,” but they have an even more amazing song called “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” Everyone knows Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” and it came from their album After the Snow, a chill post-punk landscape that gives rise to the new wave pop of “I Melt With You.”

Ben Folds Five's Whatever and Ever Amen
Whatever and Ever Amen, the first good album I ever owned. And by good, I mean the first that really hit me on an emotional level.

I think it’s totally legit for taste in music to be a deal-breaker in a romantic relationship. Not because I’m a recovering judgmental music snob, but because music is about emotional connection.

Like, if I’m being hit in my emotional punching bag with nihilistic shit about dying 1000 times and disconnection and meaninglessness, am I compatible with your emotional hit of fighting the man and protesting corporate bullshit and corrupt politicians? Or of meeting someone in a library but they dump you because they’re having an affair with the grocery store clerk? Or driving a tractor because you’re a guy whose girl left him?

I had a high school boyfriend who, when he dumped me, said that we didn’t communicate well. I didn’t understand that at all; I thought we’d had a ton of great conversations. We both loved epic fantasy novels! We had The Belgariad! He said he meant that, on a soul level, we did not communicate well. And that sounded like such wishy washy bullshit, but whatever, we were broken up and I was seventeen, so I went and wrote some angsty poetry and posted that shit on my Deadjournal.

While I didn’t understand what he meant about soul-level communication until I started dating my current partner, I did understand that he didn’t like The Durutti Column. I played him Otis, and he thought it was ugly and weird–I thought it was beautiful.

And that was the only way I had to understand that we didn’t have soul level communication.

That’s why, in the end, it’s not about someone on the outside dictating how many chords it takes to make a song that Mozart would give a fatherly pat on the shoulder. The question isn’t “How many chords does it take to play a worthy song?” It’s “How many chords does it take to express something true?”

Don’t ask me–I’m a percussionist.


*Coming soon. Y’all?

**If you’re a flat earther, is this a concern you might have? Does it provoke anxiety in the same way boarding an airplane or hearing about someone else’s stomach virus does for me?

Solar Pomodoro watch

A Casio Tough Solar Watch
A nice detail: timer mode shows the time of day in a little bar at the bottom of the face.

I always used to wish my digital watches had a Pomodoro timer function. I even considered writing to Timex at one point to request this, but I’m a lazy bag of social anxiety, so that didn’t happen.

My new Casio watch has an awesome, unadvertised Pomodoro function that lets you stack and repeat multiple timers. I bought this only because the metal band of my old watch gave me massive patches of red itchy bumps, and apparently I would rather exacerbate them than go without a watch for a few days. This one was $20 and solar-powered, and I was surprised to stumble on a feature I’d wanted in a watch for so long.

Subdued Swiss party music

Back in 2001, my uncle gave me an early mp3 player that came with his computer. It held four songs, although I eventually upgraded it to ten or twelve. Even now, I would be fine with a device that could only store a handful of songs because I tend to listen to the same song on obsessive, brain-numbing repeat for forty-five minutes at a time.

Today, this is that song.

Summer hats for people who hate summer

If you didn’t think it was possible for a month to physically assault you, I’d like to introduce you to July. Yeah. It’s hot.

And before we even made it to summer, I’d already had three sunburns on my neck. Sunhats aren’t my style, but one was obviously called for. After way too much searching on Amazon, I found one that makes me look like the silent ghost of a murdered widow. Or at least like a witch who has been reluctantly dragged on a beach outing.

But the sun is already setting earlier each day. Halloween is coming.

Reading… Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

When does reading more books cease to to have any benefit and turn into consumption for its own sake? The other night, while trying to get through even half an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, my partner and I instead discussed this and how some books are better suited to slow reading.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit is such a book. It’s dense with history and beautifully written, with plenty of lines worth lingering over, and really thinking about. I started reading this book a couple years ago, before I got past my underlining phobia, and I knew it would be worth revisiting, pencil in hand.

I’m looking forward to the later chapters, which go into city design and feminism, but between reading seven other books and deliberately going through this one slowly, it’s probably going to take months.