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?

Listening to… New Order

I’m obsessed with this version of “I Told You So,” and how bleak and inexorable it is.

It’s re-sparked my high school-era obsession with New Order, although without the fixation on minutiae like the fact that the version of “Sub-culture” on Low-life has a hyphen, while the one on Substance doesn’t.

Ant Muzak

Searching for funny videos to watch on youtube, at some point I ended up typing in the names of things I like, followed by the word “parody.”

Adam Ant parody? Yes, as it turns out, there is!

The entire premise of this ten minute video is that Adam and his Ants go grocery shopping, in full period ensemble.

Since I posted an Adam and the Ants video in my entry last week, you might assume I have some sort of obsession with this band.

Adam and the Ants are sheer energy, awesome music with cheesy videos, featuring period ensemble and crazy theatrics.  Two drummers, one pirate shanty, and a front man charismatic enough to totally pull off a pointless white stripe across his nose.

Your assumption is correct.

The dandy highwayman

Back in olden days in Great Britain, you and your wealthy friends might be driving down the road in your olden days equivalent of a Porsche. Maybe talking about what sweet ride it is. “Oh man, gilded door edges, 8-spoke wheels and an 8-cylinder horse. Real improvement over the 1749 model…”

Suddenly, a rider gallops up to you, weapons drawn, and halts your carriage. “Stand and deliver, your money or your life.” And of course you hand over your money, except for the coins hidden in your stocking, and you protest as the highwayman insists on jewellery too, because your necklace is sentimental. And at last the highwayman is satisfied and gallops off into the sunset… to rob one more carriage of rich folk before calling it a night.

Typically, the whole thing went down something like this:

These days, you and your wealthy friends… ok, I I’m still working on those. These days, you and the pile of trash on the floor of the passenger side are driving down the road, when suddenly… cop. Maybe you see, but can’t slow down in time. You continue down the road, praying to Fharlanghn… but no, the cop car slips out of its sneaky hiding place on the side of a fish and chips joint, tracks you like a predatory animal, and then lights up like a seizure-rave of fireworks.

And you hand over your license and registration, except for that time when you’d paid for your new registration only a month before and hadn’t really gotten around to taking it out of that orange folder yet. And, if you’re unknowing in the ways of getting pulled over, possibly protest that you were on your way to a fire…oops that came out wrong. The cop doesn’t outright take your money or wear a costume that looks really good on Adam Ant, but the cop does give you a ticket which requires you to DELIVER YOUR MONEY. Just like what the highwayman said. Or sang.

It’s mostly tedium, answering questions about how fast you were going, sitting and waiting while the cop runs your information. No gun pointed at your head, no choice of delivering your money or your life. And yet… the cop does still carry a weapon, pull over your vehicle, and demand money.