This is also a music blog now, I guess

Let’s talk about a funny thing that I hate.

That video by the Axis of Awesome is legitimately hilarious deconstruction of I-V-vi-IV, probably the most common chord change in popular music. It’s well done, and I really like the goofy tangent on Five for Fighting’s Superman. My problem with it is just that it approaches the music from the wrong angle. Axis of Awesome looked at I-V-vi-IV and concluded that everyone was just being lazy and derivative. Granted, I-V-vi-IV is just a safer version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D with simpler chords and a more regular resolve, but that’s still not the point. How amazing is it that millions of songs from hundreds of countries from thousands of bands and hundreds of years share identical or nearly identical structures while remaining distinctive? How did that happen? I-V-vi-IV shows up in every genre, but even if it originated in classical music, pop-punk has held indisputable squatter’s rights for years. Why is that, and how come the change still regularly escapes into new genres? And how does it work semiotically to use the same form for so many different meanings? How can a chord progression be considered “reliable”? what could that possibly mean?

Instead, Axis of Awesome take considerable liberties with the chord structures of a bunch of songs to make them all sound the same, and then they complain that they all sound the same. It’s a good arrangement and a good chuckle, but it defines a problem from material that should really generate a lot of interesting questions.

All music is derivative, but in the way that all organisms are genetically derivative: there are constant mutations, recessive and dominant aspects, convergent evolution and bizarre, unexpected throwbacks. Cutting songs up and deriding the similarities makes about as much sense to me as ridiculing a mouse for using the same digestive amino acid as horses. I’m more interested celebrating the structures, and comparing how they’re used to do their job: dissolving complex carbohydrates.

Also, if Axis of Awesome is down on people for being derivative, they really ought to check themselves before they wreck themselves.


About Jesse Conlang

Jesse Conlang lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has trained squirrels to operate pens and pencils at his whim. You can probably tell that by the quality of the work.
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