Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Minor Seventh, the Major Ninth, and the Dying of the Light

Funny how hearing an old song can not only evoke those familiar emotions you thought you left behind, but helps you solve a contemporary puzzle at the same time. Hearing Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" over the Thanksgiving weekend helped me to understand the vague misgivings I was feeling when listening to Lady Gaga. Confused? Here's the punchline:

When Joe showed us how to Look Sharp! in 1979, he may have been stylin' punk, but he was legit Brit punk, fitting mid-way betwixt Magazine and Buzzcocks on the twee thug end, and The Specials and The Selecter in the world of ska. I had no problem with him exploring nightclub 1930s jazz in 1982 when Night and Day was released, and in fact had a bad relationship experience to "Always Something Breaking Us In Two" as did most teens and 2o-somethings in that decade. But then I remembered that the release of that album had a dark F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bret Easton Ellis underside. The tux and the evening gown were appropriately timed to step out, because this was the era of Reagan and Thatcher, when being a punk just wasn't fun any more. We all have to grow up, have our hearts broken, down some single-malt scotch, and sell our souls to the machine, right?

All of this has something to do with Jackson's use of the Major 9th and Minor 7th chords. These are subversive chords, scarcely happy like a major chord, but not explicitly mopey like a minor or minor ninth. There is a sense of wistful longing for another day and another possibility, a feeling of submission, and a pointed desire to turn something off, to just put the nose to the grindstone and celebrate good fortune. Before Jackson's 1982 album, Reagan's first year in office, corresponding with a major recession, had been unpopular. Jackson's Night and Day release coincided with the beginning of a boom-time that lasted, with a brief 2001 intermission, until the summer of 2008.

"Higher," said Mr. In. "Heaven," said Mr. Out. (Fitzgerald, 'May Day', Tales of the Jazz Age [the same source as 'Benjamin Button,' BTW]). And everyone got very rich and forgot the blood, and loved Ronald Reagan when he died. And that's what steppin' out is all about.

Which brings us to Ms. Stefani Gaga. My friend Denise is convinced that she has captured the essence of early Madonna better than Madonna herself - which may be partially true if we consider Madonna during her "Lucky Star" period of her debut album, which oddly enough coincides with the year that Jackson released Night and Day. Gaga is arguably a more accomplished musician, a damned fine pianist, and a sneakier publicist than Madonna. But a funny feeling of being haunted accompanied the release of The Fame Monster. When Gaga came out with The Fame, the shout-outs to mid-80s disco were all too obvious, between synth beats, vocoder, and sex-talk obsession. But songs like "Paparazzi" and "Poker Face" worked because they relied on major and minor chords.

The eight songs of The Fame Monster are rooted even more firmly in the mid-80s because they rely on pop music mainstream, while sneaking in those minor sevenths and major ninths. And isn't it interesting that this mini-album extension to The Fame, hits as we are allegedly emerging from a recession?

Of course, we can't extend the analogy too far. Barack Obama is neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush. And he can't even preside over a boom like Reagan's because the morning in America is being eclipsed by the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China). It won't be easy to put that tuxedo back on, when sovereign wealth funds are controlling most of America's growing massive debt. Yet beware the minor seventh and major ninth. They could be an early harbinger of the dying of the light. Maybe when the light dies this time, everyone will just feel yucky and keep their formal wear at the dry cleaners. Or maybe this dying will represent another Fitzgerald jazz age, where the lucky stars can return to the days of milking the planet and having a lovely time. We certainly have a lot of experience at hiding the blood. Afghanistan, here we come, caught in a bad romance. Rage, rage. Don't forget the minor seventh.


Anonymous said...


Dan Coffey said...

That would be Bret Easton Ellis. Very thoughtful piece, Loring. Thanks!

Loring Wirbel said...

Note to self: stop posting late at night! Thanks, Dan.

kimbrulee said...

Loring that was said very well. I certainly love your progressive independent style. Thanks for helping us see the things that are far less mundane and far more interesting in life. I am all for it myself. Cheers!

shoreacres said...

I had to read this a few times to pick up all the references (particularly since I'd never heard of Lady Gaga - you can see the size of the rock under which I live).

But I was just stopped in my tracks by the references to the Minor Seventh and Major Ninth. The first thing that crossed my mind was Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. The lyrics refer to a "minor fall, a major lift", of course... But what I read about the chords themselves suggests that Cohen may have been using them in the song, if not in that phrase itself.

It's a neat,neat trick if he was - do you happen to know?

In any event, wonderful post, and thanks for surfacing Cohen again in my mind.

Loring Wirbel said...

You're absolutely correct, Cohen was using the chords to "meta-describe" the song he was singing, and then describing the effect those chords would have on the listener. A very neat trick indeed, I don't think it was ever used in song lyrics before or since.

(Saw Cohen at Red Rocks this past summer, BTW. Fantastic, the man is 75 and played for 3 1/2 hours!)