affect and sensation serve as starting points for describing the political in affective terms and for interrogating, for instance, how capitalism, sexism, and/or racism are inscribed in the affective bodily practices of the everyday, or how affects become a site of community formation. Viewed through such a lens, the world does not appear to be divided only into those who speak and those who make noise. Rather, the distribution of the sensible also marks a distinction between those whose feelings constitute the existing distribution of the sensible and those whose feelings are excluded (589).
I am curious to know when and how extended chords1 appear in rock music, specifically from the 90s onward. Chord extensions are certainly not unheard-of in rock, but nor are they standard or even common, depending on what sub-genre we’re talking about.2 And that’s the curiosity that I have: when, where, and why do extended harmonies appear? Are there common uses or chords (I△7 for example) and uncommon ones (ii-9)? Do they perform a specific type of affective work when they do appear? In other words, are extended harmonies summoned for particular purposes? And if we tracked these purposes and compared them to one another, would a picture emerge regarding how extended harmonies function in rock music? Of course, when I say “function”, I mean: culturally, affectively, semiotically, emotionally–that is, how they function in our social world, not how they function from the perspective of tonal harmony.What would I find if I followed extended chords around, noting where they appear in the space of this genre? If what we know from popular music studies is that sounds carry both affective (pre-conscious) and semiotic force, this means that certain chord qualities (both functional qualities such as dominant or minor as well as expressive qualities like timbre) accrue social meanings, values, connotations, and functions within the space of a given genre (and its associated meanings, and so on outward). My question is: does the intrusion of an extended chord introduce a new element into a genre space in which such sounds are still the exception rather than the rule? Put another way: we are used to thinking about musical genres as a set of (musical/social/stylistic/philosophical/aesthetic/political) conventions, which are both expressed and partially constituted through sound. From a certain perspective, extended chord qualities can be understood as “unusual” for the genre of rock. And if that’s the case, do they constitute a kind of rupture or momentary irruption when we hear them in the context of rock? For me, the idea of some songs purposefully introducing an external element into their own genre space is a compelling possibility.
1. Because of rock’s firm grounding in the power-chord, I consider “extensions” here to include the 7th.
2. Obviously, the dominant 7th chord is the major exception, given rock’s ties with the blues. But that’s the exception that proves the rule: are we as accustomed to hearing any other extended chord quality in this genre?
“In melodrama, the soundtrack is the supreme genre of ineloquence, or eloquence beyond words: it’s what tells you that you are really most at home in yourself when you are bathed by emotions you can always recognize, and that whatever dissonance you sense is not the real, but an accident that you have to clean up after, which will be more pleasant if you whistle while you work. The concept of ‘the soundtrack of our lives’…is powerful because it accompanies one as a portable hoard that expresses one’s true inner taste and high value. It holds a place open for an optimistic rereading of the rhythms of living, and confirms everybody as a star. Your soundtrack is one place where you can be in love with yourself and express your fidelity to your own trueness in sublime conventionality, regardless of the particularity of the sounds.”
—Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 34-35.
is an entire channel devoted to cruel optimism. What’s interesting to me is how neatly its form of cruelty fits into a seemingly prescribed genre of American mythology about home-ownership and upward mobility. As these notions become increasingly fanciful for more and more Americans, the teary-eyed “reveal” of HGTV becomes increasingly uncanny.
What I would really like to do is trace the background music used during the “reveal” scenes in shows like Fixer-Upper. My suspicion is that their material histories correspond with the affective work that they do. The music is always generic, no doubt produced like a font, for any number of media contexts. This music, which is used to relay the sense of “having arrived” at one’s new house (new life) via capitalist miracle (akin in this sense to the dream of winning big on a game show), sounds the same as music that is also used to stitch together notions of the good life in other media contexts, particularly advertisements. Beyond sounding the same, what I mean by “material histories” is that–given its generic character–it seems likely that such music is actually produced in the same way, at the same handful of studios, or is stored in the same databases–in other words, that it comes from the same genre not just stylistically, but in terms of its production.
If that could be proven, the question then would be: what is the significance of the fact that the same type of tune (or the same tune, or a different tune by the same or similar producers) is used in a reality TV show and in a pharmaceutical ad? How does such distributed use connect affects together, and does this connection across contexts add up to some larger effect on American life?