A few months ago, Open Culture posted a couple videos of Nirvana and Radiohead songs that have been modified by a digital tinkerer named Oleg Berg. I was particularly curious about the “Creep” one.
What interests the author of the article (Josh Jones) is that Berg has reversed the modes of these songs. The Nirvana tune used to be minor. Now it’s major. The Radiohead tune used to be major. Now it’s minor.
Fun fact: the whole band giggles whenever Jonny tries to roller-skate.
After Jones observes that the original minor key of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is “an essential vehicle” for its anxiety and rage, he notes that the Radiohead song does something a little more complicated.
Here’s one of those exceptions, originally written in a major key, which may account for the pleasant, dreamlike quality of its verses. That quality doesn’t necessarily disappear when we hear the song rendered in a minor key. But the chorus, underneath the digital distortion, loses the sense of anguished triumph with which Thom Yorke imbued his defiant declaration of creepiness.
In the case of the original “Creep,” the G major key seems to push against our expectations, and gives a song about self-loathing an unsettling sweetness that is indeed kinda creepy.
Right away, you might quibble with certain things. Like what makes the verses pleasant compared to the chorus, even though both have the same chord progression? (Thankfully, Jones doesn’t overly hedge his bets on this point with appeals to the soft/loud difference or other elements. His article is about key, after all.) Also, how is it fair to say that modified verses have the same basic quality as the original verses?
But we should not ignore his larger point. What Jones is getting at is that in the original recording of “Creep,” the self-loathing of the lyrics mixes ironically with the major key to produce a kind of “anguished triumph.” In short: sad lyrics plus happy music.
Pretty sure this is the authentic original.
I think something is fishy about that interpretation. Let’s take a closer look at the music—I’ll try to avoid getting too technical with my terminology.
Now the original tune has four chords. The first one is indeed major, but then things immediately get ambiguous. Even though the second chord itself is major, it implies that we have entered a closely related minor key in which we’re about to cadence (Prince’s accompaniment even foregrounds a light dissonance from Yorke’s melody – called the dominant seventh – which clarifies that the second chord is actually an arrow pointing to a minor key). But instead of confirming the new minor home with the third chord, everything weirdly slides up a half step: a deceptive move, to be sure, but still remaining in the universe of the implied minor key. (Music geeks: it’s uncontroversial but worth pointing out that the third chord is a submediant in E minor, not a subdominant in G. Non-music geeks: notice how minor keys have major chords in them.) Finally, whatever meek sense of tonal place has been achieved gets unmoored when the same chord slides to minor. Incidentally, only one note needs to move to make that happen, and it gets sent on a chromatic – not “major” – journey back to its place in the first chord.
Let’s zoom out and go over that again. Radiohead’s progression points to a minor key right away (“I’m a weirdo”), interrupts that motion (“What the hell am I doing here”), and then chromatically deflates in the final turnaround (“I don’t belong here”). The larger cycle between first chord and last chord also has a little twinge of Hollywoody sentiment, thanks to the mixture of major and minor (major tonic / minor subdominant).
So it’s hardly a stable major key to begin with.
The “ruined” version by Oleg Berg is indeed a fascinating experiment, but not because it destroys some non-existent ironic tension between major key and sad lyrics. No, the Berg version flattens out and simplifies the original. Radiohead’s four-chord progression starts in one place but then alludes to a minor key and further twists expectations after that, whereas the modified version simply presents a stable minor key without any drama. The second chord prolongs the home key instead of pointing elsewhere. Then it moves up a whole step to a minor chord that is already comfy and safe in the home key. It has nowhere to go after that. There is no fourth chord, no deflating chromatic effect at “I don’t belong here.” It’s just one long stable expansion of the home key. We might as well change the chorus to “I’ve got cheek / I’m no weirdo / What the hell are you doin’ here / You don’t belong here.”