Thoughts on ... Steely Dan


Thoughts on ... Steely Dan

I am so tired of Steely Dan being reintroduced to everyday conversation as though they are a current part of the cultural landscape and far too many people suddenly publicly becoming the world’s biggest Steely Dan fans. I do not believe any of you.

I know their catalog intimately despite never owning a Steely Dan record; I have dated enough white men and I also grew up in the 70s, permanently attached to FM radio. I understand that they are talented musicians, I understand that they created a sonic landscape that both shaped the culture and became inextricably linked with Steely Dan as a brand and a concept, and that smooth jazz-ish kind of landscape was important to a bunch of people, again, mostly white dudes who were the ones who made the decisions of what music was good or important or worth listening to.

Oh wait, did you click through because you thought this was going to be an in-depth analysis of their life and career? You might want to exit that way through the gift shop.
Music Friday: Steely Dan Performs The 1972 Hit, 'Reelin' In The Years'

There’s a particular moment in “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” at the end of the chorus where the percussionist waves their hand over some chimes and it rings in a particularly precious way that sounds like faux fur and a conversation pit. It’s obviously meant to be atmospheric, but I have never heard that song and not been irked by that moment because it was so completely unnecessary. You can just tell that they were so pleased with themselves for this flourish, but it is just extra, and so awkward it’s uncomfortable. That is beyond the fact that the entire song is overly dramatic. I remember the 70s, and there is something to be said about the fact that you could meet someone and if you got their phone number wrong you might never find them again. But also why are you telling Rikki what to do with the number, if it’s important to her she will figure out what to do with it. SHE HAS AGENCY.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) - IMDb

Mostly I am tired of Steely Dan being a pinnacle of some kind of platonic ideal in popular music. As we have previously established, I am well aware that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are skillful and accomplished musicians. I am, however, going to try to argue that the music is bland and featureless, like the white room in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” was a song that I hated hearing (along with “Reeling In The Years” and “Do It Again” which made me shudder) to the point that I would physically roll over and turn the radio off or down to avoid hearing them, which was harder to do when I was in the car with one of my parents because letting me listen to FM radio in the car was considered a privilege (while I was sitting next to them in the front seat where I was absolutely not wearing a seatbelt [because the 70s], in either the puke sparkle green sedan that was my dad’s work car or the giant beige pontiac station wagon, the kind with the third seat that faced backward. Both colors absolutely made me queasy or maybe it was just the formaldehyde from the seats off-gassing or maybe it was my parents’ smoking [mom smoked cigarettes, my dad smoked cigars], or maybe a combination of all of the above? Add Steely Dan to that and please tell me you would not want to barf when the car stopped and you were allowed to get out.

like this but GREENER

I felt bad for the girl in my fifth grade class whose name was Ricki because she would get teased about the song, even though the boys who teased her didn’t know what the song was about. It bothered me so much that they would do that without knowing any of the lyrics or having spent any time trying to decipher the meaning that I got fed up and walked across the playground to defend her even though we were not friends and she did not like me. It was one of those moments where my class was all “Okay this must be bad, because Ricki does not like Caryn and Caryn usually stays over near the monkeybars during recess.” I couldn’t explain why it bothered me so much, the multiple layers of grade school misogyny and not paying attention and not doing your homework. Did those boys ride their bike to a store where they could pick up a printed copy of the Hot 100 chart every week? Did they get the librarian to save records for them? They did not.

It did not improve as I got older. Steely Dan was a staple of FM radio, and it was the band that Serious Music Fans were Serious about, and I could not even pretend to like them, I could not muster the slightest bit of interest or enthusiasm, and none of this would have mattered even if I did because there would have been an automatic assumption that I liked them because my boyfriend (which I did not have) did or that I had some kind of sexual designs on one of the Brecker Brothers, which honestly? I wish I had been confident enough to let someone say that to me and just start laughing uproariously before finding a copy of whatever music magazine might have had photographs of Steely Dan, holding it up, and asking them to say that again, please. But I was not that cool back then and I would just get furious and try to just extract myself from the situation because I knew that I knew more than they did about a band I did not even like! This seemed super unfair.

The one thing that always, always happened was that eventually at least one dude would pipe up, “Well if you know so much about Steely Dan [a thing I never asserted btw], then where did they get their name from?” The end game here was to get me to say the word “dildo” which at that age was absolutely not happening in public (or in private, let’s be honest). At one point I practiced saying, “From William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch,” which was a whole other minefield because saying at the age of 14 or 15 that you knew who William Burroughs was meant that you might as well have worn a sandwich board saying I’M ON DRUGS. I was not, but these assholes lived near me and so their mothers knew someone who knew my mother and then I’d come home from school and discover that my mom had decided that day that she needed to clean my room from top to bottom and the most she’d find is that I took one of her cans of Tab or that I had a very overdue library book. That did not prevent this event from occurring regularly throughout my time in high school for similar reasons, although sometimes those reasons were that I was a teenager and I was obnoxious and because I was the oldest my parents had not yet gone through this experience, and the War On Drugs was a thing, so if I was sassy or petulant it must be because of DRUGS.

A guy I dated in college was super into Steely Dan (it was around the time that Donald Fagen solo record came out) and he and his best friend would talk about it a lot and I mostly just didn’t participate in the conversation or I tried to change the subject. It helped that we had other music we could talk about -- we met because his best friend, who I knew from the college newspaper, had an extra ticket to see Lou Reed at the Bottom Line and he offered it to me. But, I mean, still, Steely fucking Dan, the least exciting music in the world. At that point I could at least stand up for myself enough to refuse to have them on in the background when we were hanging out. “But I just don’t like them,” I said, repeatedly. “Yes, they are very talented; yes, the production is… smooth.” Why would you listen to Steely Dan when there was so much loud and exciting music that you could go and see in New York City in the early 80s, that you could even dance to? I was not choosing the former.

When music became available freely on the internet, one of the things I used that for was to make sure I truly did not like certain bands. When it cost money to listen to records, you weren’t necessarily going to invest a lot if your reaction to a first listen to something was “meh”. Because I loved music and wanted to listen to as much awesome music as possible, I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and also, because I am a woman, there was always a tiny voice in the back of my head that said, “Are you sure you really don’t like them?” I literally did this last week with the band Lindisfarne, I made a passing reference to them in something I was working on and my first reaction to that was, “Do you really not like them? They can’t be that bad.” So I fired up the old streaming machine. YES. THEY WERE THAT BAD. I screamed out loud 20 seconds into the first and only song I played. I woke up both cats.

Anyway, fuck Steely Dan, now and forever.

Get Back

Caryn Rose • Jan 3, 2022

getting back. I’ve been trying to write this fucking thing for three weeks now, so I’m throwing out everything I’ve written so far and just starting it over again. If you have not watched the Peter Jackson Beatles documentary, most of this will not make any sense. My apologies for all of the above in advance.

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