Saturday, April 24, 2010

That Michael Jones moment

A month ago, the Internet was briefly abuzz with follow-ups to a piece on the Huffington Post. In "That Steely Dan Moment," Michael Jones generalized about a step in new relationships when you find out that your intended has some failure of taste so egregious that the connection is instantly doomed. His example is finding out that an otherwise suitable mate loves Steely Dan.

I'm sure that after this article appeared, old flames of mine opined in corners of the web obscure to me about their realization that I was a cultural troll. Because I love Steely Dan. And it's not because I've never heard better music or been educated into more refined tastes. In fact, what would count as a Steely Dan moment for me would be finding out that someone is using Steely Dan as an example of a musical passion completely beyond the pale.

Someone clearly needs to explain to me what is so godawful about Steely Dan. I could understand if the demon of choice was, say, the Eagles. Because I get why people hate the Eagles. I don't agree, but I get it. The Eagles completely steamrolled the Top 40 for years, and their slick version of country-roots rock (plus Don Henley's often-insufferable pontificating) strikes many as the triumph of corporate soulless style over substance.

Steely Dan has slick production and a sound that was AM radio-ready back in the seventies. But that's where the similarities with the much-reviled Eagles end. Steely Dan could never be mistaken for heavy equipment cramming pablum down our throats or shoving more sophisticated entertainment out of the way. It was moody, jazzy art-pop. Maybe that's not your thing. Maybe that sends you completely round the bend with rage. Maybe you hate the pretention of people who call them "the Dan" and insist that they be appreciated for their cynicism and subversion. (I kinda do.)

Why, though, would I want to deprive myself of some of the most beautiful music of its kind ever to find its way (improbably, it increasingly seems) onto the radio? The slickness isn't some calculated capitulation to the market; it's what Fagen and Becker aspired to. You may not like that, but to mistake it for a sellout move is just unfair. And why assume that anything aspiring to professionalism and virtuosity is tainted? Or that it lacks authentic feeling? I've been listening to these songs and albums for years now, and they move me as regularly and as deeply as any artist in my personal canon -- for sheer gorgeousness combined with a sense of yearning and loss.

Maybe I'm so far into the Bizarro world that it seems normal to me. If so, you can keep your good taste. I'll be over here singing "Razor Boy," one of my favorite songs of all time. And I'll be smiling.


Ali said...

I too love Steely Dan. Stay strong. Like steel. And their name is so awesome too; I felt so cool when I learned what it meant.

Rick said...

I saw Steely Dan live in Memphis in September of 2005. It was, without a doubt, the best concert I've ever attended, and that includes seeing them twice before (Kansas City in 1996 and Dallas in 2000). That slow-burn passion roiling under the slick production, and the subversive, mini-movie narratives in the their lyrics just jump off the stage when they perform. It was literally breathtaking.