The Odd Critical Appeal of Steely Dan

Some extremely juicy thoughts on Steely Dan in Ian Penman’s lengthy review of Donald Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters (which I place near the top of the list of musician autobiographies I should read; granted, it’s an incredibly short list, maybe three or four tops which even interest me). I appreciate Penman’s placement of ’70s SD as an uneasy midpoint between Joni Mitchell and the Ramones (“pinup idols of the urbane Los Angeles studio scene but with bags of spiky, shades-after-midnight New York City attitude”), and this passage captures their oddball appeal as well as anything I’ve read on them, frankly.

Some of this cognitive dissonance may be attributable to the fact that the more critics fawned over Steely Dan, the more the duo responded with markedly blasé gratitude. It may also be due to the palette they were drawing on — precedents such as Broadway theater, soundtrack scoring, West Coast jazz. These were traditions in which a big production number didn’t necessarily mean what it said; smiling major chords disclosed drooling wolf fangs; and a desolate blues prepared the soil for subsequent flags of triumph. It’s hipness of a different order — tone and texture matter as much as, if not more than, what is explicitly said or sung. (In an early interview, Fagen claimed that he was amazed that anyone liked his singing at all, when it sounded, he averred, like a ‘Jewish Bryan Ferry.’) The Dan’s variety of minor-chord legerdemain went against the prevailing mid-seventies grain, an ethos where every precious singer-songwriter word was presumed to be heartfelt.

This actually bolsters a case I once half-made for Steely Dan as the Pet Shop Boys of the seventies (replace “West Coast jazz” and soundtracks with “disco” and “gleamingly plastic pop tunes” and you’re getting warmer). It’s a comparison I’ve never been able to follow through on, though am unable to write off. Maybe it’s the way both groups mug so cheerfully for the camera.


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