When I tell people how much I appreciate the music of Steely Dan, I invariably experience one of three fairly predictable responses: mocking derision, utter disinterest, orâ€”when Iâ€™m luckyâ€”a kind of hesitant joy, as if the person Iâ€™m speaking with wants very badly to admit his or her own passion for the music of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, but canâ€™t honestly believe I’ve got the guts to do so out loud. Steely Danâ€™s body of work has always been very polarizing… and to be honest, I donâ€™t blame the people who donâ€™t like it: I consider it an acquired taste, and in a world of instant gratification and unnumbered channels of entertainment, acquiring taste is profoundly difficult.
I myself fell in love with Steely Dan almost 30 years ago, and Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™d be able to do the same today. Heck, I think even the band members themselves understand this phenomenon. Consider these lyrics from their song â€œEverything Must Go,â€ the title track from their last (and hopefully not final) CD:
Itâ€™s high time for a walk on the real side
Letâ€™s admit the bastards beat us
I move to dissolve the corporation
In a pool of margaritas
So letâ€™s switch off all the lights
And light up all the Luckies
Crankinâ€™ up the afterglow
â€˜Cause weâ€™re goinâ€™ out of business
Everything must go
Talk about your major pain and suffering
Now our self-esteem is shattered
Show the world our mighty hidey-ho face
As we go sliding down the ladder
It was sweet up at the top
‘Til that ill wind started blowing
Now it’s cozy down below
‘Cause we’re goin’ out of business
Everything must go
You can almost read, between those sardonic and self-abnegating lines, a resignation letter penned to the American music-listening public.
The utter disinterest I sometimes experience when mentioning, say, Aja, one of the bandâ€™s more well-known CDs, seems to stem from the fact that Steely Dan have never been widely loved. Even in the late 1970s, at the height of their popularity, their predominantly jazz-influenced tunes were fully out of step with the popular musical modes. Musicians loved their work, but the general public often ignored them, save for a few of their more â€œcatchyâ€ songs. Heck, they won a Grammy award barely ten years ago for their CD Two Against Nature, and most people I know probably think they havenâ€™t even BEEN a band for more than a couple of decades.
The mocking derision I often find myself up against I am just now beginning to understand in different terms, by which I mean that at long last I have decided: people who donâ€™t like Steely Dan are not my kind of people. Relax: I still like you. What I mean is, if you donâ€™t like Steely Dan, itâ€™s probably because you value music more than you value lyrics.
The bandâ€™s music is admittedlyâ€¦ well, letâ€™s call it specific. From CD to CD, they play within a somewhat narrow range. That range, furthermore, isnâ€™t occupied by many other artists, so there arenâ€™t easy ways to â€œget toâ€ their music. If you donâ€™t like how it soundsâ€¦ well, itâ€™s not hard to see why. I do like how it soundsâ€¦ as it happens, I like it a great deal.
What makes me devoted to their oeuvre, however, isnâ€™t the music: itâ€™s the lyrics. I can tell thereâ€™s a mind at work in them: a smart, funny, erudite, inventive mind. Their songs MEAN something. They arenâ€™t meant to be ignored or thrown away, like most of whatâ€™s passed for popular music (if weâ€™re being honest) in every decade of American musical history.
Iâ€™m a lyrics guy. I can tolerateâ€”and even enjoyâ€”a great deal of variety in musical styles as long as whatâ€™s being sung is interesting to me. That doesnâ€™t mean, mind you, that I donâ€™t value music without lyrics: I sure as heck do. In fact, most of what I listen to these days is classical and instrumental jazz. Itâ€™s just that if Iâ€™m going to get to know a band and enjoy a band, I really have to be certain that what theyâ€™re singing about impresses me. This is why I can no longer listen to, say, The Doors, whose lyrics strike me as just about as deep as a drained wading pool, and why I remain singularly unimpressed by Lady Gaga and her â€œPoker Face.â€
What I find myself wondering now is whether the same preferenceâ€”lyrics over musicâ€”is common to most writers. If so, does the preference also extend to other theater practitioners, who (one would assume) care about words? (Iâ€™m not considering musical theater practitioners, mind you, who probably have to answer the question of music or lyrics with a resounding â€œboth.â€) If notâ€¦ why not? Can a writer who cares more about the music articulate why? Iâ€™m quite curious to know.