The Aging Appeal of Steely Dan

I truly believe that any music fan should like Steely Dan. Should. Not “does.” Just should. And there’s a good reason for this: Steely Dan is awesome.

Now, I don’t mean love. I’m not saying anyone should love Steely Dan. I’m saying like. Maybe “like” isn’t even the right word. Appreciate, maybe? Yeah, I think that’s it. Appreciate. Whatever the verbiage, I promise I have a point to make.

Steely Dan?

Yeah, Steely Dan. You’ve probably heard Steely Dan’s music before. Maybe it was in the car with your dad, or perhaps on the speakers at a Barnes & Noble. No matter. You’ve definitely heard them before. Maybe it was The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror XXVII. Personally, that’s my favorite ever use of a Steely Dan song in media, but since Fox owns The Simpsons and Disney owns Fox, and Disney hires legal assassins to take down anything that is intellectual property infringement, I can’t provide a link. But if you watch Treehouse of Horror XXVII (which is 27 in Roman numerals, in case you never saw this episode of The Simpsons), you’ll hear the song “Babylon Sisters” by Steely Dan. That also happens to be my favorite Steely Dan song.

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The debut album

But I’m getting off topic here. Back to the band. Steely Dan is/was a rock band formed in the early 1970s by guitarist Walter Becker and keyboardist/lead singer Donald Fagen. Walter Becker died a few years back, but Fagen still tours. Or, at least, he did pre-Covid. Before they became Steely Dan, they had several other names and band members, including comedian Chevy Chase on drums. Seriously. Chevy wasn’t around when they started cutting records, but he did just fine on his own.

You’ve probably heard some of the hits. “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Do it Again,” “Peg,” Hey Nineteen,” and “Dirty Work” are the hits that come to mind. But perhaps you’ve heard “F.M.,” “Deacon Blues,” or “Josie.” In listening to these songs, you can quickly learn that “rock” may not be the best, most accurate description of the band’s music. Sure, there are elements of rock with electric guitars and drums, but there are also elements of jazz, Latin music, reggae, and new wave. And it’s all pretty inoffensive. It’s easy to listen to without really being “easy listening” music. It’s perfect for a day on the lake and it’s equally perfect playing over the speakers at the grocery store.

Between 1971 and 1980, the band released seven studio albums, and each one of them is an absolute gem. They have hits that sound a bit poppy, but also have songs that could fairly be categorized as blues, funk, fusion, jazz, samba, and bossa nova to some degree. I won’t bore you with reviews/information about each album. That would just be extraneous. What I will provide you with is the description of an odd phenomenon.

Steely Dan!

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Steely Dan gets cooler the older you get. It happens. And it’s not just me. I’ve talked to several people who, like me, find themselves enjoying Steely Dan’s music the older they get. I suppose I always liked Steely Dan. For instance, if a Steely Dan song came on the radio when I was a kid (quick shoutout to 92.5 KZPS in Dallas), I always let it play. I didn’t change the station or anything. But at the same time, I was never seeking out Steely Dan. At no point did I ever think, “Oh man, I could really go for some Steely Dan right about now.”

But then in college I started to appreciate them more. Oftentimes Steely Dan would get shuffled in on Pandora playlists that included other college favorites like Dave Matthews Band, Sublime, Phish, 311, the Black Keys, and even Slightly Stoopid. But in college, for whatever reason, not only was I tolerating the Steely Dan stuff, I was actually enjoying it out. I’d be over at a friend’s house drinking Lone Star and grilling meat like all proper Texas A&M undergraduates and I would actually turn to my friends and say, “Hey, man, play “Peg” by Steely Dan!” And they’d play it. And we’d freakin’ rock out, man. But then we’d just go back to whatever else was on.

When I got out of college, I started listening to albums. Like, consecutively. It was odd. One day I was just a 22-year-old dude trying to find a job in a weak but recovering economy, and the next day I was an unemployed 22-year-old dude scavenging the music section at Half Price Books in a weak but recovering economy. I found a copy of Aja, which was the first Steely Dan album I had. And I wore it out. Then I moved on to Goucho, which remains my favorite album of theirs. Then I started getting earlier albums. Preztel Logic and Can’t Buy a Thrill were soon to be found in my CD binder that everyone my age had.

Now I’m a man in his early thirties who fanboys on Steely Dan. It’s odd. I have all of the albums on iTunes, a handful of them on vinyl, and I even have some of Becker and Fagen’s solo work. Who am I? If 17-year-old me could see 31-year-old me, he’d be confused. He’d definitely be proud of me for marrying a certified babe of a wife, but he’d be pretty upset that I’m in bed by 9:30 most nights and can’t drink caffeine after noon. But he’d be very curious about my music taste. I think he could see the trajectory on a lot of it. The blues, the Grateful Dead, and more modern acts like Kurt Vile and Tame Impala he could probably have seen coming. But Steely Dan? I don’t think so.

So What is It?

So what is it with Steely Dan? Considering those albums I mentioned earlier are all at least forty years old now, I don’t think it has anything to do with their sound changing. It must be my taste that’s changed. But why does this seem to happen to so many others? I don’t know. I have some guesses though:

It Reminds You of Your Parents

Maybe it reminds you of your parents. Perhaps you have faint memories of seeing your mom clean the house or riding in the truck with your dad on the way to baseball practice. And maybe you remember a Steely Dan song playing in the background of those moments. And now you’re your parents’ age from those memories, or at least getting close. Now you’re starting to appreciate that music because it’s just the soundtrack of being an adult. On some subconscious level, Steely Dan is the sound of your past and your present. Who knows what the future will hold, but they say the older you get the more you become like your parents, so I’m imagining more Steely Dan.

You’re a Closet Easy Listening Fan

Or maybe it means you’re a closet easy listening fan. It’s appealing. Generally the music is, indeed, easy to listen to. The lyrics are fun, the melodies memorable, the tempo moderate, and the volume reasonable. But you’re not ready to take the plunge into the deep end of easy listening music. You’re not ready for The Carpenters, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King, Carly Simon, or Loggins & Messina. You’ll stick to Steely Dan and James Taylor, thank you very much, and that’s about as easy listening as you want to get for now. If this is the case, your future is going to include a lot of Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Lionel Richie.

You Were Too Stupid to Get It
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I hope this is the answer. The other two are depressing, really. I hope at seventeen I was too stupid. Too stupid to get Steely Dan. I didn’t get that the music was made by tremendously talented musicians who took complicated music and produced it in a way that is consumable by a large audience. It’s analogous to seeing a movie growing up then seeing it as an adult and having a new perspective. I watched A Few Good Men frequently growing up. It came on the USA network and my parents liked it, so I watched it. I liked it then, but it wasn’t until I was about 23 that I understood it. I understood the plot, but also commentary on other matters. Now I’m an attorney and all I can think about is how Sam Weinberg (played brilliantly by Kevin Pollak) is the best lawyer in the crew.

Whatever the reason, it happens as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow. You will age. You will become more of an adult with each passing day. You’ll catch yourself doing and saying things that your parents did when you were growing up. Your back will start to hurt for no reason. And you’ll appreciate Steely Dan. I, for one, embrace this inevitability. So sit back, relax, and play “Babylon Sisters” at a reasonable volume while you do your taxes and drink decaf coffee.

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