Steely Dan Represents Everything Missing From Popular Music Today

The way the music we hear when we’re children infiltrates our psyche as we age is an infinitely intriguing thing. The relationships we build around those songs and records — the memories they cohabit with in the depths of our minds, the emotional factors that impact how we feel about those pieces of music as time goes on — is an unbelievably unique part of human conditioning.

I’m lucky to have parents with great taste in music, and while it might not have always been the edgiest nuggets providing the soundtrack to my youth, I was fortunate enough to be provided with an inadvertent primer on some of the good shit through my parents’ musical selections. One particular standout band that has jutted in and out of my life since I was a child is Steely Dan — perhaps the ultimate poster band for dad/mom-rock as a concept, undoubtedly the poster band for the laid-back, oft-maligned side of ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll, and in reality, one of the best bands the world has ever known.

Steely Dan’s music is pretentious, easily perceived as overwrought, and you can’t really party to it. Unless you’ve got a boat. Maybe then. But odds are you don’t have a boat.

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Steely Dan’s music entered my life during an annual family road trip to Florida from upstate New York. My parents were on some semi-urbane Griswolds shit — we’d never fly for some reason. We’d hit Disney, we’d stay with my snowbird grandparents at their condo in Sunrise, we’d go the beach — typical Florida vacation. My dad would always specifically rent some land yacht Cadillac to make the journey in, and we’d hit the road at the asscrack of dawn. For me, the best part of the travel was the wee hours. My dad, being a dad, would figure out a way to drive through the night and make the best time possible to Florida. A child insomniac, I’d take on the role of copilot, and it was during these hours that I learned about music — usually guitar-based stuff as my father himself is a badass player.

One year, as we passed through D.C. as night fell, Steely Dan’s Alive in America found its way into the car’s stereo. A live joint from the ‘90s, the album opens with what I still believe to be the smoothest version of “Babylon Sisters” the band ever cut — languid and sparsely adorned, it was the chillest song we could possibly crack into the night drive with. At the time, the record merely provided pleasant sounds in the background while Pops and I made fart jokes, but the music would eventually seep into my blood. There was something about the character of Donald Fagen’s voice, even then, that had me hooked. While I now recognize Fagen as one of the most brilliant lyricists of all time, to my young ears, he was just an interesting-sounding guy. More important, for a budding guitar nerd such as my 8-year-old self, that album’s hooks were sunk in deep via the veritable buffet of badass guitar solos it's laced with.

After that trip, Alive in America was one of the first of my parents’ CDs that I adopted into my own collection (read: stole). I slept to it. I read the liner notes over and over again. It was one of the albums that helped me on my way to becoming a true music fan. I didn’t get most of the shit they sung about, and I didn’t even much like anything else that sounded like Steely Dan, but there was a magic in that band’s sound that I couldn’t sort out or get past. Time went on, I got into punk-rock, I was indoctrinated into the world of metal, and I traveled the path of musical divergence from my parents. However, at some point, nostalgia for those road trips brought me back to Steely Dan, and it was then that I truly figured it out: Under the pretty daytime radio sonics, the sheen of jazz-infused guitar solos, and hidden within the story songs well out of the intellectual depth of the Everyman, Steely Dan is one of the most subversive bands on the planet, and represents everything that’s missing from popular music in 2016.

Steely Dan’s music is pretentious, easily perceived as overwrought, and you can’t really party to it. Unless you’ve got a boat. Maybe then. But odds are you don’t have a boat. But this is a band that filled its music with subversive lyrical content (pick any song off Aja and Google the lyrics), named itself after a dildo mentioned in a Burroughs novel, and wrung massive hits out of hyper-literate, truly thought-provoking content. And they play their asses off! We’re missing intrigue, intellect, and subversion in our popular music these days more than ever, and while Steely Dan sets a high standard on all counts (and admittedly might not be everyone’s bag sonically), artists of their caliber simply don’t come around so often, and especially not in the music industry’s current climate.

Steely Dan
With Steve Winwood, 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 29; at Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $25 to $410 plus fees.
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David Von Bader