Steely Dan contra Roger Scruton

While on the subject of Roger Scruton and pop culture: I’ve been reading Brian Sweet’s recently updated edition of Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years. (As any major dude will tell you, you can’t read Scholastic philosophy all the time.) It brings to mind Scruton’s analysis of contemporary pop music in the “Yoofanasia” chapter of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture – though only, I would suggest, as a counterexample to that (fascinating and otherwise plausible) analysis.

Scruton argues that the contemporary pop star plays a quasi-religious social function, like the totem animal of a primitive tribe. The most obvious evidence for this claim is the cult-like quality devotion to pop stars and groups can take on. A fan’s sense of identity can become so associated with the group or pop star to which he is devoted that interest in other groups or singers is excluded, attacks on the group or pop star are taken as attacks on the fan himself, and the community of fans is regarded as a kind of extension of the pop group, to which the community is “united” as if mystically. But another, more interesting piece of evidence Scruton adduces – and the one that is relevant here – concerns the nature of much contemporary pop music itself, particularly its highly processed character.

In older musical traditions, the focus was on the music itself, which had only a contingent relationship to the performer even when the performer was the one who composed it. Once created, a song took on a life of its own and lost none of its essential character when performed by others. By contrast, Scruton argues, “modern pop songs are meticulously put together, often by artificial means, so as to be indelibly marked with the trade mark of the group. Everything is done to make them inseparable from the group. The lead singer projects himself and not the melody, emphasizing his particular tone, sentiment, and gesture… (Contrast here the tradition of classical performance, in which the singer is the servant of the music, hiding behind the notes that he produces.)”

Hence “in the music of [contemporary] youth, singer and song are fused. Popular songs [of earlier generations] grew from a tradition of ballad and folk music, in which an expanding repertoire of favourite tunes and devices formed the foundation of music-making. Until recently the song has been detachable from the performer – a musical entity which makes sense in itself, and which can be internalized and repeated by the listeners, should they have the skill.” But the processing that marks the modern pop song with the identity of the pop star or group that creates it allows it to serve a new and “incarnational” function. The music is no longer an end in itself. Rather, the point of the song is, as it were, to re-present the pop star or group quasi-sacramentally. It is, in Scruton’s view, the means by which the obsessive fan becomes “mystically” united with the performer or group he idolizes and in whom he finds the meaning of his life. In its own shabby way, then, modern pop music fills a void left by the retreat of traditional religion in the modern world – and also in a transgressive way, insofar as rebellion against the authority and moral code represented by the old religion is one of the major themes of this new music.

Make of this what you will as a general analysis. (Though it might seem a tad overwrought, I find it quite plausible as an account of the role played by pop music in the lives of at least many teenagers.) What came to mind as I read Sweet’s book was Scruton’s emphasis on the “processed” character of much pop music, and its resulting inseparability from the group that produces it.

Even the most casual listener will agree that the “Steely Dan sound” is quite unlike that of any other contemporary pop group. (For you music buffs, there is even such a thing as the “Steely Dan chord.”) Part of this has to do with the heavy jazz influence the band’s principals Walter Becker and Donald Fagen bring to their music. Part of it has to do with Fagen’s unique vocals: Anyone other than Fagen singing “Deacon Blues” (say) is pretty much just doing karaoke, so essential is his distinctive voice and style to the overall Steely Dan aesthetic. But there is also the perfectionistic “smoothness” and polish Becker and Fagan famously bring to every tune, an effect that requires intensive studio work. Indeed, playing live was from the beginning something Becker and Fagen did only extremely reluctantly. Steely Dan has always been essentially a studio band – not only in the sense of emphasizing recording over live performance, but in the sense of frequently using studio musicians in an ad hoc way rather than having (apart from Becker and Fagen themselves) a permanent roster of players, and in the sense of relying crucially on various studio mixing techniques to achieve certain effects that would have been otherwise impossible.

Especially after the mid-1970s, with each individual song on a given album, Becker and Fagen would seek out those session players whose strengths were most suited to it. Different players would often do multiple takes, followed by other players doing further takes on the same part, until exactly the sound Becker and Fagen had in mind was achieved. Often the finished song would combine the work of various musicians who hadn’t actually played together in any one session. Moreover, part of one solo might be combined with part of another. “To create absolute millisecond-perfect drum tracks,” Sweet tells us, “a drum machine, a computer, a live drummer or combination of all three” might be used (p. 121). And so forth. And yet the end result would be absolutely seamless. The way the “Steely Dan sound” was honed to perfection in the famous Aja sessions has been described at length not only in Sweet’s book, but in Don Breithaupt’s book Aja and in the DVD Classic Albums: Steely Dan – Aja. (Here’s the famous title cut, along with “Josie” and “Black Cow.” See here, here, and here for the making of “Peg”; and here for the making of “Home at Last.”)

This painstaking attention to minute detail culminated in the succeeding album Gaucho, in the making of which Fagen and Becker “employed an astonishing 40 musicians and singers, and worked on one song for so long and listened back to it so many times that they actually wore the oxide off the tape” (Sweet, p. 122). When the finished track “The Second Arrangement” was accidentally erased by an engineer, Becker and Fagen were unable to produce a new version they felt up to the austere standards of the original, and decided to abandon it. (All that exist now are various unpolished demo versions – here’s one – none of which necessarily sounds like the version that was lost, since Becker and Fagen would try out various approaches before settling on one.)

Steely Dan’s perfectionism has become enough of a pop culture cliché to earn them some ribbing in The Onion. The point, anyway, is that it seems perfectly to exemplify the tendency toward engineered sound and consequent inseparability of song and performer that Scruton makes central to his account of contemporary pop music. And yet any suggestion that the point of Steely Dan’s music is to “incarnate” the personages of Becker and Fagen would be preposterous. This is not only because of their notorious reclusiveness – their dislike of interviews, touring, entertainment industry gatherings, and the like. It is, more than anything else, because for Becker and Fagen a “nerdish” obsession with the quality of the music, as an end in itself, has always been all that matters. And that their sound is so distinctive reflects, not a desire to call attention to themselves, but rather the pursuit of an overarching aesthetic goal. In the case of Steely Dan, what Scruton calls the “processed” character of modern pop music results, not from a desire to make of the music a means to some ulterior, non-musical end, but precisely from the opposite motivation. The studio is for Becker and Fagen itself but another musical instrument, and not – as is arguably the case for the sort of acts Scruton takes as his examples (e.g. Prodigy, Oasis, Nirvana) – a means of preventing the demands of serious musicianship from getting in the way of pop stardom.

In fairness to Scruton, his analysis also calls attention to other features of contemporary pop music – the triumph of rhythm over melody, the unsophisticated nature of what melody there is, and the neglect of harmony – which are famously inapplicable to Steely Dan. It might seem, then, that his analysis could be re-stated in terms of these features alone, so as to avoid a Steely Dan counterexample. But Scruton’s emphasis on studio engineering techniques is too central to his account of the “incarnational” function he sees in modern pop music. The impossibility of separating the “processed” song from the singer seems to be what is doing the main work in his argument for the claim that the function of the music is to “re-present” the totem-like pop star for his worshipful fans. Yet this analysis simply doesn’t fit Steely Dan.

One gets the sense that Scruton simply objects aesthetically to the use of electronic and other artificial methods in the production of music, and thus is inclined to attribute to them a non-musical function. But while one may try to develop an aesthetic case against music made using such methods, there does not seem to be any good reason for regarding those methods as inherently non-musical. That is to say, it is one thing to suggest that such music is necessarily “inhuman” or in some other way aesthetically objectionable – I do not agree that it is, but that’s a separate issue – and another thing to say that it is somehow not strictly music at all. Studio techniques of the sort in question seem to be, as I have said, just one set of instruments among others for the making of music.

Interestingly, in his treatment of photography in the “Surface and Surfeit” chapter of the American edition of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton argues that photography per se is not genuinely representational, but allows that techniques for the manipulation of photographs can make of them representations precisely because the photographic elements become in that case analogous to the colors used by a painter, viz. a means of creating novel images. Yet if technological manipulation can facilitate the visual arts, why can’t it facilitate the making of music?

Nor does the inseparability of a song from the singer by itself seem plausibly to undermine its musical quality. Again, compare the visual arts: The paintings of El Greco are stamped with the distinctive aesthetic trademark of their creator, but remain great works despite that fact, indeed in part precisely because of it.

What of the “transgressive” quality Scruton (rightly) sees in much contemporary popular music? Is it to be found in the work of Becker and Fagen? I think not. To be sure, the characters who populate their songs are very often on the seedy side – drug abusers, thieves, persons of dubious sexual ethics, and other assorted losers and oddballs. But the tone is invariably detached, ironic, and observational rather than celebratory. Becker and Fagen are anthropologists, not advocates; they have a story to tell, but never a message to convey.

Sometimes the story has its attractions, sometimes not. But the attractions or lack thereof derive from the human condition – original sin and all – that the songs so faithfully represent, rather than from any manufacture on the part of the composers. Depending on one’s mood, one can imagine wanting to be the down-on-his-luck protagonist of “Deacon Blues”; not so with the loser of “What a shame about me”. The smooth-as-silk jazz-disco fusion piece “Glamour Profession” is as alluring and addictive as the illicit wares of its protagonist, a drug dealer to the stars; and yet both the lyrics and the instrumental framework convey an unmistakable touch of menace. Donald Fagen’s solo effort “Century’s End” captures, pitch-perfectly, the fusion of exhilaration and ennui that defined the life of the on-the-make 1980s yuppie. His “I.G.Y.” beautifully conveys the disappointed optimism of the Mad Men/JFK era.

I could go on, but MS Word’s handy “Pretentiousness Alert” icon is flashing orange, so I’ll stop. I should emphasize in closing that An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture is in any event hardly Scruton’s fullest statement on the subject of music. There is, of course, his The Aesthetics of Music (cited in a previous post), and also the just-released Understanding Music. (I have not had a chance to read the latter yet, but I did check the index while writing this post – alas, no Steely Dan reference!)
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