Saturday, August 29, 2009

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!)


  1. This is a fascinating analysis! Thanks for posting it.

    I've had the sense for a long time that modern pop music, especially live concerts, are a sort of substitute for liturgy and worship in the experience of many people, but I think that much of this is a result of the intention and persona of the artist and not necessarily a function of the medium.

    Also, re: the idea that the fusion of song and singer "re-presents" the singer himself in a quasi-sacramental sort of way: For the Christian artist in a secular context, this is not a bad thing. Through his art, the Christian artist can make his own experience available to his audience in a way that brings Christ to them (Christ being inherent in his experience, and hopefully conveyed to them with some skill in the medium chosen).

    It occurs to me that this is precisely _not_ what is to happen with music in liturgy; the music and musicians are there to serve the liturgy, and they rightly are to "hide behind it", delivering the words of the prayers in a plain, direct, impersonal way. On the other hand, becoming a "sacramental", bringing the presence of Christ in a particular way to a specific situation, is precisely what Christian artists are called to do in the world.

  2. Ed,

    Lots to take in quickly, but at first glance I would make a similar case for the music of Boston, another seminal 70s band that used technology in a careful and precise way to get a certain sound. I wonder if there was something unique going on in the 70s?

    Of course, I would also argue that many modern-day rappers use technology to create good music--both complicated music with harmony and melody, and complicated with interesting "Steely Dan-like" stories--beyond simple gangster rap and other 'street' silliness (see e.g. Arrested Development, the Fugees, Kanye West, etc.)

  3. Scruton got into a lot of trouble with his claims about music; the comment about the Pet Shop Boys in AIPGMC got him sued, and he had to pay damages. The Pet Shop Boys would have taken an apology but Scruton was unrepentant. I suspect Scruton would be equally unconvinced in the case of Steely Dan, but might well concede for them what he conceded for Elvis here (scroll down).

    I often disagree with his conclusions, but I think Scruton does some of the best work in aesthetics currently done.

    1. Interestingly enough, he didn't just reluctantly defend Elvis; he also that Metallica was, "genuinely talented" and said "Master of Puppets" had something, "violently poetic" to it.
      I think his outlook was that Elvis, Metallica and Jimi Hendrix are/were talented musicians who wasted their sizeable abilities doing rock
      and metal.

  4. Dear Mr. Feser,
    I love Steely Dan. Always have. They are more melodic than most.
    Glad to know that one of my favorite young philosophers also loves Steely Dan.

  5. I'm with Scruton here, for the most part, as a lifelong rock fan who's gone in the last 5 years or so to listening to classical music 90% of the time.

    As a result I find a very large majority of pop/rock stuff banal and musically uninteresting, even stuff that 5 years ago I would have raved about.

    There are exceptions, however, and I think that's the key. Scruton is describing the pop/rock scene generally; he may or may not be aware of the relatively few acts which avoid his generalization. I'm not particularly a Steely Dan fan, but I can see how their music would fit into that category -- they are unique, and that in a good way.

    My favorite band ('the only group I give a damn about right now' as I say) is the Icelandic outfit Sigur Ros. They are unique as well, something special (check out their concert/travelog/documentary DVD "Heima"). One might also mention the Blue Nile or the Innocence Mission. In any case, I think the relative rarity of these sorts of exceptions proves Scruton's rule.

    As with Steely Dan, the transgressive element Scruton criticizes is absent from the groups I mention also. That's an important consideration, I think. I avoid as much as possible what a friend in the music business calls "ugly music," and it's readily apparent that music can be ugly either musically or lyrically, or both.

    BTW, Scruton's new book on music has just been published. I've ordered it ("Understanding Music") on Amazon but it hasn't arrived yet.

  6. Very interesting and thought-provoking. Thanks.

    Personally, though, I have long thought that Steely Dan's obsession with studio perfection went too far, and to their own artistic detriment. As the production became slicker, the inspiration waned, although this was a very gradual process. For me, their most vital album is still their second one, "Countdown to Ecstacy". Their gradual slide into a merely technically perfect and polished pop band began with their next album, the brilliant "Pretzel Logic", and culminated in the sonically mind-blowing but rather vapid "Aja" (which has always sounded to me like a sobby mid-life crisis etched in vinyl).

    "Album" - "vinyl" - sheesh, I'm showing my age. My kids wouldn't even know what those words mean...

  7. Ed, I wonder how Scuton's analysis (which I too find quite plausible) would deal with the American Idol, Or Australian Idol phenomena.

    Here a musician becomes a "pop star" and gains adoring fans by singing the music of someone else.
    In this context the original piece is separated from the original artist and appropriated by the new singer

  8. If you think about it American Idol is really nothing more than glorified karaoke. The participants often do nothing more than perform vocal gymnastics within the framework of a popular song. The results are more novelties than anything else -- it is kitsch.

    There are a few notable cover versions of pop songs, versions in which one artist takes another person's song and really makes it his or her own. But good ones are few and far between. Again, they mostly come across as novelties.

    On another note, the "processing" of music has gotten to the point where virtually anyone can be made to sound good in the studio, given enough time and money. Acts with quite limited talent can make a great-sounding record; the problem is that they are then unable to duplicate that sound during a live performance without the help of digital tricks, samplers, lip synching, etc.

  9. Edward--I listen to a lot of music. I like all types. I have not taken to Steely Dan. There is certainly a lot of variety in all the major types of music, pop, country, and rock. So, Scruton, you tell us, is accounting for the emergence of fans of Cher, Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones, Al Wilson, Journey, Dolly Parton, etc. If you ask people about songs, they will say: "Great song," "I like that song," or "Awesome," right? Scruton is dispelling any view that says the fans are happenstance. Pop music stars are winning the fans over with the nature of rapport, the inseparability of song and performer. That is still the singer's style. He has searched for the blend of lyrics and melody, certainly with an eye on his fans. There is a lot of competition, and some singers and songs don't make it. The songs have to be sensational. The fans identify with the lyrics and the singers. I recently have been listening to Rolling Stones' songs. Take "Streets of Love," for example, from their "Bigger Bang Album" back in 2005. I don't think that album sold. I didn't hear the song (or "Rain Fall Down," "This Place is Empty," or "Sweet Neo-Con") on the radio. They made it as an artistic exercise, it seems to me. And yet, you can't help be struck by Jagger's utter genius of sound and sense in "Streets of Love." I was astonished. The adoring fans from the seventies aren't there anymore. They're middle-aged men doing the old-time stuff at the height of their talent. So, I would add to Scruton's argument that the timing has to be right. Music occupies a quasi-religious status in our contemporary times, I agree, but other factors keep the menu-like quality to it all there, too.

  10. 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.

    I love Steely Dan too; however I think they kinda lived the life of the characters they described in their music (I doubt they do now as men approaching their senior years).

    I don't think you want to tell your readers where the name "Steely Dan" comes from.

  11. Thou shalt not speak of the derivation of the name of the Dan Steely!

    Actually Edvard "the Hylomorph" Feser spins a somewhat interesting analysis contra-Scruton here, yet SD arguably produce a type of jazz anyway (with some rock and pop touches, to be sure), and so by definition they are not really "pop". Becker and Fagen don't rely on the usual rockstar sort of celebrity hype, either--the Dan's about the musick itself (thou' Fagen's noirish and literary lyrics also create the vibe--"Josey's" sort of a mini-Salinger tale with jazz-funk) .

    The Royal Scam may not be up to, say, the Maverick Philosopher's parnassian standards, but fairly complex and subtle nonetheless--not really comparable to the brit-pop "scene"--

  12. When I click on the link for "as any major dud will tell you," the YouTube page I get shows me a message saying "This video is no longer available because the YouTube account associated with this video has been terminated."

    What's up with that?

    1. the account/channel that posted the video doesn't exist anymore i guess?