Yacht Rock (and by extension dad rock) and I have a very long and complicated relationship. Musically, I was weaned on three minute singles of the oldies variety and the hits of popular ’90s country radio, so when exposed to the likes of, say, Michael McDonald or Christopher Cross, I turned up my nose. Way too fucking slick.I like hearing the fingerprints, so to speak.
I’m not going to argue for certain approaches being more authentic than the next, because screw that noise. A lot of my favorite records were painstakingly labored over. Instead, what I think I objected to was the timbre. Yacht Rock came across as too precise to me, and that made it come as across as chilly and cerebral yet also undeniably cheesy. I mean, how the hell is one supposed to respond to Michael McDonald, at times? There’s a reason this SCTV skit is so goddamn funny, apart from the deft comic timing and sensibilities of Rick Moranis:
And that’s really no fault of McDonald’s. His voice has been a source of risible material for years. Maybe The 40-Year-Old Virgin was more influential than previously thought.
I think, now that I’m older, I’m slightly less self-conscious about the music I happen to listen to. I’m sure some of that comes with having a Master’s in Musicology. It’s like, if someone trashes my opinion, I’ll can always say, “Fuck you, I’m an expert. This is great. Your opinion sucks.” But that’s kind of asinine way to live, so that’s sort of my nuclear option, so to speak.
I’d known of Steely Dan for a while, either from being a budding rock nerd in high school or from reading/watching High Fidelity. The name, which I later learned came from a William S. Burroughs novel, specifically a metal dildo, and made me assume the artist in question dabbled in the sensitive singer-songwriter milieu that was so popular during the “Me Decade”. I imagined music that sounded like Jim Croce.
I probably heard various popular songs by Steely Dan on the classic rock radio station I listened to in high school, but it wasn’t until college that I got a more formal introduction to the Dan. I started from the beginning with Can’t Buy a Thrill, and I remember really liking “Midnite Cruiser” in particular. I am always down for a song that mourns the passage of time, from the perspective of someone who feels like the world has left them behind. A very relatable concept for someone so damn young, silly as that might be.
The later Dan, I found, as mentioned above, to be too fucking slick. I liked music that sounded effortless, even if that really wasn’t the case. They didn’t really stick, so when my hard drive and iPod got crowded, the Dan got the boot to my backups and other storage devices.
Flash forward to June of 2014, while the Spurs demolished the Heat in the Finals I decided to give the Dan another shot. There’s this perception among casual basketball fans that the Spurs are boring. That might have been true during those first few championships, but Spurs of more recent vintage have been playing some of the most beautiful and revolutionary ball in the league.
If you’re a hoops fan, you know that a motion offense is incredibly difficult to run, because of its taxing nature. It’s just like it sounds: the ball is in almost constant motion, frenetic passes are kicked to the open man, with the intent of getting the opposing defense to crash to one side, creating an opening, and hopefully a good look for your shooter. Because of the age of the core, the Spurs rely on their bench a ton, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli often sit out of games to preserve themselves for the playoffs.
The summer of 2014, I realized that the Spurs were a lot like Steely Dan. It was Chuck Klosterman who helped me draw the connection. In an essay on Billy Joel in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, Klosterman says thus:
“This is what happens when you don’t construct an archetypal persona. If you’re popular and melodic and faceless, you seem meaningless. The same thing happened to Steely Dan, a group who served as the house band for every 1978 West Coast singles band despite being more lyrically subversive than the Sex Pistols and the Clash combined. If a musician can’t convince people that he’s cool, nobody cool is going to care.”
There’s this whole image of the Spurs as bland, probably because they played some ugly basketball in the earlier part of the Pop/Duncan era and are responsible for some of the lowest-rated NBA Finals ever. But despite their genial image, the Spurs are the most radical basketball team in the league. So many teams are trying to emulate their approach in order to bring home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Here’s a piece on the whole Spurs Dad thing. Steely Dan feels like a natural fit for the Spurs: painfully uncool in this era, yet secretly revolutionary and kind of awesome if you like that sort of thing.
The Spurs aren’t flashy like some of the other teams, like say the Clippers with their alley-oops, but that’s okay. I suspect one reason I admire the Spurs, (apart from Pop being a Hoosier and them beating the Heat) is the Pacers are similarly held as boring. Most people find defense boring. Personally, I love seeing good defense, it somehow feels more impressive than good offense. Although an offense that’s really humming is a thing to behold.
The Spurs/Mavs game on opening night this season was a thing of beauty. Part of the gimmick with the Spurs dad is he’s in to stereotypically dad things. Steely Dan is one of things: painfully uncool, yet that doesn’t phase them one bit. This article on the Spurs Dad thing even uses Steely Dan as a metaphor, so I know I’m on the right track.
So this summer, I listened to a lot of Steely Dan. I really love “Barrytown” because it’s the same melody as “Tell Me What You See” by The Beatles. It also makes me think of High Fidelity. In the novel, the band Barry joins as a singer is initially called Barrytown. One of the reasons they hire him as a singer is his first name. In the time between when I first heard the Dan and now, I suspect at least two things helped me appreciate them more: The first is getting older. That seems to go hand-in-hand with caring less about the opinions of others and just a greater feeling of self-confidence.
The other is my unabashed love for the work of Burt Bacharach. Bacharach was another songwriter dismissed as schlocky and unhip, but in the late ’90s, he got critical rehabilitation with the help of a retrospective box set and name checking from critical darling indie rockers who spoke of their appreciation for the song craft in those Hal David-Burt Bacharach collaborations.
In the fall of 2014, I started working with my friend on Mondays and we frequently listened to a radio station we affectionately labeled Steely Dad. I think I was the one who suggested it, since I’d been listening to a lot of Steely Dan. What started out as somewhat ironic listening has since become genuine appreciation, to the point where we both considered buying matching Steely Dan t-shirts to wear on Mondays.
The consensus seems to be that one’s taste solidifies roughly around the era one is college-aged. I’m sure part of that is because that part of life allows one the freedom to explore lots and lots of new music, especially if one gets involved at a college radio station. When one hits real life, however, one interprets that as, there’s less time to experience new music, so one turns to the music of the past, as a source of comfort and reminder of times when things were much less complicated.
I sometimes wonder why the music one hears in adolescence has such resonance, but that’s a matter for another article. To be brief, I suspect that it’s for at least three reasons:
1. Scarcity. Your mileage may vary on this, but typically teens have a smaller music collection than in later life. I’m speaking from personal experience. I didn’t engage in piracy and streaming services were in a nascent stage, though I did make use of some online radio at various points.
2. Novelty. When one is young, that’s when one is first introduced to tropes, so something that might be viewed is cliché-ridden and forgettable to a person who has consumed a lot of media, might seems fresh and vital to one who hasn’t experienced so much.
3. Developmental Stage. Part of being a teenager involves dealing with the fallout of hormones. Combine that with trying to figure one’s self out, and one is left with a tricky minefield to navigate.
Music is so key and so important in forming one’s identity. Part of that goes hand-in-hand with asserting one’s self as an individual, someone rather different from one’s parents. Music plays a vital role for teenagers, who often reject the music of their parents as part of forming a new identity. The emotions and stakes of late adolescence are much higher than at other times of one’s life. Music fulfills a vital role: in courtship, finding one’s clique, as well as other things. There’s mixtapes, songs to listen to when one is falling for someone and when things are over.
As for me, I still find some yacht rock unbelievably cheesy, but it does work in the right setting. And sometimes the songs are good enough to surmount dated production. Tonight I downloaded a Donald Fagen solo album:The Nightfly. Next, my mission is to get into the band Sparks. I’m in too deep to get out now.