There are three likely responses to Steely Dan’s announced appearance at this year’s Coachella festival: “Wow!” “Why?” or “Who?” In this post, we will focus on the second.
I’ll admit it’s hard for me to be objective about Steely Dan, my favorite musical act of all time. I do know this: not everyone shares my love of them. I wish I could play the “That’s OK, it’s just over your heads/you have to be a musician to appreciate them” card but many musician friends of mine whose opinions I respect were either never fans or have found that “The Dan” has run their course. I’ll admit too that most of their recent output, including lead singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen’s post-“Nightfly” solo records, has the feel of going to dinner with your ex and holding out hope that the fire is still alive but, despite a few shared laughs and good memories, ultimately being disappointed.
That said, I will now try to unravel the million dollar question: what the hell is Steely Dan doing playing Coachella? Is it anything but a recipe for disaster?
Maybe, just maybe. It’s a longshot, like an ailing Kirk Gibson coming to bat against flame-throwing Dennis Eckersley with Game 1 of the 1988 World Series on the line (Christ, I need to stop dating myself) or Mercury records producer Charlie Fach insisting that the Bachman Turner Overdrive record a song they’d written as a joke, entitled “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” (that’s more like it.)
What can make this dark horse a contender?
The healing power of irony will be a factor. Hipsters and millenials love to be ironic and so does Steely Dan; they’ve been called Brooklyn’s first hipster band. Many bands have songs about someone catching their partner in bed with someone else, but only Steely Dan’s “Everything You Did” features a protagonist who asks is girlfriend to do the same things to him that he saw her doing to his rival. As Fagen said in 1993, “I’m into my post-irony phase, which includes irony as well.” Who knows; perhaps while savoring the irony that they are listening to the same music their parents and perhaps grandparents grew up on, young Coachella attendees may find their voice in a band with so many obscure references that an online dictionary has been established to sort them all out.
There are non-ironic reasons why this might work too. An LA Weekly article claims, “Your favorite rock/pop/electronic/hip-hop act? Likely influenced by the Dan.” De La Soul sampled “Peg” and MF Doom sampled “Black Cow” and they probably weren’t being ironic.
Lastly, at the risk of sounding reactionary, is classic rock entirely dead? There was enough outrage at Kanye West’s fans not recognizing this Paul McCartney character with whom he recently collaborated to make me feel that yes, humanity still has hope. It took seven Super Bowl half-time shows of classic rock artists such as Springsteen and West’s protege Paul McCartney in the years following the Janet Jackson incident before we grew tired of it and got the Black Eyed Peas instead; even then not everyone thought that the event was better for it. With the right packaging, everything old becomes new again. Ten years ago, “Guitar Hero” got kids listening to the Allman Brothers. Who knows, maybe Steely Dan’s appearance at Coachella will have hipsters putting down their artisan Old Fashioneds and doing shots of Cuervo Gold.
As for the haters? While acknowledging that the following argument can be used against me vis-a-vis my opinion of Coldplay, I put forth the notion that to attract haters, a band has to be at least somewhat known. After all, the writers of “Knocked Up” could have chosen any band when they had Seth Rogen say, “That’s because Steely Dan gargles my balls.”
Sometimes on the day after too many beers and pizza, I’ll be getting dressed and look the pants I’m about to put on and feel as if I’m diving into a tiny pool from a high board. I have to admit that I feel a similar vibe about Steely Dan at Coachella. That said, I’m cautiously optimistic; if the main argument against Steely Dan’s appearance is the band’s irrelevancy, you could say that they have nothing to lose. We’ll know in three months. For now, I leave you with the words of the good folks at Funny or Die: “They’ve had way more sex than you’ll ever have.”