The Steely Dan Aesthetic


Chris Shields

Drawing by Chris Shields

Chris Shields, Head Editor

People nowadays may not recognize the name Steely Dan as well as other 70s rock innovators like Aerosmith, the Eagles, and Queen. Maybe some of the band’s bigger hits like “Hey Nineteen,” “Peg,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” or “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” ring a bell. No? Well let me educate you a little bit on one of the most daring and intellectual bands of all time. Masters of ironic, sarcastic, clever, beautiful, tasteful, complex, and technically advanced musical composition, Steely Dan is one of the very few musical acts in history that made near “perfect” music. 

The combined genius of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and their immense knowledge of music theory and various genres brought the world one of the most unique sounds ever in the 70s and 80s. Many consider Steely Dan to be the absolute epitome of music itself, and immersing yourself in the brilliancy of works like Aja or Pretzel Logic will prove that. Somehow, these two and their pool of session musicians completely reinvented “popular music” in their time. 

They managed to create a shockingly modern style of music that somehow felt vintage. Their compositions include everything from “controlled chaos” to mellow and soothing yacht rock. Genre-defying, boundary-breaking, theory-expanding, and revolutionary are all adjectives that describe the art mastery that is Steely Dan. 

Sarcastic and ironic lyrics, a mind-boggling variety of genres, and some of the most complex compositions you’ll ever see are what the Steely Dan “aesthetic” was built around. This group experimented with elements of jazz, blues, rock, reggae, Latin, R&B, and traditional pop music just to name a few, and often within the same album. Their attitude of sarcasm is important to their artistry. They embraced the idea that you can be “high brow” and still not take crap from anyone. They combined class and brains, yet also humor and angst. 

The duo of Fagen and Becker were the driving force and masterminds behind the band, but they kept things fresh and new by incorporating a rotating roster of session musicians in their songs. The group is famous for their intense perfectionism in their work. Every note, rhythm, articulation, accidental, accent, and breath is exactly where it’s meant to be. Steely Dan’s first album Can’t Buy a Thrill, which is only 10 songs in total, took a whopping six months to create, and was then considered a “rush job” by Fagen and Becker. They devoted all their time and effort to making every detail as perfect as humanly possible.

Steely Dan is often considered to be much more than just a band; they’re an image, an aesthetic, and a style. The uniqueness, creativity, and intelligence behind every single song the group has ever produced is baffling and remarkable. I highly recommend you look these guys up if you’ve never heard of them before. If you’ve only heard their hits, I recommend you dive deeper into their catalogue to hear what true musical genius and perfection sounds like.

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