Musical Topic and Ironic Gesture in the Songs of Steely Dan

Tim Koozin, University of Houston

Steely Dan is widely recognized as a leading American jazz-rock band with sales of over 40 million albums worldwide. This study examines the distinctive approach to stylistic borrowing and juxtaposition evident in the band's performances and integral to the songwriting of core band members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. With examples selected from the band's many hit songs in the 1970s as well as their meticulous studio compositions from 2000-2003, the paper explores how Steely Dan's music is broadly ironic it its approach to musical genre, strategically positioning gestures laden with cultural meaning to create oppositions of expression and syntax that result in the projection of musical irony.

Building upon previous investigations of melodic/harmonic conflict that have been called "the melodic-harmonic divorce in rock," this study examines Steely Dan's strategic juxtaposition of material projecting different and even conflicting gestural, topical, and structural implications. The music of Steely Dan has received previous analytical attention that has focused on its jazz-influenced harmonic complexity and sophistication. This study shows through a close examination of musical gesture how Becker and Fagen juxtapose stylistically divergent elements that resonate with jazz traditions and support an ironic edge in their music, while steadfastly maintaining an authentic grounding in pentatonic-based rock. As an interpretation of topical discourse in Steely Dan's music, the paper explores how musical topics interact with lyrics in an unfolding narrative that dialogues with the past, tests boundaries, and ironically challenges an imagined nostalgia.