Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Summer Man (3) "... their objectivity intensifies Steely Dan's natural nastiness"

That's Robert Christgau reviewing Steely Dan's 1976 album The Royal Scam. It hit me, as I read it, that I quite like their nastiness.

Christgau has something of a love-hate relationship with the band. If you look up his reviews at the link the quote in the headers comes from, you'll notice that the marks he assigns the music steadily decline over the years. He gives their first four records straight As and the last two Bs. As their music becomes more polished, he thinks less of them. That's the exact opposite of the way the band's biggest fans see things. Christgau believes in a special kind of nonsense that attributes "authenticity" to rough, unpolished music. He is far from alone in this.

In a sense, it was inevitable that fans of 1960s rock and roll would think that way. The first artists to mix rock and roll music with folk music chords and sensibilities had the market all to themselves from 1964 until 1967. It was inevitable, however, that other people would figure the trick out and it wasn't long before smooth and polished professionals started making records just like those produced by the big sixties artists only with much better musicianship.

There are all sorts of places I could go with this but most of them would be pointless boomer navel gazing. The exception is something else important about the band that Christgau correctly identifies even though he doesn't like it. He writes of their "'60s worldview (meaning early '60s worldview)". He was writing about a Donald Fagen solo record when he said that but it applies to the duo as well; Fagen was always the only adult in the room.

Which brings me to the Mad Men episode "My Old Kentucky Home".  I picked this episode because iTunes tells me it is the episode I haven't rewatched the longest time. This is possibly the absolute nadir for the show. It's dishonesty is staggering. I've written about what's wrong with the episode before. Is there anything right about it?

The two interesting interactions in the episode are the ones between Don and the man whom we will later find out is Conrad Hilton and the one between Don and Roger.
“Most Nice Guys believe that by repressing the darker side of their masculine energy they will win the approval of women. This seems logical considering the anti-male climate that has permeated our culture since the 1960s. […] As result, they often lose their sexual assertiveness, competitiveness, creativity, ego, thirst for experience, boisterousness, exhibitionism, and power. Go watch little boys on the playground and you will see these qualities. I am convinced they are worth keeping.” Robert Glover in No More Mr. Nice Guy 
Both men come across as weak.  Hilton can't even make his own drink. Roger is beholden to Jane. A lot is made of the similarity between Roger's decision to leave his wife for his secretary Jane and Don's later decision to marry his secretary Megan. And there are similarities. But there are also differences and they are important. Here are two I think worth focusing on.
  1. Roger leaves Mona to marry Jane whereas Don has already been divorced by Betty.
  2. Roger and Don both are attracted to their new partner because she has some quality their first wife lacked. In Roger's case Mona was no longer young and interested in sex. In Don's case, Megan was not neurotic.
A lot of people wanted Don to settle down with Faye Miller but when Don asks Faye to deal with Sally, she is helpless. Megan is good with the children, Don is a father. Furthermore, he was married to Betty and had to deal with her neurotic, self-centered interactions with their children. Faye has other, positive qualities but this one is a deal breaker.

You might, and I suspect a lot of people did, dismiss that as simple sexism, as an expectation that women should be good with children. But Don has children. He also has a past. He's seen Betty in action and his life experience tells him that the kind of helplessness that Faye and Betty show in a crisis is the marker for a bad partner. And he's not wrong about that.  The problem is that the mere absence of a particular fault does not guarantee the existence of other positive qualities.

What of Roger? Is lack of interest in sex a good enough reason to leave your wife? I tend to think not. I think both Roger and Betty should have tried to save their marriages. But even if we allowed that it were a good enough reason, why does he pick Jane?  He could have had Joan? The difference between the women is ultimately one of class; Jane had been to college.

Do both men make bad choices? Well, yes, in the sense that both marriages fail. Could Don have foreseen the problem? Yes. He should have paid a lot more attention to Megan's crazy family. THere is a vulgar expression in male circles, "Don't stick your dick into crazy." The point being, don't ever think, "It's just sex I want so the fact that she is unstable won't matter." The reason why this is a bad strategy is that it's never just about sex. A similar logic applies to women (and men) and their families. You are never entering into a relationship with just an individual, their entire family dynamic comes along with them . And when that family is crazy ...

Megan has a chance to fit into Don's life and she blows it. Beginning with the surprise party that begins season five to her foolish abandonment of the advertising world, which she has proven to be quite good at, for acting, which is a stupid child's dream and for which she demonstrates no special talent, Megan's failure is her own alone. But!!!! it's important to note that failure is triggered by her father and his crazy notions of following her dream, as we find out in "At the Codfish Ball".

A lot of Steely Dan's natural nastiness is a willingness to be critical of pieties about women. It's driven by bitter realizations that come out of bad relationships. That is a good thing.

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