Donald Fagen: "I.G.Y."
ince I grew up secretly listening to Steely Dan alongside my indie-rock records, I was pleased to discover, a couple of years ago, that the band seemed to be cropping up among my peers' lists of formerly guilty pleasures as well. Unburdened in adulthood by notions of "cool," everyone was suddenly ready to extol the virtues of the band's sharp musicianship and crafty, subversive lyrics.
If this appreciation hasn't always extended to the two solo records that singer Donald Fagen released after the band broke up in 1980, it's partially because they don't fit into the general Steely Dan narrative, in which Two Against Nature was their first release in twenty years. But I don't think it's a coincidence that they're also closer to smooth jazz than much of what the band did in the 1970s, especially since said peers have reported a struggle with reconciling the lite-jazz elements on 1980’s Gaucho with their general disdain for the genre.
In fact, I first heard "I.G.Y.," the leadoff track from 1982’s The Nightfly, wafting from WNUA, the smooth-jazz station my mom favored in the late 1980s. And it wasn't even until much later that I connected the song with the Steely Dan frontman, so seamlessly it had fit between grooves by Sade and George Benson.
Among certain music fans, there is, of course, a natural impulse against "smooth jazz," the term given by radio to a playlist informed by fusion, quiet-storm R&B, and instrumental jazz recordings of pop standards. Arising in the 1980s, it was almost immediately derided as watered down and soulless, background music for yuppie dinner parties. That curly-haired girly-man Kenny G then became the genre's bestseller certainly didn't help its reputation.
But Toronto Globe and Mail critic Carl Wilson, in examining his own knee-jerk dismissal of smooth jazz, reminds himself that "background music" isn't itself a deficiency, as Erik Satie and Brian Eno's aspirations toward ambient sound demonstrate. And fans of smooth jazz, he notes, can merely reverse the criticisms of the genre from "soporific and anesthetic" to "soothing and escapist."
As a case in point, Wilson quotes his friend John Shaw, for whom listening to smooth jazz while driving home from work provides the "deliciously absurd fantasy that my spouse's '82 Datsun ... is a sleek new sports car, and I have lots and lots of money and a much better clothes sense." It is, Shaw says, "music of class aspiration."
Fagen's foray into a sleeker sound on The Nightfly is in some ways just a result of him riding the wave of this trend, which late-period Steely Dan had anticipated, anyway. (Songs like "Peg" and "Hey Nineteen" routinely receive smooth-jazz airplay.) But it is also the perfect backdrop for a song like "I.G.Y.," which, like the rest of the album, is set in Fagen's New Jersey youth. In the same way that the sleazy lounge affect found in dozens of Steely Dan songs matched Fagen's winking, world-weary adult cynicism, so, too, does the cheerful sterility of "I.G.Y." reflect the blind optimism of his childhood.
The acronym I.G.Y. stands for "International Geophysical Year," a period from July 1957 to December 1958 that marked the worldwide coordination of a range of scientific activities, including investigations into rockets and satellites that helped usher in the space age. Fagen turned 10 during the I.G.Y. and as such must have greeted the hubbub about technological progress with the sort of gee-whiz hopefulness common among kids his age. Dreaming of glittering undersea trains and solar powered cities, he muses that "at this point in time ... it's clear / The future looks bright."
And so gone are the down-on-its-luck saloon piano and dirty, lived-in guitar licks of Steely Dan in favor of shimmeringly clear synthesizers and cool horns. There's still guitar, but it's reduced to a muted chicka-chick in line with the song's easy, twinkling rhythm. Instead, we get a high-pitched synth solo sounding somewhere between Stevie Wonder's harmonica on "Isn't She Lovely" and the artificial whistle on Ciara's "Goodies": yes, indeed, the future is almost here.
It's worth noting that there's also a sense of naive patriotism in Fagen's boyhood POV, introduced through mentions of the stars and stripes and the coming bicentennial ("by '76 we'll be A-OK") and cemented in the chorus: "What a wonderful world this will be / What a glorious time to be free." In this regard, "I.G.Y." can be seen as one of the last artifacts of a period (roughly 1973-82, from American Graffiti to Diner) rife with Baby Boomer nostalgia for their pre-Vietnam coming of age.
But one is rightfully suspicious of so much innocence in a Donald Fagen song. Which is why, by the second verse, his visions of egalitarian progress begin to strike a faintly ridiculous note, as he predicts "spandex jackets, one for everyone!" And by the third verse, when he imagines the glories of what's essentially centralized authoritarianism ("a just machine to make big decisions / Programmed by fellas with compassion and vision")—he's obviously in full tongue-in-cheek mode. (During the actual '76, Steely Dan put out The Royal Scam, a cynical look at a downtrodden America from the view of its immigrants. This was not, presumably, the "streamlined world" that "I.G.Y." had in mind.)
And so there's an implicit critique in "I.G.Y." of the sort of lulling acquiescence that's often associated with utopian societies. But in draping this commentary with the sounds of smooth jazz, Fagen can't help turning the song into an ironic self-critique as well. I mean, smooth jazz as a genre is itself a descendant of the easy listening, or "beautiful music," phenomenon of the I.G.Y. era, which was often sold as music for relaxing at the end of a productive workday—not too far, really, from the tranquilizing "labyrinth of sonorous colors" that made up the music in Brave New World.
And yet I don't believe that Fagen was merely appropriating the sound to make a point, either. Yesterday I drove around Chicago with the windows rolled down, listening to The Nightfly, and found the slick bounce of "I.G.Y." to be the perfect complement to the streaming sun, the bright blue sky, and the hundreds of Cubs fans forgetting about the afternoon's loss in beer gardens. At the end of the day, layers of meaning aside, it's actually quite a radiant tune.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2005-05-25