"Tulsi Gabbard is The Steely Dan of Politics or: Perfection Isn’t For Everyone"
By Pam Ho, Medium.com (Feb 13, 2020)
At the Oscars the other day there was a surprise performance by Eminem after all these years doing an old hit from his movie 8 Mile. I remember when he first exploded onto the world’s consciousness back in the year 2000 with My Name Is, which at the time had conquered the musical tastes of not only the teenybopper world but also that of hip-hop. Within the year he would cement his position as a musical idol as his teen fans grew into adults and hip-hop continued its inexorable road to cultural domination. At the 2001 Grammy Awards he was expected by many to win album of the year for The Marshall Mathers LP since he had dominated the radio all year with 2 albums, but instead it was won by a band of old guys who hadn’t had an album in 20 years and whom most younger people didn’t even know existed.
There were many theories why Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature won, ranging from Eminem was too controversial, or that it was a rebuke to the new reality of digital downloading of singles instead of albums because Steely Dan was all about albums. But probably the real reason is what many professionals in the music biz had believed for years — to most of them Steely Dan had attained legendary idol status like no other. Their release of a new album after such a long drought was to them like what the excitement of Slim Shady was to teens.
While Eminem at that time was the musical idol to an American teenybopper mob who loved to imitate him, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (Steely Dan) were likewise the musical idols for the older world of professional music insiders and audiophiles. In direct contrast to Eminem’s release which was revered for it’s wildness, Steely Dan was revered for their ultra-sophisticated perfectionism. They would use the very best musicians they could find for every part of every song, their studio production is universally praised as the best. Audio sales people would famously use their albums to show off their equipment to customers because of how rich, sumptuous, clear and perfectly mixed they sound. Steely Dan and the subsequent solo albums by Donald Fagen are to professionals in the music business what pop idols like Eminem are to the general public.
Lori Dorn from Laughing Squid writes in a review about the short video below by Polyphonic trying to sum up Steely Dan:
How Perfectionism Combined With a Rotating Roster of Brilliant Session Musicians Made Steely Dan So Good
In a brilliantly and detailed analysis, the knowledgeable music essayist Polyphonic takes a look at the absolute genius of Steely Dan. He specifically speaks to the absolute need for perfection on the parts of both Walter Becker and Donald Fagen that drove them to use a rotating roster of absolutely brilliant session musicians whose respective styles embodied the mood of the specific song.
Tulsi Gabbard is like Steely Dan for politics.
While professional musicians as a rule worship Fagen and Becker, there are detractors. They never attained the renown of lesser talents who are much better known by the average person. The common complaint is that their music is too perfect. It seems that a lot of people are put off somewhat by perfectly composed and perfectly mixed music, some people feel more comfortable with more chaotic music, or less perfection. Amanda Petrusich for Pitchfork in a a recent review of Steely Dan’s biggest selling album Aja, wrote of that reaction to Fagen and Becker she had when she was younger:
For much of my youth and young adulthood, I listened to music for cheap emotional catharsis, and so I preferred songs that were feral, tenuous, unstudied, and impolite — anything that sounded as mixed-up and precarious as I usually felt. I equated wildness with authenticity, and wanted only to be reminded, again and again, that I wasn’t alone or unique in my feelings. This isn’t a particularly unusual way to commune with records, though it is, perhaps, the easiest way. I eventually came to understand that over-valuing anguish and ecstasy — conflating theatrics with feeling, and feeling with Art — was limiting and naïve. Things like pleasure, contentedness, a solid laugh — any good, ordinary moment — are just as evanescent, and certainly just as formidable (and important) to capture.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Steely Dan — the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — made cerebral, clever, formally sophisticated music that resisted any autobiographical extrapolating. Even in the context of the era — the late 1960s had seen the development and rise of both jazz-fusion and prog-rock, two of the brainiest, chops-iest genres going — their work was shrouded in irony and a distancing intellect. There was no pretense of dissolution or even emotion. Listening to their records felt like running my hands along a slab of polished marble — there were no craggy bits to grab on to, no easy way to find purchase — and so for years, I believed that Steely Dan’s seeming aversion to sincerity meant that they were cold and dorky. Did they not just make inert, polished music for men with meticulously groomed facial hair?
Then Aja — Steely Dan’s sixth album, from 1977 — turned everything around for me: It’s a thoroughly convincing argument against my notion that aggressive or discordant music was inherently real and rebellious, whereas virtuosic or studied songs were always limp and bloodless. Aja is as bold as records get. It’s full of strange, unprecedented, disorienting moves. It is braver, more idiosyncratic, and more personal, in some ways, than any other record I own.
A lot of the complaints about Tulsi Gabbard, at least the ones that are not rooted in bad faith political propaganda, or ignorant cold war paranoia, or surly Hinduphobia, resembles what Amanda wrote about music:
For much of my youth and young adulthood, I listened to music for cheap emotional catharsis, and so I preferred songs that were feral, tenuous, unstudied, and impolite — anything that sounded as mixed-up and precarious as I usually felt. I equated wildness with authenticity, and wanted only to be reminded, again and again, that I wasn’t alone or unique in my feelings.
A lot of people have said they find the way Tulsi speaks in calm measured tones which lack the theatrics of so many politicians and political speakers to be off-putting, or unrelatable in some unknowing way. Another complaint is that she is too good. Too perfect. They don’t put it like that, but that is what they mean when they complain that she doesn’t go along with the fiercely partisan and or purely cynical rhetoric that so dominates American political discourse. People are so used to seeing people on either side display wild emotional swings, often with anger, graceless, full of hubris and haughty superiority, or outright lying. Whereas Tulsi is always calm, cool, collected, honest and good-natured — even if she says something with passion or even ferocity in the words.
The people who don’t usually like Democrats often do like Tulsi even though Tulsi’s political positions are in opposition to what they usually agree with. Whether they believe in the conservative or libertarian discourse on the right or center, you can find from them a common refrain of wishing Tulsi would become a Republican, saying she is not appreciated by Democrats. She seems so unlike the other Democratic politicians because of how perfect she presents herself and her positions. Too perfect for many, so much so that she stands in sharp contrast to the commonly cynical media, or to the sincere- but-domineering scolds, or to insufferable self-deluded know-it-alls commonly seen in professional media or social media.
Tulsi’s personality along with her political positions have won her an extremely devoted following of progressive, leftist, centrist, libertarian, and even normally right-wing people who some in media refer to as “political junkies” because of their paying close attention to and participation in “the debate” online. Which is in contrast to most of America whom they label as “normies” because they don’t pay much or any close attention online to politics, and therefore often think Biden, Mayor Pete and Bloomberg are “on the left” because they speak in platitudes or try to convince the culturally woke with cynical support (“grifters” some call that style of politics).
Those “political junkies” devoted to Tulsi see her as the sole non-conformist among a political class which is quick to see which way the wind is blowing before taking a position on anything. By always staying true to undiluted humanistic values with a calm and serene manner, showing that her sincerity is real in how she treats others and with her actions in actual sync with her words, Tulsi is therefore seen by many as the perfect incarnation of what a political leader can be. It reminds me of how professionals in the music world see Fagen and Becker of Steely Dan, which one of their songs puts best — even if so many others cannot relate to their or her perfectionism:
Children we have it right here
It’s the light in my eyes
It’s perfection and grace
It’s the smile on my face