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Grammy Storm Escapes Steely Dan

By JON PARELES The New York Times In the furor that has surrounded this year's Grammy contenders for Album of the Year, it may surprise no one to hear that one of the nominated albums includes a song whose narrator gloats over his affair with an underage girl and tries to pressure her into a threesome. Or that another tune from the album is about a man propositioning his young cousin. But those songs don't come from Eminem's widely denounced "The Marshall Mathers LP," which has been attacked by groups that consider it misogynistic and homophobic. Actually, "Janie Runaway" and "Cousin Dupree" are two of the catchier songs on Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature." While some Grammy-watchers expect Paul Simon's "You're the One" to win the award on Wednesday, others are predicting that "Two Against Nature" will be the album that voters in the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will rally around to fight off Eminem's barbarism, especially since Steely Dan never got a Grammy in its 1970's heyday (Radiohead's "Kid A" and Beck's "Midnite Vultures" are also nominated.) Steely Dan's songwriters, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, get a free pass from the watchdogs of content because it's understood that they are, like most artists, professional liars, otherwise known as storytellers. Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen, like many novelists, screenwriters and playwrights, create sleazeballs and empathize enough to make them believable. That means capturing cousin Dupree's longing for "a down- home family romance" and sketching the thought process when the narrator of "Janie Runaway" considers a country getaway to Pennsylvania, then reconsiders crossing state lines: "Or would that be a federal case?" It's widely accepted that "Janie Runaway" doesn't mean Steely Dan endorses statutory rape. Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen happen to be curious about how their character would coax his "wonderwaif," about his rationalizations and self-delusions, about the ways a conscience can warp to accept repulsive actions. They also like the perverse frisson of wrapping a creepy monologue in highbrow chord changes and luxuriously nonchalant arrangements. Steely Dan's music isn't abrasive like hip-hop. It's at the opposite extreme, cool and enticing. Some listeners might even find themselves singing along with deeply unsavory come-ons. The group's audience, mostly boomer-age adults, considers itself sophisticated enough to handle a few ironies and the concept of an unreliable narrator, and the music goes down so smoothly that it seems perfectly genteel. Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen are punctilious pop craftsmen who have spent a long time in the music business. So Steely Dan is granted literary license. Similarly, there was no controversy when Shawn Colvin's "Sunny Came Home" — about a woman who takes revenge on an abusive husband by burning down the house — received Grammys as Record of the Year and Song of the Year for 1997, even if it was pro-arson.
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