Donald Fagen: Are We “Out Of The Ghetto?”

February 14, 2013 at 8:22 am, by

Aside from the occasional Hitler allusion (“Chain Lightning”) and his obsessive promotion of Marx-inspired socialism, Donald Fagen has rarely expressed his Jewishness in music. Donald Fagen is probably better known for his bitterness, his cool grooves and his high tenor rather than any sort of appreciation for his Jewish upbringing.

That’s why it was totally out of left-field (and he actually received attention) when his latest solo release, Sunken Condos, featured an Ashkenaziced version of the 1978 soul jam “Out of the Ghetto.” Isaac Hayes, the song’s original writer and performer, was partially Baptist, partially Pentecostal, and later a Scientologist, but never a Jew. Perhaps for this reason, the title of the song rubbed Fagen wrong over the years.

Fagen’s latest groovy critique of human civilization.

If you search through the Steely Dan catalogue, you’ll see that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker never once penned the word “ghetto” into their own song lyrics. They’ve managed to sing about tough guys and mean streets (“Show Biz Kids,” “Godwhacker”), the drug scene (“Kid Charlemagne,” “Charlie Freak”), and plenty of the more vulgar sides of life (“Everything You Did,” “With a Gun”) but they have never spoken of “the ghetto.”

Ross Scarano of Complex Music recently interviewed Fagen and discussed Sunken Condos’ only cover song.

SCARANO: Why cover Isaac Hayes?
FAGEN: While I was writing this group of songs, I happened to hear an Isaac Hayes tune. I realized the word “ghetto” has been associated, for many decades now, with the inner city, and I decided to reclaim it for the Jews. So I changed a word or two, added a klezmer arrangement, and that’s all it took, really.
SCARANO: Hearing that word come out of a white mouth changes things.
FAGEN: Well, yeah, especially a Jewish white mouth. Then, when you talk about the mean streets and poverty, you’re talking about Warsaw, instead of the Bronx.

It’s unusual for Fagen to have a provocative and clear argument for changing a cultural norm, or even the use of a single word. Fagen usually mopes about the status quo without attempting to fix society’s faults. It intrigues me to no end that Fagen actually has a statement to make (and he has talked about this song in nearly every interview about the album now).

But, could it really be that the one bold new message that Fagen has expressed in his later career as a solo artist has been a reprimanding of the misuse of a word that belongs to Jewish history? What’s the big deal with “ghetto?”

Donald has something to say.

It would be tough to argue that Fagen is a conventionally religious Jew. (Maybe he’s a Jew who religiously loves soul music. But that’s different.) Perhaps then he’s more of an ethnic, or cultural, Jew. So, Fagen’s concern now is turned to the ethnic misappropriation of the word “ghetto.” The word “ghetto” is appropriate for Jews to talk about in reference to the ghettos in Europe, where Jews like Fagen’s ancestors lived. But to say that Harlem is a “ghetto” is like calling an Arab suq a Persian “bazaar” (two different kinds of market places; two different cultures).

But, if Fagen were actually consistent on who can say what, you might expect him to be consistent on who can play what. If everyone could only use the words and the music of their own ethnicity, and if these social categories were actually strictly defined, then why would two Jewish guys named Don and Walter have spent their lives imitating the music that “belonged” to black people?

As a fan of the Dan (and the Don), I find it ridiculous to believe that Fagen, age 65, is suddenly heralding a zealous campaign against one word (“ghetto”). I think something more is going on. I suspect that Fagen’s re-appropriation of the word “ghetto” (a reactionary appropriation of the word “ghetto”) is a criticism against Jews’ inability to get in line with Fagen’s religion: soul music, socialism, and secularism. After all, aren’t Fagen and the Jews part of the same people?

Imagine the song being sung to, instead of a once-impoverished African American woman, a Polish Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust but made it to America.

You’ve come a long way baby,
From welfare and foodstamp lines.
You’re movin’ on up
And leavin’ poverty behind.

It could be that the Polish woman never stood literally on the foodstamp lines, but “from rags to riches” is the (often false but) summative story of the American Jews who eventually came to “dominate” Hollywood, the music business, the media and the academy.

You’ve had a good education.
You’ve seen the best of the schools,
But when you take a drink,
The ghetto comes out of you.

Despite Jews’ integration and major successes in American society—Supreme Court Justices, philanthropists, leading academicians, and entrepreneurs galore—the Jews are still Jews. When it comes time for them to identify in the positive, a good chunk of them still do say that they are Jewish. They are not yet no-longer-Jewish.

I took you out of the ghetto.

Why did Robert Zimmerman work so hard to emulate Woody Guthrie and become Bob Dylan? Why did Melvin Kaminsky become Mel Brooks and produce a repertoire of films with countless jokes about the backwards ways of the Jews? Why did we go to public schools? Why did we get enlightened? Why did we all leave the ghetto?

I took you out of the ghetto,
But I could not get that ghetto out of you.

Was Donald Fagen just another failing Jewish entertainer who couldn’t actually bring his people out of the ghetto? Moses brought the Jewish people out of Egypt and into the Jewish Homeland. But look at what that brought us: Philistines, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Nazis. The Jewish people, says Fagen, have been trapped in the ghetto. Even after leaving the ghettoes of Europe, the Jews in America still stand out from the gentiles. They still look different (Seth Rogen and the Jewfro), act differently (Larry David and the paranoia), and sound very different (Fran Drescher and the nasalness). Despite the stubbornness of some of their kin, secular Jews have worked hard to liberate us from the ghetto.

You’re a foxy lady.
Your mama had a beautiful child.
You’re built like a brick house,
And that’s no lie.
When we go to the disco,
You drive the fellas wild,
When you shake your booty
Ghetto-style.

The second verse gets harder to imagine being sung to our hypothetical Polish Jewess. But, if she were just a few years younger and had grown up in the United States, maybe she’d dig this jive. Maybe she’d fit into what Donald Fagen has hailed as the most expressive of American culture: soul music. (Alternatively: Maybe this Poless does shake her booty ghetto-style; after all, she might know Yiddish dance.)

Your roots are in the mean streets.
That’ll never change.
Ghetto mama,
Stay the same.

The mean streets of Warsaw, Kiev, Łódź will always be ingrained in the Jew. The saying goes, “Once a Jew always a Jew” (a principle behind Chabad’s kinship and Nazism’s “racial purity”-focused anti-Semticism). The Babylonian Talmud states, “A member of Israel who has sinned is still a member of Israel” (Sanhedrin 44a). No matter how much you transgress and deviate from Jewish paths, somehow you can’t run away. Jewish blood still runs throughout you. And defines you.

Donald is simultaneously sarcastic and sad, resigning and reprimanding. “Ghetto mama / Don’t you change.” Billy Joel once sang, “Don’t go changing… I love you just the way you are,” and Donald Fagen is now singing it to his own Yiddishe Momme (Yiddish for “Jewish mother”). Donald Fagen has given up on assimilating the Ghetto Momme any further. Let the clarinets and violin play, and we’ll party like it’s 1899—for a few brief moments when nobody’s persecuting us.

And maybe when our party’s over, someone else’s party will come get us.


This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve read too much into something. But, given Donald Fagen’s general paranoia, I sense that I’m reading into this exactly why this Duke of September bothered to record this 70s groove. The song is so far divorced from the klezmer instrumentation that serves as the backdrop to Fagen’s rendition, it’s hard not to seek out the larger implications of Fagen’s subtle attack on Jewish identity.

Fagen—perhaps self-conscious of his namesake sounding identical to that of the antagonistic Jew (Fagin) from Charles DickensOliver Twist—offers us little reason to be Jewish. In fact, the klezmer over Isaac Hayes’ groove appears to get in the way of the funk. The song is very funky, but the horns are repetitive and stilted for the most part. Repetitive and stilted like the Judaism that never jived with Steely Dan.

Beneath Donald Fagen’s “Out of the Ghetto” lies a messianic vision, awaiting the day when the Jewish people will get up and shake their booty. But definitely not ghetto-style.

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2 Comments So Far

  1. I am a long time Dan Fan, but I can’t agree with your analysis. I am a black woman with possible Jewish roots. When I hear Fagan’s version, I hear the ambivalence a white man may have after a “walk on the wild side.” It is the same theme Fegan’s recent work except instead of a nubile young white woman he substitutes a black woman who is chic enough for white aging, hipster circles until she slugs down a belt or two. That seems to fit the sterotypes of black woman much more than a denizen of the Polish ghetto. Ashkenazis in America have made it out of the ghetto, but a black woman, no matter how gentrified she may be never does.

    eshowoman, February 28, 2013 at 5:05 am #
  2. Mar18Duncan Leung Sorry for the double cmoment! I forgot to introduce myself!I’m a ‘pseudo’ photographer, and I just moved to Beijing from the US. I came across your blog from some expat blog network.I’m looking forward to seeing more of Rome through your images!

    Rony, February 12, 2014 at 9:25 am #
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