I got in a Twitter fight the other day with some guy I went to grad school with over who “Rikki” in Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is. Common lore is that it’s a Bard classmate of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, author Rikki Ducornet, who claims to any half-baked rag that will listen that Fagen gave her his phone number at a party one time and, guess what? She lost it! Crazy, huh?
There’s just one problem with her story. Fagen won’t confirm, and at times has flat out denied her account on multiple occasions.
But of course, Grad School Guy insisted that he “believed Rikki” and attempted to repeatedly mansplain Steely Dan to me, a girl who’s first chapter is titled “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me).” Not a good idea.
(Matthew tells a great story of attending Donald Fagen’s signing for Eminent Hipsters and some smug douche insisted — to Fagen’s face — that he knew who Rikki was. Donald said, “Oh? You think you do, huh?” and went on to the next question. As if I couldn’t love Donald Fagen more.)
What bothered me the most* is that his insistence that he “knew” who the song was about (despite mounting evidence to the contrary) ultimately strips the artist of their own intent. If songwriter Fagen says the song isn’t about Ducornet, the song isn’t about Ducornet, end of story. It’s his song. He gets to say who it is or about. And really, when has Fagen (or Becker, for that matter) been anything BUT cryptic? I don’t think there’s a Josie, or a Peg, or Cousin Dupree or Charlie Freak. They’re characters in a world that “rivals the Marvel Expanded Universe.” (“Hollywood” Steve Huey, Beyond Yacht Rock)
But by Grad School Guy’s logic, I could claim to be Rikki. Or Darling Nikki. Or Billie Jean. Just because you say a song is about you doesn’t make it so. When we tell an artist that we “know” who or what inspired their work, we rob them of their creative intent. We can guess, we can interpret, but to have a creator, when presented with our interpretation, say “this is not what my work is about” and then we reply “Yeah, but you’re wrong about your own creation, because I know better than you” is, well, stupid as fuck.
Maybe the song is about Ducornet. Hell, maybe “Rikki” is someone Walter Becker knew and he was the driving force behind the song. We’ll probably never really know. That’s between Fagen and Becker. But when we insists we know art better than the artists, it’s problematic. We’d never say “I know your work better than you” to a plumber, or a hairdresser, or any other professional. But to artists, we feel that our interpretation can be the only one, even when presented with the artist’s own statement. It’s arrogant, and I guarantee you that Grad School Guy would freak the fuck out if someone did that to him.
So what did we learn here today? One, don’t try to mansplain Steely Dan to be because you will not will win.
But more importantly, don’t tell artists what their work is about. Enjoy and interpret at will, but also listen when the artist is speaking. This is their work. They know it better than you no matter how many albums or books or movies or paintings you buy.
But hey, Rikki, if you’re still looking for a song to claim is about you, maybe try “You’re So Vain.”