The Meaning Behind Steely Dan’s Seminal Hit “Reelin’ In the Years”

Beloved rock group Steely Dan faced sudden success upon releasing their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, in 1972. The project spawned three radio hits; “Dirty Work,” “Do It Again,” and the record’s final single, “Reelin’ In the Years.” 

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[RELATED: 12 Quotes from Donald Fagen of Steely Dan]

The groovy, immensely catchy tune has become one of Steely Dan’s trademark tunes and has influenced multiple generations of artists through the decades. Let’s dive into the meaning behind “Reelin’ In the Years” and its surprising impact on rock and roll.

The Lyrics

The track’s first verse describes a person looking back on a relationship with someone who seems to have far different priorities than the narrator.

Your everlasting summer and you can see it fading fast
So you grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last
Well, you wouldn’t even know a diamond if you held it in your hand
The things you think are precious I can’t understand

That leads the vocalist to ask a few piercing questions, alluding to an upcoming breakup. It’s clear from the lyrics’ passive-aggressive undertones that he doesn’t think their level of hurt will be equal.

Are you reelin’ in the years?
Stowin’ away the time
Are you gatherin’ up the tears?
Have you had enough of mine

He then reflects on previous times spent together and how those memories have faded under the darkness of heartbreak.

I’ve spent a lot of money and I’ve spent a lot of time
The trip we made to Hollywood is etched upon my mind
After all the things we’ve done and seen you find another man
The things you think are useless I can’t understand

The Meaning

“Reelin’ In the Years” was penned by band members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and seems to be a straightforward story of a scorned lover. The song is known for kickstarting a new era of polished guitar rock that would dominate the airwaves during the 1970s.

Because of its musical influence, most of the band’s interviews and discussions of the song are focused on the instrumental and production aspects of the track rather than the lyrical influences.

Still, the songwriting talents of Fagen and Becker are sewn into every line of “Reelin’ In the Years.” Dripping with sarcasm and tinged with heartbreak, the track serves as the perfect kiss-off anthem for anyone shaken by a relationship’s end.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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