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Don’t Keep Forgetting: How Michael McDonald Escaped Punchline Status

For a long time, the Doobie Brothers have felt like kind of a joke: the type of band it’s easy to imagine namechecked in the voice of a jaded aging punk and delivered with an exasperated eyeroll. Turn that name over in your mind: “The Dooooobie Brothers.” Did you hear that in your head, scowled out by Jello Biafra or grumbled by Henry Rollins, as a helpful shorthand for a confluence of enemies — AOR, cocaine, West Coast “El Lay” studio-band slickness, easy listening, the ’70s — conjured up to remind you why your taste is better than that?

If so, it’s probably accompanied by a specific annoyance directed at Michael McDonald, the piercing baritone whose lead-vocal succession of Tom Johnston on 1976’s Takin’ It To The Streets turned the Doobies from a pretty successful country-rock band to a wildly successful blue-eyed soul band. The Doobies’ late-’70s omnipresence was compounded by such a heavy guest-vocal itinerary on the part of McDonald — branching out from his start with Steely Dan to appearances on singles and albums by Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, Elton John, and Christopher Cross — that even SCTV famously spent a good chunk of an Emmy-winning 1981 episode goofing on him.

And yet here he is, decades later, not just transcending the jokes but getting in on them. The same summer that an overplayed McDonald concert DVD was the target of Paul Rudd’s rage in 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin (“Nothing against him, but if I hear ‘Yah Mo B There’ one more time, I’m going to ‘Yah Mo’ burn this place to the ground”), he became a central figure in Channel 101’s Yacht Rock, a fictionalized history of McDonald’s “smooth music” milieu that became one of the few instances of a music genre being coined by a comedy bit.

Its subsequent revival wasn’t always treated seriously — it inspired everything from tongue-in-cheek hip-hop mixtapes to diatribes against it as a soundtrack to Reagan-enabling aging-Boomer solipsism — but it likely did McDonald more good than harm. In the years since, he’s been elevated from a critically scoffed-at studio rat to an irreverently appreciated pop music grandpa in that “I kid because I love” way the semi-uncool past is these days. Especially on Fallon.

Still, is the last decade’s worth of Michael McDonald appreciation strictly nostalgic kitsch, or is there something deeper? Every so often he’s cropped up in unpredictable places adjacent to trendy indie music, and while a lot of bandwidth’s been wasted arguing over alt culture’s relationship with irony, the end result always winds up feeling a lot more sincere. In 2009, Grizzly Bear recorded a version of rickety, serrated reverb-fest “While You Wait For The Others” with McDonald on vocals and put it on the B-side of the original version’s 7″.

Icy synth-pop band Holy Ghost! scored a minor classic with their debut album-closing “Some Children,” which featured a McDonald cameo that helped push them the closest anyone on DFA ever got to penning their own “Sweet Freedom.”

And just last month, Thundercat brought both McDonald and Kenny Loggins on board for Drunk’s half-cosmic, half-yachtish “Show You The Way,” a centerpiece of the most accomplished album yet by one of jazz’s most creative weirdos.

So there seems to be a reclamation of sorts at work here. When an artist who came to develop a major mainstream following in past decades gets pushed to the back burner of influence, being pinned as dated, uncool, and the subject of critical skepticism can make someone like McDonald seem like a guilty pleasure. And seeing as how we’re in an age where the concept of a “guilty pleasure” feels like an outside imposition — who’s even doing the guilt-tripping here? — enough examination can lead to an awkward, self-conscious appreciation, which can shift into owning the potential uncoolness of liking an artist, until all the social artifice is worn away to reveal the actual ground-level stylistic pleasures of a sound. Sample culture’s helped a bit in that regard — Warren G’s immaculate g-funk classic “Regulate” originating from McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” has done a lot of work blurring the borders — and the more the cultural baggage becomes an ephemeral piece of the past, the easier the reclamation is.

And this is how someone as bonafide as Solange, an artist who stands at the vanguard of R&B as a transformative, restless genre, can make a co-sign of McDonald feel legit. When she posted an Instagram clip of her performance with McDonald during his set at Florida’s Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival earlier this week, Solange wrote that “anyone who knows me knows that the Doobie Brothers are my musical/harmonic/chord change [heroes] and that I listen to ‘It Keeps You Running’ everyday for encouragement.”

There’s no winking Yacht Rock reference, no admission of “guilty pleasure” or jokes about Boomer Dadrock, just an acknowledgement that as a singer and a songwriter, McDonald had the kind of chops that hit her on a purely inspirational musical level. Anything else is someone else’s problem.

thank you michael…..

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