The Glistening Glory of Yacht Rock
The slick sonic aesthetic we got addicted to despite our most rigid ‘cool’ credentials.
THERE WAS ONCE A SHAMEFUL phase in pop music in the late 70s (and into the mid-80s) when a genre of music that came to be labeled as ‘Yacht Rock’ dominated the charts.
Exhausted from all of the revolution and protest and drugs drugs drugs that defined the mid-to-late-60s. The shell-shocked culture slipped directly into yet another heightened period of musical intensity as the 70s arrived; initiated by the hyper Promethean brilliance of the year 1971.
Pause here and consider all of the genius crammed into that year:
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet, Carole King’s Tapestry, Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Elton John’s Madman, Led Zepplin’s Led Zeppelin IV, Laura Nyro’s Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Aretha’s Young, Gifted and Black. The Who’s Whos Next.
Just compiling those titles makes me want to levitate.
Although the antecedents of Yacht Rock are debatable, as I recollect, a watershed occurred amidst the start of the 80s.
1981 to be exact. That’s when Texan session musician Christopher Cross’ eponymous album took every possible award at that year’s Grammy ceremony.
Those honors included Best Song, Best Record, Best New Artist, Best Album, Best Implementation of Wind Chimes (on his lushly looping ballad Sailing). Thus my mental cross-reference with Cross’ homage to boats, oceans, bobbing and swirling—and occasionally rocking—voila: Yacht Rock.
You can’t really understand the appeal of a song like Cross’ Ride Like The Wind, highlighted on his same self-titled album, unless you’ve ever driven, high on amphetamines, to some distant location (anywhere will do), paying attention mile-by-mile to massive rigs approaching you from the opposite direction and flashing their high-beams to alert you of speed traps.
Ride Like the Wind is a masterclass for melding red neck catchwords and themes (guns, runaway grooms, chemical speed, the border of Mexico, and a lawless patriarch) to a soaring orchestra and Michael McDonald’s plaintiff Greek-chorus-like call and response continuo. I can never get enough of the song. Especially on a freeway.
Yacht Rock—too safe, too manicured, too tight, too white, but perhaps just a tad hipper—fell under the same rubric of un-hipness that dogged Richard and Karen Carpenter through their career.
But what everyone missed about Richard and Karen was that the juxtaposition of Karen’s crystalline voice encased in her brother’s meta Lawrence Welk-ian arrangments created a fusion that interacted directly with the brain’s dopamine center.
And Yacht Rock’s smooth, adult-contemporary vibes generated the same pristine result.
The genre maintained just enough free-floating Black and queer musical elements—from soul, R&B, and borrowed bits of disco to impart respectable cred on the artists who made it.
Over time that crew grew to include a reformed Doobie Brothers, bluesman Boz Scaggs (one of my favorite male vocalists of all time), and Swiss watch-like jazz and blues mavens, Steely Dan.
Listen to the Dan’s raid on the disco ethos and Black girl backup cachet that framed the song Glamour Profession on their 1980 LP Gaucho. And, “Oh wow!” The best of all worlds.
Music critic Matt Colier identified the key defining rules of Yacht Rock this way. The song must be “smooth, even when it grooves, with more emphasis on the melody than on the beat.”
Also, emotions are kept light and breezy—even when “the sentiment turns sad.” And most of Yacht Rock always keeps things “catchy.”
There are countless Yacht Rock playlists on Spotify. Here’s one of my favorites.
Don’t be shy—dare to fly your middle-of-the-road freak flag.
As the pop-soul trio Hues Corporation sang in their hit Rock the Boat: “I’d like to know where you got the notion…”
Tell them Frederick sent you.
PS: Bonus beauty! Astrologer/author Ray Grasse just alerted me to this phantasmagorical guitar solo by Cross at the close of his Ride Like the Wind. Can you say: Smokin’?!