|Other names||West Coast sound|
|Stylistic origins||Soft rock|
|Cultural origins||Mid-1970s – early 1980s|
Yacht rock (originally known as the West Coast sound or adult-oriented rock) is a broad music style and aesthetic commonly associated with soft rock, one of the most commercially successful genres from the mid-1970s to early 1980s. Drawing on sources such as smooth soul, smooth jazz, R&B, and disco, common stylistic traits include high-quality production, clean vocals, and a focus on light, catchy melodies. Its name, coined in 2005 by the makers of the online video series Yacht Rock, was derived from its association with the popular Southern Californian leisure activity of sailing.
The term "yacht rock" did not exist contemporaneously with the music the term describes, from about 1975 to 1984. It refers to "adult-oriented rock" (or "West Coast Sound") which became identified with yacht rock in 2005, when the term was coined in J. D. Ryznar et al.'s online video series of the same name. Understood as a pejorative term, "yacht rock" referred, in part, to a stereotypical yuppie yacht owner enjoying smooth music while sailing. Many "yacht rockers" included nautical references in their lyrics, videos, and album artwork, exemplified by Christopher Cross's anthemic track, "Sailing" (1979). Long mocked for "its saccharine sincerity and garish fashion", the original stigma attached to the music has lessened since about 2015.
In 2014, AllMusic's Matt Colier identified the "key defining rules of the genre" as follows:
- "keep it smooth, even when it grooves, with more emphasis on the melody than on the beat"
- "keep the emotions light, even when the sentiment turns sad (as is so often the case in the world of the sensitive yacht-rocksman)"
- "always keep it catchy, no matter how modest or deeply buried in the tracklist the tune happens to be."
The "exhilaration of escape" is "essential to yacht", according to journalist and documentary-film maker Katie Puckrik. She quoted the lyrics of Cross's "Ride Like the Wind" (1979), "to make it to the border of Mexico", as an example of the aspirational longing that demonstrates "the power of the genre". Thwarted desire is another key element that counters the "feelgood bounce" of yacht in the same song. Puckrik identified a sub-genre, "dark yacht", exemplified in Joni Mitchell's "accidental yacht rock" song "The Hissing of the Summer Lawns" (1975), which described the "tarnished love" of "a woman trapped in a big house and a loveless marriage".
According to Mara Schwartz Kuge, who worked in the L.A. music industry for two decades, "Soft rock was a genre of very popular pop music from the '70s and early '80s, characterized by soft, mostly acoustic guitars and slow-to-mid tempos ... most people have generalized the term to mean anything kind of soft-and-'70s-ish, including artists like Rupert Holmes. Not all yacht rock is soft, either: Toto's 'Hold the Line' and Kenny Loggins' 'Footloose' are both very yacht rock but not soft rock."
Comprehensively defining yacht rock remains difficult, despite agreement that its central elements are "aspirational but not luxurious, jaunty but lonely, pained but polished". Journalist Jack Seale stated that, as in other "micro-genres", certain albums of artists who are accepted as proponents are "arbitrarily ruled in or out". For example, Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) is accepted as yacht rock, but Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1977) is not.
Yacht Rock creators
Yacht Rock web series co-creators Ryznar, Steve Huey, Hunter Stair, and David Lyons have attempted to apply precision to what is defined as yacht rock, and have been critical of overly expansive definitions of the term. In 2016 they invented the term "nyacht rock" to refer to songs that have sometimes been classified as yacht rock but that they felt did not fit the definition. On their podcasts Beyond Yacht Rock and Yacht or Nyacht?, they have ranked various songs as being either within or outside of the genre.
Factors that the four list as relevant to yacht rock include:
- High production value
- Use of "elite" Los Angeles-based studio musicians and producers associated with yacht rock
- Jazz and R&B influences
- Use of electric piano
- Complex and wry lyrics
- Lyrics about heartbroken, foolish men, particularly involving the word "fool"
- An upbeat rhythm called the "Doobie Bounce".
Ryznar and co. have argued that many artists sometimes associated with yacht rock, particularly the folk-driven soft rock of Gordon Lightfoot and the Eagles, fall outside the scope of the term as originally conceived. They have also disputed the use of the term as an umbrella for any song whose lyrics include nautical references.
The socio-political and economic changes that contributed to the emergence of the genre have recently been described by journalists like Steven Orlofsky, and by documentary-film maker Katie Puckrik. Orlofsky pointed out that some contemporaneous pop groups such as Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and Supertramp were well-respected by critics and listeners. Yacht rock was art "untouched by the outside world." By contrast to what followed, this "was probably the last major era of pop music wholly separated from the politics of its day." Yacht rock represented an "introspective individualism" that emerged after the death of the "mass-movement idealism" of the 1960s. Its "reassuringly vague escapism" was boosted by the rise of FM radio which brought together two consequences of gender emancipation: women who controlled household spending and men who "felt freer to convey their emotions in song".
The roots of yacht rock can be traced to the music of the Beach Boys, whose aesthetic was the first to be "scavenged" by acts like Rupert Holmes, according to Jacobin's Dan O'Sullivan. Captain & Tennille, who were members of the Beach Boys' live band, won "yacht rock's first Best Record Grammy" in 1975, for "Love Will Keep Us Together". O'Sullivan also cites the Beach Boys' recording of "Sloop John B" (1966) as the origin of yacht rock's predilection for the "sailors and beachgoers" aesthetic that was "lifted by everyone, from Christopher Cross to Eric Carmen, from 'Buffalo Springfield' folksters like Jim Messina to 'Philly Sound' rockers like Hall & Oates."
Recent positive reappraisals of the genre have appeared in The Guardian, The Week, and on BBC Four, which broadcast Puckrik's two-part documentary, I Can Go for That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock, in June 2019. (That documentary is a play on the 1981 Hall & Oates song "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)".)
Orlofsky has argued that the genre's resurgence is partly due to its function as an antidote to the negativity of the Trump era in the US just as in its original context, when yacht rock created "the perfect soundtrack for listeners trying to ignore Watergate and Vietnam", it now again represents "a defiant, fingers-planted-firmly-within-ears disregard of any and all political unrest."
Yacht rock is listed as a genre on Spotify, Amazon Music, and Pandora. Since 2015, there has been "Yacht Rock" channel on Sirius XM Satellite Radio. The channel reverts to the off-season channel after summer, but is available year-round on the SXM app.
Twenty-first century musicians have formed cover bands centered on the yacht rock idea, such as Yacht Rock Revue, which has done national tours. The band hosts an annual Yacht Rock Revival concert where they invite members of the original bands that they cover to join them on stage for a few songs, including Walter Egan, Robbie Dupree, Peter Beckett (Player), Bobby Kimball (former lead singer of Toto), Jeff Carlisi (.38 Special), Bill Champlin (Chicago), and Denny Laine (Wings).
In 2018, Jawbone Press released The Yacht Rock Book: The Oral History of the Soft, Smooth Sounds of the 70s and 80s by author Greg Prato, which explored the entire history of the genre. The book featured a foreword by Documentary Now co-creator Fred Armisen, and interviews with Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, and John Oates, among others.
Yacht rock bears strong similarities to the Japanese genre of city pop in that they both peaked in the early 1980s, featured jazz and R&B influences arranged and produced by elites in their fields, and gained newfound popularity in the 2010s through the Internet.
Elements of yacht rock have been adopted by new acts such as Vampire Weekend, Foxygen, and Carly Rae Jepsen while the vaporwave genre of electronic music, which began in the 2010s, appropriated the "nautical iconography" of yacht rock.
The 2017 album by Thundercat, Drunk, featured a song that included guest vocalists Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, entitled "Show You the Way" (all performed the song together on an episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon the same year).
The band Sugar Ray's 2019 album Little Yachty is a conscious homage to yacht rock; it includes a cover of the 1979 Rupert Holmes song "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)", which lead singer Mark McGrath has called "the torch bearer of all things yacht rock".
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About a decade ago, Blogspot blogs and Japanese reissues introduced music nerds to a strain of AOR, funk, disco, and yacht rock trafficked under the amorphous term, a vague descriptor for Japanese music that incorporated jazz and R&B, reflecting city life and consumerism amid the 1970s’ economic upswing until the bubble burst in 1992.
- Thundercat Performs "Show You the Way" on 'Fallon' – okayplayer
- Baltin, Steve (July 23, 2019). "Sugar Ray Frontman Mark McGrath's Guide To Yacht Rock". Forbes.