In defense of yacht rock
It's the perfect summer antidote to the bleak sounds of Trump-era pop music
With the first days of summer nearly upon us and the usual predictions for "song of the summer" being thrown around, I've found myself uninspired by the front page of Apple Music or the droll Chainsmokers remixes that continue to be piped into Walmarts around the country. This summer, I want the kind of music that I can listen to while wearing my ugliest Hawaiian shirt, that reminds me of magenta-hued sunsets and high-calorie daiquiris. I'm talking, of course, about yacht rock — that monolith of soft, jazzy rock that reached peak popularity in the late '70s and early '80s.
Better known at the time as "smooth" or "adult-oriented" rock, some yacht rock artists were and continue to be well-respected by critics and listeners, like Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and Supertramp. But others — think Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, and Phil Collins — have become pop cultural punchlines. Designated as the regrettable output of the Reagan years, yacht rock has long been mocked for its saccharine sincerity and garish fashion. Take former Chicago singer Peter Cetera's hit "Glory of Love" from "The Karate Kid II" soundtrack, for example.
The music video is a classic example of '80s schmaltz. While Ralph Macchio practices roundhouse kicks, Cetera dances alone in a Japanese dojo, crooning "I am a man who would fight for your honor, I'll be the hero you're dreaming of … We'll live forever, knowing together that we did it all for the glory of love." With light synths and cascading piano, "Glory of Love" sounds more like a song you'd hear in a massage parlor waiting room, or at the beginning of an infomercial for a new kind of wart removal process than an iconic ballad nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But it was. (It lost to Top Gun's "Take My Breath Away," which is somehow even cheesier.)
Since its heyday, yacht rock has generally been reserved for themed decade parties and triple-digit satellite radio stations. The term was coined in 2005 by the creators of the web series Yacht Rock, which followed fictionalized versions of the stars of the era. The show gently poked fun at the crooners, but the term took off as a pejorative, defining its listeners as wealthy boat enthusiasts, grouping it near 'dad rock' as the lamest of the lame, the music you wouldn't be caught dead listening to if you knew what was cool.
The derision isn't just stemming from Pitchfork writers though. In 2011, Phil Collins himself seemed aware of the reputation he'd gained as a vapid sellout, telling Rolling Stone "I don't understand it. I've become a target for no apparent reason. I only make the records once; it's the radio that plays them all the time ... But it's too late. The die is cast as to what I am."
Today, the public has come around a bit. Spotify and Pandora both list yacht rock as a searchable genre, and 2019 has seen a revival of sorts, from artists like Vampire Weekend and Foxygen to Carly Rae Jepsen incorporating elements of that breezy California sound into their music, and that's only the good ones.
Vaporwave, the infamous micro-genre/visual aesthetic/internet meme, draws heavily from yacht rock. Between remixing Pages b-sides into nearly unrecognizable sonic sludge and appropriating its nautical iconography, the era's influence on Vaporwave is hard to miss. Half of it satirizes the overblown musical production and consumer culture of the early 80s, and the other half is pure admiration.
It's been easy to dismiss yacht rock as one of the lesser cultural exports of its era, especially when compared to the birth of punk rock and hip-hop. As diverse as their musical inspirations were, yacht rock musicians were not. The scene was mostly white dudes from California creating their own blend of funk, jazz, bossa nova, reggae, and of course, that nebulous musical catch-all, "rock and roll."
Yacht rock espoused the best of the tasteful palette of late '70s rock and roll, putting the utmost emphasis on instrumentation and production. Steely Dan famously hired dozens of session musicians to work on their seventh album, Gaucho. The era's extensive studio experimentation led to the popularization of synthesizers and (for better or worse) gated reverb drums. It also propelled unusual time signatures, chord progressions, and abstract lyricism to the forefront with songs like "The Logical Song," "Eggplant," or "The Way It Is," territory usually reserved for dense progressive rock.
Part of the reason I think yacht rock calls to me, and many others, especially now, is that pop music in the Trump era is no longer a means of escapism. Top 40 hitmakers have always been talented at matching dour lyrics with upbeat melodies, but after taking a brief look at the Billboard Top 100, I've noticed that this summer's music sounds grim too.
"EARFQUAKE", the lead single on Tyler, the Creator's new album IGOR, debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200. It's a bass-heavy synth ballad about a relationship on its last legs that sounds like HAL 9000 dying crossed with a dial-up modem. Khalid's "Talk," which has spent 16 weeks on the Billboard 100 so far, mines a similar vein. "Can't we just talk?" he asks a lover. "Talk about where we're going, before we get lost?" Seventeen-year-old singer-songwriter Billie Eilish's new album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? overtook IGOR to cinch the number one spot last week, and it's lead single "bad guy" is similarly morose. Eilish conjures images of bloody noses and bruised knees over a hypnotic rave beat, while she considers seducing someone's dad. (Chorus: "I'm the bad guy, duh.")
If you subscribe to the Christgauian theory that American pop music is the most accurate cultural barometer, it's not hard to see the significance of these common threads. Desperation, uncertainty, and violence carry the day. All of these songs are great, and their popularity is well-deserved, but none of them feel lively enough to be a song of the summer. If negativity is the defining musical trademark of the Trump era, then yacht rock was a defiant, fingers-planted-firmly-within-ears disregard of any and all political unrest. It was simply a logical extension of Reagan's "morning in America" ethos, but in retrospect, it almost seems rebellious.
Now, all art is political, even the art that tries really hard to avoid politics. In 2016, Taylor Swift was criticized for not publicly supporting a candidate in the ongoing presidential election — unimaginable 30 years ago. Post-Trump, even stars who have thrived on their broad appeal and lack of controversy, like Adele; Tom Hanks; and even Swift herself, have taken sides.
Yacht rock was an ideal, one that saw the benefit in leaving art untouched by the outside world, a refusal to let "the man" change anything. If painting commercial soft rock musicians as counterculture icons sounds like a stretch, that's because they weren't really counter to anything. They were the culture. It was probably the last major era of pop music wholly separated from the politics of its day.
Sure, even the most uncool music eventually accrues ardent hipster fans, but this is no joke. There's no street cred to be gained here. I just really like yacht rock.