Music

The All-American Glory of Yacht Rock

Kenny Loggins performs in Las Vegas, Nev., in 2002. (Ethan Miller/Reuters)
Saluting the mellow sound that signals all is right with the world.

They say jazz is America’s musical signature: As Ken Burns wrote, “the genius of America is improvisation, our unique experiment a profound intersection of freedom and creativity. . . . Nowhere is this more apparent than in jazz — the only art form created by Americans, an enduring and indelible expression of our genius and promise.”

Stirring words. Jazz is inventive, vibrant, and complex. Everything about it is great, except the way it sounds. Listening to jazz is like trying to chase down a housefly. There’s a reason why only French tourists pretend to like it. To quote a more honest writer, John O’Farrell: “Music is a journey. Jazz is getting lost.”

America’s truly sublime musical innovation is Yacht Rock. Savor the wit of that oxymoron: How hard can you rock if you’re on a yacht? The boat itself rocks like a baby, not like Led Zeppelin. So Yacht Rock is gentle, but it can’t be sad. There is no moping on a yacht. If you want to be glum and wear black, get off the boat and go find a jazz club. Not that anyone would ever invite you on their yacht in the first place.

The essence of a Yacht Rock song (my Spotify playlist is here) is that you can picture it being blasted on the deck of a yar and saucy watercraft circa 1981. Girls in cut-off shorts and bikini tops toss their arms in the air and say, “Whoo!” while the owner and host — a guy named Brad or Chad or Gary, who struck it rich with, say, a string of Camaro dealerships and is himself a sort of Camaro in human form — high-fives the guests, bites his lower lip, and moves a little off the beat, occasionally interjecting, “Awesome, man!” Brad or Chad or Gary drinks only the classy beers such as Lowenbrau or Michelob and has a cooler stocked with colorful wine coolers for the girls. Only his one very special lady will be present later when he opens up a perfectly chilled bottle of Aste Spumante. His captain’s chair is made of rich Corinthian leather.

Yacht Rock isn’t what you’d call “real” rock, angry rock, rock with a point or an attitude or a message or even a smirk, because Brad or Chad or Gary is just here to have a good time (and here is “on earth”). There is no edge to Yacht Rock any more than there is an edge to the round, rolling sea. However, Yacht Rock is not Loser Rock or Wimp Rock. It may be smooth, but it isn’t limp. When the Yacht Rock is blasting out of the JVC boom box, the sun is shining, the girls are swaying, the waves are rolling, and all is well. Any song about lost love or thwarted longing or the girl that got away is inadmissible unless it reminds Brad or Chad or Gary about that time he almost met Cheryl Tiegs in Puerto Vallarta, and he’ll tell you about this incident at length.

The line between Yacht Rock and Wimp Rock is, alas, being eroded daily by the programmers of Sirius XM, whose Yacht Rock station is Channel 105 at the moment, and also available on the app if you happen not to be driving much these days. Sirius’s Yacht Rock station is a sort of National Archives of Yacht Rock, one of America’s greatest innovations since the development of the backyard bug zapper. But thanks to some programmer’s inability to grasp that no one wants to listen to ow-my-broken-heart songs on a yacht, Channel 105 Rock is programmatically almost indistinguishable from Channel 17, the Wimp Rock station dubbed “the Bridge.” Bridge over whiny waters, that is. The Bridge is nothing but moany-groany lovey-dovey songs by the likes of Air Supply and Bread and America, and I love it inordinately. But I’m not playing anything as embarrassingly low-T as “Baby I’m-a Want You” on a yacht, unless I want to invite mutiny.

Yacht Rock has to have a pulse; it’s got to make you feel like you’re scything through the waves while you’re enjoying a classy snack like cottage cheese on melba toast. It’s got soul, but not real soul, just the blue-eyed kind. You can’t play Marvin Gaye on a yacht because Marvin Gaye was a genius. The Eagles are not Yacht Rock: They’re too great. Same for The Police and The Rolling Stones. (Most Europeans are automatically disqualified anyway; a European on a yacht conjures up an image of a 200-foot monster docking in Nice and skippered by a man named Baron von Ruprecht of Wienerwald. Who can party down in a white dinner jacket while holding a snifter of brandy?)

Yacht Rock is the unchallenging, mood-brightening background music of the ordinary Chad who struck it rich enough to get a starter yacht, albeit not rich enough to compete with Baron von Ruprecht, who had a 200-year head start. America is the land where anyone might get rich enough to own a yacht, and so Yacht Rock is a celebration of America. It makes you lift your foam beer-can insulator to the cerulean skies and bawl out, “Meet you all the way” or “Yah mo B there.”

Yacht rock has its own Lennon and McCartney, except they are named Loggins and McDonald. I know what you’re going to say, but I’ve done the research and it turns out that Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald are not the same guy. McDonald offered a foretaste of the smooth-it-down Eighties on the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It to the Streets” (1976). This was the first hit single ever sung by McDonald, and was there ever a more adorable track about urban unrest? If you blasted that over loudspeakers in the midst of an actual riot, the looting and smashing would stop immediately, and everyone would beg you to stop ruining the mood. As McDonald’s profile was rising, Loggins came by like the guy in the Mr. Microphone commercial: “Hey good lookin’, I’ll be back to pick you up later!” Soon the pair were collaborating on “What a Fool Believes,” (1979), which despite being about a loser is just bouncy enough to qualify as Yacht Rock rather than loser rock. Loggins and McDonald combined again for “This Is It” (1979), a spectacularly non-specific paean to get-er-done Americanism on the cover of which Loggins is depicted holding what appears to be a magical glowing orb — obviously the mystical power cell of Yacht Rock. With “I’m Alright,” the following year, Loggins crafted a tune that was not only the perfect Yacht-Rock track, complete with misspelled title, but inspired the perfect Yacht-Rock conversation: “Did anyone see Caddyshack?”

The summer of Caddyshack — 1980 — was Yacht Rock’s annus mirabilis. Along came a third natural master of styrofoam wave-coasting: Christopher Cross. Released at the tail end of 1979, his eponymous rookie album became the lodestar of Yacht Rock, containing both of the quintessential examples of the form. Not only did Cross come up with “Ride Like the Wind,” which actually sounds like the internal soundtrack playing in Brad/Chad/Gary’s mind as he rips across the water (and features McDonald’s epic backup vocal), but at the same time gave us “Sailing,” a song without which no one ever would have thought up the term Yacht Rock. Sadly, Cross would later become a casualty of Wimp Rock with “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do”) and “Think of Laura.”

Yacht Rock’s subtle distinctions sometimes elude even dedicated students of the form. For instance, Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Lovin’ Fun” (Fun! Lovin!’) is Yacht Rock. Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” (cutting, bitter) is not. “Rock’n Me” (Steve Miller Band) is Yacht Rock. “Rock the Casbah” (The Clash) is not; it’s too good.

References to actually being on a boat definitely add Yacht-Rock cachet, because no one will ever accuse you of being too obvious on a boat; if anything, use of irony on the water will earn you nasty looks and maybe an order to clean out the bottom of the cooler. But “Rock the Boat” (Hues Corporation) is not Yacht Rock, it’s disco. It’s a dance song. On a yacht, you don’t dance, you dance around. Big difference. Dancing requires skill, or at least rhythm. Dancing around you can manage even if you’re a Camaro in human form. “Cool Change,” with its serene lyrics about “sailing on the cool and bright clear water,” is Yacht-Rock splendor despite being an import, from Australia’s Little River Band. Australia, though, is the most American of all overseas countries — big, confident, friendly, and party-minded. Australia is America’s honorary little brother. “Love Will Find A Way” is pure yachty bliss, not only because of the gentle, undemanding optimism of the song, not only because of the not-too-fast-buddy tempo, but because the band that performed it was Pablo Cruise. Pablo Cruise! They might as well have called themselves Boaty McBoatface.

Yacht Rock lyrics are not allowed to be profound, equivocal, or thoughtful. Paul Simon and Carole King are not Yacht Rock. Acceptable Yacht-Rock sentiments include:

“While you see a chance, take it.”

“Ride into the danger zone.”

“We’re still havin’ fun, and you’re still the one.”

“Believe it or not, I’m walkin’ on air!”

“You make-a-my dreams come true.”

And if your yacht hasn’t come in yet? Not to worry; all of these songs make the ideal soundtrack for backyard barbecuing, which is basically yacht-rocking on land. The ideal accessories are a badminton set, a Weber grill, a Coleman cooler. Get out the Bluetooth speaker, bring it into the yard, and revel in America’s glorious Yacht-Rock inheritance.

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