Yacht Rock Revolution: A Rebuttal
by Michael Grasso
Yacht Rock Revolution: A Rebuttal
A few months ago I came across a piece written by Dan O’Sullivan for Jacobin Magazine, which dubs itself “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” The article was on Yacht Rock. Hey, I’m on the American left! I thought. And I love Yacht Rock! This’ll be great! Unfortunately, my dreams of an intelligent, fair-minded leftist critique of Yacht Rock were crushed right from the outset.
The title should’ve been a dead giveaway, of course: “The Yacht Rock Counterrevolution.” To summarize O’Sullivan’s main points: he asserts that Yacht Rock was the harbinger of the neoliberal Reagan Revolution, that Yacht Rock’s supposed inherent blandness and celebration of material excess was the soundtrack for “the Reaganomics casino,” that Yacht Rock’s “shallow pool” of musical personnel led to musical inbreeding, and that yacht became a cancer on the late ‘70s/early ‘80s pop world, taking airplay away from other, more “worthy” forms of music such as punk and postpunk.
Whatever the flaws of O’Sullivan’s argument and analysis (and they are legion, starting with his inclusion of many artists and signifiers whom we’d now consider Nyacht Rock), I think it’s better and easier to take a positive approach here, and explain why Yacht Rock is a force for good, a force for progress, a force even, perhaps, for revolution?* I know it’s hard for O’Sullivan to look past those popular yacht signifiers (the smooth expensive polished studio sound, the lyrical content and musical style which seem both empty of overt politics and to celebrate affluence) and go a little deeper into the artists and songs themselves. Condemning an entire musical genre on the basis of a few seemingly reactionary elements seems like facile, sweeping stereotyping to me. So what we’re going to do here is go deep into Yacht Rock and find the revolutionary spirit within.
THE PERSONNEL: A MUSICAL PROLETARIAT
Let’s start with the personnel. Were the studio musicians who backed Yacht Rock tracks polished and professional? Absolutely! They were the absolute cream of the crop of 1970s studio musicians, session guys who made their bones, mostly anonymously, performing on thousands of hours of recordings until they were asked to step up to the bandstand and finally take credit for their hard work. And here is the first way O’Sullivan’s Yacht Rock analysis is invalid: what are session musicians but the proletariat of the music industry? If you want to see what a grueling “date” schedule will do to an expert session musician, check out the documentary The Wrecking Crew from 2008: different era (the 1960s), but same concept. These musicians were away from home and families for weeks at a time; this had a hugely detrimental effect on their family lives. Session musicians were a classic example of exploited labor, fueling hits for bigger, richer artists. In the 1970s, the Yacht Rock generation of studio musicians found an opening to become as big as the Wrecking Crew-backed Sinatra or Beach Boys had been in the ‘60s. The musical airwaves were primed for something to counteract both album-oriented rock and disco, and the smooth fusion of rock and jazz/R&B that Yacht Rock represented was just the ticket. The formation of a band full of polished studio craftsmen like Toto is nothing more than a textbook Marxist example of the workers seizing the means of production.
Moreover, craftsmanship does not necessarily signify slickness or emptiness. Craftsmanship is care, it’s making sure your product isn’t just a disposable good. Postwar American capitalism was built on the concept of planned obsolescence; the idea that your car, your fridge, your TV would be a useless hunk of junk in five years and you’d need to buy a new one, thereby continuously enriching the corporation who sold them to you. While music is not precisely a durable good, musical movements also usually have built-in obsolescence; of course, Yacht Rock was no exception. When the money men were done with Yacht Rock, the artists were tossed aside. But the fact that people are still finding Yacht Rock intriguing and compelling, almost four decades after its peak, is proof of its durability. Yacht rock is timeless, and, given the popularity of Yacht Rock as source material for movements of cultural recycling/bricolage like hip hop and vaporwave, endlessly exploitable and recyclable.
WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD THIS WILL BE: THE POLITICS OF STEELY DAN
When it comes to lyrical prowess in the Yacht Rock universe, the preeminent figures are Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan. I’d argue the ‘Dan is on the vanguard of lyrical criticism of both the right and the left from the left in Yacht Rock. Steely Dan’s equal-opportunity cynicism lashes out against urban sophisticates, hipsters, and drug gurus as much as capitalists, record company execs and secret suburban Republican swingers. The band’s entire cast of characters is a literary achievement; I’d personally argue Steely Dan’s eye for the hypocrisies of postwar America, by depicting figures who dwell on the fringes and who pull the strings in the shadows, is on a par with a literary figure like Thomas Pynchon.
So Steely Dan can write a song like “Gaucho” off the album of the same name, where the titular gaucho and other “bodacious cowboys” are excluded from "the Custerdome." This lyric is one of the only ones the band has ever explicitly explained; in Brian Sweet’s fantastic Reelin’ in the Years, Fagen states, “[The Custerdome] exists only in our collective imagination. In the Steely Dan lexicon it serves as an archetype of a building that houses great corporations.” So in a song like this, Fagen is singing about all the free thinkers and weirdos who have no place in late 20th-century capitalism. Steely Dan loves to chart the rise and fall of a rebel against The System; look at “Kid Charlemagne” off of The Royal Scam, a tribute to all of the “heads” who tried to find enlightenment through drugs in the ‘60s (and specifically acid pioneer Owsley Stanley). By the end of the song, the lab’s been raided and the titular Kid has to check if he has gas in the car… twice. He’s all alone being trailed by shadowy authority figures. The dream is dead, all thanks to The Man.
When you listen to an album like Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly and Fagen’s simultaneously sentimental and ironic nostalgia for the days of Kennedy-era postwar liberalism in songs like “I.G.Y.” and “New Frontier,” you hear the first cracks in the narcissistic Baby Boomer/yuppie consensus that would find its apex in the Reagan mid-‘80s. While other Boomers were celebrating themselves and their nostalgia in navel-gazing media like The Big Chill and thirtysomething, Fagen was, as early as 1982, processing the empty promises of his Cold War childhood. There’d be no glittering trains from New York to Paris by ‘76, no spandex jackets for everyone.
Bafflingly, O’Sullivan praises the similar approach of a politically “acceptable” artist like Frank Zappa: “Frank Zappa savagely mocked shallow hippies and violent fascists with equanimity, in an unafraid fugal style of jazz-rock.” You could literally replace the words “Steely Dan” with “Frank Zappa” in his statement and it would be no less true, probably even more so. Steely Dan are the Yacht Rock jesters par excellence, speaking truth to power, cryptically and cleverly, never taking themselves seriously, always engaging their criticism with a sense of play.
MCDONALD/LOGGINS: SUBVERSIONS OF POP MUSIC AND THE FOOL’S PREROGATIVE
Speaking of fools, let’s talk about fools of the heart. Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins are the beating heart of Yacht Rock; all blue-eyed soul and sweet rock, respectively. When Michael McDonald offers heartfelt words on how hard it is to be a fool in love, surely he's working within a standard pop song idiom. But he’s also subverting the pop ballad, taking it away from its boy-meets-girl narrative towards something more soulful, expressing basic universal human truths of loss, nostalgia, and even alienation. In a Yacht Rock love song, the connection is never made by the protagonist. The fool is always a loser. What better metaphor for what Marx called “Entfremdung,” or alienation?
The postpunk movement which O’Sullivan extols certainly explored an academic deconstruction of the pop song and specifically the love song; bands like Gang of Four and Scritti Politti spent much of their time using poststructuralist and Marxist theory to try to awaken the proletariat to the opiate of the ballad. But this kind of rebellion through dry academic analysis offers antithesis but no synthesis, to borrow the classical Marxist-Hegelian dialectic. Is it not far better to seduce the bourgeoisie with smooth music and feed them subversive messages through the lyrics and sonic professionalism inherent in Yacht Rock? I’d argue “What A Fool Believes” is as critical a piece of dialectic as any strident postpunk track.
In Kenny Loggins’s motivational smooth rock songs like “Keep the Fire,” “This Is It,” and “I Gotta Try,” he is working within a tradition of songs to awaken the rebel within, to keep oneself on track in the face of hopeless odds. Yes, these lyrics are obtuse and obscure, but does this not appeal to the struggle of anyone, workers included, to keep resisting, keep going? By no means is Kenny Loggins a labor balladeer. But his origins in the folk tradition are telling. Folk is filled with songwriters who wrote explicitly political works, meant to inspire. Loggins simply takes the explicit politics out of the equation and fosters a general spirit of resistance, focus, and survival which is, I’d argue, more inclusive and more applicable to different people’s struggles. Since this is explicitly music for the masses, I’d argue its political and psychological usefulness to revolution is apparent.
THE CANVAS CAN DO MIRACLES: SWEET FREEDOM AND CHRISTOPHER CROSS
O’Sullivan spends a lot of time at the outset of his piece ripping apart Christopher Cross’s landmark 1979 self-titled multi-Grammy winning LP. This sort of Christopher Cross bashing has been fashionable ever since the smooth-yet-dorky songsmith swept the Grammys in 1980. To O’Sullivan, Christopher Cross, both man and album, represent everything wrong with Yacht Rock: ”Syrup-spittled songster Christopher Cross, whose criminal odor still crowds the nostrils of his victims,” he cruelly snarks. But there’s a reason that Christopher Cross is considered the quintessential Yacht Rock album, and it’s not just the all-star cast of personnel who lend such epic smoothness to Cross’s sound. Christopher Cross is an album about freedom. Freedom from the shackles of society and law, from the worries of modern capitalism. It is the dream of escape, the quintessential American loner’s fantasy. The two biggest singles from Christopher Cross, ““Ride Like the Wind” (which peaked at #2) and Sailing” (a #1 Billboard Pop single), provide us with two versions of the American rebel: the outlaw and the dreamer.
By the 1970s, all the roads in America had been blazed, all the frontiers fallen. In a song like “Ride Like the Wind,” we may laugh at the image of pudgy Christopher Cross as a south-of-the-border desperado. But the song’s lyrics sit square in the middle of the time-honored American outlaw tradition. Cross, himself a Texan, knows this world and sings powerfully of a man condemned to hang who defies the law to make it to the freedom the southern border. And through “Ride Like The Wind” and even in its title, there is a metaphor of the wind and road making him free.
That union of natural environment and human freedom is even more powerful in Cross’s signature song. “Sailing” is a near-mystical meditation on the power of the elements, of the very environment to take away all our worries. To me, it’s almost an ecopsychological message: the wind and sea are going to “do miracles” by giving us back our calm and peace. (And a sailboat uses zero fossil fuels. Just sayin’.) Artists like John Denver were conveying messages like this in the eco-conscious 1970s, but Christopher Cross’s smooth sound broadened the appeal of the message, repackaging it for a pop audience. Cross’s dream is as utopian and Edenic as Marx’s, with a simultaneous awareness of the imperfectability of this fallen world. Note all the references to “paradise,” “never-never land.” This tradition of wishing for a “cloud cuckoo land” of plenty goes back to the medieval troubadours and folk songs like “Big Rock Candy Mountain”; each time, the balladeer wishes for a world without scarcity and political oppression. So the fantasy of freedom offered by a songs like "Sailing" isn't capitalistically aspirational, it's universal, and has been throughout human history. A song like “Sailing” offers the promise of hope, beauty, and perfection in an imperfect world. You don't need to literally own a yacht to enjoy it.
YACHT ROCK AS SITUATIONISM
It’s ironic that O’Sullivan talks of beaches and student revolutions in the late ‘60s and forgets one of the most important student movements of all: Paris, May 1968. And these students were largely inspired by the work of the Situationists. The Situationists were a movement of the academic left, led by theorist Guy Debord, that recognized the power of mass media in the postwar West and sought to co-opt it through what we’d now call culture-jamming (a “détournement” in Situationist jargon), using the weapons of mass media against the powers-that-be. The student protesters used catchy song-lyric-like slogans to inspire a mass uprising of not just students, but working class allies and middle-class sympathizers. The students’ assertion that they were “Marxiste, tendance Groucho” demonstrates their awareness of using the mocking, anarchic comic antics of the 20th century’s most famous jesters to thumb their nose at the oppressive state. One of the other most famous Situationist slogans, “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Under the paving-stones, the beach!”), promised the glory of an endless summer, an eternal vacation, if the students and workers would but rise up, grab a brick, and smash the state. After all, what is the point of a revolution if all that replaces the oppressive capitalist power structures is another set of authorities to resist? The Paris students did not want a repeat of the Bolshevik Revolution and a mere copy of the grim autocrats of the Soviet Union... they wanted to find the mythical Beach.
I’d argue that this is the political appeal of Yacht Rock; not a reactionary celebration of excess but a fool’s dream of the promise of eternal freedom from worry, mediated through an arch, ironic sense of the state of politics and media in the postwar West. Again using dialectic, the thesis of Yacht Rock is found in its fun, smooth sound; the antithesis in its subtle darkness and celebration of the fool’s hopeless dreams. In the synthesis of these two, you find Yacht Rock’s enduring appeal.
This period of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s was of course a key turning political point, as O’Sullivan says. But Yacht Rock wasn’t the harbinger of Reaganite greed; it was our last chance at an endless vacation, our last chance to ride like the wind before we got old, to let the canvas work its miracles before it all became impossible. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike‘s fantastic Guardian piece says so much about why the smooth appeal of Yacht Rock found so many adherents in those difficult late ‘70s: it offered hope, and a dream of better things, certainly a less harmful dream than Reagan’s Morning in America.
Some would argue that my interpretation in this piece offers all theory but no praxis; i.e., none of these Yacht Rock songs offer an actual blueprint for revolution. That may well be true; Situationism also posits a “recuperation” of rebellion into the mainstream, thus making said rebellion empty and meaningless (I could argue this historically describes the hippie movement or punk better than Yacht Rock, but that’s probably an argument for another piece). But even given this danger of recuperation, you cannot underestimate the power of a dream to plant an idea of revolt in the listener’s head.
To that end: why did Yacht Rock fade into oblivion? I’d argue it was the real perversion of the values of the ‘60s in the form of bigger, more prominent and more famous Boomer musicians with their own really slickly produced albums, that left our Yacht Rock session musician “proletariat” behind in the mid-‘80s. The real counter-revolution was in the rush to make lots of money and abandon the political ideals of the ‘60s in the process. Yacht rock didn’t do that; bloated festival tours, endless reunion concerts, and using the music of Janis and the Beatles to sell cars and sneakers did.
Michael Grasso is a museum professional and Bostonian. He has a podcast on the Yacht Rock-era TV show WKRP In Cincinnati called Hold My Order, Terrible Dresser, and a podcast on the film Velvet Goldmine called The Whole Shebang. He’s a Contributing Editor at We Are The Mutants, an online magazine about Cold War-era pop and outsider culture. He tweets at @MuseumMichael.