Louis Armstrong said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” Duke Ellington said, “There are simply two kinds of music: good music and the other kind.” Christopher Cross said, “If you get caught between the moon and New York City, the best that you can do is fall in love.”
What do these pieces of wisdom add up to? Music, like love, doesn’t follow rules. Musicians as diverse as Armstrong, Ellington and Cross don’t want to be boxed in by genre. They want to write, record and perform and not spend time deciding if they play bebop or hard bop, blues or Southern rock, funk or disco.
But as temperatures heat up and people think of sailing away to find serenity, yacht rock playlists start to float in on the breeze. And that means drawing boundaries with enough latitude that artists don’t object to being boxed in and still foster playlists with a sense of meaning, a sense of continuity and depth. Peaks and valleys must be smartly balanced against the total annihilation of a common aesthetic. (Yes, despite a fascination with sailing and pina coladas, yacht rock can be taken seriously!)
And so, much to Armstrong’s chagrin, we have to ask, “What is yacht rock?” If it seems obvious, take a look at Spotify’s recent “Yacht Rock” playlist. Spotify is a global streaming leader with some 350 million monthly users, an army of music experts and cutting edge artificial intelligence, and yet the company filled its playlist with songs such as Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is.”
If somebody wants to create and enjoy a stack of songs that runs from tunes by the J. Geils Band, to the Police, to Bad Company, to Talking Heads (yup, the company has all these artists on its playlist and even included Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”), they should do that with gusto! It sounds like an evening full of classic jams and fun left turns so cheers to the endeavor. But if a major player in the music business wants to do that and call it yacht rock, we need to take a step back and consider what is and isn’t yacht.
We know breezes, islands, keys, capes, cool nights, crazy love and reminiscing help define the yacht aesthetic (see works by Seals & Crofts, Jay Fergeson, Bertie Higgins, Rupert Holmes, Paul Davis, Poco, and Little River Band). But let’s get beyond the captain’s caps and map the waters of this perfect-for-summer style.
Watch Bertie Higgins’ Video for ‘Key Largo’
Yacht Rock Sets Sail With Help From a 2005 Web Series
Before 2005, people generally placed Toto’s “Africa” and Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” in the soft rock genre. Maybe if they were getting fancy, they’d call them AM Gold. But in 2005, the online video series Yacht Rock debuted. It fictionalized the careers of soft rock artists of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The cheeky show capitalized on the building renaissance of artists such as Steely Dan and Michael McDonald, who embraced the silliness of the series.
“When it came on I remember watching it pretty avidly,” McDonald admitted in 2018. “My kids got a huge kick out of it. We would laugh about the characterizations of the people involved. At this point it’s a genre of its own. You’re either yacht or you’re not.”
He might be right that you’re either yacht or you’re not. But calling it a genre doesn’t quite work (more on that in a minute).
Listen to the Doobie Brothers’ ‘Minute By Minute’
Riding the Waters From the Radical ’60s to the Sincere ’70s
By the late ’60s, rock ‘n’ roll had become “art.” The Beatles started as simple teen heartthrobs covering early rock ‘n’ roll, but graduated to the supreme weirdness of the White Album. Chuck Berry gave birth to the Rolling Stones who gave birth to Led Zeppelin and the gonzo bombast of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” And all sorts of acts went wild from the Grateful Dead, to Pink Floyd, to Frank Zappa and beyond. The sunshine of ’70s AM Gold came as a reaction to these wonderful excesses. Singer-songwriters aimed to take rock and pop back to the simple pleasures of tight, light tunes such as Beach Boys’ classics, Motown hits and Brill Building-crafted songs.
Hippies looking for revolution and Gen X-ers on the hunt for rage, irony and sharp edges bristled at the genuine lyrics of tenderness and heartbreak neatly packaged in finely-crafted Top 40. Where the stars and fans of ’60s and ’90s rock wanted arty and experimental music, anger and angst, yacht took listeners on a voyage powered by pure earnestness: think of the sincere and intense conviction of Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree,” Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and “Love is the Answer” by England Dan & John Ford Coley.
(Which is why placing the Police or Talking Heads on any yacht mix doesn’t work.)
Yacht rock embodies the final charge of unbridled, heartfelt pop.
“I think these songs remain so popular because they are unabashedly pop,” Nicholas Niespodziani, leader of the hugely successful tribute band Yacht Rock Revue, explains to UCR. “They’re not self conscious. You couldn’t write a song like ‘Africa’ now. What are they even singing about? Who knows? But it’s fun to sing.”
Watch Captain & Tennille’s Video for ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’
Music That’s Jazzy, But Sure Isn’t Jazz
Yacht rock doesn’t just have an earnestness to its lyrics, the sax solos come with the same level of sincerity.
If the style was the last gasp of unadulterated pop, it was also the dying breath of jazz’s influence on rock. Jazz rock started in the ’60s with Zappa, Chicago, Santana and Blood, Sweat & Tears, but slowly simple drums and growling guitars stomped horn lines and rhythmic shifts into the ground. However, yacht rock features echoes of swingin’ saxophones, big band horns and Miles Davis’ fusion projects.
Yacht rock is very pop, but legitimate musical talents made those hooks. Chuck Mangione logged time in jazz giant Art Blakey’s band then took what he learned and crushed complex harmonic ideas into the pop nugget “Feels So Good,” which is basically a Latin-bebop-disco-classical suite. (If you dig “Feels So Good,” dig deeper and groove to smooth jazz mini-symphony “Give It All You Got.”)
Nearly every classic from the style features either an epic sax solo or dazzling guitar part. For horn glory, go spin Little River Band’s “Reminiscing,” Gino Vannelli’s “I Just Wanna Stop” or Grover Washington Jr. and Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us.” For six-string wizardry as astounding as anything Jimmy Page came up with (and much more economical), try Atlantic Rhythm Section’s “So Into You,” Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find a Way” and pretty much every Steely Dan cut.
(Which is why placing Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” on any yacht mix doesn’t work).
Watch the Little River Band’s Video for ‘Reminiscing’
A Vibe, Not a Genre or Gender or Demographic of Any Kind
Being a style, a feeling, an aesthetic, a vibe means that yacht rock can pull a song from a wide variety of genres into its orbit. It also means that it’s not just a catalog of hits from bearded white dudes. Yes, Kenny Loggins, McDonald and both Seals and Crofts helped define yacht rock. But quintessential songs from the style came from the women and artists of color, soul singers, folk heroes and Nashville aces.
For every Loggins’ tune in a captain’s hat, there’s a Carly Simon track dressed up as your cruise director. Yes, there’s Steely Dan’s jazz influence, but also Crosby, Stills & Nash‘s folk legacy (“Southern Cross” remains definitively of the style). Yacht rock playlists should also be littered with appropriate R&B gems, such as the Raydio’s “You Can’t Change That” (which features Ray Parker Jr.!), Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile” and Kool & the Gang’s “Too Hot.” Likewise, country acts of the era tried to go Top 40 while attempting to retain some twang and managed to make Love Boat music (see Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning,” Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love a Rainy Night,” Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers’ “Islands in the Stream”).
It’s hard to tell if the Commodores’ “Sail On” is pop or R&B, harder still to know if George Benson’s “Give Me the Night” is pop, R&B or jazz. But they both feel yacht.
(Which is why Santana can do psychedelic Latin music and can do yacht on “Hold On,” and why the Pointer Sisters can do new wave disco with “Neutron Dance” and yacht with “Slow Hand.”)
Wishing You a Bon Voyage on the Seas of Yacht
Spotify was right to think about diversity when making its playlist, though the company got the type of diversity wrong. Yacht has some pretty specific sonic parameters, but has no demographic restrictions when it comes to the kind of artists contributing to the style’s catalog. That means when you hit the high seas of yacht, you don’t need to be afraid to fight for your favorites to be included, just please don’t have one of those favorites be “Ghostbusters.”
We began talking about drawing boundaries with enough latitude that artists don’t object to being boxed in. The wide latitude yacht rock affords matters because music comes to define eras and outlines cultural trends (remember that yacht came in reaction to art rock and that says a lot about the swing from the late ’60s to the early ’80s). Calling Christopher Cross soft rock might feel right, but it doesn’t tell us much about where he was coming from and what he was trying to accomplish. Calling Cross yacht rock, now that we know it’s not a pejorative, illuminates his aesthetic.
Cross came out of the Texas rock scene that produced blues aces the Vaughan Brothers and guitar shredder Eric Johnson (who plays on a lot of his albums). He loves Joni Mitchell and that shows in his craft. He’s jazzy but not jazz (see those horns and guitar on “Ride Like the Wind”) with a vibe that’s completely yacht — developed from the scene that took ’60s pop, updated it and sheltered it from the trends of punk, metal, new wave and hip hop. The same can be said for Loggins, McDonald, Simon, Lionel Ritchie and so many others.
Spotify needs to tweak its algorithm so it gets this right. Or, better yet, connect with the genre-crossing vibe that makes yacht so unique.