(Pictured: Michael McDonald, the patron saint of yacht rock, on stage as a Doobie Brother in 1982.)
(Before we begin: there’s a brand-new, never-seen-anywhere-before post at One Day in Your Life today.)
We spent some time this weekend listening to the Sirius/XM Yacht Rock Channel. (It occurs to me that we have written about yacht rock in the past, although we didn’t call it that.) Yacht rock is the tasteful, sometimes jazzy adult rock of the late 70s and early 80s.
The yacht rock format is built on Steely Dan, Michael McDonald (with the Doobie Brothers and solo), Christopher Cross, and Toto; although Kenny Loggins and Hall and Oates are considered canon, we didn’t hear them. Despite its occasionally jazzy leanings, it’s an extremely white format; most African-American artists we heard were either duetting with or backing up white folks (James Ingram with McD on their hit “Yah Mo B There”; Cheryl Lynn with Toto on “Georgy Porgy,” which might be the quintessential yacht rock performance). We did hear “Sail On” by the Commodores, but it really didn’t seem to fit.
The Yacht Rock Channel is clearly programmed with the assumption that people aren’t going to listen very long. We heard “Baby Come Back” by Player and “Rosanna” by Toto on Friday afternoon, and when we dropped back in three hours later, there they were again. On Saturday morning, about 18 hours after we’d first listened, we heard exactly the same songs we’d heard Friday afternoon.
Like many S/XM channels that run without DJs, the Yacht Rock Channel plays two or three songs in a row before identifying. The sweepers feature a deep, smarmy voice doing lines about fabulous hair and beards, and vans painted with eagles or dragons on the side—in other words, easy 70s clichés that are exactly what someone listening to this channel might expect to hear.
Perhaps I’m hearing something that isn’t there, or overreacting to what is there, but I wonder just who this channel is intended to reach. I suspect it may not be dudes in their 50s who can remember when this stuff was popular. I wonder if it isn’t aimed at people (of any age) whose default outlook is ironic detachment. The channel and its presentation seem to say, “don’t take this seriously; all of this is silly; aren’t you clever for being in on the joke?” Which is kind of insulting to those of us who do remember the late 70s and early 80s, and who don’t necessarily see this style of music as something to make a joke of.
Much of the music on the Yacht Rock channel was hip back in the day, taken seriously as art by the people who made it and by those of us who listened. Let’s take Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues,” for example. Sure, it’s possible to listen to it as a goof: perhaps the lyrics are a bit too earnest in spots, the saxophone is just too perfect, the groove is just too smooth. But Aja changed my life, goddammit—it’s the album that made Steely Dan my favorite band, which they still are today. The night I crossed a Steely Dan show off my bucket list, “Deacon Blues” was the emotional high point of the show and the climax of many years of fandom. It—and a lot of the other stuff on the Yacht Rock Channel—is music I return to again and again because it means something to me.
If you’re laughing at that, you’re laughing at me, and you can fk right off, actually.
An Anniversary: Twenty years ago this past weekend was my first day at the publishing company in Iowa City, a job I took when I couldn’t find a teaching job after finishing at the University of Iowa. Although I had fancied myself a writer since at least the seventh grade, this was going pro. I have never worked in an office that had a better, more collegial atmosphere; I have never known people who taught me more, about writing and about life. Many of them are still friends and colleagues today, even though I’ve been gone from Iowa City for 17 years and the company we worked for doesn’t exist anymore. This blog wouldn’t exist without that experience. I’d be a totally different person without that experience—and those people—and I will never stop being grateful for it, and for them.