Yacht Rock

Doobie Brothers

Yacht rock (originally known as the ‘West Coast Sound’) is a broad music style and aesthetic identified with soft rock. The term, coined in the 2000s by the makers of the online video series of the same name, was derived from its association with the popular Southern Californian leisure activity of sailing.

The term describes one of the commercially successful genres of its era, existing between the late 1970s and early 1980s. Drawing on sources such as smooth soul, smooth jazz, R&B, funk, and disco, common stylistic traits include high-quality production, clean vocals, and a focus on light, catchy melodies. The genre is often described as having ‘more emphasis on the melody than on the beat’ and ‘light emotions.’

The term ‘yacht rock’ did not exist while the genre was active. It was originally termed as a pejorative, although its stigma has lessened in later years. Some of the most popular acts included Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Steely Dan, and Toto. In part, ‘yacht rock’ refers to the stereotype of the yuppie yacht owner, enjoying smooth music while out for a sail. Additionally, since sailing was a popular leisure activity in Southern California, many ‘yacht rockers’ made nautical references in their lyrics, videos, and album artwork, particularly the anthemic track ‘Sailing’ by Christopher Cross.

Some music historians trace the roots of yacht rock to the music of the Beach Boys, whose aesthetic was the first to be ‘scavenged’ by acts like Rupert Holmes. Captain & Tennille, who were members of the Beach Boys’ live band, won ‘yacht rock’s first Best Record Grammy’ in 1975, for ‘Love Will Keep Us Together.’ The Beach Boys’ recording of ‘Sloop John B’ is also cited as the origin point of yacht rock’s predilection for the ‘sailors and beachgoers’ aesthetic that was ‘lifted by everyone, from Christopher Cross to Eric Carmen, from ‘Buffalo Springfield’ folksters like Jim Messina to ‘Philly Sound’ rockers like Hall & Oates.’

In the 2010s, the cofounders of the Yacht Rock web series argued that many of the artists sometimes associated with yacht rock, particularly the folk-driven soft rock of musicians such as Gordon Lightfoot and the Eagles, were outside the ambitus of the term as they had originally conceived it. ‘Yacht Rock’ video series co-creators JD Ryznar, Steve Huey, Hunter Stair, and David Lyons identified a number of stylistic indicators of yacht rock, including affiliation with the most prominent southern California studio musicians and producers of the era, jazz and R&B influences, use of electric piano, complex and wry lyrics (particularly about fools), and an upbeat rhythm called the ‘Doobie Bounce.’ They invented the term ‘nyacht rock’ to refer to artists who did not fit these parameters.

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