I Listened to the Yacht Rock Channel and I Have Thoughts

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(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.

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15 responses

  1. “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?'”

    That could, in my opinion, also describe much of SXM’s 70s on 7 presentation, which offends me to the extent that I rarely listen to 7. As contrasted to 60s on 6, where they treat the music reverentially, everything about 70s seems to be a bit off-balance, not unlike shots on the old Batman TV series. That does not work when that’s a big part of the music I grew up with.

  2. SXM’s Decades channels, as well as Classic Rewind, 1st Wave, etc, are a joke. Programmed about as creatively as a conglomerate FM station.

    80s On 8 seems to think if it wasn’t on MTV, then it doesn’t count. On the rare occasion that something like Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” is played (outside a countdown), it’s treated as a joke.

    I’ve found that if I listen to radio at all now, I’ve been listening to Dash Radio. Their 70s and 80s stations features a weekly Yacht Rock show that is far deeper than anything SXM would dare try.

    SomaFM also has a great Yacht type station called Left Coast 70s.

      1. Well you know I am…thanks for the plug, Herc

  3. I did something similar to this just nine months ago.

    https://hercshideaway.blogspot.com/2016/10/yachtober-playlisticle-yacht-rock-2015.html

    And by similar, I mean I also typed the words “yacht rock” and “Sirius/XM” in a post.

    I also mentioned I canceled my satellite radio sub ten years – now eleven years ago – for many of the reasons listed above like hearing the same songs on the way home from work that I heard on the way to work but mostly because I bought my wife what was then called an iPod Photo 60GB for Valentine’s Day and we’ve been listening to whatever we want ever since whether we’re walking, driving or flying.

  4. Part of the issue is that the “Yacht Rock” channel is an unaffiliated rip-off of the wonderful mid-2000s “Yacht Rock” web series. While the web series certainly contained a wealth of humor, some of it ironic, it was also filled with a genuine appreciation of the genre, a true love for its practitioners, and a detailed knowledge of the art and careers of its practitioners (even the minor ones). The Yacht Rock channel misses a lot of what made the web series special, and often misunderstands the genre, perhaps to render it more commercial (e.g., “Brandy” is not true “Yacht Rock”).

    Here’s the fantastic first episode:

    If you’re a fan of Steely Dan, the Dan v. Eagles episode is pretty hilarious (assuming you haven’t seen it), which is here:

    Any group of guys that can subsequently devote over 100 podcasts to the genre of “Yacht Rock” (including 35 episodes directed at outlining its parameters) should be the ones running the station. Long live Jay Graydon!

    http://www.feralaudio.com/show/beyond-yacht-rock/

    1. yes! They’re riding someone else’s joke, years late, without really understanding its core and soul (or willfully ignoring it).

    2. Why does “Koko Goldstein” look exactly like Daryl “The Captain” Dragon?

  5. I definitely agree with you about Aja. Even as a 15-year-old who was seemingly only into pop and disco, there was something about the album that I just loved. In fact, it was one of the first albums I bought (I usually only bought singles). I know you’ve mentioned Steely Dan many times in the past, so you may already know about this, but there are several clips on YouTube of some series called “Classic Albums,” and they show Becker and Fagen talking about the songs from Aja, including breaking the songs down by the individual instruments. It’s a fascinating insight into the making of a classic album.

  6. Someday I should write a whole post on Sirius/XM, but it’s not going to be today. In theory, it should be great, but in execution, it just isn’t. We keep a subscription in my wife’s car for long trips. They keep re-upping me for $5 a month, which seems about right.

    1. The Y Rock channel is a joke and I’ve removed the “yacht rock” nomenclature from my vocabulary. Let the group that invented the name play with it on their podcast, Beyond Yacht Rock. That said, I’d listen to the channel if they slipped in some Maxus, Marc Jordan, and Steve Kipner to their rotation.

      We pay a little more to XM each month to have access via phone app and computer which gives us additional stations with no DJs or promos – a favorite is channel 704: “70s/80s Pop” which is pretty good about playing a song from the 70s followed by one from the 80s. Predictably, though, the playlists are still narrow and repetitive.

      DirecTV dumped XM in favor of SonicTap which is far superior to XM IMO.

      I will second everything you wrote about Aja.

  7. For a time in the 80s and 90s, it seemed cool to put down Steely Dan as too smooth and slick. That was always an asinine argument. If something is well done, how is that a bad thing? Their music certainly was inventive, and even though I’m not a big fan of jazz, I love just about everything they did back in the 70s, and have no problem listening to them after a 60s garage band comp.

  8. I know Seals and Crofts gets credit for the start of Yact Rock with their song Summer Breeze. But that was an AM sound and they couldn’t make that transition to the FM sound till Closer to You in ’76. The Isley Brothers who had their version of Summer Breeze were able to make the transition with the song “Living For The Love of You” in 1975. You could hear every instrument like it was in your bedroom. That sound propelled Boz Scagggs, Doobie Brothers, and Kenny Loggins to have careers with multiple album hits with that sound. Not to mention Seals and Crofts, Gino Vannelli, and Cliff Richard.

    1. I’m interested in what an “AM sound” vs. “FM sound” was. In the early 70s, at least around here in the Midwest, FM was struggling to get started while AM was still “king.” Some stations, including where I worked, were simulcasting the same programming on their AM and FM stations. (Back then, companies tended to have 1 AM and 1 FM, not a plethora of them as today.) It was a challenge to get listeners to try FM. One strategy, believe it or not, was to emphasize that FM was as good as AM! So maybe AM vs. FM “sound” was more of a coastal phenomenon back then?

      1. I don’t think the original comment refers to audio quality, I think it refers to style. But as far as audio quality goes, I wonder if AM was noisier in more populated areas with more stations than it was in less populated ones. Beats me. I lived in the sticks.

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