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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

America's Cup Is Here: The Top 7 Things Every San Franciscan Needs to Know About Yacht Rock

Posted By on Wed, Aug 22, 2012 at 8:02 AM

Loggins & Messina, princes of yacht rock.
  • Loggins & Messina, princes of yacht rock.

Yacht Rock is a kind of smooth, soft rock made by men with pretty voices in the late '70s and early '80s. It's called "yacht rock" now (it wasn't then) because it's pretty much the ideal soundtrack for a crisp, smug, Topsider-wearing day on the water.

Given that San Francisco is now in the throes of its first America's Cup event -- and presumably occupied by smug, crisp, Topsider wearing men with potentially pretty voices -- yacht rack is a thing everyone we all need to know about now. (Sorry.) So let us present this quick primer on the genre, along with 7 of the its most notorious best-known songs.

7. The More Falsetto, the Better (Doobie Brothers, "What a Fool Believes"

Men of yacht rock fame aren't afraid of showing how high their voices can go -- in fact, that may be the whole point. As with boat racing, yacht rock is a fundamentally meritocratic realm with absurdly large barriers to entry: The higher, the prettier, the better. And since (also like boat racing) yacht rock tends to be the pastime of humans with penises, that means you're gonna hear a lot of falsetto. In "What a Food Believes," we have a classic yacht rock tune whose sky-scraping chorus could give Mariah Carey a run for her money.

6. Yacht Rock Gets Achingly Pretty -- and Comically Sincere (Christopher Cross, "Sailing")

Here, in what's arguably the quintessential yacht rock track, Christopher Cross sings amid twinkling guitars and weepy strings about his aching love for ... sailing. "If the wind is right you can sail away, find tranquility/ Oh, the canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see," he implores. In another genre, this might seem like a comically heavy tone for championing one's Saturday afternoon hobby -- instead of, say, their undying love. But that's yacht rock for you.

5. "Yacht Rock" Is Sometimes Just a Term for Shamelessly Catchy '80s Pop That's Kind of Embarrassing to Like (Hall & Oates, "Kiss on My List")

In clear contrast to the previous song, there's nothing especially yacht-y about "Kiss on My List" -- it's just a perniciously indelible, corny pop song. Hall & Oates are considered prime yacht rock, though. We think that's because people want a shield of irony in which to veil their involuntary affection for cheesy wuss-anthems like this.

4. Proficiency and Technical Skill Are King (Steely Dan, "Bad Sneakers")

The primary value of yacht rock is smoothness. But when smoothness can be paired with impressive technical skill -- as Steely Dan did throughout of its jazz-and-rock-blending heyday -- that's all the better. "Bad Sneakers" is basically just an exercise in virtuosity: complex lyrical phrasing, a stupidly well-played guitar solo, and a chorus melody that at first seems hard to grasp but after a couple listens becomes charmingly familiar. But you're not alone if you think this song comes off as an emotionally frigid exhibition game for a bunch of musical all-stars.

3. Not All Yacht Rock is From California (10cc, "I'm Not in Love")

We're arguing for a broader definition of yacht rock here, one that includes this gem of a plaint from British art-rock band 10cc. Most of the folks on this list lived, loved, and sailed in Southern California, but the airy atmosphere and watery smoothness here make a strong case for extending the class of yacht rock at least to the other side of the Atlantic.

2. In Yacht Rock, Bald Spots Are Cool (Genesis, "In Too Deep")

And that's largely due to the great drummer/singer of Genesis, Phil Collins. Here he summons a mountain of emotion out of some frail, glassy synths, his hairless scalp, and thin air, which is something only yacht rock can do.

1. If It Isn't Pleasant, It Isn't Yacht Rock (Seals & Croft, "Summer Breeze")

Like yacht racing, yacht rock is a fundamentally genteel pursuit, one that values politeness, form, and, yes, smoothness over all. Even its most heartbroken songs, like the Genesis and 10cc examples above, are, on their surface, airy and welcoming. The genre's best examples, like Seals & Croft's 1972 "Summer Breeze," are pleasant to the extreme. Whether the same can be said of San Francisco during the America's Cup races -- well, that remains to be seen.

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Ian S. Port @iPORT, and like us at

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