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Why Steely Dan Can Never Really Be Yacht Rock

Eric Pettine By

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The website Really Smooth Music provides the definition of the term Yacht Rock as being "a variation of popular Soft Rock that peaked between the years of 1976 and 1984 (as featuring a) highly polished brand of soft rock that emanated from Southern California during the late '70s and early '80s. The term is meant to suggest the kind of smooth, mellow music that early yuppies likely enjoyed while sipping champagne and snorting cocaine on their yachts." This sounds like an exclusive highfalutin snobby affair that only the wealthiest boys and girls could share—while they watched their bridges burn.

As most of us who were tooling around in the late '70s and early '80s probably listening passively to the likes of Christopher Cross' "Sailing," Kenny Loggins' "This is It" or England Dan & John Ford Coley's "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" can attest, what we were hearing, like it or not, was soon to be our generation's version of supermarket music. The song titles and lyrics of the above mentioned songs could be taken literally—there were no hidden, subliminal or profound statements being made. The music was intentionally devoid of engaging the listener to think about what they were hearing. And really no musical entity was stripping away the glossy veneer of that music and those lyrics to expose the human condition at its ironic worst—no one with the exception of Steely Dan.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine from AllMusic, who listed Steely Dan's song "Gaucho" in his top 30 list of great Yacht Rock songs, most likely understood the ambiguity of the lyrics juxtaposed with the ironic smooth and spirited groove of that song. But for the majority of people sipping and/or snorting at sea in the 1980s, the actual meaning behind the lyrics and music of that tune and Steely Dan's even bigger hit, "Hey Nineteen," sailed sweetly by in the salinated sea air.

Steely Dan's Sophisticated Lyrics

Most of the lyrics for most Yacht Rock songs, such as "You're the Love," "Sailing," "Love Will Find a Way," are obvious in their depictions of love, relationships or minor adventures. They are minus metaphors and double entendres that were prevalent in Steely Dan's lyrics, for example: the mysterious "mystical sphere" from the song "Time Out of Mind," the bikers who "throw down the jam" from "Josie" and Aja and her friend who "throw out the hardware" from the song of the same name. Even a year before their songs would seemingly chronologically qualify as being Yacht Rock, the cryptic lyrics "the spore is on the wind tonight" from 1975's LP/CD Katy Lied figure heavily in the salty story behind the song "Rose Darling."

Where in Yacht Rock's oeuvre would one find the depth of storytelling techniques as evident in Steely Dan's 1976 "The Royal Scam" (which is a song about the discrimination people from Puerto Rico who emigrated to New York in the '50s and '60s felt upon their arrival in the US), "Kid Charlemagne" (a song whose story was inspired by Owsley Stanley, the first infamous chemist to mass produce high-quality LSD in the 1960s in San Francisco), and "Glamour Profession" (which features a narrative concerning drug dealing to well-heeled clients in Southern California)?

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