There are some genres that people choose the name of and boundaries themselves, but yacht rock is clearly an exonym. As someone who has listened to a fair amount of music labeled as yacht rock and even watched an entertaining (if somewhat profane and even slightly disturbing) video about yacht rock, it has appeared clear to me that those who write of or conceive of yacht rock have typically done so from an ironic perspective, to make fun of it, to make light of the artists and fans who have made the music or been fond of it. Yet at the same time that this sort of music has been the subject of frequent ridicule for not being cool, and for its pretensions to being smooth and soft, the music that is labeled as yacht rock is enjoyable music to listen to on its own right.
Let us therefore examine the boundaries of yacht rock, and understand the difference between core and periphery in so doing. Much of what strikes me as somewhat odd about the label of yacht rock is that it includes a great deal of music which would not seem to fit in with the image of yachts and complacent yuppies, not that either of those is necessarily offensive to my own self-image. A fair amount of songs that could be classified as R&B, for example, including such numbers as “Give Me The Night” by George Benson, or “All Night Long (All Night)” by Lionel Richie, are included as yacht rock despite the fact that neither of them is really rock music. Similarly, it seems a bit odd to hear music by Carole King (“Too Late”) or Fleetwood Mac (“You Make Loving Fun”) included among yacht rock, although it must be admitted that John McVie once took a kif vacation in Morocco rather than show urgency about an early incarnation of his group.
To be sure, the core of yacht rock is easy enough to understand. Songs like “Sailing” by Christopher Cross or “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash are obviously classic yacht rock songs because both of the songs are explicitly about the joys of sailing and about how it is that the joy and peace one finds in sailing is a way of coping with the struggle of relationship drama. Yet what is core yacht rock is indeed a rather small set of songs. In expanding the idea of yacht rock from the few songs that deal with it explicitly to other songs that share a certain melodic or smooth approach means that one gets plenty of songs that might be fun to listen to on a yacht, but aren’t designed for it and aren’t meant for it.
Ultimately, this proves to be the biggest problem with defining yacht rock. Yacht rock may be viewed as complacent music for complacent people, but it’s really not complacent at all. Bands like Steely Dan explored the destructive cycle of behavior (“Do It Again” or “Dirty Work”) that people often got caught up in, with a high degree of irony and cynicism. As smooth as Christopher Cross was as an artist, his songs dealt with the struggle of finding fulfillment in life and relationships, and the search for the freedom that came from escaping what would otherwise be impossible situations (see, for example, “Ride Like The Wind”). The artists who made the melodic music of yacht rock did so consciously and intentionally, recognizing the struggles that they were facing and recognizing the barriers to what they longed for. This music was and remains relatable to many people who enjoy it sincerely and without irony, even if the nomenclature of the music as a whole is heavily ironized by people who do not seem to ultimately understand what they are making fun of.