At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, at Union Hall, a bar in Park Slope, there will be a screening of Yacht Rock, a series of absurdist, documentary-style shorts in the style of This Is Spinal Tap and the classic SNL sketch about Blue Öyster Cult featuring Will Ferrell and a cowbell. Yacht Rock purports to tell the story of the soft-rock, “smooth-grooved” era in L.A. between 1976 and 1984, when acts like Hall & Oates, the Michael McDonald–led Doobie Brothers and Kenny Loggins ruled the airwaves.
Created by J.D. Ryznar, 29, a hitherto-unknown writer from Michigan, Yacht Rock debuted in Los Angeles under the aegis of Channel 101, a clearinghouse for undiscovered talent that calls itself an “untelevised television network” (attendees of Channel 101 gatherings vote on submitted “shows” to decide if they will be “renewed”—sort of American Idol meets the Hollywood hipster crowd). YR was inexplicably “cancelled” by the fickle viewers after the 10th episode, then found a second life and an impassioned fan base on the Internet.
Mr. Ryznar, now represented by the United Talent Agency and penning jokes for Jack Black’s hosting gig at the V.M.A.’s at Radio City Music Hall on Aug. 31, aspires to write feature films. “I want to be a guy that people go to when they want a certain kind of movie, and then I want to retire back to Michigan, live on Lake Michigan and get away from all this L.A. stuff,” he said the other day in a Los Feliz café.
There are 10 installments of Yacht Rock in all, many viewable on YouTube or at Channel 101’s Web site–and with the exception of one, a period piece about the original Jethro Tull, they are very, very funny. Watch and snigger along as “Mr. McDonald,” played with pitch-perfect bearded melancholy by Mr. Ryznar, tries to maintain his commitment to “smooth music” even as Steve Perry of Journey urges his onetime collaborator, Mr. Loggins, to sell out to hard backbeats … as Vincent Price and Toto help “spook the smooth” back into Michael Jackson … as the Eagles, portrayed as truly schlocky frat-boy bullies, compete for a soundtrack assignment with the clever-but-wussy members of Steely Dan. “I saw Steve Perry on the street in Burbank the other day,” Mr. Ryznar said. “I didn’t want to approach him, because I just knew he would be a major prick.” But many of the musicians depicted–despite the fact that their catalog is being sampled (expertly and sometimes cruelly) without permission or payment–have publicly embraced Mr. Ryznar’s work and the new generation of fans it has summoned.
On the strength of the series, “yacht rock” is now a legitimate subgenre of music criticism—it already has its own Wikipedia entry–and a bona fide fad among twentysomethings who show up in captains’ hats at “yacht rock” parties and at the artists’ concerts (though none were, thankfully, visible at the recent Steely Dan date in Jones Beach, which featured mostly Long Island boomer couples quietly getting stoned and the odd high-school-age progressive-rock fanatic enjoying Walter Becker’s many meandering guitar solos).
Why has the show touched such a nerve? “I have no idea,” Mr. Ryznar said. “It’s weird. It’s so weird. The best theory is that people dismiss the music that we talk about. Even if they like it, it’s been dismissed and not thought about too much. I think what Yacht Rock does is that it doesn’t really make fun of it, but it has fun with it, and it gives people an excuse to enjoy the music or give it a second chance. People remember their parents listening to it, and somebody from their generation says, ‘Hey, look, this is how you guys can like the music, too. We give you permission.’”
In other words, thanks to Yacht Rock’s gentle and affectionate mockery, our hipster elite finally has an excuse to groove to Hall & Oates and Michael McDonald without having to say they’re sorry. And therein lies the problem.
For a while now, well-crafted pop music has been relegated to the status of guilty pleasure—those with real taste are supposed to like difficult, obscure and “authentic” music. It’s not easy having to constantly apologize for one’s taste, so, for the most part, soft rock has stayed in the background. “It’s one of those guilty pleasures that a lot more people have,” said Steve Huey, a character actor and former rock critic who plays the show’s host, “Hollywood Steve.” “It’s not something people talk about. It’s the kind of music that’s never gotten much critical respect because it’s not edgy, not aiming to change the world, not fitting the conventional rock-critic notion of wild abandon and raw energy. It’s never gotten the respect for being good, well-crafted music; it doesn’t help somebody to project that sort of image. But it touched a nerve with people who do like this music and never had an avenue to express it.”
But now, thanks to the success of the series, a sense of arch irony has enveloped, overwhelmed and, yes, ruined Michael McDonald and Hall & Oates and the rest of the 1970’s pop crew some of us love so well—without any guilt whatsoever!
Watch and chortle as this wonderful soft-rock music, so square, so melodic, gets gobbled up by the hipster elite, our cultural scavengers who search the globe for any sign of “authentic,” unmediated experience (especially white-trash culture, because those poor white folk are so stupid and unironic and sincere), mocking it until we all understand how super-superior they are.
What makes soft rock so eminently mockable, so ripe for the smack-down? Soft rock makes the cardinal mistake of trying too hard. “It’s not just like ‘yacht rock,’ like music you would enjoy on a yacht–which it is, partially,” Mr. Ryznar said. “It’s also sort of the yacht of music. This is high-quality stuff. It’s just like a dinghy versus a yacht. Some people just want to go rowing and fishing, and others want to be in something a little nicer.”
But musicianship and craft and polish are dirty words to our generation’s tastemakers. We want our music edgy and difficult.
What will now be known as “yacht rock” represents the last gasp of a musical age when the artist wasn’t asked to be so real. In the music business, there used to be someone known as a professional songwriter, whose job it was to write the catchiest, most memorable songs possible, in complete anonymity. The performers of soft rock were for the most part songwriters and musicians first, performers second.
Now the opposite is true. Today’s bands, like their heroes David Bowie and David Byrne before them, are more likely to get their start in art school than music school. From the art-school-rock perspective, the concept and the look come first, then the music. In the soft-rock world, the song comes first, then the band and the music. This is why so many of the soft-rock bands appear so uncomfortable as performers. Acts like Steely Dan and Michael McDonald commit the ultimate offense by not only being dorky and musician-y, but by not apologizing for it.
This deep fear of appearing inauthentic is what happens when you don’t serve in a war or tackle social ills and grow up weaned on images of excessive consumption and celebrity. We have to make up our disaffection and create our own grit. Lacking any defining challenge or purpose as a generation, we look to popular entertainment to provide our danger, our real life. Popular music–once a respite and diversion from the real world, a place you go to get away from life–must take the place of real life.
Mr. Ryznar, at least, professes genuine enthusiasm for the genre he so lovingly lampoons. “When I was a kid, I didn’t like it at all,” he said. “I remember at our cabin we had an old eight-track player, and one of the eight-tracks was Minute by Minute. I would look at it, put it in and be like, ‘ Aaaugh! Thank God I have my Walkman with my Weird Al tape.’ I was a D.J. at an oldies station when I was 16, and I used to love really old Doobie Brothers stuff without Michael McDonald. I hated the Michael McDonald stuff–it just seemed so bland and ordinary to me. ‘Long Train Runnin’’ and ‘Black Water’ have that hippie Southern mystique, and then Michael McDonald comes in with his sappy Motown style. I just wasn’t into it. I just gave it a chance, and it’s amazing–I can’t stop listening to it now.”