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The Yacht Rock Counterrevolution

It was the apogee of "yacht rock," the ineluctable, smooth sound then dominant in southern California. Slick production, highly melodic music, and clean vocals were the hallmarks of the genre. Thematic concerns ranged from personal ads to margaritas.

(From Robert Huffstutter / Flickr)

I cannot satisfy culpability to the degree required by an American court of law, but here are the facts of the cabal’s first — and most insidious — plot.

The weevils descended on New York City’s once-esteemed Radio City Music Hall on February 25, 1981, and, in a night of untrammeled soul-pillage, proceeded to sweep nearly every Grammy category. Seat-fillers, CBS viewers, stagehands — all could only watch in ashen-faced paralysis, as if witnessing a savage domestic battering at the Thanksgiving table. Syrup-spittled songster Christopher Cross, whose criminal odor still crowds the nostrils of his victims, took home five Grammys, including “Song of the Year,” “Record of the Year,” and “Best New Artist.”

It was the apogee of “yacht rock,” the ineluctable, smooth sound then dominant in southern California. Slick production, highly melodic music, and clean vocals were the hallmarks of the genre. Thematic concerns ranged from personal ads to margaritas. Even groups that should’ve known better, like Fleetwood Mac in their “Mirage” incarnation, began to feel the influence.

By 1980, Cross was only one of the vanguard, in only one year of their glory; squealing cheesesmith Kenny Loggins took home “Best Pop Vocal,” cool breezer George Benson dominated the R&B categories, and sonic relatives like the Doobie Brothers, Ambrosia, Herb Alpert, and Robbie Dupree swarmed the top-tier nominations.

What happened? A decade earlier, Jimi Hendrix had been touring Europe — what kind of rotten, degrading trick was this? Was 1980, the year in contention, just a pathetic patch for music? “Christ On A” Cross’s award of “Album of the Year,” for his self-titled, sub-human debut LP, bested a certain British concept album about walls, schoolteachers, and pudding. Other acts that were snubbed included Queen, Blondie, the Pretenders, the Clash, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello — to say nothing of the incredible profusion of alternative musicians perspiring in the underground.

No, the importance of that mummery of an awards ceremony was not musical, but political and cultural — what it reflected about the garden of nightmares America had become.

The Marxist geographer David Harvey described 1980 “as a revolutionary turning point in the world’s social and economic history.” This is no exaggeration. Authoritarian ghouls of the New Right like “Dutch” Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Augusto Pinochet, and Deng Xiaoping were all in power, each effecting extremely violent, socially dislocating economic liberalization in their own countries, constructing a global free-market regime that continues to beggar us today and coarsen all modes of life.

As Thatcher crowed, “economics are the method, but the object is to change the soul.”

After copious research, countless sleepless nights, and myriad blows to my own bene esse, I have stood eyeball to eyeball with the beast. It was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Aqua Velva, espadrilles. It bore the faint scowl of an iron-hearted counterrevolutionary. It tells me it was a Cassandra, a clarion, of the Jimmy and Warren Buffets who were coming. And it tells me, so I can tell you.

The ulcerating chancre known as “yacht rock” was the sign of a greater, gathering plague: that of the reactionaries and their most potent poison, the redistributive, soak-the-poor tenets of neoliberal economics. Six months after those Grammys, American air traffic controllers went on strike for better working conditions, and the tertiary phase had begun.

But don’t worry. This song could still have a happy ending. Kenny Loggins was wrong when he crooned, “this is it.”

“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”: The Garden And The Wasteland

Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east . . .

—Marvin Gaye, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”

In the third-world America of 2012, it is not difficult for us to accept what documentarian Adam Curtis calls the “pessimistic belief that all one’s dreams for a better future are just illusions.” Since the start of the neoliberal assault on economic equality, beginning in 1981 with the spectacle of Reagan versus PATCO, American workers have suffered a three-fold decrease in wages. America’s senior citizens are condemned to keep working into their late seventies, suspended only by the threadbare federal safety net still stitched together.  More black men are jailed in an increasingly privatized prison-industrial complex than were enslaved in 1850. Mr. Reagan’s neighborhood is so decrepit, it seems impossible to reverse the blight.

To understand how neoliberalism emerged from its nineteen-seventies bailiwick of obscure right-wing think tanks, becoming the dominant mode of cultural organization, we must understand the threat it was facing: in Corey Robin’s words, “the subordinates of this world contest[ing] their fates.” The explosion of the antiwar New Left and its attendant liberation movements in the late sixties and early seventies deeply challenged the mores of privilege and hierarchy around which conservative leaders sought to organize society.

Let’s be clear: the late sixties scared the shit out of this country’s elites. It seemed like every social breakwater — racial segregation, “traditional” marriage, military conscription – was dissolving, as the passions of the subaltern swept America. To the “silent majority” of decaying Bob Hope fans, it looked like the guillotine was coming, that roving gangs of freaks, “negros,” and fairies were coming, soon, to feed their daughters acid and pile dunghills on their Cadillacs. The genie could not be bottled again; there would be no going back to the Jim Crow, pre-Stonewall, Stepford Wife era. And in no mode of culture was this subversiveness more vibrant than in music.

Just as the street singers of Paris propelled the sans-culottes over the barricades, chanting “ça ira, ça ira” — “It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine” — so too did the music of the sixties, in the words of Martin Luther King, “build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” This was true in a very practical, explicit sense — music was a weapon on a battlefield.

The Freedom Singers mocked George Wallace and sang into the jail cells of Dixie, Joan Baez sang “De Colores” in the fields to the United Farm Workers, and the wonderfully inventive, criminally underrated Phil Ochs declared, unilaterally, the Vietnam War to be over. The aggrieved American underclass — women, workers, gays, minorities, ecologists, the poor — were raveling freedom loose from the “vast, moth-eaten musical brocade” of the Eisenhower era.

Protest singers were only the most direct activists amidst the profusion of socially conscious experimentation. “There was madness in every direction,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson — “you could strike sparks anywhere.” To a hysterical moralist like William F. Buckley, lascivious droogs like the Stones, the Stooges and the Doors must’ve looked like a Viking raiding party. The more demure Brian Wilson produced several haunting pop albums in an attempt to elide these cultural storms, rendering the three-minute single orchestral. Marvin Gaye transcended the Motown machine with his stunning “What’s Going On,” a heartbreaking concept album tracing a Vietnam veteran’s return to an unfamiliar America. Frank Zappa savagely mocked shallow hippies and violent fascists with equanimity, in an unafraid fugal style of jazz-rock. The list could go on and on.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson had claimed that “these are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem,” as he sought to enact the most ambitious regime of American social democracy since the New Deal. But the staggering violence of this period, both in Southeast Asia and in Attica, made a mockery of his “Great Society,” of a compassionate America in which LBJ’s “hunger for community” would be sated. As despicable neoconservative remora Irving Kristol put it:

“If you would’ve asked any liberal in 1960, we are going to pass these laws . . . eventually all the laws that in fact were passed in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, would you say crime will go up, drug addiction will go up, illegitimacy will go up, or will they go down, everyone would have said obviously they will go down, and every one would have been wrong.”

While this scorn for the interventionist welfare state is by now a common neoliberal trope, Kristol’s explanation served, as Harvey put it, to “divert attention from capitalism and corporate power as in any way having anything to do with either the economic or cultural problems that unbridled commercialism and individualism” were fostering. “Freedom,” wrote poet Matthew Arnold, “is a good horse to ride — but to ride somewhere.” A new, reactionary consensus — to the right of even Richard “we are all Keynesians now” Nixon — was forming, in the vacuum of what had come before.

“California Über Alles”: The Empire Yachts Back

Pleasure Beach, not a place you left behind
Or a place you’ll ever find
It’s a dream just out of reach
It’s a place called Pleasure Beach . . .

—Hall & Oates, “Pleasure Beach”

On April 4, 1970, a drooling sump of a person named Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA) spoke before the Council of California Growers, a vital GOP special interest group, in a reelection campaign stop near Yosemite National Park. As Rick Perlstein records in his stellar history Nixonland, it was an unlikely backdrop for a man who despised nature.

But Reagan, who as a gubernatorial candidate had said “there is nothing beautiful about [redwoods],” and who as president would claim “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” was not visiting for the scenery. Asked about the recent wave of violence roiling campuses nationwide, Reagan, who once failed to recognize his own son at a photo op, was more vicious than the hangman: “if there is to be a bloodbath, let it be now. No more appeasement.”

His words were already backed by deeds. A year earlier, in February 1969, Reagan had declared a state of emergency at UC Berkeley and dispatched the California Highway Patrol to the campus, crowing, “I’ll sleep well tonight.” That May, he confronted the unimaginable: Berkeley students planting trees in a vacant dirt lot. Faced with the threat of markedly increased CO2 emissions, on May 15, 1969, Reagan’s policemen, many of them Vietnam veterans, gunned down dozens of protestors, killing one, permanently blinding another, and wounding one hundred and twenty-eight.

Writing later to an aggrieved constituent, “Ron” allowed that “bayonets are not pretty,” but it was bayonets alone that had “brought an immediate end to the hand-to-hand violence that had prevailed.”

If, as journalist Suzanne Moore recently argued, “revolution always begins in culture,” it seemed like the early seventies spelled the end of the beginning. In 1973, two weeks before the start of the Watergate hearings, Nixon could sincerely declare the poor Carpenters — wracked with drug addiction and anorexia – to be “young America at its best.” Larkin’s words were never truer: there was “nothing to think with, nothing to love or link with,” and nowhere was this newfound emptiness more blankly apparent than in popular music.

By the late seventies, music was not resonating with even the most mainstream of listeners, reflected in a staggering, multiyear decline in record sales, as labels skulked towards an event horizon of blandness. By then, not coincidentally, it was the conservative counterrevolutionaries in the saddle — bound, Robin argues, by a conception of “freedom as a shield for inequality and a surrogate for mass feudalism.” And in seeking to smash all remaining social solidarity — Thatcher famously said there “is no such thing as society, only individuals” — the reactionaries would often employ the most retrograde of tactics, breaking strikes, eliminating social services, and prosecuting the “War on Drugs.”

But that was just against the most recalcitrant of foes to the new neoliberal boss. Because the nefarious truth, the one that should keep you up at night, is that the reactionaries – who despised music, despised self-expression, despised community — won because most Americans wanted them to win. In the words of Steely Dan, “she thinks I’m crazy/but I’m just growing old.”

Yacht rock was an escape from blunt truths, into the melodic, no-calorie lies of “buy now, pay never,” in which any discord could be neutralized with a Moog beat. John Dolan memorably described yacht rock’s literary equivalent, the oxygen-deprived work of bespectacled aeolist Jonathan Franzen, as that of “a world hermetically sealed, valuing literature only for the production of antibodies designed to repel newer, faster worlds.” It is not that a fundamentally decent middle America is misled by silver-tongued right-wingers; “what’s the matter with Kansas” is that most Americans, from ruby-red debate audiences to milquetoast Aaron Sorkin-types, want to live in a shallow, grifting culture, to hum their way through nonsense and will shut up any voice that says otherwise, through any means necessary.

Such were the headwinds propelling “yacht rock” — endlessly banal, melodic and inoffensive, fit to be piped into Macy’s changing rooms. What came before was too vicious, too real; the music that suited the Reaganomics casino was going to be proudly bland.

Yacht rock was scavenged from various sixties casualties. Some were more apparent targets than others; the Beach Boys were the first carcasses picked clean. Throughout the seventies, Brian Wilson was crippled by mental illness, producing mostly bad music, with the occasional, terrifyingly discordant flash of brilliance. With Wilson housebound, it was easy for vulgar party monsters like Rupert Holmes to grubbily swipe the Beach Boys aesthetic — good times at the beach — and coarsen it for proto-Reaganite yuppie types, looking for something mellow to listen to while they drunkenly fucked.

The guts of Wilson’s songs — the fragility, the innocence, the discomfort, the dream world that existed only in whispers and melodies — were totally excised, the husk propped up in a Hawaiian shirt and loafers.

This was a jackknifing! A foreclosure upon all things decent! Granted, it took a few pitchers of piss and margarita mix to be dumped on Merle Haggard and Gram Persons before they resembled Jimmy Buffett, but it was done. The Beach Boys tried to warn us, “Don’t Go Near The Water,” but it was too late. After meeting as back-up keyboardists on a Beach Boys tour, in 1975 nautical nightmares Captain & Tennille won yacht rock’s first Best Record Grammy, for the insipid “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

Cooptation was now the aktion, the operative strategy; as in the “voodoo economics” gaining traction in fusty think tanks like the Cato Institute, no new wealth would be created. The robust sounds of post-war music were to be consumed, digested and shat out by the horsemen of the Yachtpocalypse — nothing new but the depths to which culture was sinking. Wilson’s “Sloop John B” aesthetic, of sailors and beachgoers, was lifted by everyone, from Christopher Cross to Eric Carmen, from “Buffalo Springfield” folksters like Jim Messina to “Philly Sound” rockers like Hall & Oates.

Steely Dan urged, “come on and sail the waterway/it feels so good on you” — and for the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” of America, it was a regatta they were all too eager to race. This thematic concern of sailing is no arbitrary one — a yachtsman is, after all, a brave man alone, fleeing “pelagic America,” with money to burn. Why else would billionaire Hidden Ranch Valley libertarian types like Peter Thiel continue to fund research into floating one percenter cities, but for plutocrats to be freed of having to share even a continent with the parasites?

Yes, one can look back on these times and gawk: as with Uncle Milty Freidman and his snake-oil Chicago Boys, a laughable gang of geeks took the field with seemingly no resistance, churning their fringe output into an irresistible consensus. The pool of musicians magnetizing this car crusher of suck was appropriately shallow.

Christopher Cross’s smash debut featured backing vocals from bleached, blue-eyed soul cracker Michael McDonald, who also sang back-up on several Steely Dan albums. Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter later defected to McDonald’s band, the Doobie Brothers, whose biggest hit, Grammy winner “What A Fool Believes,” was co-written by Kenny Loggins — to whom McDonald later returned the favor, penning Loggins’s 1980 Grammy-winning single “This Is It.” And nearly all of those songs were produced by studio engineer Roger Nichols. But as Christopher Cross warned us, “the canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see.” This vanguard of dross dominated the seventies caesura — compositions shuffled, the old players exhausted and replaced, the silence deafening. The counterrevolution was prepared via vinyl.

And so it migrated everywhere, and, most malignantly, metastasized to other, better musicians, from Chicago to the Eagles, from Fleetwood Mac to the goddamn “Miss You” era disco-fied Stones. This banality, of no truth but the fairy tales of the idle rich, have since fed the reactionary jackal pack – such that a vacuity like Thomas Friedman can contentedly twirl his “disgraced gym teacher” mustache, gloating over the pain his “golden straitjacket” inflicts on the global underclass. David Harvey calls this “cognitive locking” – or, “the inability to think of any other policy solutions than that prescribed by neoliberal orthodoxy.”

Point to more than five musicians today you can honestly argue escaped this late-capitalist trap, able to put up a fight and still put out records. The fierce resistance music once offered is now used to enslave us — such that a Supercuts Randroid like Paul Ryan can, with a straight face, claim he works out to Rage Against The Machine. The machine rages against itself; I give you 2012.

“I’m Going To Say It Now”: Music As Solidarity

Young and beautiful,
but some day your looks will be gone . . .

—Captain & Tennille, “Love Will Keep Us Together

When, with the sunrise, the florets of a dandelion fold backward and reveal its ray of flowers, it is not exposing the plant to the elements; it is exposing the elements to the plant. The florette of lanced, green leaves around the base reminded the French who foraged for them of “dents-de-lion” — lion’s teeth. And like a big cat’s fangs, the leaves ensure the body’s survival; plucking a dandelion out by this crown leaves the central taproot, the life-source, intact and unharmed. A naturalist tells us: “if you break off more pieces than you unearth, the dandelion wins.”

It is the dandelion, then — nigh impossible to eradicate, nourishing and pleasant, deceptively hardy — that should be the role model for the recessionary youth of today, caught between what Harvey calls “a seductive but alienating possessive individualism on the one hand and the desire for a meaningful collective life on the other.” And as I hope I’ve made clear, it is only through the cultural transmission of social solidarity — and the rejection of empty celebrations of oneself — that neoliberalism can begin to be annihilated.

It is vital to note that the inequities of late capitalism, with its proscription of governmental compassion and appalling dearth of basic human decency, came in response to many triumphs for human dignity and freedom. And here, the cyclical nature of popular music, in which banality answers inspiration, and vice versa, can aid our understanding of the fight ahead.

In 1980, rock seemed like it was dying — literally: Bon Scott, John Bonham, Ian Curtis, Darby Crash, John Lennon — all dead that year. But in such a grim climate came a great year in underground music. Kurtis Blow was the first rapper to earn a gold record, for hip-hop masterpiece “The Breaks.” It was a golden age of punk influence, of smart, funny and informed music, with albums released by XTC, Gang of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cramps, Throbbing Gristle, Black Flag, Devo, Dead Kennedys, Bauhaus, The Fall and Joy Division. The Circle Jerks mocked all that crap they’d had to listen to when their parents felt horny. As in the sixties, music built MLK’s “dikes of courage” — and it can be done again.

Reject the buffoons we are told by others are the “voices of our generation,” vacuous one percenters like Lena Dunham, scribbling thousands of words in the degraded coloring book the New Yorker about the agony of being defriended on Facebook by her ex-boyfriend’s parents. Reject corn-fed pop simpletons like Chuck Klosterman, who finds Steely Dan “more lyrically subversive” than the Sex Pistols, or bourgeois security blankets like Jon Stewart, or MFA poetasters like David Foster Wallace, the best at packing more words and fewer authentic feelings between two covers. Reject Obama, the worst of them all; he will not save you. “Entropy,” urges the brilliant Morris Berman, “is always followed by the attempt at reorganization.”

A touching moment last October at the Occupy Wall Street: a ninety-two year-old Pete Seeger, leading a crowd of people one quarter his age in “We Shall Overcome.” Who will sing when he’s gone? Where’s our Phil Ochs? The plutocrats of 2012 fear only one thing, and it’s not people who don’t want a fight, or can be bought off — it’s the unpredictability of unafraid people. If Egyptians can boot out a fanged tyrant untrammeled by the modest protections remaining in America, then this shouldn’t be too hard. Pick up a guitar and bash moneyed, mouth-breathing Obamalarians like Ben Gibbard across the gob! A dandelion survives via dispersal. Dispersal! Overnight, the flower becomes a fuzzy white sphere, whose propagules drift wherever the wind carries them. To crush the plant underfoot now would only send its fruits flying, to germinate somewhere else. It’s how the dandelion crossed oceans, how it could prosper even when ripped out of the ground.