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February 01, 2011


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Yacht Rock is funny to me, if for no other reason than it destroys the musical torture our parents put us through as younger children. That being said, I probably liked a lot of those songs (and still do) on some base level. To me, the irony is that at some point, I discarded this like as childish in favor of more "relevant" music. Admittedly, I still find myself bopping along when I hear one of those tunes, as reference to some artifact buried in my cultural DNA. Although familiarity breeds contempt, absence does make the heart grow fonder. Despite all this, like you, I can't get on board with this post-hip ironical posturing.

It's seeping in to the mainstream. See: Brandon Flowers' solo stuff.

Into. Yeesh.

Breaking news: Aging indie-rock nerd thinks new indie rock doesn't rock hard enough.

Is this an Onion story?

A couple points:

Setting up Destroyer's previous material as "genuine, earnest" seems misleading. When I listen to Streethawk: A Seduction, I don't hear earnest-ness, I hear snarky interpolations of Mott the Hoople, Bowie and even The Smiths. The guy seems to have been genre-hopping from day one.

Secondly, yes, the bulk of the Hall & Oates catalog is schmaltzy bunk, but there are some redeemable gems here and there. I submit "I Can't Go For That" and it's un-ironically sublime bass line for starters, and add the coked-out glam of the War Babies LP (featuring Todd Rundgren's Utopia) as the main course.

P.S., "In The Air Tonight" is totally sweet.


You forgot to mention THIS Feist track, a Bee Gees cover!

This trend is yet another embrace by indie culture of 'otherness' - in this case, soft rock. The separation that occurs between this and, say metal - another common embrace by indie in the 00s - is that soft rock is defined in it's 'otherness' by the fact that it sucks. It's not dangerous. And it isn't outsider. It comes from a mainstream culture, the very same mainstream culture that indie music came out of, more or less. Isn't that why it's ultimately annoying?


A lot of metal sucks too. I hesitate to damn entire genres of music. There's good music and bad music, regardless of genre.

Yes, even Swing Jazz.

Soft-rock isn't dangerous for the most part, true. This is another way of saying how un-punk it is, if you will. But most popular indie stuff these days is similarly un-punk, apart from No Age and the like.

Before Today was not Pitchfork's number one record. It was Kanye

@Colin: True. But Ariel Pink did take the top single.

@Cam: I agree with your point about genre. My argument is not really about whether or not indie music is un-punk. Indie music has its roots in otherness no matter how far you trace back its lineage; that's what defines it as indie. But this embrace of basically the safest music genre I can think of is trite, almost cowardly to me. I just don't really get it.

I do like the James Blake album a lot though.


It's weird how what is "dangerous" in the culture seems to change over time. In the 80's, the PRMC was upset over Twisted Sister and W.A.S.P. lyrics. Nowadays, we see them as caricatures (although I still remember Stay Hungry fondly).

Indie rockers of a certain age turned to so-called "safe" soft-rock after the 90s ended because the popular representations of punk/metal (Marilyn Manson, Blink 182) they grew up with failed to satisfy. If this was the "dangerous" music, they wanted the exact opposite.

Some of us actually like soft rock! I bought most of the Gordon Lightfoot discography on vinyl the other day.

Fuck Hall and Oates, though.

@Dave: that would likely explain why you have been calling Kaputt your album of the year since last year. Which you completely have a right to do! Even if I do think it is preemptive.

I liked this essay and thought it was worth reading because a.) I thought it was well thought out, b.) sometimes I feel that the blogosphere decides what is going to be "big" and not enough voices dissent, and c.) I don't think personal taste and history bleeds into contemporary music criticism enough. I've noticed that Scott does the latter a lot, and I appreciate it.

It just so happens that I too do not particularly like soft-rock and/or Destroyer.

Todd, thanks for that last comment especially. For me, the personal has to be wrapped up in the critical - I honestly don't understand why one would want to divorce the two. Seems to me that some of the negative comments about this post (on twitter) are directed at that - that my comments ought to be dismissed because I make it personal. But why comment at all if it isn't personal?

Dave: I don't know, I think there is a major part of my post that I must have failed to bring forth - that being that I like a LOT of soft music, old and new. But just as some strands of punk can be amazing and others can be trite, same goes for this genre. That's the line crossed in the title.


Do I like this ironically or un-ironically?

Although James Blake does a cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love," I wouldn't connect him with the "yacht rock" trend. His cover, if listened to not on laptop speakers but with a stereo, is more like a dubstep inspired cover of the song. The bass in his cover is definitely not Yacht Rock. Blake comes from a dubstep background, an r&b background. This is pretty evident if you listen to more of his music, and the actual instrumentation in the music.

Also, I'm pretty young, only 23, so my relationship to this music is probably not the same as yours. Growing up, I had more of an aversion to music people praised, all of the grunge or indie rock. I remember my parents/cousins referring to it as "weird white people music," and I never gave it a chance because it was so different to what I grew up with or understood as "good music." In fact, I probably spent more time listening to Hall & Oates or Michael McDonald (both were frequently played on the r&b/quiet storm radio stations my parents listened to in their cars). It wasn't until late high school/college that I actively tried listening to and understanding genres of music that I immediately dismissed in the past because they felt so foreign, or so stupid to me.

All of this is to say that I think a lot of music like this is about perspective. It may seem like it's coming out of nowhere but even Warren G was sampling McDonald in 94 with "Regulate." It may sound strange to you coming from what I assume to be a largely "rock music only" background but for me, I'm just reminded of references (sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically) to "blue-eyed soul." It wasn't a bad thing to me then and it isn't a bad thing to me now.

When did musicians give up on moving forward and trying new things? Where is the creativity and originality? Why are we moving back to the soft rock of the '80's? It was bad then, it's bad now.

Just curious.


Moving forward and trying new things is not the job of the pop musician, it is the m.o. of the avant-gardist, the free improvisor. Our pop musicians are our storytellers, our troubadours. Naturally, they tend to use familiar forms in order to narrate more effectively to the audience, who presumably shares a knowledge of these forms.

Quite simple, really.

Hall & Oates most MOR period seems synonymous with a certain kind of derision for a generation of Americans. Here in the UK, they were a secret pleasure of mine since I bought the classic Abandoned Luncheonette in a remainder bin in 1975. After that, as well as the silver album they made a fair rock album and a good one with Todd Rundgren, before peaking with Bigger Than Both Of Us. After that, it was downhill, as they got more successful and more bland, but they have a lot of great songs, so that when bands like the great Clem Snide reference them, there's love as well as irony. The first two discs of their recent 4cd set are tremendous.

Great post Scott! Things are very confusing in the state of modern pop music.

What's fascinating to me is that these artists seem to be approaching their influences from an "honest/sincere" perspective (for lack of better term) and turning out "honest/sincere" art (at least as the discerning listener can perceive, or at least as the artist leads on to or admits to). At the same time I bet there are others out there taking the same types of influences and approaching their art from an much different angle (knowingly emphasising an element of ironic nostalgia, etc.), but probably not getting the same reaction from listeners because those types of ideas and stereotypes about the music are expected.

Its almost as if listeners/critics give automatically approval to the modern pop musicians who are influenced by soft/yacht/etc.-rock since they are so challenged by the fact that the influences are so unexpected that they have nowhere else to go.

Which begs the question: Is it officially now square to be hip?

Does Phoenix not count as soft rock anymore? Yeah, they're not cheesy nor inspired by a particular brand of cheesy, but they rock so softly!

Scott, I just read a post Carl Wilson wrote about the new Destroyer (which I've not heard and am not likely to, not least because I haven't really liked Bejar's other work so I don't much care about new releases of his, however they sound), and it made me want to come back here and say something about the music you are calling soft-rock. (here is his post: http://backtotheworld.net/2011/02/09/kaputt-by-destroyer-2011/ )

Hall & Oates is not soft-rock. They are R&B--blue-eyed soul, white R&B, but R&B nonetheless. There is a smoothness to their sound, to be sure, but it's not the same as the Air Supply kind of soft-rock you also invoke. And, in fact, they were both popular and fairly well-regarded. Granted, not to the punk audience, but that should hardly matter. Wilson writes that one of the new Destroyer songs reminds him of a Minnie Riperton song from the 70s, which is of course the same kind of smooth, upscale R&B.

You're under no obligation to like either soft-rock or R&B, of course, but they are somewhat different aesthetics with different histories. It doesn't strike me as too unlikely that a kid who later became a punk (or perhaps never was!) loved Hall & Oates. Frankly, they were pretty good. (Phil Collins is a different story altogether. Just as the rehabilitation of Journey is very different: they were never well-regarded by rock critics, though they were insanely popular.) Anyway, just a thought to muddy the waters.

I forgot to say... C. Cross, Bruce Hornsby, Air Supply, Michael McDonald: these are the kinds of whitebread popular acts that I could never fucking stand either (though Hornsby's pedigree is somewhat different; still don't like him, other than maybe that one song; Phil Collins', too, obviously has a different background, being English and from the art-rock world; I must confess to having at one point liked his early solo stuff). They are "soft-rock". The difference between it and even white R&B is, of course, proximity to, or connection to, popular black music. I think this distinction is worth noticing. And frankly, the punks were very alienated from popular black music, and indie still has a weird relationship with it.

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