From Yacht Rock to EDM Pop: Forty Years of Genre Burnout, Part I

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By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)

It’s hard to imagine now, but of course the era of trap pop will end, and take its squawking manipulated vocal samples with it. Of course, not every new song will be built on a loping tropical-house beat. And when that happens, of course I’ll remember some of those songs fondly. It depends a lot on what comes next. But most genre booms start with promise and end up cheapened by copycatting and Top 40’s tendency to overindulge any hot sound.

Recently, I asked Ross on Radio readers to help compile their list of the hot sounds that had gone wrong. And as I began to work my way through 40 years of genre burnout, it was hard to remember some genres feeling that oppressive in the first place:

Wings Goodnight TonightLet’s start with Disco. If pressed, I suppose I could say that the cheesiest, poppiest distillation of disco, the one usually practiced by bandwagon-jumping pop stars, began to grate on me somewhere between Wings’ “Goodnight Tonight” and the moment that Helen Reddy climbed aboard. I also resented those acts who could change musical direction again afterwards, while a lot of R&B acts (people who weren’t even “disco” except in the sense that all uptempo R&B had become disco) never returned to pop radio.

But it’s hard to stay mad at “Take Me Home” by Cher, when I was only indifferent at the time. As for the rest of disco, I have only good things to say. It was really three or four genres, including R&B. The records still hold up now. They helped AC radio brighten a decade ago (before the format moved away from the ‘70s), and they’re the only thing that keeps Classic Hits now from being all-corporate rock.

Great disco records continued to exist after the fall of 1979. You just had to hear them on R&B radio. Or discover them somehow, the way that Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson did, since both “Uptown Funk” and “24K Magic” are tributes to that era. You can say that all genres are softened by time, but there was never really anything unfriendly about “Forget Me Nots” by Patrice Rushen or “Love Come Down” by Evelyn King. People never chafed at songs like those; for the most part they just didn’t hear them.

Speaking of Corporate Rock, I have only fond memories as well. “More Than a Feeling” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” are burnt for me, but the second and third tier (Boston, “Feeling Satisfied”; Journey, “Ask the Lonely”) still sound pretty great. I’d still rather hear them than a lot of the more ponderous first-generation Classic Rock. And the notion that harmony and melody could be used to soften edgier elements was the formula that made West Coast Hip-Hop more than a decade later.

What bothered me about the music subsequently known as Yacht Rock was its ponderousness as well. Like disco, yacht rock really encompasses several musical styles, and some songs are only there by dint of being nautically themed. The songs I still like were really light disco or R&B. The ones that grate for me now are the jazz-leaning dirges that are meant to show seriousness of purpose by co-opting “serious” music. I appreciate Steely Dan lyrically, but I’d rather listen to them with “The Fez” on. I have a hard time making it through “Deacon Blues” or any of their more lugubrious songs now.

For people who don’t remember the late ‘70s/early ‘80s fondly, “Urban Cowboy” often plays a role as well. I had become a Country fan a few years earlier (late 1976/early 1977) and a lot of what I enjoyed about it — being transported to a different world (with more adult lyrics) came to an end. But the music that crossed over was (like disco) a mixed bag — MOR pop like “Looking for Love” and Kenny Rogers’ “Love the World Away,” but also rockabilly Eddie Rabbitt, uptempo Juice Newton, Rosanne Cash, etc.

I clearly remember late spring/summer 1983 fondly now, but for a few moments, I felt that the excitement about New Wave had reached a point where anything could be a hit, sometimes at the expense of better records. At the time, the biggest culprit for me was “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” which I regarded as barely more substantial than “Putting On the Ritz” by Taco: sing-song vocal, George Benson Never Give Upfake profound lyric, equally irritating U.S. follow-up (“Love Is a Stranger”). It wasn’t until “Who’s That Girl” that I came around on the Eurythmics. And I’ve only changed my mind about “Sweet Dreams” because my job is not to ignore what other people like.

I asked friends of ROR on Facebook for their list of other styles that eventually become too abundant at radio. Here’s the list (robust, but hardly definitive) in chronological order:

Yacht R&B (1980s): Reader Chuck Geiger singles out mellow female R&B from Dionne Warwick through Anita Baker to Toni Braxton, but there were also certain songs from Jeffrey Osborne, James Ingram, Lionel Richie, Freddie Jackson, Sade, George Benson, Champaign, Surface, Atlantic Starr, and many others. As with Country, I mostly resented it when it steered the acts I liked away from something hotter. “After the Love Has Gone” sapped Earth, Wind & Fire of its “Serpentine Fire.” On the other hand, “Turn Your Love Around” gave George Benson a new punch.

Partland BrosIt’s funny, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any genre that was way too available in 1983-85, the heart of the CHR rebirth. There were certainly trendlets — the early ‘80s AC/pop artists who discovered “trash drums” after Kim Carnes and “Bette Davis Eyes”; the synth-pop-driven reinvention of rock acts from Yes to Van Halen. But in an era of variety, nothing got a chance to rankle. The next irritant on my list is:

Yacht Re-Docks (Mid-to-Late ‘80s): As dance music boomed again, pop/rock chose the wrong time to become savorless — Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” and “Kyrie”; Peter Cetera’s ballads “Glory of Love” and “Next Time I Fall”; Steve Winwood suddenly active again for the first time since the previous “yacht rock” era; Glass Tiger’s first album. With big-city CHR leaning rhythmic, a lot of the secondary hits of the era existed for me only on “American Top 40” each weekend (e.g., Partland Brothers’ “Soul City”). The issue isn’t only Mainstream CHR trying to head off the boom in Urban and Rhythmic Top 40 with “quality music,” it’s also the reworking of Album Rock as the more eclectic, more adult format in which “Life in a Northern Town” by Dream Academy is suddenly welcome.

Company B FascinatedThe Power of Dance (Mid-to-Late ‘80s): Like ‘70s disco, this is really multiple trends, driven by the success of L.A.’s Power 106, Miami’s Power 96, and others: Madonna and her wannabes (“Baby Love” by Regina); 808-driven mid-‘80s R&B that just happened to be danceable (Janet Jackson, Lisa-Lisa & Cult Jam, Jets, Jody Watley); the Northeastern club R&B classics you never heard on most pop stations (Joyce Sims, Loose Ends), early freestyle (Exposé, “Come Go With Me”; Company B, “Fascinated”; Cover Girls; Seduction); the poppification of early house music by Stock/Aitken/Waterman cited by reader Brian Rosaaen); the later, darker era of freestyle (Lisette Melendez, “Together Forever”)

Those last two genres — freestyle in particular — reached a point of sounding generic to me. (My tipping point was Sa-Fire’s “Boy I’ve Been Told,” unavoidable in New York, nothing special I thought at the time, and likely to play a song or two away from the next Stevie B hit.) But, by and large, I remember the rhythmic late ‘80s fondly. And it wasn’t dance music’s fault that pop music fell down on the job.

New Jack Swing (Late ‘80s/Early ‘90s): Mid-‘80s R&B never entirely fell into a doldrums, but acts such as Keith Sweat, Guy, and Al B. Sure!, did bring a decisive end to a particularly savorless few years of jazzy, adult R&B that most pop listeners never heard. It also reflected and, perhaps, helped facilitate the first era of crossover Hip-Hop. New Jack Swing was also absorbed quickly into dance pop and the rhythmic teen pop that followed New Kids on the Block (Glenn Medeiros’ “She Ain’t Worth It”; Dino, “I Like It”; Rythm Syndicate, “P.A.S.S.I.O.N.”). Those songs seem permanently lost to time, but “Poison” by Bell Biv Devoe, on the other hand, has become one of the signature songs of today’s Urban AC format, which is delving into that era more and more.

Next Article: Hair Bands, Destiny’s Many Children, Teen Punk, and more.

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