Penny Lane, the director of a new music documentary on Kenny G, has little interest in documentaries and would never listen to a Kenny G album willingly. “I’ve never been interested in biographical documentaries about musicians,” she told the Guardian.
“I also enjoy music that is challenging, dark, or conflicted.” None of those characteristics apply to Kenny G’s music.”
The majority of music reviewers agree. While Kenny G’s music has made tens of millions of listeners swoon over the previous four decades, critical responses have alternated between a yawn and a sneer.
That difference piqued Lane’s interest, since he is renowned for films such as Nuts!, which related the actual tale of a doctor who attempted to treat impotence with a goat testicle transplant, and Hail Satan?, which dared to question devil-worshippers’ traditional ideas.
Lane caught the notice of producer Bill Simmons, who was working on a new series of music documentaries for HBO, because of her reputation for adopting a fresh approach to her topics. “I tried to think of a subject that would allow me to deal with this conflict in taste between the intelligentsia and the masses,” Lane said, “so I tried to think of a subject that would allow me to deal with this conflict in taste between the intelligentsia and the masses.”
It was simple to go to Kenny G from there.”
That was just as simple to convince the musician to play along for the documentary, which is titled Listening to Kenny G., as implausible it may seem. Kenny G told the Guardian, “I loved the idea because it wasn’t just going to be a fluff piece about how wonderful I am.”
“I wasn’t afraid of what would be discussed in the movie because I’ve been dealing with it since the 1980s.” Criticism had no effect on me back then, and it has no effect on me today.”
However, the way Lane’s film frames those criticisms has ramifications far beyond Kenny G, such as the relationship between music and identity, the contrast between popular taste and critical standards, the radically altered role of cultural gatekeepers in the age of social media, and the nature of individuality itself.
The exceptional depth of connection that music generates is one of the concerns that originally attracted Lane to the narrative. “What’s interesting about music, as opposed to other art forms,” Lane said, “is how closely it is linked to our personal and social identity.” “You might adore a Toni Morrison novel or a Steven Spielberg film, but no one’s entire identity is built around proclaiming that – not in the way that it would be if you adore the Grateful Dead.”
Criticisms of individuals who play the music might seem like a personal assault on the listener because of the intensity of that connection. “When it comes to music, people are very protective,” Kenny G observed. “If someone says, ‘I don’t like Elton John,’ and you like him, you might think, ‘Well, I don’t like you any longer.'”
Those who earn a livelihood by providing their views, as well as those who put their music out there to be admired or condemned, must, of course, grow a thicker skin. In Lane’s film, the sports spirit is on full show. The film offers music reviewers and the singer roughly equal screen time, despite the director’s initial intention to utilize significantly less of the latter.
“I didn’t think of Kenny as a person before I met him,” she stated. “I saw him as a container for this concept I was working on. But he’s so fascinating and strange on camera that the picture has to be lengthened to accommodate him.”
However, the video begins by focusing on the most typical complaints, such as the authors’ flinching response to what they perceive to be the music’s placidity. In the film, writer Ben Ratliff comments, “I’m sure I heard a lot of Kenny G while waiting for something – at a dentist’s office, or in a bank.”
“His music reminds me of a corporate attempt to calm my nerves, which I didn’t like.” “I’m being treated as though I’m an ant.”
Kenny G said, “I can’t be responsible for where my music is played or how someone interprets it.” “If he’s mad at me because he thinks my music is directed at him while waiting in line at the bank, he’s blaming the wrong person.”
I perform music that is close to my heart. It’s up to the bank to determine whether or not this is pleasant music to play for their clients.”
Another prevalent criticism is the absence of roughness in the music, which has led to it being labeled “smooth jazz.” Though Kenny G denies his role in that universe had a commercial genesis, the name alludes to a whole radio format.
“There were no radio stations that would play this kind of music when I first started out,” he remarked. “I was creating a look that didn’t have a home.” That, in and of itself, establishes that it was not targeted.”
The sheer use of the term “jazz” in that format, on the other hand, has provoked consternation and debate among critics. The majority of the authors in the film identify as jazz fans, yet none of them consider Kenny G’s work to be worthy of the genre.
“It’s sort of related to jazz but it isn’t jazz,” reviewer Will Layman said of the music in the film. “There’s no call and response, no dialogue among the musicians,” Layman observed, referring to the fact that the musicians in Kenny G’s band prefer to back his solos rather than add their own. This isn’t a sex situation. “This is masturbation,” says the narrator.
Kenny G does not consider his music to be jazz. Such genre debates, according to Lane, are no longer relevant since the way we receive music has changed so dramatically. “We had to put albums in a section in a world of record stores, and you had to ask yourself, ‘Am I the kind of person who goes to the pop section or the jazz section?'” she said. “That’s no longer how it works.”
Rather than focusing on genre, Lane examines how Kenny G’s music is used and what this indicates about its standing as art. “This music is extremely useful for a variety of purposes,” she said.
“It’s music for meditating, seducing, escorting someone out of a mall, or soothing someone in an elevator.” When we think of what makes art wonderful, we don’t think about utility. We come from the fine arts tradition, so utility isn’t one of the factors we examine. That elevates it to the level of craft.”
His music may be considered as a sport in another perspective. Before he was signed to a label, Kenny G gained notoriety for a stunt in his act in which he would hold a note for an impossibly long period of time. “That’s quite an athletic achievement,” Lane said. “There isn’t a musical concept there.”
Lane, on the other hand, feels that Kenny G’s music is informed by a few essential concepts, and that comprehending them is critical to evaluate it accurately. She said, “He wants it to be beautiful, and he has this idea of what makes it beautiful.”
“Then, like leaning back in a chair, he wants it to be technically perfect and make him and others feel good and relaxed.” It is the intention, and the music reflects that.”
Others’ interpretations of his music’s aim, on the other hand, may lead to some intriguing speculations. Going Home, a song by Kenny G, has become the unofficial anthem at the conclusion of the workday in China.
“Is Kenny G’s music a weapon of consent?” Ben Ratliff asks in the film, pondering that concept in the context of the communist regime’s relationship with its people. Does it persuade individuals to comply?”
“When I heard that, I laughed,” the musician stated. “It’s an ingenious way of looking at things.” But here’s the thing: can all those millions of people really be so stupid and wrong?
That they’re so enslaved that they’ll support any nonsense if it’s shoved down their throat? Or maybe, just maybe, the songs I play and the manner I play them are affecting people and reaching a place where no one else has gone before.”
“There are people who love this music and relate to it in a very deep and personal way,” Lane acknowledges. “It’s a different question as to what makes something quality work, valuable, or great,” she said.
It may seem that everything is based on personal opinion, yet these details are significant. ‘It’s all the same – what’s the difference between Kenny G and Bach?’ is not my takeaway. That’s ridiculous.”
Lane concedes, however, that such viewpoints are becoming more prevalent. In today’s world of legacy media, relativism reigns supreme, and few pop journalists, particularly when it comes to renowned musicians, dare to genuinely critique.
That’s the polar opposite of the bloodsport that characterized pop culture writing in previous periods, including the ones in which the film’s creators worked. “We’ve gone so far in the opposite direction,” Lane said. “All I’m saying is, ‘Let people enjoy themselves!'” No, no, no! There are several criticisms worth considering.”
The recent backlash against that viewpoint reflects more than simply media shifts. It also reflects a backlash from younger generations against previously established hierarchies.
“If they want one, everyone in the world now has a little soap box,” Lane remarked. “The value of old-fashioned gatekeeping would be questioned in that world.”
Despite the fact that such views disregard who really wields power in the realm of pop culture, this is the case. The voice of any critic is drowned out by the millions of fans and the effect of prominent musicians, even if they all pile on at the same time, as they did with Kenny G.
“Critics aren’t the ones who decide who gets signed to a record label,” Lane said. “In terms of big power decisions, they’re not really deciding much.”
Critics, on the other hand, have a firm grip on the historical record within their confines. Lane wants her video to convince opponents of musicians like Kenny G that “you’re not some kind of ultimate authority on this,” among other things.
When you’re talking to someone who likes a piece of music and you despise it to the point that you can’t believe anybody could like it, ask yourself, “What am I missing that’s resonating so deeply with them?” That, to me, is a lot more entertaining and engaging than just telling someone they’re wrong.”
Thanks to Jim Farber at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.