Monday, March 13, 2006

Kenny G is like techno (and they're both wretched)

(Originally posted at Myspace on 2/20/06)

EDIT- found the interview I was scraping for, which would be funny if it weren't so wretched. Thanks to Allan Chase at NEC for finding it in the first place

In the past month or so, I've had more than a couple of otherwise reasonable people ask me, upon hearing one of us musicians on Cruise Ship X go into an uncontrollable rage at the mention of Kenny G, "so what exactly is SO wrong with him?" I don't think they were defending him, but they were a little perplexed at the violence of our reaction to even his name.

And on one level, I suppose that is a reasonable question. After all, I've never seen a dancer or choreographer flip at the mention of Paula Abdul, or a painter try to burn a velvet Elvis. (Maybe you do, please ring in here.) But, there is something about Kenny G that seems to turn otherwise reasonable musicians into sociopaths. Are we just jealous of his popularity, or his ability to somehow "connect" with people. Are we jazz Nazis, or unsalvegeable music snobs? Do we want his hair? Why is there so much "hatin' on Kenny G"? (pardon me, that just slipped out)

And, just to make like more interesting, I'll take the infamous Barnes & Noble interview off the table, although that level of ignorance towards music you claim to represent is reason enough.

First- personally, I have no beef with most pop music, even if I don't like all (or even most) of it, I am something of a fan. I read Rolling Stone periodically, and every year at least a couple of albums from Billboard's top 40 shop up in my collection Most musicians in my generation grew up with Nirvana, or Prince, or (insert pop artists here) as important and primary in their heads as Bird or Bartok. I know I did. Any arguments about some musical purism just aren't that interesting or useful. I don't even have much beef with "smooth jazz"- it's another label, which catches some music and musicians I like and/or respect (Grover Washington, Bill Withers, some James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Garrett even) and more that I don't. So it's not here to throw out any particular bathtub.

Let's start with the obvious- Kenny G just isn't very good. There are easily a dozen "smooth jazz" saxophonists I can name offhand, and hundreds of more artistically committed players, who can play rings around him- better technique, fuller sound, more interesting songs (I don't much care for most of those folks either, but) Kenny G's soprano sound reminds me of a wounded duck, or an oboe after a night in a crystal meth-induced haze. He can barely string four quarter notes in a row in time, and his technique at this point is limited to a few pentatonic scales he runs up and down before landing on a particularly high note, cringing artfully for maximum effect. Oh, he does circular breathe and play one note for three full minutes, but you can train a monkey to do that. (Circular breathing has actually become almost mandatory for serious classical sax players, so it's not that hard, or unusual, just impressive to the uninitiated.)

But for me, the answer is even more basic- I don't like being manipulated, especially by music, and I deeply resent people who make a huge profit doing it. Kenny G has found a formula- simple melody plus innocuous (usually computerized) backbeat plus blustery pentatonic run equals doctor's office wallpaper, and royalty checks. As a composer, you learn quickly that there is a difference between communicating emotion to an audience and manipulating an emotional reaction. The former is the realm of art, the latter a trick of hackers and charlatans, not a whole lot different than politicians who use code words about welfare cheats or infidels solely to get a crowd fired up.

Side point- I really do think there's a racial element to Kenny G's success, and resentment towards him. Most of the "smooth jazz" players before Kenny G, who were successful but not huge, were black. And now comes this (painfully) white musician, who takes the formula of the Grover Washingtons while removing any of the grit, the soul that that music contained. And when he does even attempt music by a black artist (his Louis Armstrong monstrosity) he picks probably the least threatening, most crossover song ever- "What a Wonderful World". What's next, "Do a Deer? " I think Kenny G success, and the level of bile sent at him, has much to do with the fact that he's white. But that doesn't really change anything.

My sister-in-law knows that if she wants to get under my skin, or get rid of me, all she has to do is play techno music when I'm around. It sends me up a wall- it's paint-by numbers music, tremendously formulaic, thumping beat plus two bar keyboard riff plus (usually female) voice singing a catchphrase about freedom, or dancing, or sex. But worse, to me, it's an anesthetic- watch people dance to it, and it'll literally numb them to a point where they're not capable of any clear thinking reaction beyond simply bouncing along. Probably why it goes well with lab-created hallucinogens and random, meaningless sex. It's not ecstatic music, like Sufi dervish music or some African drumming, or James Brown, it's anesthetic music. And I just can't bring myself to accept a form as powerful and potentially transformative as music should act primarily as a mere painkiller. That's an abuse of a powerful drug.

Furthermore, even techno forces itself to the center of your consciousness (if only by sheer volume); Kenny G is music that invites you to ignore it- "background music". That's its sole purpose in life, to be pleasant, unthreatening, aural wallpaper. And, at a moment where our problems are so urgent, and our future so literally in doubt, the last thing we need is musical Xanax.

So Kenny G is like techno music- it dumbs down, instead of lifting up. It by its mere presence degrades the work, the ambition, and the intention of so many sincere artists. We live in a culture that is far too comfortably numb as it is. We really don't need any help.

So there's my answer to the question none of us ever want to hear- feel free to appropriate at will

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