Kenny G: ‘Criticism didn’t affect me then, and it doesn’t affect me now’

In the HBO documentary Listening to Kenny G, the unusual appeal of the much-maligned ‘smooth jazz’ musician is put under the spotlight

Penny Lane, who has directed a new music documentary centered on Kenny G, has no interest in music documentaries and would never voluntarily listen to a Kenny G record. “Biographical documentaries on musicians never appealed to me,” she said to the Guardian. “And I tend to like music that’s challenging or dark or conflicted. Kenny G’s music is none of those things.”

Music critics overwhelmingly agree. So while Kenny G’s music may have made tens of millions of fans swoon over the last four decades, making him the bestselling instrumental artist of all time, critical reactions have toggled between a yawn and a sneer. That disparity intrigued Lane, who is known for creating highly unconventional documentaries like Nuts!, which retold the true story a doctor who tried to cure impotence with a goat testicle implant, and Hail Satan?, which dared challenge conventional views of devil-worshippers. Lane’s reputation for taking a creative approach to her subjects brought her to the attention of producer Bill Simmons as he was creating a new series of music documentaries for HBO. Simmons asked Lane to brainstorm one of her own and so, as she said, “I tried to think of a subject that would allow me to deal with this conflict in taste between the intelligentsia and the masses. From there, it was easy to get to Kenny G.”

However improbable it seems, it was just as easy to get the musician to play along for the documentary, which has been titled Listening to Kenny G. “I loved the idea because it wasn’t just going to be a fluff piece about how wonderful I am,” Kenny G told the Guardian. “I wasn’t scared of what would be brought up in the film because I’ve lived with it since the 80s. Criticism didn’t affect me then and it doesn’t affect me now.”

Yet, the way Lane’s film frames those criticisms affects a great number of subjects beyond Kenny G, including the relationship between music and identity, the contrast between mass taste and critical standards, the radically altered role of cultural gatekeepers in the age of social media and the nature of individuality itself. One of the issues that first drew Lane to the story is the unparalleled depth of identification that music inspires. “What’s interesting about music, as opposed to other art forms, is how tied it is to our personal and social identity,” Lane said. “You might really love a Toni Morrison novel or a movie by Steven Spielberg but there’s no one whose entire identity is built around announcing that – not in the way it would if you really love the Grateful Dead.”

Because of the depth of that identification, criticisms of those who perform the music can feel like a personal attack on the listener. “People are very territorial about music,” Kenny G said. “If someone says, ‘I don’t like Elton John and you love him, you might think, ‘Well then, I don’t like you any more.’”

Of course, those who make a living giving their opinions, as well as those who put their music out there to be enjoyed or judged, have to develop a thicker skin about such things. That sporting attitude is on joyful display in Lane’s film. The film gives nearly equal camera-time to music critics and the star, though the director said her original plan was to use far less of the latter. “Before I met him, I didn’t think about Kenny as a person,” she said. “I thought of him as a container for this idea I had. But he’s so charismatic on camera and so weird that the film expanded to make space for that.”

First, however, the film concentrates on the most common criticisms, including the writers’ flinching reaction to what they see as the placidity of the music. “I’m sure I heard a lot of Kenny G while waiting for something – at a dentist’s office, or in a bank,” writer Ben Ratliff says in the film. “I associate his music with a corporate attempt to soothe my nerves and I didn’t like that. I’m being treated like an ant.”

“I can’t be responsible for where my music is played or how somebody interprets it,” Kenny G said. “If he’s mad at me because he thinks my music is aimed at him while standing in line at the bank, he’s pointing the finger at the wrong guy. I play the music that’s from my heart. If the bank decides that this is nice music they want to play for their customers, that’s up to them.”

Another common carp concerns the music’s lack of texture, which has resulted in it often being labelled “smooth jazz”. The term refers to an entire radio format, though Kenny G denies his placement in that world had a commercial origin. “When I was starting out there were no radio stations that would play this kind of music,” he said. “I was creating a style that had no home. That, in itself, is proof that it wasn’t targeted.”

Kenny G

The mere fact that the word “jazz” appeared at all in that format, however, has caused confusion and controversy in the critical world. Most of the writers featured in the film identify as jazz aficionados and none see Kenny G’s music as worthy of the genre. In the film, critic Will Layman says of this music: “It’s sort of related to jazz but it isn’t jazz.” Noting the fact that the musicians in Kenny G’s band tend to support his solos rather than contribute their own, Layman said, “there’s no call and response, no dialogue among the musicians. This is not sex. This is masturbation.”

Kenny G himself doesn’t label his music as jazz per se. To Lane, such genre arguments aren’t even relevant any more because the way we access music has changed so radically. “In a world of record stores, we had to put albums in a section, and you, as a person, had to ask yourself, ‘Am I the kind of person who goes to the pop section or to the jazz section?’” she said. “That’s not how it works any more.”

Rather than thinking about genre, Lane thinks instead about the use of Kenny G’s music and what that says about its status as art. “This music is exceptionally useful for a lot of things,” she said. “It’s music for meditating or seducing somebody or getting someone out of a mall or calming them down in an elevator. Coming from the fine arts tradition, usefulness is not one of the criteria that we think of when we consider what makes art great. That turns it into craft.”

In another light, his music can be viewed as a sport. The first way Kenny G got attention, before he was even signed to a label, was for a trick in his show where he would hold a note for a superhuman stretch of time. “That’s an athletic feat,” said Lane. “There’s no musical idea there.”

On the other hand, Lane believes a few core ideas do inform Kenny G’s music and that understanding them is key to judging it fairly. “He wants it to be beautiful and he’s got this idea of what makes it beautiful,” she said. “Then he wants it to be technically perfect and he wants it to make him and others feel good and relaxed, like leaning back in a chair. That’s the intent and that explains the music.”

But the intent others have found for his music can lead to some fascinating theories. In China, Kenny G’s song Going Home, has become the unofficial anthem for the end of the work day. Pondering that notion in the context of the communist regime’s relationship with its people, Ben Ratliff poses the question in the film: “Is Kenny G’s music a weapon of consent? Does it make people agree to comply?”

A still from Listening to Kenny G

“I laughed when I heard that,” the musician said. “It’s a clever way of looking at something. But here’s the thing: can all those millions of people be that wrong and that dumb? That they’re so coerced that they’ll just support any piece of crap because it’s forced down their throat? Or maybe, just maybe, the melodies I play and the way I play them is touching people and hitting a place that hasn’t been hit before.”

Lane agrees that “there are people who love this music and relate to it in a very deep and personal way,” At the same time, she said, “it’s a different question as to what makes something quality work or valuable or great. It may seem like it’s all subjective opinion but these things mean something. My takeaway is not, ‘It’s all the same – Kenny G or Bach, what’s the difference?’ That’s absurd.”

Lane acknowledges, however, that such views have become increasingly common. In the current world of legacy media, relativism rules, and few pop critics dare to actually criticize any more, especially when it comes to major artists. That’s the direct opposite of the blood sport that defined pop culture writing in earlier eras, including the ones that the writers in the film date from. “We have swung so far in the other direction,” Lane said. “It’s just, ‘let people enjoy things!’ Well, no! There are critiques worth exploring.”

The current push against that view reflects more than just changes in the media. It also mirrors a protest by younger generations against any previously recognized hierarchies. “Everyone in the world now has a little soap box if they want one,” said Lane. “In that world, the value of old-fashioned gatekeeping would be seen as suspect.”

This, despite the fact that such attitudes ignore who really holds the power in the world of pop culture. The influence of millions of fans and the impact of major artists overwhelmingly drowns out the voice of any critic, even if they all pile on at once, as they have with Kenny G. “Critics aren’t deciding who gets signed to a record label,” Lane said. “They’re not really deciding much of anything in terms of big power decisions.”

Yet, within their circumscribed world, critics have a hold on the historical record. For that reason, and others, Lane wants her film to remind the foes of artists like Kenny G that “you’re not some kind of ultimate authority on this. It’s good to remember every once in a while that when you’re talking to somebody who loves a piece of music and you hate it to the point where you can’t believe that anybody could love it, in that moment you should ask yourself, ‘What am I missing that’s resonating so deeply with them?’ To me, that’s a lot more fun and interesting than to just to try to tell someone, ‘you’re wrong.’”

  • Listening to Kenny G is available on HBO from 2 December with a UK date to be announced


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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