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Kenny G Weaponized Pleasantness

The new documentary ‘Listening to Kenny G’ explores why the popular smooth-jazz instrumentalist is so divisive. Maybe it’s because there’s something eerily inhuman about his brand of inoffensive beauty

Life is hard. Life is stressful. With so much misery in the world, it’s understandable why people would seek out a little beauty. So how could you begrudge anyone who wants to unwind by listening to something that’s pretty and uncomplicated? Really, what’s so wrong about liking Kenny G?

In our age of Let People Enjoy Things, there’s been a rush to defend super-popular entertainment that was never all that cool or critically acclaimed, whether it’s Friends or Hootie & the Blowfish. Suddenly, everything old is good, and everything that’s popular deserves to be taken seriously. You don’t dig something that the masses love? Sounds like you’re a snob.

Into this reality comes Listening to Kenny G, which just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and will be airing on HBO as part of Bill Simmons’ “Music Box” documentary series later this year. Directed by Penny Lane (Hail Satan?), the film does something similar to Carl Wilson’s celebrated 2007 Céline Dion book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which is that it takes an unhip, easy-listening popular musician — someone who’s always been a cultural punching bag — and really tries to understand his appeal. Maybe it’s time we finally give Kenny G his due. 

Featuring commentary from music critics, scholars and radio programmers, Lane approaches the 65-year-old smooth-jazz mastermind — the best-selling instrumental artist of all time — with kindness but also makes room for the many reasons people loathe him. Listening to Kenny G is insightful and thought-provoking, and I came away from it with a strong impression that Lane really enjoyed her time hanging out with the man born Kenneth Bruce Gorelick. But it didn’t change my impression one iota about his super-bland, intensely pleasant music, which I think is part of the point. 

Lane isn’t trying to convince Kenny G’s many haters that they’re wrong, but intentionally or not, I think she does underline — to steal a turn of phrase music critic Robert Christgau once applied to Billy Joel — why he’s “a force of nature and bad taste.” There’s nothing wrong with music that makes you feel good, but Kenny G’s brand of easy-listening is especially insidious. And, as we see in the documentary, it perfectly matches his personality. The guy makes pleasantness seem weirdly chilling.

A silhouette in the note of G

In an intro to Listening to Kenny G, Lane asks the audience to think about a musical artist who means a lot to us — someone who speaks to our soul and shaped our worldview — and then asks us “to think about how you feel when you encounter somebody who hates that same artist.” Her thesis is that there’s something about music that generates a strong personal, emotional connection between listener and musician — and that we have a tendency to defend that connection against those who would attack it. Essentially, she’s asking us to put ourselves in the shoes of a Kenny G fan.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Kenny G released a series of successful jazz-pop records, all featuring his lilting saxophone stylings, which served as calming background music. Hits like “Songbird” and “Silhouette” were the rare instrumentals to conquer radio and the charts — they were melodic and inoffensively romantic/wistful, ideal for a dentist’s office or that one radio station that everybody in the office can agree on while flipping around the dial. Later teaming up with other easy-listening artists such as Michael Bolton, his fame only grew. And as Listening to Kenny G convincingly argues, he’s one of the rare musicians who can legitimately claim to have created a genre: The smooth-jazz radio format exists primarily because of him. 

Listening to Kenny G isn’t the Lance of adult-contemporary portraits, where the subject engages in a verbal sparring match with the filmmaker. Instead, Kenny G is ingratiating to Lane, who we hear off-camera, and we sense their warm rapport. He very much comes across as the nice Jewish boy from Seattle he by all accounts was — someone who got into jazz as a kid and practiced his ass off in order to make his dreams come true. What he isn’t is someone who’s particularly introspective or self-examining. It’s striking that when the film digs into the criticism that Kenny G, like a lot of white musicians, became far more successful than their Black forefathers, he admits that he’s never thought about it before Lane asked him — although all credit to him for owning up to his privilege. (“I’m kinda thinking that I got that door opened for me,” he says. “I benefited.”) 

Still, Lane isn’t trying to “nail” Kenny G. In fact, you could make the case that the film isn’t even about Kenny G, per se. Early in the documentary, he confesses, “I don’t think I’m a personality to people, I think I’m a sound,” and similarly her film treats him less as a person and more like a phenomenon or a commodity. As scholar and musician Jason King aptly puts it, he’s “part of the musical furniture of American culture.”

It’s a helpful distinction to make because Kenny G the person — as opposed to Kenny G the musician — seems perfectly benign. As far as I’m aware, he’s been involved in no #MeToo scandals, and he’s never been accused of abuse or been caught making bigoted comments. In Listening to Kenny G, he exudes a nerdy, corny energy. We don’t hear anything about his divorces — he’s been married twice — and very little about his kids. Honestly, I can’t say the film is particularly revealing about his personality — it’s not like I think he’s hiding something, but I didn’t really get a sense of what makes him tick, either. He’s just that guy with the horrible hair, goofy grin and omnipresent sax. 

But the longer the film rolled along, the happier I was that Lane didn’t push too hard to convince me that Kenny G (or his music) is amazing. Listening to Kenny G includes the necessary arguments about why his smooth-jazz style is lame — for one thing, it waters down the inventiveness and spirit of actual jazz — but those criticisms are almost a little too easy. What cuts deeper is the notion that his songs compel a kind of acquiescence from the audience — it’s music meant to make you comply. The very fact that the smooth-jazz format was concocted, in part, to give office workers something to enjoy at their job is downright terrifying once you think about it. Lots of great songs help us forget our troubles, but Kenny G’s extraordinarily undemanding music sports a narcotizing nothingness that’s unnerving. 

In one of the film’s best segments, it’s mentioned that, for years, Chinese businesses and public places have played his “Going Home” at the end of the day to signal that, well, it’s time to go home. Not all music needs to incite revolution, but Kenny G’s passively pleasant tunes are a symphony of acceptance and conformity. If the status quo had a soundtrack, he would be its composer.

Kenny G’s sax appeal

Of course, you risk falling right into his trap if you raise such objections. Listening to Kenny G includes on-the-street interviews with cheerful fans who explain why they love his music. None of these testimonials come from pod people — they all seem genuine — and we’re also reminded that plenty of folks have gotten married to his songs. Even if his commercial heyday is behind him, Kenny G remains really popular. (The film shows us scores of happy people at his concerts.) And he makes no apologies for the jazz purists who hate him or the critics who like throwing darts — or when jazz guitarist Pat Metheny publically eviscerated the saxophonist for doing a “duet” of “What a Wonderful World” with deceased legend Louis Armstrong. Hey, Kenny G is just doing his best and playing music that comes from the heart: What’s your problem? 

This is the defense crowd-pleasing, easy-listening artists have always used: What do you have against stuff that sounds nice? And after decades of snobbery around pop music, a certain amount of pushback was both warranted and welcome. This, after all, was what Wilson was wrestling with when he tried to get to the bottom of why critics such as him disdain Dion — he examined his own prejudices while acknowledging that one has to take into account the masses who adore her. (As the headline of New Yorker writer Ian Crouch’s piece on A Journey to the End of Taste put it, “People Who Like Céline Dion Are People, Too.”) 

But I think what keeps Kenny G from being a reclamation project I’d be happy to endorse is that I can’t abide what his music is meant to achieve. Right, life is hard and stressful and sometimes miserable, but his brand of “soothing” has an aggressiveness I find off-putting. Its hyper-prettiness feels assaultive and simplistic — inhuman even. It’s mood music with no particular point-of-view or perspective. In Listening to Kenny G, he says it comes from his soul, but it feels like it’s written by a machine. 

But that’s just one guy’s opinion, and one of the strengths of Listening to Kenny G is that, like A Journey to the End of Taste, the film actively debates this question of what we mean by “bad” music. I don’t like Kenny G, maybe you love him, who’s to say who’s right? (By the way, Kenny G thinks about the subjectivity of taste, too: In the documentary, he mentions that he gets more pride from his golf trophies than his music awards, because at least on the green there are clear-cut rules governing what makes someone a winner.) Lane doesn’t judge Kenny G, and she hopes people who don’t dig him at least recognize that, for some people, he’s an incredibly meaningful artist.

I sympathize with that sentiment, but I think it’s a bit more complicated with an artist like Kenny G. His music’s amped-up pleasantness is so monolithic that its popularity always felt oppressive. The Kenny G you meet in Listening to Kenny G seems like a swell-enough fella, but there’s no there there. When he tells Lane that people think of him as a sound, I think he’s right — and that’s a profound difference from our relationship to most artists. Whether you love or hate Bob Dylan’s music, you think of Bob Dylan. Same with any other musician — there is some engrained connection we have to the flesh-and-blood person who made that music.

What’s fascinating about Listening to Kenny G is that it underscores how his music seems to exist absent any sort of persona or compelling human presence. What makes artists great are their jagged edges. Kenny G, meanwhile, is all smooth.