Kenny G is a unicorn. He’s the best selling instrumental musician of all time. He is beloved by millions (and on the charts), yet the jazz community seems to hate him with an outsized vitriol. He is, as filmmaker Penny Lane suggests in her documentary, Listening to Kenny G, either loved or loathed. In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes Lane to talk about her film and the phenomenon that is Kenny G.
Kenny G has created the soundtrack of our lives… He even tells the Chinese when it’s time to go home. Is this a sweet (perhaps saccharine) social norm, or a creepy weapon of mass control? How can such incredibly inoffensive music could cause such offense???
1- Roberts and Lane spend a lot of time discussing what constitutes art. Says Roberts, “…in the critical world, art is supposed to disturb you. It’s supposed to shake you up. It’s supposed to challenge you. If you like it right away, it’s not good art.” So is Kenny G’s art a failure? Is his music art???
2- Roberts recalls Adam Smith to suggest that while we want our friends to like what we like, disliking the same things is much more important. To what extent do you think this is true, and how does it he,p explain these reactions toward Kenny G’s music? Roberts and Lane agree that Kenny G as an example of the sort of mass culture the United States used to have. Are they right that we’ve lost this sort of common culture?
3- Lane describes the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the public and Kenny G’s critics, notably Pat Metheny. What does she suggest the jazz community really has against Kenny G? What do you think? Should the jazz community feel grateful to Kenny G, or should they distance themselves from him? Why?
4- Much is made in this conversation of Kenny G’s perfectionism- from how much time he spends practicing, to his ideas about what his music should sound like, to his dislike of surprises. What’s wrong with this approach to music? Lane reminds us that Kenny G was a rebel in the 1980s. (Recall the story of his appearance on The Tonight Show.) Roberts suggests that Kenny G needs some sort of challenge. What sort of challenge do you think he has in mind? What do you think Paul Bloom would recommend?
5- OK, the moment of truth. Prior to this episode, did you love, hate, or just not think about Kenny G? What about now? As Roberts says in closing, “…I have a feeling, just an intuition, that in the next seven days after you’ve listened to this, listeners, you will stumble across a Kenny G song whether you know it or not.” Was he right???