Intro. [Recording date: December 28, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is December 28th, 2021, and my guest is documentary filmmaker, Penny Lane. Her latest documentary, which is airing on HBO [Home Box Office], which is our topic for today, is Listening to Kenny G.
I want to remind listeners to go to econtalk.org to vote on your favorite episodes of 2021.
Penny, welcome to EconTalk.
Penny Lane: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.
Russ Roberts: Now, Kenny G is a pretty successful recording artist, as we used to call them and some still do. Give us an idea of just how successful.
Penny Lane: Well, actually it's funny. When I started this film, I really didn't get how successful he was. I mean, I knew he was ubiquitous in the 1990s, which is where I came to know him, as many people did. But, it wasn't until I got into the research of it that I realized that he's one of the top-selling artists of all time. If you look at a list of the top-selling artists, he's like 25. He's higher than Nirvana, higher than the Velvet Underground, higher than I'm sure many of your listeners' favorite artists. So, he really exemplifies a particular era of the recording industry where you could sell a ton of records: like, that was a particularly small moment in history and he came along at that moment and took advantage of it.
Russ Roberts: And, at some point he sold 75 million albums and he would've sold a ton more if people still bought albums. He's just--
Penny Lane: Yes, exactly.
Russ Roberts: And, he's the bestselling, I think, instrumental artist of all time. He doesn't sing. He's not a band. He's just him. He has musicians play with him, but he's a solo act, essentially. He's got a Grammy, only one, probably irks him. We'll talk about that. He's got a Grammy--only one. It probably irks him. We'll talk about that. He's got one Grammy, and he's got a string of unbelievably successful albums. And he's just totally beloved and adored by the critical community, too, right?
Penny Lane: Yeah, exactly. That's what the film's about, how much critics love Kenny G.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, they can't stop gushing about him.
Penny Lane: So, yes, you're right. An instrumental artist--that's very important because he's a unicorn in that way. It's one thing to be Whitney Houston or Celine Dion or Michael Jackson, but we're talking about someone who plays the saxophone. There are some vocal tracks on his albums, but not at his behest; and he pretty much just plays saxophone, saxophone, saxophone, and that's what made him so successful, which is very unique. There are no other instrumental artists like that.
Russ Roberts: And, the other thing I learned--I mean, I learned a lot of interesting things about Kenny G and the world, and many of them were thought-provoking. That's, of course, what we're going to talk about. But there's one unbelievable thing that I couldn't get over. His first hit was "Songbird" which I couldn't have named, I couldn't have told you until I saw this. I couldn't have named a single Kenny G song. And I have to confess, from the get-go, I'm not a fan. I don't hate him, but I'm not a fan. It's not my thing. It's okay. But, a lot of people really love his music--normal people, not critics. Normal people love his music. Obviously. But, one of the things I learned is his song, "Going Home." Talk about the role "Going Home" plays in the world. I don't know if you exaggerated a little bit. It's hard to believe and it was kind of creepy, but talk about that.
Penny Lane: I don't think I exaggerated it. If anything, I'm underplaying it. But, yes, so there's a song called "Going Home" which was one of his hits in the early 1990s, mid 1990s, and somebody in China had a bootleg of this album--and you have to realize, Kenny G's music circulated in China during an era where such music was banned. It was banned just the same as The Rolling Stones. So, it was seen as subversive. But these bootlegs circulated, and he became very popular in China. And, somebody along the way, some mall owner or shopkeeper decided that it would make sense to play this song, "Going Home," at the end of the day to signal to shoppers that it's time to go home. Remember, this is just called "Going Home." There's no lyrics or anything.
Russ Roberts: It doesn't say, 'Hey, go home.' Right? But, it's called "Going Home."
Penny Lane: But, also it's funny because, not to digress too much, but the title of the song "Going Home"--I'm sure he meant it as, like, kind of coming home and it's this warm, nostalgic, sentimental feeling. But for it to be used--oh, but we didn't finish the story. So, at some point someone decided to use it as a go-home song, and over the years, this became a huge tradition in China. And people kept telling me, 'Oh yeah, I know that song.' Or, 'I know Kenny G because I'm from China, and I hear this song literally every day all the time at every mall, schools, punk clubs, hospitals: they'll play this song when it's time to go home.' And, they don't just play it once, they loop it for anywhere from 20 to 40 to 60 minutes, and it's just part of the fabric of everyday life in China. Now I, like you, thought this must be exaggerated--this can't be so common. It can't be happening everywhere all the time.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Once in a mall, somebody played it and people thought, 'Oh, I wonder what the name of that song is. Oh, it's "Going Home." We went home.' But, that's not it.
Penny Lane: No. And so, it was during the pandemic we made this film, so I was not able to go to China myself. So, we hired a remote crew there, and we said, 'Okay, we have about two days in the budget of shooting. Get us as many examples of this as you can.' And, I thought maybe they'd come up with three or four in Beijing. But, they came back with 30 or 40 examples--just in two days--that they were able to find easily and film for me. And so, I started to get--and I asked all of my Chinese friends, 'Do you know this song?' And, even if they don't know what it's called or who made it, they all know it. Like, everyone knows it. So, it's this weapon of mass control in this strange creepy way in China.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, one of the film critics found it particularly creepy, that you interviewed, who used it as a sign of compliance and subservience to the totalitarian regime. And so, when you hear that song in a kind of Pavlovian way, you find yourself unintentionally getting up from your seat and heading toward the exits. That was the claim. I don't know if that's really true.
I did in preparation for this interview--I want to let you know--I did play "Going Home" on Spotify on my walk home from work just to see if it was as calming. Because some people love this song, right? And, I thought, 'I'm just going to just see if I can get into it a little bit.' It's kind of a nice melody, it's not bad. Mark Knopfler has a song, "Going Home," that's part of the soundtrack of Local Heroes, one of my favorite melodies of all time: I love listening to that song. And I put that on afterwards just to cleanse my palette. But, that's an amazing thing. That's an amazing--
Penny Lane: It is an amazing thing. Yes.
Russ Roberts: And, he claims--what's his claim about his concert in China?
Penny Lane: He claims that when he plays in China, he has to play "Going Home" at the end. Because if he plays it in the middle, everyone will just stand up and leave. Probably a joke; maybe there's some truth to it. I really don't know. But, it's funny because you brought up what Ben Ratliff said, and Ben Ratliff, the New York Times jazz critic, said about this song, 'Is Kenny G's music a weapon of consent? Does it make you--'
Russ Roberts: That was [crosstalk 00:08:18] the phrase, yeah.
Penny Lane: Yeah. 'Does it make you agree to comply?'
And, look, normally I'd say, 'Oh, this is this old school, sort of Frankfurt school argument about mass culture that's really kind of silly and that's not how it works.' But, this feels like a pretty special case, doesn't it, where maybe it applies?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. A little bit, although the idea that you show some scenes of the gym emptying out and the lights going off around the exercise equipment, I don't think that's really the worst sin of the Chinese government. So, it might be okay, and it might be a bit of a nice thing.
Penny Lane: Depends who you ask, I guess. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Fair enough. I guess the idea that--you could play it for your guests at a dinner party, too. It's like, you know, when they won't leave, you put it in the background, pipe it in, it's like, 'Oh yes, it's late. We'll go home now.' I don't know, could have some other uses.
Russ Roberts: But, anyway let's--before we get into some of the details of the film and the ideas in it--try to summarize the critical view. We're joking around because there's a comic element to this, which is unavoidable. But there's this very, very serious element. Here's a person--another thing I learned, he practices three hours a day and it sounds like he really does. Not just talk. He's really good at his craft, takes it extremely seriously. He's an incredibly successful person at what he does. He does other things well, and he's happy to tell you about them. He golfs and flies a plane and he parents his children. He's very proud of all those things, but here's a guy who is--what an incredible career? He's in his 60s; he's sold all these records, and if we count the bootlegs by the way, he's way over 100 million. So, why is he not loved by the establishment--the jazz critical establishment, jazz musicians? Why is he disliked? And, not just not appreciated: actually actively disliked?
Penny Lane: That is the question of the film. That is the question that I set out to ask and try to find some answers to. Because, I think, 'Okay, here's this person'--whose music I do not like. I'm in the same camp as you--not a fan, but the sound of his music doesn't make my blood boil either, right? It's just like, 'Oh yeah. Not for me, not my thing, wouldn't put it on a dinner party mix.' But, I knew my whole life, ever since I was a teenager, that Kenny G was the object not just of dislike or disdain, but ridicule and hatred. And, that is what I was interested in.
There is some comedy to that, as you've already alluded to. I think it's funny that this incredibly inoffensive music could cause such offense, but I also was aware from the beginning that this is a very small group of people that we're talking about. Like, who hates Kenny G is a particular group of people. It is not even half or 10% of the population. Most people love Kenny G. And, when I tell people that my film is asking the question, 'Why do some people hate Kenny G?' most people say, 'Who hates Kenny G?' Like: What's wrong with you? It's like hating Christmas or Disneyland or something.
So, it's important to say that, because I don't know where your audience would fall on this. I don't know actually if people in your audience tend to hate him or love him or never thought about him at all. What do you think?
Russ Roberts: Well, the other thing that has to be said, and it's really quite powerful in the film and I found it very moving: He's the soundtrack for a lot of people's lives--their romance, their weddings, their children's weddings. He's not just, 'I like his music.' He's deeply woven into the memories and associations people have of their lives. And, there's something--and a few of the critics do concede this that you had talked to--there's something pathetic about hating this. I mean, right? Again, [inaudible 00:12:28]it's one thing to say, 'I wouldn't put him on if I were walking my child down the aisle.' It's another thing to say, 'Boy, if anybody likes him, something's wrong with them.' And, that's sort of their attitude. We'll come to Pat Metheny in a little bit--another jazz musician--and his attitude, which I think is probably representative of many serious jazz musicians.
I want to say one thing: Kenny G is on somewhere in the pop, jazz, instrumentals, easy listening, smooth jazz--there's a lot of different ways of describing what he is. He doesn't like to be labeled, obviously, but he plays a jazz instrument and I think that's part of the reason he--and he plays it differently than many people. He plays it in a way that I would say is outside of the tradition of jazz, certainly outside of the tradition of black jazz musicians--who, he is, I don't know what you want to call it, in some tradition of, but not artistic tradition of. And I think that's part of it. But, it's not the only part. To be cruel to him and unfair, I would say there's a saccharine aspect to his music that offends people who don't like saccharine.
Penny Lane: Oh, yeah. Saccharine, sentimental. I mean I think the best word for this is something like 'kitsch,' or maybe 'schmaltz.' These are two words that kind of circulated in my mind as I was making it. Like, these are the things that people think about him. Like, if they hate him, it's because it's kitschy or schmaltzy or corny. Yeah, and so it's not just that he's playing a version of jazz that people who are obsessed with jazz and love jazz and really care about the jazz tradition find offensively adulterated, let's say. But, also that the music he makes even in a pop tradition is not the type of music that music critics love. I mean that's never been the case. Music critics have never liked schmaltz. I would think that most music critics would think it was--
Russ Roberts: Or sentimental.
Penny Lane: Right. Most music critics would think they was to disabuse people of their like of that kind of music.
Russ Roberts: That's very well said.
Russ Roberts: We're now at a landmark moment of EconTalk. I'm going to, I think, mention for the first time, Hegel, the philosopher. And, I bring him up because we recently spoke with Megan McArdle about Roger Scruton's book, Where We Are, and is following up on that. I decided to read Scruton's book, The Uses of Pessimism, which is a fabulously interesting book. And, one of the things he says in there is he talks about Hegel's theory of history and art. And, he says, Hegel really contaminated the Western appreciation of art and aesthetics by implying there's some kind of progress. There's some kind of--I'll just call it--progress.
And, what he's getting at there--and he talks about how he influenced Burkhart[?] and others--but what he's trying to get at, and this was extremely helpful for me reading this book in conjunction with the Kenny G--your documentary--is that 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. Can't be, almost by definition.
And, Kenny G's work is not jarring. It's not challenging. You can like it the first time. You might not like it as much the 10th time, like you might, say, with the Rite of Spring, or Schoenberg, or others, or Miles Davis, or Coltrane. But, a lot of people like it the first time and they're totally happy with that. And, in the aesthetics of the critical world, that makes it a failure.
Penny Lane: Yeah. I love that you used the word 'failure.' And I thought a lot about this. It's important to say that I started this project in my head when I was an art professor. So, I was an art professor for 12, 13 years. And, over time became intensely uncomfortable with my own power as a critical arbiter of what is good. I mean, you can say all day that you don't have power as a professor, but you sure do. Because, you're telling your students, on the one hand--because you know this is true if you're intellectually honest--there is no objective criteria here. None. We can look for some. We can pretend there's some. But at the bottom of all those arguments is someone's opinion. And that's just the truth. So, if you're honest with yourself as an art professor, you have to tell yourself that--and probably your students that--at some point. But, on the other hand, 'I will be grading you and I will be deciding if you should pursue this as a career.'
So, that problem in my mind is where this film came from. Literally. Because I couldn't stop thinking about it over time. I could not stop thinking about the whole world that I live in as a documentary filmmaker. A lot of my friends are critics and artists. And, like, we live in this little world where, to put it bluntly, we believe our opinions about art are simply better and more meaningful than others. And, it's not even a judgment, it's just that's just the truth of what it means to be part of this kind of artistic, critical, intellectual class.
And, I just wanted to interrogate it, because I feel like we don't spend enough time interrogating it.
Russ Roberts: And, also I'd bring in Adam Smith, who, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments says, basically: 'You like it when your friends like what you like, but you really want them to hate what you hate.' And, there's something to that. It's a deep insight, right? If I like Kenny G and you don't, 'Okay, well, so whatever.' But, if I hate Kenny G and you think he's really good, 'Oh my gosh. What's wrong with you?' And, I think for those critics, that's a lot of what's going on there. [More to come, 18:27]
Penny Lane: Absolutely. And, I want to bring this back to something you said earlier because I think it's really relevant to this point. You described the music of Kenny G as being woven into the fabric of our lives--you know, kind of whether we like it or not, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, for sure.
Penny Lane: Like, you don't need to know the names of these songs. But I know them all. It's like, 'Oh yeah, I know that one, too. Oh, I've heard that one.' And, it's like because in the olden days in America there was something called mass culture, and Kenny G was a good example of mass culture. It was, like, kind of seen as, you might say, the sort of lowest common denominator amongst many people, therefore it would be useful to put it in an office or in a mall or in a dentist's office or on hold with a bank, because it's not going to offend anybody. It doesn't have lyrics. It just kind of can be background music.
So, the reason I bring this up is that, I think part of what offends people about Kenny G's music is that it is so useful. That it is useful as background music, in and of itself, I think makes some people pretty angry--because they don't want art to just be pleasant in the background. As you said, they want art to be disturbing society and changing the world and making you uncomfortable. And, if it's too pleasant--which is really what Kenny G's music is: it's just very pleasant, I guess--that's what it's aiming for and apparently it's what it achieves, right? Then that must be--there's something wrong with that; there's something bankrupt in there.
And, I think the usefulness of the music--and it's even in the titles of the songs, "Going Home", "Sentimental", "Forever In Love"--like, these are song titles that tell you what the music is for. People don't use "Going Home" at the wedding. They use "Forever In Love" at the wedding.
Now there's nothing about those songs that seems particularly important to say, 'This one's about going home and this one's about falling in love,' but the titles are giving you very helpful clues as to how to use it in your life.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, there's two aspects of this--I don't think you get into it in the documentary, but I've thought about them for a long time. And I'll say it this way. Now, suppose that we found an album--it's a undiscovered album by The Beatles that was never released. Now, would you be, like, 'Oh, well, who cares? They were so 1960s, 1970s? I mean, music has come so far since then, don't you think? Would you really want another one of those?' And, of course, every Beatle fan would be very excited; and a lot of not-Beatle fans would be excited--because, they're great songs. What was beautiful then is still beautiful now. What's wrong with beauty? And, I think there's some of that in that, in your story of Kenny G.
Penny Lane: Wow. Yeah. I love thinking about that.
And, part of what I think is important there, as you said, is: What's wrong with beauty?
And, this is something else that came up as I was an art professor for years and years. You know--students would sometimes say things like, particularly the younger students who were coming into an art class just kind of for fun, who were not serious about art in their lives in any way, and they would often ask me, 'Why is the art you show us so weird? And, 'Why is it so ugly?' Like, you know, and: These are real questions. And again, as a professor, I took them very seriously because I'd try to answer. Also, 'What do you mean by weird? What is this not-weird art that you're thinking of?' And, what they're really thinking of usually is something in the pop cultural sphere.
So, I'm showing them avant garde video art from the 1960s, and they're like, 'Why isn't this more like Lord of the Rings?'
A relevant question. There are things about popular culture traditions that are more conservative, let's say, with a small 'c': they're more popular, they're more drawing on a tradition and they're more leaning on things like beauty and satisfaction and maybe some pathos, but, like, hopefully a catharsis at the end.
And, these are venerable traditions that I, as an artist, don't have any disdain for those traditions. And I know--because I've done a little bit of research--that this idea that you describe that Hegel maybe introduces to some extent, is so new. I mean it's historically so contingent. We didn't always think that art was for disturbing your psyche and, you know, causing trouble and maybe furthering the revolution. That's a pretty new idea about what art should be. As far as we know, art has traditionally served very different functions. Again, we're speculating to some extent, but it seems likely that, you know, in the past, before the modern era, that art was more about ritual and tradition and coming together, binding people together.
Russ Roberts: Inspiration, to move a person, to make their heart sing, to make them cry, make them love their fellow human beings more than they did before, worry about their own flaws. There are a lot of good things about art outside of challenging, disturbing, and jarring. It's interesting.
Penny Lane: Absolutely. And--sorry--but when I was a graduate student, I found myself rebelling against this idea, very instinctually, because, you know, there was this kind of obvious thing: once you enter the art world, it's very clear that one of the rules of the art world is the more popular something is, the more suspect it is; and probably the worse it is.
And, I also saw this in pop culture because I was a child of the 1990s. So, if you're coming of age in the 1990s, you learn pretty quickly that you like Nirvana until Nirvana is very famous, and then you don't. That's just the rule. And, if you don't do it that way, then you're not cool. You're not part of modern discourse.
And so, I've always found that really troublesome and annoying. Because, as an artist, I have always wanted an audience. And I want people to actually like my work. I want them to enjoy it. And, I found that that instinct was really not welcomed in the art world.
And so, I found myself moving more towards, like, let's call it Indie film--you know, kind of economics and ecosystem and business world and away from the kind of fine arts world, which I found insufferable in many ways.
Russ Roberts: Well, you said something I think quite profound. I want to dig into it a little bit and I want to come back to Kenny G in a minute. You said you liked Nirvana until it turns out they're too popular. And, then you realize, 'Okay, now they're on the I-have-to-hate-them list.' And, I think, especially for young people who have, of course, an enormous role to play in popular culture--economics of popular culture--belonging is very important. And, I think it gets to Adam Smith's idea, right? It's one thing to like what everybody likes. You don't want to be the contrarian when you're young. But, it's really important to dislike what everybody dislikes.
And so, that's this way that obviously young people rebelling against the authority of their parents, of their church, of their whatever it is they're in their upbringing: Music is a way to express that disdain.
So, "I Want To Hold Your Hand," which has got to be one of the least challenging lyrics of all time, was an incredibly challenging song when it came out and was threat--seen as a challenge--partly because the way they wore their hair, the way they performed. The early songs of The Beatles were a way that people expressed their dislike of Frank Sinatra--who their parents liked. That's horrible. I mean these songs are my parents, this new stuff, whatever, whoever it was fills the role. Especially if it's disdained by the people who you want to disdain. And, also it allows you to dislike a whole enormous category of popular art to show that you're in this exclusive club of people who know it's lousy. And, I don't want to suggest that that's the way we all behave or everything's like that, but there's some of that in the world.
Penny Lane: There is some of that in the world, and it can work in very strange ways. I remember when I was about 16 years old, I became obsessed with The Carpenters. I, like, loved The Carpenters. My mother--
Russ Roberts: Oh, Penny. Oh, boy. The Kenny G of--
Penny Lane: Exactly. That's what I'm saying. I mean, so, for my mother, I mean the sound of The Carpenters was like nails on a chalkboard. And, I was like, 'I don't understand. It's so great.'
And, this is how it can work. And so, with Kenny G at this point, if you want to rebel against your Boomer parents, the best thing you could do is say, 'Oh, I love this Kenny G song, "Songbird." It's so great.' And, there's a huge amount of that in younger people. And, that was part of why I thought it was interesting to make a film about Kenny G now.
I went to a few of his shows in New York when I first was getting to know him and I met young people--I would always talk to the young people there, like, you know, the people who looked like 18, 20, 22 years old. 'What are you doing here?' And, they would say things like, 'Well, I'm a jazz conservatory student and my professors hate this stuff, but I see some interesting things going on.' And, I thought, well, this is the most amazing turnaround, isn't it? It doesn't take very long for it to be, like, 'Well, what's the music your parents hated?' Well, it's Kenny G or Frank Sinatra, or The Beatles--whatever it is, you're going to come around to hating that at some point yourself. Which makes sense to me. Again, it's exactly what you're saying: it's about defying expectations and having that be a way of bringing you and your friends together.
But, it also points to something else, which is that: I think there's maybe nothing objectively wrong with the music itself. And I tried to explore this in the film, because any critique you can level at Kenny G--it's too saccharine, it's too easy, the melodies are too--
Russ Roberts: Too pretty--
Penny Lane: simple. They're too pretty. There's other music you like that you could say the same thing about. So, there isn't really anything objectively wrong there. It's like, 'Oh, there's too much reverb.' Well, maybe reverb is just not in style right now, and in 20 years, reverb will sound amazing to people again. The melodies are too simple--but you're saying this and you love punk rock? That makes no sense. Or you think he's not good at playing the saxophone? Okay, well again, you're saying this but you love punk rock. That makes no sense. It's too pretty, but you love Pat Metheny who makes really pretty music--whatever else you might say about it, it's not simple music, but it's very pretty, it's very soft.
So, there's nothing objectively there. Again, this gets back to the criteria we use to judge. It's just about how it fits into culture at a particular moment and what is resonating with people or not. And, when you have somebody that successful who has got all these records out there and has the name recognition that he has, inevitably people are going to start hearing it in totally different cultural contexts from where it came from, and they're going to hear it differently. The sound of the 1980s is different if you weren't alive in the 1980s. It's just different. You might like it more if you weren't around then.
Russ Roberts: Oh, for sure. And, it's a fascinating aspect of music that it is the soundtrack of our lives, obviously, and we have associations with music that we can't explain, that we love or hate for all those reasons.
Russ Roberts: I want to say two other things about Kenny G's music and get your reaction. One is: I think part of the other reason he's disliked is that, while he does seem to be working hard at his craft, he also works really hard at the sound through using the recording studio--reverb and double tracks and all kinds of, quote, "tricks"--that I think are seen by the cognoscenti--the sophisticates--as cheating.
The other thing I would say about him is that his music sounds a lot like it used to. There's not a lot of growth; and so that also offends the cognoscenti. I'm not sure why. Again, I wish Puccini had written 10 other great opera. I love Puccini. He could really craft a song. And before I forget, I want to mention: there's an amazing essay about Leonard Bernstein where he concedes, it's very similar to our conversation: I think he's making fun of Gershwin because, 'Oh, Gershwin with these sweet songs'--like "Someone To Watch Over Me" and "Embraceable You." Melodies--this is George--not Ira, the lyricist. And, I love George Gershwin.
And, Bernstein concedes at some point that, 'Maybe one of the reasons I really dislike his melodies and value what I did in West Side Story'--Bernstein concedes, 'I don't think I'm as good at writing melodies as George Gershwin. And, if I could, I would.' It's not like: 'I have to write this artsy, disturbing melody that isn't as sweet.' He doesn't know how. And so he's going to look down on him; and it's a gift, it's a rare gift to be able to do that.
But, the point is that Kenny G is just, quote, "all he can do" is write a beautiful melody. He never tried anything harder. And I think for his fans, that's fabulous. It's a plus. It's a feature, not a bug.
Penny Lane: Yes, that's true, and I think that one of the things I was trying to disentangle in my thinking about art by making this film was really being clear that we're separating some questions here. There's the question of: Is it good or bad? Which is a critical question, by its nature. That means there's such a thing as good or bad. And, I believe there's such a thing as good or bad or else I wouldn't be working so hard to make what I think are good films. So, that's a not-irrelevant or unimportant question, and I think there's a validity to the question.
It's a different question than: Do you like it or not? That is a different question. And that was one of the things that I was always trying to work with my students on, like: 'Let's separate our reactions here. Do you like it as different, then is it good?'
And, there's yet a third question, which is: Is it art?
Very few people would say Kenny G is making art. I don't know that I would say he's making art, even though I'm trying to be open-minded about what art is. There's something inside me that says, 'Yeah, but this isn't really art.' And, I want to question it, but I also want to acknowledge that that is my belief or that it matters to me in some way.
And, I also think that to those people who would say all he does is write popular melodies, that, well, clearly they've never tried to write a popular melody because it's incredibly hard.
And, I feel--this is--where I take it personally is that I tend to make films that are pretty entertaining, and I tend to make films that are funny. And, it makes me personally upset that so many people who are very serious in my field, they act like those are easy things to do--like I'm doing the easy thing. And, I'm like, 'No, it's not.' The easiest thing to do is to make something unpleasant that nobody likes. Like, that is literally the easiest thing to do. So, the idea that it's easier to make popular things makes me absolutely insane, makes me crazy.
Russ Roberts: It's a great point. And, it's really the same point about, 'Oh, anybody can write a song you can whistle.' No, you can't. Right? To have them whistling or humming your songs as you come out of a musical--there's only a handful of people who could ever do it. It's a small group.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about--we're going to get off this question in a minute with the heart of your documentary, though. So, it's okay, I think, to linger on it. I want to talk, and that's this question of the gap between how he's perceived versus by the public versus the critics. I want to talk about his collaboration, Kenny G's--he's a glutton for punishment. He decided to use a Louis Armstrong song--he used Louis Armstong's vocals and his, Kenny G's, sax to create a new duet. Something that a lot of people have played because now in the world you can do those kind of things. It seems like no big deal. Fascinatingly to me, or maybe not so surprising and not so surprising is he chose the song "What A Wonderful World," which is a very Kenny G-ish-like song for one of the great jazz musicians of all time. The lyrics, for those of you who don't know it, are [singing] 'I see skies of blue/Clouds of white...'. And if I were really gutsy on EconTalk, I'd sing it in a really bad Louis Armstrong version, but let's not do that.
Louis Armstrong is universally revered as a top five, I would say, jazz musician and as a real innovator, a genius. So, here's this not-beloved-by-the-critics guy having the nerve--with the permission of Louis Armstrong's estate--to use Louis Armstrong to enhance his own cred--street cred, pocketbook, you name it. And, it's beautiful. Not my cup of tea, again, but it's beautiful. And, I love that song "What A Wonderful World," but the truth is it's a pretty easy song to like. There's nothing edgy about it.
But, without quoting him, because it's a G-rated show, Pat Metheny did not like this. Pat Metheny's a jazz guitarist. So, talk about what Pat Metheny--the spirit of it--and how Kenny G reacted when you talked to him about it.
Penny Lane: Yeah. So, this happened in the year 2000. Kenny came out with the song, his duet of "What A Wonderful World." And, it was very popular. It was a big hit. And, I think this was the straw that broke the camel's back amongst a particular group of people--again, the critically acclaimed artists, the critics themselves who maybe had been stewing for about 10 to 12 years on how upsetting it is to them that he's so successful. And, again, I can empathize with them. I really can. I mean look, it's easy for me to laugh at them, but don't get me started on who wins the Best Documentary Oscar each year. Like, I will sound just like them, I promise, just as petty and snobby as any of these people.
So, Pat Metheny, who is a very well-respected jazz artist, part of the cognoscenti, let's say, he penned this--he 'penned'--he typed a kind of screed on a message board. Which, again, this is the year 2000, so who knows if he even understood how many people would be reading this. But, he types this long rant about how upsetting this is. He calls it, what does he call it? Musical necrophilia is one of the G-rated ways that I could describe it I guess. So, he really--
Russ Roberts: It threatens violence, too, right? Doesn't he threaten violence? It's a scary rant. It's not just a rant: it's a really out-there rant.
Penny Lane: He's angry. And so, yes, he ends it by saying, 'If I ever see Kenny G, I'll wrap a guitar around his head.' And, you're like, 'Geez, Pat.'
So, this was--now we can laugh about this, but there's something bracing about this essay that he wrote. Like, there's something very authentic, I guess, about it. He is expressing an anger and an upsetness that a lot of people felt, and I think to this day, this thing he wrote on this message board circulates. Any day on Twitter go type in Pat Metheny and you will find someone sharing this essay--they've just found it for the first time and it really says something important to them, and they love it, and they think it's funny. And so, it's this indelible document that I'm not sure he meant to create on a message board in the year 2000.
And, in fact, I wonder if Pat Metheny regrets writing it in some ways. I mean again, think about the meanest thing you ever wrote in an email to somebody and the idea that it would circulate for all time might upset you. I don't know. I don't want to speculate too much.
But, yes. So, Pat Metheny wrote this thing and this became a flashpoint in the jazz community to come together and say, 'Finally, someone said what we've always felt about this guy. He's not good. He is ruining jazz.' And, that's really important for us to talk about, is jazz--because he's not just a pop artist. He is someone who, depending on the day, will call himself a jazz artist or at least will acknowledge that he's coming out of that tradition, but does not know much about jazz and isn't even embarrassed by that.
And, I think that that upsets people. That really upsets people. And, again, I can empathize with that. If there's some documentary filmmaker out there who I perceive to be not serious about the craft at all, but somehow makes the biggest documentary of the year, that will bother me. And it'll bother me if I read interviews with them and they say things that make it clear that they don't know anything about documentary, they've never really thought about it that much. That would bother me. So, again, I try to have empathy in this film. It's important to say that, like--
Russ Roberts: You do a good job--
Penny Lane: The film is funny, and I hope warm. I am empathetic to the stance of these fans. I'm empathetic to Kenny himself. I relate to him in some ways. And I'm empathetic to the critics and to the people who find his music odious. I really understand everyone's point of view; and I understand it more than I used to. And, that was part of the joy of making the film.
Russ Roberts: I'd say it's not--I think besides the fact that it's interesting to watch and fun to watch and interesting and all that, it is a very atypical documentary in that it does not advance an agenda. It explores a question. And I salute you for that, as that being--I think it was the ethos of this show: the subtitle is 'Conversations for the Curious,' not 'Conversations for the Converted.' And, you were very fair, I think, to both sides, very respectful. I don't know what you left out, of course, which would be fascinating, but on that note: How much time did you spend with Kenny G in face-to-face--in his presence? Roughly?
Penny Lane: Probably like 25 days in making the film.
Russ Roberts: Whoa.
Penny Lane: And, then, since the film's come out, another five or six doing press together and promoting it.
Russ Roberts: One could argue that it's not that flattering a portrait. You get the man in this documentary and there's some parts to him that may rub people the wrong way. But I guess he didn't think that: he's happy to promote it; and that's very interesting in and of itself. But, 25 days is a very, very long time. With cameras rolling, what percentage of that?
Penny Lane: Oh, about half.
Russ Roberts: Oh, my gosh. So, you had dozens of hours of footage to choose from. Was it hard?
Penny Lane: Oh, it's always hard, but I will say Kenny made it easy for me. I'll give you the two case examples, which is the critic interviews versus my time with Kenny.
Russ Roberts: Before you tell us that, just how much time did you spend with critics? You spent 25 days with Kenny G. How much time did you spend roughly with the--there's maybe five or six critics, music people in the show--how much time did you spend with them?
Penny Lane: One day each on camera and probably, like, another day not on camera, like, just getting to know them and having lunch and stuff like that. So, much less time.
Russ Roberts: But, still a ton.
Penny Lane: Yeah. But, the difference is: Kenny is, for better or worse, a very consistent person. He is the same guy. I mean he's always the same guy. I filmed with him all these days. I spent a lot of time with him on camera, off camera. Now, I'm not claiming that I know the depths of his soul. I mean, I'm not as close to him as, say, his sons are or his ex-wives or his best friends. But, I did observe him over time and he's pretty consistent. So, every minute we filmed with him was good and usable, but it all kind of had the same feeling, too. Like, the things that you think are admirable and charming about him and the things that you find maybe more disturbing or unlikable or something--it's pretty consistent. So, his material was very easy to cut because it's very consistent.
The critics were chosen because I knew they were curious people who would go there with me and just be willing to entertain a lot of different points of view and to think about things I knew, in most cases, they had never thought about. It's not easy to find music critics who really want to talk about Kenny G. I mean, I was afraid to approach them. I thought they'd be insulted. So, I chose people who I thought were more open, more nuanced, more willing to go there with me. And so, they gave me so much good stuff. I could have cut six different films with completely different points of view. Each of those critics occupied so many different worlds with me in those interviews that we could have gone anywhere. You could have had just the mean stuff, just the nice stuff, just the stuff where they questioned themselves, just the stuff where they double down on their beliefs.
Like, that was the hard part: was getting the critical argument right. Because I didn't have an agenda, but I did want you to go somewhere; and it was important that the film go somewhere and that you would leave the film feeling differently or thinking differently than you started. And so, constructing that kind of critical argument part of it was the hardest part. Where do you go hardest on Kenny? What is it? Is it the question of cultural appropriation? Is it about his utter lack of knowledge of jazz? Is it about how he makes music in a way that people find offensive if you're really into jazz? You know, like: "What's the worst thing about him?" quote-unquote. And, where do you position that in the film where people are willing to go along with you and they're not going to be totally turned off?
That was the hard part, was getting all that right. Because people, I found, in my early cuts were shutting down too quickly and developing too much antipathy towards one side or the other, and that was shutting things down. So, you had to find ways to constantly be like, 'Okay, score one for the fans. Let's make sure we score one for the critics. Let's get Kenny in there doing something that is a good point.'
And, I found that it was very difficult to find the balance right. And, I'm sure someone would say I didn't find the balance right, but for me this was satisfying. I felt like you could watch the film as a fan and have a transformative experience, or you could watch the film as a critic and have a transformative experience. And, that for me is super-important.
Russ Roberts: Well, those people who think you didn't do a good job, they're idiots. So, we don't need to think about them--
Penny Lane: Well, they're probably people with agendas, right? I mean, so thank you for saying that you perceived in the film that that's what I'm doing. And, I think that's why I love your show so much, Russ, and I've been listening to it from the very beginning and I don't think ever missed an episode.
Russ Roberts: Oh, my gosh.
Penny Lane: Because I really resonate with your way of thinking and your way of engaging the world. And, I think it's pretty rare, especially over a long period of time where you do become more of an expert on things. It's pretty rare to find people who are genuinely excited to find out they're wrong. And, to me that's the most motivating thing. That's all I want out of my films is to find out that I was wrong about something and to feel that destabilization and that joy at having my worldview expanded once again and landing in the world of wonderful nuance and confusion. I enjoy that. Not everyone does, and that is definitely the minority of documentary filmmakers, I'll give you that.
Russ Roberts: Well, thank you for listening. I appreciate you staying with me because in 2006, I think I was a much more opinionated person publicly as host, and I think I've become a better host--maybe a better person--in being, I think, a little more open-minded. But I don't know, that's not for me to say. I'm a different person, I'll say that.
Russ Roberts: But, I think--I want to come back to what you said about the critics and the day or whatever time you spent with them and the challenge of cutting their material. For me, some of my favorite moments in the film are their moments of self-reflection; and you capture them. They come across as very candid and real, those moments of self-reflection. You surprise them, and they're forced to come face to face with some of their views that they probably never thought about. And, it was somewhat brave of them and they exposed themselves in that way in front of your camera, which I thought was really impressive on your part and theirs. Others don't rise so much to the occasion. It's a mixed bag among the critics, I would say--and Kenny G, he's a mixed bag of lovable and maybe not so lovable.
One thing that's clear is that it seemed to me--I'm curious if you agree--Kenny G is something of a perfectionist. You may not like what he's perfecting, but he takes his craft seriously. He takes your craft seriously. I don't know how many times he said it off camera that you didn't use or that you cut, but certainly on camera, he says, 'Should we do that again? Could I do that better?' And, if you've ever been filmed by someone, you know that one of the hellish aspects of it is the director or producer or interviewer who says--especially on video, doesn't happen on audio so much, but on video--'Let's do that again.' 'Okay. I'll do it again.' 'Can we say it shorter?' 'Sure. I'll try.' 'How about shorter still?' 'I'll try again.' 'Let try and see we do it a little shorter.' 'I've had it. I can't say it shorter without butchering it. Leave me alone.' And, I didn't get the feeling that, if anything, Kenny G was a bigger critic of himself on camera than you were. Is that right?
Penny Lane: Absolutely. I've never had a more willing subject of a documentary. He really wanted to give me what I needed to make the best film, and he really would--he said it in the film and he said it many times, as you rightfully guessed, off camera as well. 'Tell me what you need. I'll do anything. What is it? Tell me.' He never got tired, he was always professional, he was on every minute we were filming. Usually the shoot days would end because I would be tired and cranky, which is a very unusual reversal.
So, we started scheduling longer and longer days with him because he just would be like, 'Let's do more.' So, yeah. And you brought up the idea of perfectionism, which is absolutely the case. He would even say himself, and he has said, since the film came out, that when he looks at himself in the film, he saw that perfectionism in a kind of new way that allowed him to see that he probably should dial it down a little bit, and that his obsession with being the best at everything he does isn't always praiseworthy and laudable, even if it's largely praiseworthy and laudable. So, I think even he sees that in the film in a way that helped him see himself a little bit more fully.
Russ Roberts: So, there's a moment, I think it's in the first five minutes of the film, might be the first two minutes where--it's probably you--call out to him unmiked, 'How you feeling?' He's on the stage of a concert hall. He says, 'Underappreciated,' or something like that and he laughs. And you think, 'That's cute. He is kind of underappreciated.' And, he says it more than once and you get this, 'Methinks he doth protest too much.' It appears--he pretends--I shouldn't say that--he says out loud, he doesn't care what the critics think. He says out loud, he doesn't care if they hate him for the Louis Armstrong. He says out loud, he doesn't care about the new Stan Getz thing he created--which is really creative and clever--kind of creepy again. I think he cares a lot.
Penny Lane: I think it would be impossible to imagine a human being who doesn't care at all. On the other hand, I believe, as he says in the film, it's all about putting in the reps; and he's had his reps with what he calls the jazz police. This is not new, nothing that the critics are saying about him now hasn't been said a thousand times before, and I believe him that he has learned to not care very much about it. It's easy to not care much about it when you're, like, that successful, also. I mean, he's not exactly like struggling artist who the critics hate and fans hate. I mean he's one of the most successful musicians on this planet, and he's the most successful instrumental musician of all time by pretty much any standard. So, he's got a lot of objective criteria by which to say, he's doing great and he's very good at what he does. And so, he would say, 'Why would I obsess about what some bald guy at the New York Times thinks?' And, that's very psychologically healthy. I aspire to be that way.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Kenny, by the way, has a lot of hair and it has been a signature thing for him for a long time. So, you didn't just pick on the bald guy out of the blue.
In a recent episode that you haven't heard yet, Penny, because it hasn't aired yet, I talk to Lorne M. Buchman about the creative process and his book, Make To Know, which is a fascinating book about the creative process. And, he mentions this concert, this famous concert of Keith Jarrett, and it turns out it had come up in EconTalk once before with Tim Harford, we talked about his book Messy.
And the thing about the Jarrett concert--and I did a little more research on it, it's utterly fascinating--he shows up at a concert hall, the concert's at 11:30 at night in Cologne, he's driven from Zurich, he's supposed to have had dinner, there's a mess up, he only gets a few bites of dinner. So, he shows up at 11:30 and having been there earlier, he had discovered before dinner that they had the wrong piano. Instead of the full grand piano he expected, they had a baby grand. It wasn't a very good baby grand. It had real problems in the lower and upper register. And so, he had to improvise a whole bunch of stuff. And he wasn't going to perform. He said, 'This is horrible.' The promoter, by the way, was 17 years old; and it was the first, I think, jazz concert at the Opera House in Cologne. So, it was at 11:30 at night because they'd already performed an opera and they didn't really want to give this guy prime time.
And, this legendary concert--which I'd never heard, and thanks to Spotify I got to enjoy it the other night. And, now that I heard it again, I actually liked it a lot. But, the power of that concert comes with the fact that he's performing under duress. His back hurt, by the way, he's wearing a brace; he's hungry, he's exhausted from driving, he's got a lousy piano. And he makes lemonade out of all these lemons.
And, in particular, it's not just that he rises above it: the constraints themselves transform his music.
So, my thought was, 'Kenny G needs a--something's wrong, play a sax that isn't the right one, maybe he could use a challenge or two where his perfectionism would work against something.' I don't know, just a thought.
Penny Lane: Well, I think it's a really good observation; and I think that mistakes and chaos and cracks and duress and constraints are part of what--it creates a kind of friction that is what makes art really meaningful to a lot of us. There's a kind of, like, 'on the one hand, on the other hand'-ness, or like, it's perfect, but it's perfect because it's flawed in this very particular way.
And, I think that Kenny, whatever you think of his music, I feel like I got to know his music so much by getting to know him as a person. I mean it sounds so obvious, but of course this is the person who makes this music. He pursues perfection and a kind of smoothness at all costs, both in his personal life and in his music. And, that is what that sounds like: When you've got someone with a very particular idea about what perfection is and will stop at nothing to get there, it's going to produce a very shiny surface. There's no texture. There's no mixed feelings. It's all kind of like, 'I'm making a song about falling in love and it's going to be just that and nothing else and no other color will be used.' It's all kind of always one thing.
And, he even says to me--I didn't use this in the film--but at some point he was describing his perfect album experience. And, he said, 'I want the album to be the same all the way through. I want it to the same.' And, I was like, 'Wow, that's really not what most people want out of an album.' But, again, I mean it really is this lack of texture that I think defines the music. It's the lack of mistakes.
And, there's something there--I think there is something there in terms of: how would you make this better art? I think that your suggestions are correct, but that's just not what drives him. At all. He doesn't think that's true. He doesn't like mistakes. He doesn't like things that are out of tune or a note that gets slightly muddled or mixed. He wants everything to be exactly the way he hears it in his head. And, again, you and I don't like it because we like a different kind of art, but that is what makes his art successful as background music, as the soundtrack of our lives. I mean it's that kind of shiny perfect surface of everything.
Russ Roberts: Well, I like the soundtrack of my life to have a little bit of raw--
Russ Roberts: I like Mark Knopfler's guitar for that reason.
Russ Roberts: But, you said something interesting and that's--you said that's not what drives him. What does drive him? He's got so much money; he hasn't discovered a new instrument or a new style; maybe he likes the toys of the studio more that are available now compared to when he first started. But, it's an interesting phenomenon. Of course, love is very pleasant: 'Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely,' as Adam Smith said--and a packed house cheering your music is pleasant. But, do you have a feel for what drives him? Why is he still doing this? He's 60-something years old, plenty of money, nice house, I guess.
Penny Lane: I don't think he would be offended to hear me say this: He wants to be the best. And, I think he believes in progress, and he sees a particular vision of what the best is at this thing he's doing, and he just wants to get ever closer to it. And, no, it hasn't changed. He really has never left that. Like, there's a big part of the film where we go with him to his old high school and we learn about his high school band experience. And, I kept that--I put that in the film and I kept that in the film because in some ways I feel like he's never left that practice room. He just is still, like, practice, practice, practice. If there's one thing he wants you to know about him, it's that he practices.
Now listen: every professional musician practices all the time, but somehow it's not the thing that they think is the most important thing about what they do. And, that really gives you a clue about what he thinks is important and why he cares. He wants to be perfect. He wants to get as close to perfection as he can. I think he thinks that's probably the highest goal a person could have.
And, he's not totally wrong. In some way, it is a laudable to set yourself to a goal and to work really hard to get to it. I think that's beautiful.
As an artist, it's the opposite of what I think I'm doing. I'm not aiming for mastery. That's not even in my vocabulary as an artist. I like to bumble around and do my little investigations and move on to something new. And, I want to look back at my career at the end and say, 'Wow, look at all this different stuff that happened all along the way. It's interesting the early period work is very different from the late period work.'
That's not the kind thing that Kenny thinks about and I spent so much time with him asking him questions about art and art-making and his artistic philosophy. And, I got to tell you, the longer I looked, the less was there. It's really as simple as it sounds. It's just like, 'I want to be great at this thing and that means being perfect, and I'm going to work very hard at that. And, people like that and they can tell that that's what I do and that's why they like my music.'
Russ Roberts: It's Tom Brady--not going to retire until he can't play the sax anymore, I guess. Here's the thought that comes to mind: the movie A Star Is Born--you see that? The remake with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper?
Russ Roberts: So, I hated that movie. I despised it mainly for the last half hour, which I thought was awful for a bunch of reasons. But, there's a moment in that film that is utterly transcendent, and it's when the character that Lady Gaga plays is in the wings and Bradley Cooper brings her on to sing the song--The Shallow, I think is the name of the song. And, it's kind of fun that I think Lady Gaga wrote the song, actually; but that's just an extra bonus. But, the way she sings that song--and you can watch a live version of her: I think they sang it at the Oscars--there's a rawness to her performance, which is so compelling. You can't take your eyes off her. She is leaving it all on stage and she's exposing herself emotionally as she sings that song.
And, maybe she's acting. We know she is, in the movie. But when we see an artist do that, expose their vulnerability and express it in part [inaudible 01:02:07] of themselves that way, it's powerful. You connect with them.
It doesn't look like Kenny G takes any chances, and I think the perfection--the flip side of perfectionism is that loss from the unexplored. It's like going to the same restaurant every night. The food's fine, it's good, like it, it's delicious, but don't you want to try something else? Different cuisine, different flavors? 'No, no, I really like this one.'
And so, what I'm going to ask you is, the next time you talk to him, I think he should do a concert with Lady Gaga or--he's got a thing with Kanye West; I don't know what the range of that collaboration is--but where he couldn't control things. I assume in his concerts, it's unbelievably choreographed to the note. Is that true? And, what do you think he would do if he had to confront--it's risky and you expose yourself when you don't know how it's going to go. You give up control, but you get something in return. He's not interested in that. Or, he can't do it.
Penny Lane: Okay. So, so many things I want to respond to because I love everything you just said. So, first of all, on this question of perfectionism. Earlier you referenced this, but I want to explain it for your listeners. When Kenny goes into the recording studio, he will record those saxophone parts thousands and thousands of times and he'll play the same two notes in sequence thousands and thousands of times until he gets the one he thinks is perfect. And, he shows us his Pro Tools timeline, and it's just like, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. Half of a note is, like, edited.
And so, I show that in the film because I think it's important to understand how art is made and how it does affect the sound. Like, that's the sound of it. The sound is of a person who is very controlled and doesn't like imperfections. I used the word 'imperfections' earlier, but now you're giving me some more words--rawness, vulnerability, that edge of the uncontrolled. And, I think every artist has to find a way to balance chaos and order. I mean it's like Apollo and Dionysus, isn't it? This is what we have to do and everyone finds their own way through that. Except for Kenny G, because he's just like, 'No. Just none. Why would I do that?' in his mind. It's just not interesting to him.
And, I think that that idea really struck me because, okay, there might be a criticism--there is a criticism of Kenny G that sounds facile but I think I've learned is not. And, that is that it lacks soul. The music lacks soul. What does that mean? It sounds like a stupid thing that music critics say to have something to say, and--
Russ Roberts: It's a cheap shot on some level.
Penny Lane: Yes. But, you know what? I think there's something real there. And, the lack of rawness, the lack of vulnerability, I think is that thing.
And it's not about--it can be faked. It's exactly what you said. It is performed. It's not about some ideal of authenticity that doesn't really exist. It's like: Are you good at making people feel like you've given them a glimpse of your soul? And, I think that that is a huge part of what moves us about art; and artists who don't do that creep me out to some extent. So, there's a creepiness there because you get that it feels like it's all surface and there's nothing underneath there. And that lack of something underneath, that I'm going to now call a soul, is disturbing, I think, to people.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to make a prediction. Music's a little different than athletics[?]--well, maybe it's the same. So, Kenny G has this opportunity, before that sets in, to take some risks. He's got this incredible oevre, this incredible collection of risk-free songs. He needs to take a chance. He needs to get out there. And I think--I'm going to play cheap psychologist--there's something there--I'm not going to play cheap psychologist, it's so obvious--there's a fear there of failure, a fear of embarrassment, a fear of imperfection that I think is making him less of who he could be. I think he'd be more perfect if he was less perfect. Would you let him know that? And, tell him his next album needs to be totally improvised without studio--
Penny Lane: People say this to me all the time like, 'Tell Kenny to try writing in a minor key.' And, like, tell Kenny--and, I'm just like, 'I don't know why you guys think that your ideas about what art are, which maybe I share, has anything to do with what Kenny is doing. It's not on his radar.' He's not going to hear that and think, 'Oh, I never thought of that before.'
Okay. Two minutes into the film, I ask Kenny a question, which was actually the first question I asked him in the interview, so it's positioned accurately in the film as to how it really went, and I thought it was kind of a softball question. I said, 'What do you love about music?' And, he is stumped by this and he thinks about it. And, he says, 'I don't know that I do love music that much.' And, then he kind of, like, realizes that was maybe not the best answer, and he stumbles around a little more and he lands on what he does love about music, which is: practicing. Okay? That's what he cares about. That's what he loves. And, if you love the music, it's because you resonate with that idea of someone trying to be perfect, and it doesn't bother you that there's no soul there. It's not what you're looking for. If you get off the train at that point, it's very likely that you're probably not going to enjoy his music very much. Or if you do enjoy it, it'll be something like a guilty pleasure where you know it's bad, but you like it anyway, which again we've already established is possible.
Russ Roberts: The Carpenters. The Carpenters. And, for me, it's Bread ["For All We Know"--Econlib Ed.]. I would do anything--I can't remember the name of the song, but I like that song; I can't help myself.
Penny Lane: Right. So, yeah. So, I think that there's something very key in that insight that he doesn't love music that much, but he does love practicing. You get the feeling that--and I think this is true and he'd agree with me--if he hadn't happened to go to a high school that had a really good jazz band that was winning national competitions--very important, not just good, but award-winning, the best in the country year after year--maybe he wouldn't have been a musician. It wasn't necessarily going to be music for him. You get the feeling he loves accounting as much or flying a plane or golfing or investing or he would've just been this person in any field, which goes against our ideas about what an artist is and must be.
And, I probably have those ideas and I agree with you that that's why I have a hard time calling what he does art and I have a hard time calling him an artist. Even though factually it's art and he's an artist, I struggle to get there because I think there's something missing there that is missing in the person and is missing in the music. And, I don't mean that as an insult. I'm trying to be accurate in my description and I think I'm right.
But, just to be clear: His embrace of digital recording technology, which again if you come from a particular generation or you have particular ideals that digital smoothness, the perfection, the kind of CD technology, the smooth jazz format, all of that rubs you the wrong way because you're looking for texture, literally, you're looking for something raw or gritty. And, again, that's just not his concern. He's not struggling to balance those things. He just wants the smoothness. He just wants the perfection.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to say, your documentary opened my mind to music in a way it had never been opened before; and I'm certainly--our conversation has as well--and I'm actually going to listen to some of his songs that I wouldn't have crossed my mind to listen to, and I hope that makes him happy. But, I'm not going to say he's not an artist at all. I would never say that. But he's doing a different kind of art. He is doing a--it's not what we expect of artists in the modern era, what we demand of them. It's a different thing for many of us. And, I think that's what he is not doing: the personal exploration of himself, the world, whatever it is. He's doing something else. He's crafting something beautiful. He's an artist the same way that a craftsman in wood who makes a beautiful banister or a beautiful piece of furniture and you go, Well, that's beautiful. Having that in my house makes me feel good because it fits in and it's a certain color and shape and design and it's well crafted.' His songs are well crafted; and you can't deny that. And that serves a certain purpose.
Penny Lane: And, he does write his own music. All of his best stuff--
Russ Roberts: Correct. Correct--
Penny Lane: is stuff that he wrote. So, there is--I have to take it back--there is a soul there. There literally is a soul there because there's Kenny and he's expressing himself and I don't think he's doing it through market research. He's not a corporate product in the way that many of us might think he is.
Russ Roberts: He's not The Monkeys.
Penny Lane: Exactly. Yeah.
And, part of the story of his career is actually the early years at Arista where he is struggling against the demands of the record industry. They want him to be more like other people, and he is rebelling. And so, I have to give him credit where credit is due. He did do something with his music that no one had ever done before. It wasn't like the world was pumping out Kenny Gs in the 1980s. Kenny came along and what he did was so weird and strange and divorced from the tradition of jazz, which at that point was becoming a very unpopular art form: jazz went from being the most popular music to amongst the least popular forms of music at that point. And that's worth reflecting on. But, he came along, and for the first time in 70 years, there were best-selling jazz albums. They were Kenny G albums.
In a way you'd think, 'Well, isn't the jazz community happy because now people love jazz, but they just like this version of jazz that Kenny does?' And, of course, that's not what happened.
But, yeah, there's something there, where--do you know the terms 'rock-ism' and 'pop-timism'? It's related I think. So, rock-ism is a movement within music criticism that was not named, of course, at the time, but in retrospect we look back and we say, 'How do we articulate that The Beatles are the greatest--because they are now, right? So, we have to say why.' And, this set of ideas about authenticity, about the importance of writing your own songs, and about all these ideas that rock music embodies at its best: these are now the values that we have in music, right? So, then we can't like Frank Sinatra because he doesn't write his own songs. There are all these artists who fall outside of that language.
So, flash forward to, let's say the 1990s, early 200s, 2010s, some music critics start rebelling against that; and again, in retrospect, this movement becomes known as pop-timism, which is to say that now you'd say Beyonce is obviously the greatest living musician. If you're a music critic, you might say that, because now we think that these values of reaching the masses--like, we are more pop-timist as a culture than we used to be.
And, I think that's very true. You see it in movies as well. Film critics now, if you dare to say something bad about a Marvel movie, like, the world will come for you and people will not give you jobs. So, there's kind of an expectation now that the critical class, essentially, be less snobby than they used to be.
And, part of the hatred of Kenny G is a historical relic. People don't hate Kenny G now. I mean, they did 20 years ago when he was a threat. Now they're like, 'Eh, Kenny G. I don't like it, but I don't get so mad about it.' People aren't as angry today as they were 20 years ago.
Russ Roberts: Your next documentary should be on Billy Joel. I'm not a huge Billy Joel fan, but he's an unbelievably talented songwriter and performer, and I think he's tremendously underrated because his songs are a little bit too pleasant, which is just--that's neither here nor there. But, you do point out just now, which I never thought about, he was an innovator, Kenny G--just an innovator in a way that was not the way we usually think of his innovation, not like John Coltrane. But he did innovate a whole genre, I think, right? Smooth jazz, easy listing, whatever you want to call it.
And, there was a moment in his career, which you should describe for listeners because it's such an incredible thing, where he took a risk. He's on the Tonight Show, which is, like, his biggest break, he's on the Tonight Show and he does something insane. Maybe he never got over it. Tell us what he did.
Penny Lane: So, yeah. So, this is his big break moment. I mean in 1986, being on the Tonight Show is the biggest platform you could have. Everyone in the country will see this, kind of, you know? And, usually on the Tonight Show, you get your main slot as a musician--you play the single--and then at the end of the show as they're playing off, you can play whatever you want because it'll probably get cut off after 10 to 20 to 30 seconds and they don't really care.
So, Kenny's supposed to play the single, which is by the demand of Clive Davis at Arista, a vocal track where he plays along and plays a solo, which is what the record industry thinks he should do to break through. And, then at the end, he says, 'Well, I'm going to play my song, "Songbird,"' which is a song that he wrote all by himself and did all the parts and recorded it in his own little apartment. And, they said, 'Great.'
Russ Roberts: How old is he at this point?
Penny Lane: Let's see, 1986. I don't know, in his 1930s?
Russ Roberts: This is 35 years ago, so he's not 65, right?
Russ Roberts: How old is he?
Penny Lane: He's about 65 now, so yeah, he's about 30--
Russ Roberts: So, he's in his late 20s and he hasn't made it. This is his big chance.
Penny Lane: And, he really wants to make it, it must be said. I mean he has demonstrated that he's willing to play ball with the industry to make it happen, but something inside of him--okay, so then what happens is: The people who are running the show come and knock on the door and they say, 'Oh, we're running late tonight. You're only going to get to play one song, so come out and play your single.' And, he makes the decision in that moment to play "Songbird" instead, which was not what anyone wanted from him. It's not what the record label wanted. It's not what the bookers and the show wanted. His manager certainly didn't want that.
But he did it. And, it launched his career.
And, I thought that story was so important to say, because again it's not what you think of. There's something so pre-digested-seeming about the music. It feels like it must have been made in a laboratory by some corporate executives who were looking for the thing that would play for grandma, but also yuppies in the city or whatever. But it's not like that. This really was music that Kenny did by himself against the wishes of his record label.
Russ Roberts: And, he starts to play the song and when his manager or somebody realizes he's not doing what he's, quote, "supposed to be doing," they're gesturing him. Like, they're furious. And, he just plays; and the amazing thing is, it's not like the crowd rushed the stage and carried him off on their shoulders. Some executive's wife heard it on Tonight Show, right? And, said, 'I like that.'
Penny Lane: 'I like that, honey.'
Russ Roberts: And, the rest is history. And, the rest is history, right?
Penny Lane: Exactly. So, the record label, to their credit, said, 'Okay, well we were wrong. This should be the single. Kenny was right.' So, they started putting their weight, and it was an era where having the weight of your record label behind you really mattered, because Clive Davis could personally get your song played on every radio station in the country. So, he got his record label behind him, and they put a lot of weight into making that song work. And, it was a huge hit. It was a massive, unexpected, out-of-nowhere hit, and it just played everywhere. It played on pop stations. It played on R&B [rhythm and blues] stations. It played on jazz stations.
And, then because it was so successful and then Kenny had another hit and another hit and another hit, that is where the format called 'smooth jazz' comes from. It's not really a genre of music in the sense that it emerged from a subculture and then crossed over. Smooth jazz is truly a marketing concept: it was created by record--sorry, by radio stations and by market researchers to create a format for Kenny G, because he was so successful and so popular. They were, like, 'Let's make a station or a bunch of stations where we can program around Kenny G. What else should we play?'
And, by the way, Pat Metheny was a staple artist in the smooth jazz format, which is very important to understand, because that's part of why he is particularly personally so threatened by Kenny, because in some ways he's been put in the same bucket; and he is, rightfully sure that what he is up to is nothing like what Kenny G is up to and I'm sure he found that personally threatening at the time.
Yeah. Kenny G changed the world. I mean he just did. You don't have to like it, but you have to acknowledge it.
Russ Roberts: You were saying--
Penny Lane: Wait, can I actually follow up on an earlier question?
Russ Roberts: Yep. Yeah, go ahead.
Penny Lane: Because you were saying like, 'Oh, he should introduce some rawness into his work.' Well, what happens when you ask Kenny G to improvise? As a person I discovered early on in my filmmaking with him--because sometimes you throw things at a subject because you're trying to capture a spontaneous moment. And, early on in our shooting, we went to his high school and the principal asked him to sign a wall for notable alumni.
And, Kenny doesn't know he's going to be asked to do this--because, I mean, I wasn't actually trying to do anything. I just didn't think it was worth mentioning that he was going to be doing this. I figured it was the kind of thing he's done a million times. But, he melted down in front of that wall. He didn't know he was going to be asked to do it, he didn't think in advance about what he was going to say, and he didn't practice writing it to make sure it would look good. And, he was furious and absolutely stymied by this task. It was a horrible moment for all of us--ended up being a great moment for the film, but I was like, 'Oh man, this was bad.' Kenny does not want to be surprised. He hates surprises, I discovered early on. So, I couldn't try to surprise him with anything.
Russ Roberts: How surprising.
Penny Lane: Yeah, exactly. So, I think that there's something about that. Like, the idea of improvisation has come to be seen as really the hallmark of what we think jazz is about. And, again, it wasn't always that way. There was a time where perhaps you would've said other things are what the essential--'Does it make you dance?' would've been an essential quality of jazz in the 1940s; not so much now.
But, now we say improvisation is key. And Kenny cannot improvise, does not improvise, and does not want to improvise, and he kind of improvises in his shows but they don't feel very improvisational to me. They feel very rehearsed; and I think they are. And, again, every jazz artist who's improvising is kind of performing an improvisation in their--they've practiced and they have worked out a few things that they're going to do spontaneously in the moment, but they're selling it as true improvisation in a way that he is not able to, at least to my hearing.
Russ Roberts: I loved that moment in his high school. His unease was so palpable. He did a great job by the way. What he wrote was nice. It looked good. How long did that take?
Penny Lane: I think it took seven minutes; and of course in the film it takes about 60 seconds, but in film language it's like an eternity.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. Right. If you had shown that full seven minutes, it would've been unbearable. It was uncomfortable as it was because his discomfort was very apparent.
Penny Lane: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: The last thing I'll say is that, if this were a high production-values podcast, we would fade out to "Songbird": you would've heard it a few times before now, and then we'd cut over to "Going Home." But it's not that kind of podcast. But 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. But, if you can't wait, you will find his music on Spotify and in malls all across the world, even in China.
My guest today has been Penny Lane; the documentary is called Listening To Kenny G. Penny, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Penny Lane: Thank you. This was so fun.