Kenny G, the 65-year-old, curly-maned saxophonist, has sold 75 million records and inspired the entire genre of "smooth jazz." He isn't just the best-selling instrumentalist of all time, he's also one of the most critically reviled musicians in history.
And now the artist formerly known as Kenneth Gorelick is the subject of a brilliant new HBO documentary, Listening to Kenny G, which The New Yorker called "an ironic masterpiece" that perfectly defines "the elusive and contested concept of a guilty pleasure: enjoying art that one finds composed of misguided ideas and dubious processes."
Director Penny Lane explores why critics hate Kenny G and the masses love him, creating a funny, poignant, and entrancing film about mass commercial appeal, elite tastes, the ever-changing music world, and, incredibly, epistemological humility. In a long conversation with me (available as a Reason Interview podcast), she also talks about the themes in her body of work (her previous film was Hail Satan?, about a group of Baphomet devotees pushing for religious freedom), her aesthetic and life philosophy, and why she's been reading Reason since her college days.
"When I think about music," the 43-year-old Lane tells me, "the first thing that comes to mind is the idea of taste and how deeply intimate that is with our sense of selves and our sense of social identity. I really wanted to do something about that. Getting from that to Kenny was pretty obvious. I basically sold it to [HBO] as an exploration of why Kenny G is the most popular and successful and best-selling instrumentalist of all time and why that success makes a certain subset of people really mad."
That "certain subset" includes jazz critics who write for places ranging from The New York Times to Jacobin and every outlet in between. Kenny G offends them because he seems fundamentally uninterested in the musical tradition that he has come to define for millions of people around the globe.
"I spent a lot of time with Kenny and it kind of didn't matter how many different ways I asked him what he was up to when he was creating these songs," Lane explains. "He was just like, 'I don't know. It's pretty, I like it.' Most artists have a whole set of things they're thinking about—who your audience is and who you're in conversation with and what history you're drawing on and how are you innovating. Kenny just isn't engaged in that. I think it's his utter lack of interest in jazz [that drives critics nuts.] Kenny G does not know anything about jazz."
One of Lane's hallmarks is that she doesn't tip her hand as a director, so viewers aren't quite sure where she's coming from. The result is a delightful tension as a viewer; you're never sure who you should be rooting for or against. While she gives critics their due, she does the same for the Kenny G fans with whom she talks.
"The most important thing is that it's music that is useful in their lives," says Lane. "I think life is hard and there is nothing wrong with wanting something to relax to after your 10 hours at the factory or whatever image you want to use for that. [Kenny G.'s music] doesn't get in the way, you can put on in the background. People study to it, they meditate to it, they run to it. They make love to it. They get married to it. They've used it to put babies to sleep. Anesthesiologists use it before surgery. It helps get the heart rate down. The Chinese government uses it to send people home at the end of the workday. It is a supremely functional music," Lane continues, "which is interesting, because it's referred to by a critic as musical furniture, which I think is actually pretty apt. It's easy to forget that most people, when I tell them that I made a film about why people hate Kenny G, they're like, 'Who hates Kenny G? Everyone loves Kenny G!'"
A documentary about a smooth jazz saxophonist seems pretty far afield from Lane's 2019 film, Hail Satan?, but she says there's a strong thematic continuity in her work. "The joke way of putting it would be to say that after I made a movie defending Satanists, I thought to myself, who do people hate more than Satanists?" she says. "But that's not really true. What I'm trying to do with my films is to find really entertaining, funny ways to talk about really serious issues that I don't think a po-faced delivery would get a big audience for. I want people to be able to change their minds. I want people to be willing to change their minds. I love that. I love the feeling of finding out that I'm wrong. Not everyone does. I love it. I'm trying to engineer moments where it's destabilizing for people."
Lane's films (full list here) all proceed from the assumption that she doesn't have all the answers, that she doesn't know the best way for other people to live, much less the best music for them to listen to. So it may not be a coincidence that she's a longtime reader of Reason who dismisses conventional political or ideological tribes. "I started subscribing to Reason when I was in college and I went to Vassar," she recalls. "I would put it underneath all my other mail to bring it back to my dorm room."
But her interest in alternatives to mainstream politics and thought started even earlier. "In high school, we had a politics class and you were supposed to choose Democrat or Republican to be part of the debate or whatever," Lane remembers. "I was like, 'I don't want either one.' And my teacher was like, 'OK, there's this other thing.' I think on some level I probably was attracted to it because it made me feel special. Like, I'm the one person here who doesn't want to go along with the crowd."
The sense of being an outsider with a distinct point of view runs deep in Lane. "Society needs people who are annoying, who stand outside and say, 'But what about this?' I've always identified with that kind of personality. And I do think that is somewhat of a kind of libertarian personality type."
If Lane's films have a consistent message, she says it's "very much about humility. I think I'm a genius and I should run the world, but I would never want to do that because I actually don't think that my ideas are better than other people's ideas. I have ideas about how I want to live, but I'm not interested in imposing them on other people."
Rather, she strives to make people consider issues from different points of view and to confront and work through their biases. With Listening To Kenny G, you might come away thinking that the critics are smug assholes (that was my initial reaction) or that the artist formerly known as Kenneth Gorelick is music's greatest monster.
"I am thrilled to make a film that allows for those readings," says Lane. She doesn't want to make movies that tell people what to think. Rather, she wants to make movies that make people think. With Listening To Kenny G, available on HBO, she's done exactly that.
Edited by Regan Taylor, Camera by Kevin Alexander
Photo Credits: World-Telegram staff photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Universal Images Group/Newscom; Sarah_Ackerman from New York, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, Michael Borkson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; United Archives/IFTN/Newscom; Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; LAURA CAVANAUGH/UPI/Newscom; Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash; Photo by Juan Rojas on Unsplash; Photo by Csongor Schmutc on Unsplash; Joy with Tranquility (after 1698), Eduardus Jacobus (English, 18th century) via Artvee; Andy Martin Jr./ZUMA Press/Newscom; Interior of a Tavern or Brothel with People Drinking and Playing Trictrac (c. 1620—c. 1625), via Artvee; Internet Archives, via archive.org; Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash; Photo by Remy Gieling on Unsplash; Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash; Photo by Polina Kuzovkova on Unsplash; Photo by Christian Werther on Unsplash; Photo by Geronimo Giqueaux on Unsplash; Photo by Anway Pawar on Unsplash; Photo by Egor Gordeev on Unsplash; Photo by Andreas Rønningen on Unsplash; Photo by David Veksler on Unsplash; Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash; Photo by Sudhith Xavier on Unsplash; Duke Human Simulation and Patient Safety Center, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Brian Stalter on Unsplash; Photo by Diogo Nunes on Unsplash; HBO
Music Credit: Music: Saint Charles by Mark Yencheske, via Artlist