Kenny G is the most successful instrumental artist of all time. So why does a certain subset of people love to hate him? Penny Lane, director of the new HBO documentary Listening to Kenny G from the platform’s Music Box series, got to the heart of that question on this week’s episode of the Factual America podcast.
“Listening to Kenny G is a documentary about why Kenny G is the best-selling instrumental artist of all time, and why his success rubs some people the wrong way. Like, why certain people really hate Kenny G, basically,” Lane said.
“I think it’s generally people who have a deep love for jazz. They have a real investment in whatever version of jazz that they have an investment in, and they see this guy who’s doing none of the things that they think are important. Like, really just kind of hollowing out anything that would be good or valuable about jazz and replacing it with something they think of as being quite soulless and dumb.”
“Now all that would be fine if he were not the most successful living jazz artist by a landslide. All that would be offensive to them on some level, but the anger I really do think comes from his success,” she added. “And I get it. I feel this way about things that I feel this way about — it just isn’t jazz and Kenny G. We all have our little camps that we’re in, and there’s something very upsetting about when your opinions about art are proven wrong by the marketplace in some way. It bothers people.”
When Lane set out to make Listening to Kenny G, she came at it from a place of curiosity. Neither a particularly big fan nor a hater of the saxophonist, she was able to look objectively at his success — and his recent reemergence as a popular figure among young people as a result of collaborations with Kanye West and Katy Perry. And of course, because of memes.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I was in the camp of people whose blood pressure goes up when they hear the beginning of ‘Songbird,’ you know? A lot of my friends do have a visceral, negative reaction,” Lane said.
“It also gets at something deep. Trying to answer that question I think will tell me something about the nature of music and personal taste and identity and how we think about those conflicts, and what is good art and who gets to decide? So that, for me was, the value of trying to answer the question of why certain people get so angry about him.”
Listening to Kenny G, produced executive produced by Bill Simmons (HBO’s Andre The Giant, Showbiz Kids) is now streaming on HBO Max. Here are time stamps from the Penny Lane interview:
00:00 – The trailer for Listening to Kenny G.
03:05 – What the film is about.
05:17 – How Penny feels about Kenny’s music.
07:09 – Why some people dislike his music so strongly.
09:31 – Why Penny thought now was a good time to make a documentary about this musician.
11:27 – Common misconceptions people have about Kenny G.
13:10 – Why fitting into a specific genre isn’t as important as it used to be.
16:24 – How the idea for the film started.
18:37 – How Penny gained access to Kenny G.
20:25 – The amount of time Penny spent shooting with him.
21:15 – Penny’s impression of Kenny after spending so much time with him.
23:22 – How Penny’s conception of the documentary evolved over time.
29:45 – The next project Penny is working on about altruistic kidney donations.
Factual America examines America through the lens of documentary filmmaking. Guests include Academy Award, Emmy and Grammy-winning filmmakers and producers, their subjects, as well as experts on the American experience. We discuss true crime, music, burning social and political topics, history and arts with the creators of the latest and upcoming documentary films in theatres and on the most popular digital platforms. This podcast is produced by Alamo Pictures, a London- and Austin-based production company that makes documentaries about the US from a European perspective for international audiences.
Main Image: Kenny G in Listening to Kenny G, courtesy of HBO and Factual America.