How Kenny G’s ‘Songbird’ Went From Punchline to ‘Gran Turismo’ Anthem

The smooth-jazz titan has gotten used to people making fun of his easy-listening music. But his biggest hit is in a revved-up new sports film, unironically, suggesting that maybe the world is finally changing its tune on the saxman
How Kenny G’s ‘Songbird’ Went From Punchline to ‘Gran Turismo’ Anthem

In 1993, Kenny G was asked if he sang. “Not like Michael Bolton,” the saxophonist responded with a laugh. “I have no aspirations to do more than what I’m doing. In other words, I don’t want to be a singer, I don’t want to be an actor, I don’t want to be a comedian and I don’t want to be an athlete. I am a good golfer, though. I have about a 10 handicap.”

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The man born Kenneth Bruce Gorelick is among the biggest music superstars who isn’t a singer. We know Kenny G not for his voice but for his sax. Now, how you feel about his sax is another matter entirely. He’s had plenty of hits, many of them instrumentals, wafting waves of sprightly melody floating like gossamer from your speakers. Then there’s the man himself. He’s the guy with the goofy hair and the nerdy demeanor — he may not have aspired to be a comedian, but plenty of people find him and his music patently ridiculous. And it’s very possible we’re in store for a revival of his most famous song. You may not even know its title, but you definitely know what it sounds like. Let me refresh your memory: This is “Songbird.”

Instrumentals are funny things. We have so many songs lodged in our brains — so many random lyrics embedded in our subconscious — that a wordless track hits differently. Instrumentals are ephemeral, intimate, immediate — we fill in the blanks of what the song’s about based on the emotions that the music stirs up in us. We create our own world out of it, and as a result, instrumentals can feel more personal — we make the song complete by what we bring to it. And in the modern era, no one has crafted more memorable instrumentals than Kenny G. But is “memorable” the same as “good”? 

Thirty-six years after its debut, “Songbird” is featured in, of all places, Gran Turismo, a film based on the popular video game that’s also about a real-life gamer, Jann Mardenborough, who became an actual race-car driver. Early on in the movie, Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) is getting into the right mental headspace the night before an important race, and as he tries to fall asleep, he’s rocking “Songbird” through his headphones. (He’s also a big fan of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” another easy-listening epic.) “Songbird” will pop up intermittently through Gran Turismo, telling us something important about Mardenborough: Our hero operates in a burn-rubber world of high intensity, but he’s cool as a cucumber grooving to Kenny G.

Mardenborough is hardly alone in his genuine adoration for Kenny G. His songs are staples of weddings. At the same time, they’re also ideal for waiting rooms. They are the aural background meant to put you at ease, maybe sentimental. Long before the term was even invented, Kenny G wanted to help you get all up in your feels.

Now 67, Kenny G has been thinking about music since he was a boy, learning to play piano before shifting to saxophone. By 17, he was already playing shows, performing with Barry White. “My school was an inner-city school,” Kenny G said of his Seattle upbringing. “When I played with Barry White, I’m telling you, most of the kids at my school were at this concert because that was the music we were listening to. I went back (to school), and they were looking at me like I am this big hero instead of this nerdy guy who is carrying this saxophone around all of the time.”

There were other gigs, like playing with Liberace or Miles Davis. He was part of a funk group, Cold, Bold & Together. “Being the only white guy in the band was one of the biggest learning experiences of my life,” he recalled. “I not only crossed the color barrier; I found people were as happy to hear my blue-eyed soul as they were to hear the real thing. I got over my stage fright once and for all.”

In the early 1980s, he pursued a solo career, signing to music industry icon Clive Davis’ Arista Records. His initial albums very much capitalized on the smooth-jazz movement of the era — essentially, Steely Dan but blandly tasteful — and minor hits like “Hi, How Ya Doin’?” paired Kenny G with vocalists. This would become a battle between the saxman and his label, which wanted his forthcoming fourth album, Duotones, to have more songs with vocals. “A saxophonist can be just as expressive as a good singer,” he argued in 1987, later adding, “I had always had to push for more instrumentals.” One such song was something he’d written in response to moving from Seattle to Los Angeles, noting that it “represents the start of a new life to me. It was the catalyst.” 

You wouldn’t necessarily get that from “Songbird,” although in its lilting, breezy way, it does seem to evoke something hopeful. With its massaging keyboards and feathery saxophone solos, the song is like a sound bath, cascading over the listener like warm water in the shower, washing away your troubles. Knowing that “Songbird” was his response to beginning a new chapter, you can detect the sense of excitement and possibility in its delicate arrangement — its growing optimism at what lies ahead. But just as easily, you could hear “Songbird” as nothing but New Age-y aural mush — an assault of feel-good pablum designed for people who require nothing more from music than to be anesthetized into contented complacency. Obviously, Kenny G would prefer audiences interpret “Songbird” in the former way than in the latter.

“I wrote ‘Songbird’ to submit as possible film-score material,” he told The New York Times at the time. “But I ended up liking it so much that I decided to put it on my album Duotones. The idea for the song came out of imagining what it would be like to fly. When I picked up the soprano sax, I decided to pretend I was playing live in concert and show off what I could do rather than try to be commercial.”

As someone not predisposed to enjoy Kenny G’s music — I don’t hate it, but I wouldn’t prefer to spend my waking hours listening to it, as I’ve had to do while writing this piece — I’m nonetheless interested in how he crafts his high-sheen songs. There’s an ethereal precision to them that’s numbing but formidable — the smooth-jazz equivalent of the ferocious pummeling you get from metal. Working with producers who’d previously crafted hits for the likes of Whitney Houston, Kenny G laid down the track fairly simply. As he said this summer, “I just played it, and then (it) sounded good to my ear. I just played it a couple of times — I didn’t go in and fine-tune notes at all. …  When I listen to ‘Songbird,’ I hear some out-of-tune notes that I played; I (also) hear some notes that I would’ve played in a different timing. But I wouldn’t change a thing, now, because the song is the song.” 

I find it fascinating that, to Kenny G’s ears, “Songbird” is not, in fact, “perfect.” The glistening sterility of the song is all of a piece — it’s impossible to imagine someone actually “improving” upon it by fixing its bum notes. Apparently, even in something as antiseptically ravishing as “Songbird,” there are tiny little musical flaws — traces of human error. It’s hard to believe in a song that feels manufactured by androids.

“Songbird” wasn’t the first single off Duotones, which hit record stores in the fall of 1986. “Don’t Make Me Wait for Love” — written by Walter Afanasieff and album producers Preston Glass and Narada Michael Walden, and sung by Lenny Williams — was Kenny G’s first Top 40 hit, landing at No. 15. Another song, “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” with a vocal by Ellis Hall, did well on the R&B charts. In fact, “What Does It Take” was going to be the track he performed for his debut on The Tonight Show. At the last minute, though, Kenny G called an audible.

“(M)y manager was sitting in the (green) room and I said to him, ‘When the curtain goes up, I’m going to play a different song,’” Kenny G told USA Today. “He goes, ‘This is your life. You do what you think is the best thing. Screw everybody else.’”

What happened next has become part of Kenny G lore. Rock ‘n’ roll is full of stories of bands flipping the bird to the man and doing their own thing. In the 1960s, the Doors refused to change the lyrics to “Light My Fire” when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. In the 1990s, Sinéad O’Connor defiantly tore up a photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live. In-between, Kenny G chose to do “Songbird” on The Tonight Show. “I got really chewed out over it,” he said in that same interview. “And I thought, ‘Okay, I might’ve just blown my whole career. You’re never going to be on TV again.”

Of course, the opposite happened. The performance of “Songbird” helped make it a smash — so much so that, six months later, The Tonight Show had him back on to play it again. The song went as high as No. 4 on the Billboard charts, nearly unheard of for an instrumental. Duotones raced into the Top 10, validating Kenny G’s belief that his songs didn’t need singers. “I’d always thought that if I had a hit with an instrumental, that it would either be a dance tune or taken from a movie score,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “This record really broke the rules.” In the same interview, he remarked, “At least now I won’t have to worry about (the record company) pushing anymore vocals on me.”

As hip-hop was starting to gain a foothold in mainstream culture in the late 1980s, Kenny G was this strange anomaly: an easy-listening saxophonist who’d had a smash with a jazz-lite instrumental. There wasn’t anything like him in the pop world, and the reaction among jazz fans wasn’t always positive as Duotones became a sensation. Kenny G witnessed the backlash in real time when he played the same jazz festival two years in a row. “The first year I played, the review came out saying, ‘What a fresh new sound!’” he said. “Then the next year, after millions of my records had been sold, the review came out saying, ‘He’s gone commercial.’ I played the same way! I don’t think there’s an artist who wouldn’t want more sales, and if it’s commercial, maybe it’s because lots of people like it.”

Lots of people continued to like Kenny G over the next several years. Silhouette, released in 1988, also went Top 10, but his 1992 disc Breathless was its own special phenomenon. One of that fall’s bestsellers, alongside Garth BrooksThe Chase and the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, Breathless included the Grammy-winning smash “Forever in Love,” helping to make it Kenny G’s most commercially successful album. (To date, Breathless has sold 12 million copies in America alone.) A couple years later, he put out a Christmas album that went to No. 1. Bill Clinton, U.S. president and saxophone dabbler, was a big Kenny G fan. The two became golf buddies, even if Kenny G was honest about the president’s sax skills. “He’s not a professional, but I’ll tell you, of any saxophone player in the world, he knows it’s not a competition,” the musician said. “A lot of sax players try to outdo each other with riffs. I’m not into that, I don’t want another saxophone player out there trying to show me how good he is. Clinton feels the same way and I love that about him. … Okay, he doesn’t have all the technique you would have if you practiced all the time, but what he does do is he puts his heart into it.” 

Much like fellow easy-listening superstar Michael Bolton, Kenny G was enormously popular but chronically uncool. He was the kind of artist that, even if you liked him, you felt nervous admitting it in public for fear of being mocked for your lameness. Clearly, there were many, many human beings who enjoyed his songs, but there was no edge, no grit to his music — nothing that suggested danger, rebellion or transgression. In a culture that values tortured artists — fellow Seattleite Kurt Cobain had taken his life in 1994 — Kenny G seemed wimpy, utterly uncompelling. In a 1990 interview, he admitted he didn’t listen to much music at home: “I really like the silence. I like just sitting out there and listening to the waves. I do. I like the silence.” Other musicians are consumed by their passion — Kenny G didn’t have any of that angst. He just seemed too nice. 

Consequently, Kenny G was a convenient punching bag, although his subsequent albums continued to do well throughout the 1990s and into the next century. Eventually, he became one of those middle-of-the-road artists who focused on making records of covers, including 1999’s Classics in the Key of G, but he quickly grew tired of the gimmick. “Those were my days at Arista Records,” he said in 2010. “Clive Davis was running the show there, and that was really what he was pushing at that point for me to do, and I trusted him. I think he’s smart and I think he’s creative. That was kind of the way it was. After doing a couple of those, I really did decide that it was time for me to do original music. That’s one of the reasons I’m not with the same record label anymore.” 

The records he’s made in more recent years haven’t had the chart impact of his earlier work, but he remains a cultural fixture — in large part because he’s still used as a punchline in sitcoms and YouTube videos. Sometimes, Kenny G gets in on the joke as well. As he put it in 2021, “If they’re making fun of me on South Park — I’m the guy that plays a note that makes everyone crapped their pants — I’m thinking, ‘I’m on the radar of the guys that are writing South Park, are you kidding me? That’s awesome.’”

But even Kenny G got tired of his musical formula, especially when he heard it emulated by younger artists. “When I listen to the radio, which is only in the car, and hear smooth jazz, I can tell when someone is trying to do something to be commercial,” Kenny G told JazzTimes. “I can hear the players that are trying to do what I’m doing, (and) it doesn’t make me feel that great. I’m not that flattered when somebody tries to play like me, because they’re doing it to get on the radio. And I get depressed about radio stations that play this stuff. It’s like when you see a movie, and then another just like it; it can’t be as good (as the first).” 

Mock Kenny G all you want, but he was certainly an innovator — for better or worse, his very specific style of laidback schmaltz is sui generis.

And, in recent times, he’s enjoyed a bit of a critical reassessment. 2021 was a big year for the musician, who was the subject of a documentary, Listening to Kenny G, that tried to dissect his appeal while also examining why so many critics (as well as a few jazz musicians) despise him. I found the film compelling, mostly for how it subconsciously suggested that there’s no there there to Kenny G, who director Penny Lane interviewed extensively. In the film, what comes across acutely is his smiling nothingness — he’s not evil, just kinda empty — and it perfectly matches his soaringly inoffensive music. And yet, in an era when so many former musical and cultural laughingstocks are being looked at with fresh eyes, Kenny G’s reputation seemed to be bolstered by the no-means-hagiographic documentary. The movie gave people permission to cut the laughingstock some slack. 

It didn’t hurt that prominent, hip contemporary artists were seeking him out to collaborate. “I’ve been around a long time, so when people like Kanye and the Weeknd are asking me to play on their records, yeah, I do feel like it’s a resurgence in my career right now,” Kenny G said in early 2022. “I’m not trying to sound egotistical, but I’ve always thought that when you have something of great quality, you become timeless.”

One’s tempted to respond with John Huston’s great line from Chinatown: “Of course I’m respectable. I’m old! Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Kenny G’s deathless, wordless, frictionless hits haven’t changed over time. But if you pound certain punching bags long enough and they don’t go away — if they grin and bear it, coming across as benign good sports — then there’s almost something endearing about them. Eventually, the jokes no longer seem mean — suddenly, there’s an affectionate warmth to them. Maybe people don’t exactly like Kenny G’s music, but it’s gotten harder to truly revile it — or him — anymore.

When “Songbird” showed up in Gran Turismo, the audience and the characters around Jann Mardenborough had the same reaction: What the hell is this? The moment had been inspired by the film’s director, Neill Blomkamp, who communicated with the real Mardenborough to get insights into what made him tick.

In a May interview, Blomkamp recalled, “I would even just text him constantly: ‘What about this? What about that?’ One weird example would be like, I had a sneaking suspicion that he would listen to interesting music before he would race … I was like, ‘Dude, what music do you listen to before you, like, get into the zone?’ And his answer was amazingly unusual and exactly what I was hoping for.”

“Songbird” is meant to stand out in a film in which hard rock, hip-hop and the fiery engines of high-octane race cars dominate the soundtrack. Mardenborough will prove to be a gutsy competitor, but there’s also something sweet and modest about this teenager, and his insistence on blasting Kenny G and Enya amidst such an aggro environment is treated not as a joke but, rather, an indication of his integrity. Mardenborough’s love of easy-listening is part of his personality, and he doesn’t care what others think about his music preferences.

Gran Turismo isn’t very good, and I don’t think it’s going to be a blockbuster, so “Songbird” probably won’t get the viral bump that, say, Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” received thanks to Stranger Things. Because it doesn’t contain any lyrics, a certain segment of viewers will recognize “Songbird” as a Kenny G track but won’t know for sure what it’s called. If you don’t stay through the end credits, this will require you to then go on something like Spotify and start sampling Kenny G songs in the hopes of figuring it out. Thus, you will be bombarded by different degrees of sonic saccharine: Ugh, no, this isn’t the right song… Oh god, not this one, either… Oh, here it is… My ears! His songs don’t, in fact, all sound the same. But they all emit the same frequency, all attack your central nervous system in the same way. You either swoon in response or you recoil. 

Kenny G had imagined flying when he wrote “Songbird.” Within the airy arrangement, you can grasp that sensation of floating above it all, the feeling that life’s troubles are being left behind. It’s the same philosophy behind guided meditation — or tranquilizers. People laugh at “Songbird,” or any of Kenny G’s music, because it blatantly provides something we don’t want to think we need — or, at least, what we don’t want others to know we need. Kenny G wants you to feel comforted. He wants to ease your mind. He wants you to fly away with him. 

I don’t like his music, but I’m not above acknowledging part of the reason why he’s mocked: We don’t want to allow ourselves to respond to the primal soothing emotions his songs conjure up. It feels like escape. But it can also feel like surrender.

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