Lady Gaga brings the sax solo back to pop music. Where's it been?

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May 23 2011 6:50 AM

Bringing Saxy Back

The sax solo returns to pop music.

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This points to another problem the sax faces today: It has major P.R. issues. The most iconic saxophonist of recent memory is Kenny G.—whose blockbuster, mom-pleasing jams helped the instrument to be seen as the wimpiest weapon in the smooth-jazz arsenal. Elsewhere, saxophones have been woven inextricably into one of life's most unpleasant experiences: waiting for a customer-service rep to pick up the phone.

As is the case with so many trends last seen or heard in the '80s, the saxophone began its return trip to the contemporary mainstream via ironic reclamation. In 2000, the French pop acts Air and Phoenix, devoted to rummaging through déclassé American sounds, decorated tracks with languorous sax parts. More recently, soft-rock-channeling albums by the indie acts Gayngs and Destroyer have featured rippling, florid saxophone solos played with tongue at least partially in cheek. (Less winkingly, Deerhunter, Glasser, and Fleet Foxes have dropped jarring sax blurts into recent songs.)

Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have a different relationship to musical irony than indie acts, because they're pop stars expected to sell lots of records. The eruption of the saxophone into their anthems risks breaking the songs' spells—and yet, somehow, it doesn't. The best way to make sense of how the sax fits into "Edge of Glory" and "T.G.I.F." might be to consider these songs in the context of what the critic Daniel Barrow recently called contemporary pop's defining dynamic, audible in songs like Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" or Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind": the soar. Barrow defines the soar as "that surge from a dynamically static mid-tempo 4/4 verse to a ramped-up major-key chorus, topped, in the case of female singers, with fountaining melisma; the moment the producer deploys the riff, the synth-gush, the shouted vocal-hook for which the whole of the rest of the song is a mere appendage, a prologue and epilogue that only the chorus validates." (I largely agree with this description, although melisma doesn't have much currency in the kind of songs Barrow is talking about, having been supplanted by more linear phrasing and digital stutter effects.)

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The soar is a musical special effect and, like all special effects, it loses oomph with repetition. But it's here that the over-the-top saxophone solo's would-be liability turns out to be its great strength: Gaga's and Perry's songs are all about taking us over the top, after all. Clarence Clemons' solo on "Edge of Glory"—currently No. 3 on the pop charts—is a pyrotechnic device, and if you can't help but chuckle a little at its immodest display, that's fully compatible with the sense of euphoric abandon Gaga is trying to get across. Over the weekend, Gaga was the musical guest on the season finale of Saturday Night Live, where she played a stripped-down piano rendition of "Edge of Glory." The performance featured tons of belting but not one toot of saxophone and, on this score, it felt like an opportunity had been missed. Was Sergio unavailable?

Jonah Weiner is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

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