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.

Clarence Clemons. Click image to expand.
Clarence Clemons

For 36 years, Saturday Night Live has provided sanctuary to a species of musical wildlife that today sits on the endangered list: the saxophone solo. In 1975, jazz whiz David Sanborn's note-gobbling, register-vaulting altissimo ushered in the show's premiere episode, setting the brassy tone for every SNL opening sequence that followed. Since 1985, the SNL house band's lead saxophonist has been Lenny Pickett, who made his name in the venerable horn band Tower of Power. Over the course of Pickett's tenure on the show, the sax, once a pop-music staple, has fallen precipitously out of vogue—everywhere, that is, except SNL.

Last October, though, the showallowed some hunting in the preserve. In a digital short titled "The Curse," Andy Samberg, playing an arrogant businessman, is tormented by Jon Hamm, who—ponytailed, shirtless, and with biceps oiled to the point they're reflective—bursts through walls at inopportune moments and, sax in hand, lays into lustful torrents of lite-jazz honking. When the solos are done, Hamm whips his face toward the camera and, fiery-eyed with passion, intones his character's name: "Sergio!" You'd be tempted to call the joke one-note if it didn't involve such a preposterous number of notes: The sketch wrings four sublimely absurd minutes from the simple idea that blistering saxophone solos have come to sound not merely dated but ridiculous, and not merely ridiculous but hilarious.

I can't help but picture Sergio when I listen to Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)," a song from her 2010 album Teenage Dream. For the most part, the song chugs along pleasantly and, in the context of state-of-the-art pop-rock, unremarkably: crisp beat; summery guitars; big chorus about remembering, and hoping to re-create, a fun night of skinny dipping and table dancing. But just before the 3-minute mark, a saxophone bursts unexpectedly into the mix, Sergio-style, for a flurry of ecstatic screeches. The first time I heard the song, the sax took me entirely by surprise. It was ingenious. Perry's lyrics celebrate a goofy blast from the past, so what better musical corollary to that theme than a sax solo, as goofy as blasts from the past get? The "T.G.I.F." sax part, it turns out, was performed by Lenny Pickett. The caretaker had emerged from the sanctuary to release one of his beasts back into the wild.

With the release of Lady Gaga's new album, Born This Way, what was an anomaly officially becomes a pop trend: The saxophone is repopulating. Two of Born This Way's songs, "Hair" and "Edge of Glory," feature sax playing courtesy of the E Street Band's own Clarence Clemons. "It was wild. I was so excited," Clemons told Rolling Stone in a detailed report on the collaboration. "I'm a Gaga-ite." What unites Gaga's sax songs with Perry's is that both use the instrument as a nostalgia button. Gaga has said she wanted to give the song a "Bruce Springsteen vibe," adding, of "Hair," "it's really interesting, because it's putting saxophone on this really huge electronic record." (In this respect, Perry's and Gaga's sax solos are of a piece with the Black Eyed Peas' hit "The Time," a another bittersweet song that drops a chunk of undigested '80s cheese—an interpolation of Dirty Dancing's "The Time of My Life"—into an otherwise contemporary-sounding track.)

Sax solos proliferated outside the jazz world in the '70s and '80s, across a range of different rock styles. The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival used saxes to bluesy, rollicking effect in songs like "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?" and "Long As I Can See the Light"—presaging the sax-slathered classic-rock sound Bruce Springsteen would perfect in 1975 on "Born to Run." David Bowie, T. Rex, and Roxy Music made the sax almost as indispensable a glam accessory as platform glitter-boots, while King Crimson and Pink Floyd worked the instrument into their high-concept prog-rock. Back in America, Billy Joel and Lou Reed deployed smoky sax solos to evoke seedy urban streets on "New York State of Mind" and "Walk on the Wild Side"; below the radar, James Chance and other downtown acts of the No Wave scene delivered disjointed, atonal sax freakouts. In 1985, INXS worked luminous sax peals into "What You Need," a throbbing dance jam that still sounds great today.

So what happened to the sax? In part, the answer might be that the '90s happened. The rock music that dominated in the decade of ironic detachment had little room for a shiny, curvaceous, elaborately valved instrument that it's impossible to play while looking like you don't care. Your cheeks puff up. Your fingers flutter. There is an earnestness and a delicacy to playing the saxophone, an irreducible musicality that was out of step at a time when shrugged-off riffs alternated with bashed-out power chords on the rock airwaves. It's laughable to imagine someone smashing a saxophone into a stack of amps, like Kurt Cobain did with his guitar—the instrument seems too refined for the gesture, like trying to talk dirty in Latin. And while '80s metal holdouts like Metallica unleashed elaborate barrages of guitar notes well into the '90s, they framed their virtuosity as viciousness, a trick that's much harder, if not impossible, to pull off with the sax. Compare the fanboy hyperbole. A guitarist shreds. What does a saxophonist do? Blow? Cook?

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.)

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 Slate's pop critic.