When did pop radio get so horny?
There’s an indefensible trend in popular music right now, and it needs to stop. Ever since Macklemore’s radio leviathan “Thrift Shop” dominated the airwaves with its squawky sax riff nearly three years ago, it seems like every top 40 pop song has some kind of obnoxious horn part, designed to climb inside your brain and overstay its welcome. In a transparent attempt to ride the Mackle-man’s wave, producers started slapping annoying saxophone hooks on everything, and the horny wares of summer 2012 are somehow still being rolled out as lead singles in 2015.
We’re not saying Ryan Lewis invented the saxophone, and we’re not saying a horn hook is always a bad thing. But, squelchy saxophone saturation is the cockroach of pop music trends—it’s big, nasty, and damn near impossible to kill.
Perhaps we need to take a page from the book of Sun Tzu’s Art Of War: “know your enemy, and know yourself.” If we can trace the origins of the loathsome horn hook and find its appeal, we might finally be able to put it to rest.
First, it’s important that we celebrate the saxophone for its positive contributions to pop music. Excuse the oversimplification, but these contributions can be broken down into four memorable eras: heroin-fueled bebop (1940s), the high-octane rock’n’roll sax solo (mid-1970s), elevator grooves (late-1980s), and pop music’s saxual revival (2010-present day).
For all intents and purposes, heroin-fueled bebop made the saxophone cool. The amped-up, intricate, cascading melody lines of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker equate to punk-rock bad-assery, blended with virtuosic, improvised musical stunting. Plus, they were pretty much always high on heroin. Did you even see Whiplash? Jazz is lit.
The high-octane, leather jacket-clad rock’n’roll sax daddy is a gold standard musical archetype. When this enigmatic horn-blower steps forward and rips a hot 16, stadiums ignite. Imagine Clarence Clemons hitting the money note in “Born To Run,” and check your pulse. Your heart is guzzling blood just to keep up with that saxy adrenaline injection. The same goes for “Baker Street,” too.
When distilled, the definitive elevator groove is “Careless Whisper,” a sensual groove that Sexy Sax Man turned into 26 million YouTube views. Ask your man Kenny G: a song (and an elevator ride) isn’t complete without a carnal brass crescendo.
This pretty much brings us up-to-date. Pop music’s saxophone revival is real, and like any dualistic music trend, good and evil lies within. On the plus side, there have been some absolutely killer saxophone solos embedded in the last decade of pop music. Lady Gaga enlisted Clarence Clemons himself for an ascendant bridge on “Edge Of Glory,” and French electromancer Anthony Gonzalez of M83 brought out the true modern pop potential of the saxophone on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
Now that we’ve touched on everything we like about saxed-up songs, it’s time to look at how far we’ve fallen. In recent years, the saxophone’s presence in pop music has become much less tasteful. Synthesized sax samples found their way into European dance music with “Mr. Saxobeat,” a repulsive earworm with no redemptive qualities whatsoever. With nearly 250 million plays on YouTube, “Mr. Saxobeat” tapped into the instrument’s irksome qualities. “We Speak No Americano” followed in the footsteps of “Saxobeat,” both effectively setting the stage for the blitzkrieg of repetitive sax melodies that we’re still dealing with today.
Chopped up, repetitive, obnoxious saxophone melodies are still all over pop radio. Let’s take a closer look at some of the worst sax offenders.