If you're not a follower of kottke.org and haven't already read the vicious scathing that Pat Metheny visited on Kenny G, go read it now.
Man, what a take-down! Kind of the verbal equivalent of that scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life where a phalanx of topless, but inexplicably helmeted, women chase a man off the edge of a cliff into his literal grave.
For me, though, after the very enjoyable main-line dose of Schadenfreude, I had free-floating feelings of hypocrisy on my part.
For years I've tried to articulate a particular thought and have thus far failed, in my opinion, to state it well. So, here's try # 457 ½. Essentially, when someone like Kurt Cobian would rail about integrity (or someone like Neil Young who still does) it would just piss me off. "Integrity" for a lot of the punk generation was not "selling out" - meaning that if you became too successful, you'd done something wrong that was worthy of shame. That strikes me as patently ludicrous. Your level of success is not the determinant of whether or not you have integrity. How you react to or use that success may have something to do with it, but then that just goes back to the basic questions of integrity that all of us face, whether we're rocks stars or just humble members of a family somewhere.
Others, like Neil, feel that if you sell a song to a company who uses it for a commercial, that's selling out. I almost agree with Neil's viewpoint. Personally, I've hated some of my favorite songs becoming the soundtrack to a product, particularly one I hate. In the end, though, it's really up to me whether I allow that to supplant my better memories and associations with a favorite tune. But back to Neil, he's had a long successful career through which he's made a lot of money from a very young age. Many other successful and talented musicians only have a hit or two in their lives, and maybe even then can't really live off of the money they did make. How can I begrudge them selling their one hit to a company for a million bucks? How is that much different than famous paintings or other works of are appearing in the background of a movie? Or featured, like many were in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Now, most of Metheny's rant is about Kenny G's level of talent and abilities.
On one hand, yeah, a really good technician in any field can tell when another isn't as good a technician. And that matters in some cases.
On the other hand, technical proficiency is only part of the game. After a certain point of proficiency, the differences are apparent only to those in that stratosphere, and I'd argue there are often diminishing returns. So one guy can run scales just a bit faster and cleaner than another. How often is that going to matter? Just as important is feel for the audience or customer, expression, and intuition. In my experience, it's a rare Bird who has both the gift of top proficiency and beautiful expression.
For example, Joni Mitchell had polio as a child, so she uses a lot of custom tunings on her guitar to be able to hit the proper tones and notes. She makes up for lack of proficiency in dexterity with proficiency in bending the instrument to make the sound she wants. But can she play like Prince or Steve Miller? Hell to the no. They would blow circles around her on the guitar as a pure technician. But aren't her songs amazing? I know probably everyone reading this likes or loves at least one of her songs. (And, of course, Prince and Miller are amazing songsmiths, too.)
How many reading this would be able to claim the same about Metheny's songs? Can you name one? Do you even know the primary instrument he plays?
Here are the relevant quotes from the article:
"My impression was that he was someone who had spent a fair amount of time listening to the more pop oriented sax players of that time, like Grover Washington or David Sanborn, but was not really an advanced player, even in that style. He had major rhythmic problems and his harmonic and melodic vocabulary was extremely limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns, and he basically exhibited only a rudimentary understanding of how to function as a professional soloist in an ensemble."
"But he did show a knack for connecting to the basest impulses of the large crowd by deploying his two or three most effective licks (holding long notes and playing fast runs - never mind that there were lots of harmonic clams in them) at the key moments to elicit a powerful crowd reaction (over and over again)."
In sum, here's what this smells like to me: an amazing technologist who has no real feel for what makes people respond. It's basically Spock complaining about Bones.
This also pushes some other buttons of mine. Buttons I've added in recent years.
When I was younger, I was a lot more willing to accept someone else's judgement of another's ability. I figured they really knew or they wouldn't be bringing it up. As I've aged, I increasingly feel that anyone snarking about someone else's competence or abilities (when there isn't clear-cut, non-disputable evidence that true incompetence is the case, such as Bush's jury-rigged FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina), is almost always a blustery show of insecurity that manifests as an attempt to distract you from their possible incompetence by calling someone else's into question. In short, if someone claims someone else is incompetent, most of the time the accuser is the one with the problem.
Some of you more clued-in to motivations behind bad behavior might be thinking "well, duh." I, too, am a bit disappointed in myself for taking so long to put this together. But then only in the past few years have I been in a environment where a few bad eggs do this regularly. I hadn't had cause to really think about it before.
So, if I may indulge in a little dime-store psychology, I think Metheny feels inferior to Kenny G because Kenny can reach a huge audience, and he can't. And he feels it's unfair because he thinks he's a better musician than Kenny. He more or less articulates this in the article.
But even if that's true, apparently Kenny is the better artist.