2017: Saxophones No, Flutes Yeah

The Outline:

There’s no song in the Top 40 right now with a saxophone solo. There’s hardly a defined saxophone part on any of those songs at all, which is incredible because for most of American popular music’s history, the saxophone was the backbone of making a song a hit. In today’s pop, the saxophone is used sparingly, because instead of seeming cool and propelling singles, it runs the risk of making you look corny.

{A} shift — toward electronic production and away from acoustic, as exemplified by the rise of disco in the ’70s — was notable. The saxophone thrived in jazz fusion with guys like Grover Washington Jr., Tom Scott, David Sanborn, and Michael Brecker. But as the genre became gentrified, there was a definite move away from saxophone sections and horn sections, to the sexy saxophone solo.

Big name ’80s pop stars started using the saxophone to create hooks that were catchy, but inescapable and incredibly annoying. And that use took it from being a cool instrument with a strong sound, to being a weird, almost tacky gimmick. Saxophone historians skim over this section of the sax’s perception in spite of the fact that it was the site of a major turn. When George Michael used the saxophone as the intro to “Careless Whisper,” its grooving, sensual riff became a parody quickly. Much to the dismay of saxophone lovers, the indelicate saxophone riffs of ’80s pop became the instrument’s primary associations, and the instrument fell out of fashion.

“I’d say once we hit the 2000s, it’s almost like the saxophone had become extinct,” {professor of woodwinds at Berklee College of Music Jeff} Harrington said. “It’s like a dinosaur now.”


Flutes are an incredibly wack instrument. Possibly the wackest. Instruments like the oboe and the clarinet are more sonically irritating, and the douchiness of intentionally complicated instruments like the Chapman stick exceeds the flute’s pompous reputation (which it held well before Jethro Tull inflicted itself on the world). But the flute stands alone at the intersection of irritating sound and annoying personality.

And yet in the hands of “Mask Off” producer Metro Boomin, the historical weight of every shrieking prog rock flute solo and “Actually the term is flautist” ever inflicted on the world evaporates in a cool, blunt-scented breeze and the mournful soul of Tommy Butler’s Selma soundtrack. Through some powerful occult maneuver, Metro’s made the flute not only tolerable, he’s made it bang.

In fact, the flute’s become one of the stickiest trends in hip-hop production. It probably has something to do with the inevitable aural fatigue that audiences developed from Southern mixtape rap’s years-long reliance on maximalist bombast and blaring, Inception-style horn arrangements (something Metro Boomin once specialized in). It might also be related to the surging interest in gentle New Age sounds that’s popped up in other genres like indie rock and dance music.

Or maybe we’ve just been wrong about the flute for all these years. Maybe we let prancing prog rockers and irritating small-time band-class divas get in the way of a perfectly fine and exceptionally chill instrument when we could have been letting it soothe our ears with its mellow tones. Whatever the reason is, it’s starting to seem like this is going to turn out to be the Year of the Flute, and I’m not even a little mad at it.

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