Though one of the most versatile musical instruments, found in everything from jazz to funk to rock to orchestral music, the saxophone has generally remained one of the most maligned parts of a pop music ensemble. While this isn't always fair, the disdain may be somewhat understandable, particularly from the perspective of '80s music, in which sax solos often represented the pinnacle of overproduction and cheesy, sickeningly romantic arrangements. It was a time of excess in pop music, which unfortunately meant that some artists overused and misused the saxophone to gaudy if not comical effect.
Though often mislabeled as a brass instrument if not an outright horn, the saxophone is actually in the woodwinds family. The confusion perhaps stems from the instrument's typically brass exterior and its association with jazz and rhythm & blues. There are many types of saxophones and closely related instruments that enjoy a wide variety of uses, but the one most commonly heard in pop/rock circles is the tenor sax. Think Clarence Clemons, longtime Bruce Springsteen collaborator, or Bill Clinton in his famous appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show.
Saxophone in Pop Music:
Following its origins in military band music, big band and jazz, the sax found a bit of a niche in rhythm and blues, early rock and roll, Motown, soul and funk styles from the '50s throughout the '70s. The instrument's popularity rose considerably in mainstream pop/rock during the later part of that period, as Clemons of the E Street Band made major progress toward turning the sax into a showcase piece. In 1978, the sax reached a pinnacle of sorts in terms of prominence, as Gerry Rafferty's classic single "Baker Street" would not have half the impact it does without its central, haunting sax line.
'80s Crimes Against the Saxophone:
As overproduction became an ever-swelling reality with the advent of new wave and MTV, epitomized by synthesizers galore and a penchant for the biggest sounds possible, the saxophone quickly became just another ingredient of pop music. In fact, sax solos showed up so often during the decade that their presence became a cliche, not to mention a glitzy, romanticized exclamation mark for ballads and other pop music ear candy. Though not always used gaudily, the sax often succumbed to the worst impulses of '80s music, many of which are responsible for the degree to which some of it sounds dated and even insincere.
A Stained Legacy Overcome:
Despite the damage undoubtedly done by its '80s reputation, the saxophone has persevered and remains an important part of various musical styles still today, even pop and rock. Part of this can be attributed to the work of post-punk artists who essentially deconstructed the instrument by emphasizing dissonance and cacophony instead of the smooth, slick melodic complements it had been previously known for. Still more responsible for its survival is the enduring versatility of the saxophone, a musical tool that adapts with ease to more styles, arguably, than any other instrument widely used in popular music.