Pop's well of summer hits has sprung, and it's full of saxophone. A big, honking loop opens Ariana Grande's "Problem," the first single from the 20-year-old singer and actor's sophomore album. Co-starring Iggy Azalea, "Problem" is masterfully engineered to transition Grande into an ever-so-slightly more mature phase of her career — it's about a breakup but insistently positive, just kiddie enough for her Nickelodeon fans and just grown-up enough to perform in thigh-highs. A week into its release, it's already a certified hit: It debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100, is currently the third-most streamed song on Spotify in the U.S., and has racked up almost 6 million YouTube plays.
Grande's Christina Aguilera-type vocal acrobatics make "Problem" shine, but that sax loop is what makes it sticky. The song's hitmaker producers aren't the first ones to figure out that squawks can sound both vaguely exotic and universally comfortable. These songs remind me of klezmer, the clarinet, violin, and accordion celebration music originated by Eastern European Jews. They're corny, but a lot of fun. And profitable: Macklemore's "Thrift Shop," built around a fat tenor sax squeal, hit No. 1 in 18 countries last year. Maybe it took a cue from Belgian singer Stromae's saxophone-heavy "Alors on danse," which dominated Europe in 2010 and 2011. Actually, that was a pretty big time for round-the-wold sax crossovers: there was "Calabria 2007" from Denmark, "We No Speak Americano" from Australia, "Mr. Saxobeat" from Romania, and this sax player from Moldova. He didn't win Eurovision, but became a meme. J.Lo was up on wild sax way back in 2005, with "Get Right."
"Problem" and "Thrift Shop" may draw upon that crop of klezmer-vibes hits, but they specifically rely on the American sax tradition, said Ori Kaplan, the jazz saxophonist who toured with gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello before founding Israeli group Balkan Beat Box. "Sax was the violin of America in the '40s and '50s. 'Problem' has the grungy, growling saxophone, from the shuffle blues sax players," Kaplan said, while "Thrift Shop" fast forwards a decade or two, to a "funky, electronic sound with a Maceo Parker twang."
Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty," which hit No. 1 in seven countries, also features honking horns in its chorus. They're borrowed from "Hermetico," a 2007 Balkan Beat Box song, and they're not klezmer exactly, Kaplan said, just sort-of related. "Klezmer's sound is quite specific. It's closer to Western music. And [klezmer players] are revivalists. They want to preserve something. We don't want to preserve anything. We just want to take what we have in the back of our ears and make something new." To create the horn line and beat that appear on "Talk Dirty," Kaplan and Balkan Beat Box members Tamir Muskat and Tomer Yosef blended klezmer with Arabic, Turkish, and Roma sounds — the ones that were "in our heads growing up in Israel," he said.
While they use different scales and embellishment styles, "there are similarities between all these musics. They're like cousins," Kaplan said. But mixing them and adding contemporary hip-hop production, makes Balkan Beat Box, and Derulo by proxy, "more approachable to many ears." Kaplan said this hybrid sound may have a particular appeal wherever immigrants converge — like in the big American, German, British, and Israeli cities where "Talk Dirty" became most popular. Everybody's grandmother is from somewhere, and if you want them to, its horns can sound a little like Poland, Italy, Greece, Ukraine, Spain, Syria, or Colombia. "Talk Dirty" basically collapses East and West, like a centuries-delayed product of the ancient Silk Road, the trade route stretching from China to Spain, with "lipstick stamps" on its passport. It sounds as good everywhere as it does anywhere. Derulo sums it up like this: "Been around the world, don't speak the language / But your booty don't need explaining."