Horn in the USA: How Macklemore Is Influencing Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande & More


Macklemore performed at Google's NewFront event in 2013

Looking at the numbers behind the sax resurgence.

With Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" set to make a No. 1 debut the Billboard Hot 100, it seems like 2014 is the summer of the horn riff. From "Talk Dirty" to "Problem" to "Bang Bang" to "Rude," there's definitely a resurgence of horn in the U.S.A. And for that, you can thank Macklemore.

When "Thrift Shop" stunned the industry by going No. 1 in February 2013, it wasn't just because it was the first independent single to top the Hot 100 since 1994. It also confounded the industry because it didn't sound like anything that had topped the charts in years. The song's primary hook was a mischievous saxophone riff with a throwback vibe -- a far cry from synths or anthemic choruses. 

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis quickly proved the public's response to their sound wasn't a fluke when "Can't Hold Us" -- also boasting a prominent horn riff -- went to No. 1 on the Hot 100 three months later. Incidentally, that hit was the most-streamed song on Spotify of 2013.

Are Taylor Swift and Country Splitting Up for Good?

It seems that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis tapped into the public's underserved appetite for horns in 2013, and it didn't take long for the major labels to take notice. Obviously, horn-laden hits didn't stampede the charts overnight -- it takes a few months from the moment of a song's conception to the day it enters the pop chart world.

Nine months after "Can't Hold Us" became the second horn-heavy No. 1 hit of 2013, Jason Derulo brought another prominent sax riff to No. 4 on the Hot 100 with "Talk Dirty" in February 2014. While the infectious "Talk Dirty" is hardly a "Thrift Shop" rip-off, the saxophone riff at the center of the song strongly recalls Macklemore's track.

MAGIC! Still No. 1, Ariana Grande & Iggy Azalea Score 3 Top 10 Hits

But "Talk Dirty" wasn't the only horn-y hit gestating in the year after Macklemore brought "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us" to the No. 1 slot. Ariana Grande's "Problem" went to No. 3 on May 17, Nico & Vinz's sleeper hit "Am I Wrong?" reached No. 4 on July 5 and MAGIC!'s "Rude" started its chart dominance on July 26. And although it's not primarily driven by a horn, Meghan Trainor's No. 2 hit "All About That Bass" is another recent hit to incorporate horns.

For comparison, the only other top 5 hit in 2013 to feature horns -- aside from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' two chart-toppers -- was Justin Timberlake's throwback soul track "Suit & Tie."

Sax Hooks Are Burning Up the Charts This Summer

2012 was an even grimmer year for brass and sax on the pop charts -- not a single top 5 hit incorporated a prominent horn riff. In fact, the biggest look for horns that year was when Whitney Houston's death propelled "I Will Always Love You" back onto the charts to peak at No. 3 on May 3 (her 1992 classic features a sax solo in the break).

Compare those figures to 2014. This year has already boasted five top 5 hits -- not including Taylor's soon-to-be chart-topper "Shake It Off" -- that incorporate horns. Not to mention other top 10 hits like "Bang Bang" that use brass as well.

Clearly, these recently neglected instruments are coming back, and it's fair to say Macklemore's sax led the charge.


The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.

To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.