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What's Left After the End of Music
By KELEFA SANNEH
In the late 1990's, Moby wasn't yet an ideology or a brand name or even a pop star.
He was just a soft-spoken music geek, and he seemed likely to spend his career enjoying the kind of underground fame that might ordinarily attach to a punk rocker turned electronica producer turned eclecticist. But then came "Play," in 1999, which laid scratchy old gospel and blues samples over spotless new house music; nearly every track was soothing, sort of melancholy, unexpectedly hummable. And soon Moby wasn't just a musicmaker - he was a paradigm-shifter.
"Play" was an unexpected commercial success, even though the guy behind it had neither a famous face nor a famous voice nor even, at first, a famous song. Moby has been lodged in the celebrity constellation ever since. His albums don't sneak into record shops anymore, they arrive - or they are supposed to. This week, his new double CD, "Hotel" (V2), makes its disappointing debut at No. 28 on the Billboard album charts.
How did "Play" make Moby a star in the first place? As most articles about "Play" mentioned, Moby marketed his album by licensing the tracks to commercials and soundtracks; relying on the power of corporate synergy, he had made an end run around the pop establishment.
His wasn't just a success story, then, it was a new kind of success story. Even better (according to the strange rules that governed 1999), it was a success story involving the words "geek" and "synergy." Suddenly, regular pop stars seemed old-fashioned: a bunch of oversized personalities, jockeying for space on radio stations that broadcast their songs using an antiquated system of frequency modulation. By contrast, Moby was a scientist, a musical technician who listened to everything and distilled what he heard into some state-of-the-art pop essence.
"I want to have the broadest possible sonic palette to draw on when I'm composing music," he told Gerald Marzorati of The New York Times Magazine, adding that he'd been listening to "pop records, dance records, classical records." And you could tell he felt a bit sorry for those sad 20th-century types who confined themselves to a single genre. He was a pop star for a world too sophisticated to believe in pop stars - a post-pop-star, perhaps.
"The end of history will be a very sad time," the political theorist Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1989, anticipating, after a fashion, Moby's world. Mr. Fukuyama imagined a future defined by "economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands." The appeal of Moby was that he would give us a way to enjoy this future; he would satisfy our "sophisticated consumer demands" through superior engineering.
In 2002, having picked up a few million new fans, Moby got a chance to put this theory into practice with "18," and it was immediately clear that something had gone wrong. In the liner notes, he opined, "One problem in writing an essay for this record is that the circumstances of the world are in such a state of flux," and many of the songs were just as banal (and, somehow, as smug) as this bit of boilerplate.
Too sophisticated to believe in musical genres, Moby caricatured them instead. "We Are All Made of Stars" had some vaguely new-wavey guitar, a gentle backbeat and lyrics that aped the spaced-out platitudes of a bad David Bowie song: "People they come together/People they fall apart/Nothing can stop us now/'Cause we are all made of stars." From the token hip-hop track ("Jam for the Ladies," which sounded a lot like the Chemical Brothers) to the "Play"-ish "Sunday (the Day Before My Birthday)" - which sounds less appealing, not more, when you learn that Moby was born on Sept. 11 - the album showed the limits of pop as science.
Last year, Moby followed "18" with a stopgap techno album, "Baby Monkey" (credited to his alter ego, Voodoo Child), which was meant as a lark but sounded like an insult. He seemed to think he was a smart producer dabbling in a dumb genre he had long since outgrown (he called the album "very simple, melodic, electronic, dance music"), although the CD swiftly disproved the notion that techno was easy.
And now comes "Hotel," packaged as a two-disc set: the album on one disc, and a series of "ambient" remixes on a second. Again, there are liner notes to guide us through the music. "I don't feel like making music that is airless and lifeless because I also really like people and the messy miasma of the human condition and I want to make messy, human records that are open and emotional," he writes, as if this truism unlocked a secret to music making.
More than ever, the focus here is on Moby as a singer and songwriter, which is strange, because he is not very good at either job. In his effort to leave generic constraints behind, he has drifted toward some rather neutral variant of alternative-rock. In the lyrics, as in the liner notes, he seems to mistake obviousness for truth: the lead single is a mind-numbing song called, "Beautiful," where the romantic dialogue consists largely of couplets like, "I love you baby/I love you now/I love you baby/I love you now."
This music isn't just dull, though. Like much of what Moby has produced since "Play," it's condescending, too. Much of it sounds like the work of a producer who thinks pop music is supposed to be kind of idiotic, and who thinks pop audiences should be glad that he deigns to give us what we want. Do we like sex? O.K., here's "I Like It," four singularly unpleasant minutes of heavy breathing. Do we like songs about how the world is happy and sad and good and bad? O.K., here's "Slipping Away," with a wispy beat and Moby crooning, "Open to everything, happy and sad/Seeing the good when it's all going . . ." - you can finish the couplets yourself. And, knowing that we like familiarity, Moby has his collaborator, Laura Dawn, sing a slowed-down version of the New Order hit "Temptation."
Maybe this isn't really Moby's fault so much as it is ours. Like so many other things in the late 1990's, his new paradigm seemed like a great idea: car commercials were going to be the new pop songs and laptop composers were going to be the new pop stars. But it turns out that we really do like those oversized personalities who clog the radio stations - some of whom even double as superior engineers.
Mr. Fukuyama, in his famous obituary, might have written (but didn't quite, of course) that "boredom at the end of music will serve to get music started once again." That's an appealing idea, but it's also appealing to know, listening to "Hotel," that it won't be necessary. The end of music seems to have ended itself.
Ben Neill's reply:
I had a few thoughts on Kelefa Sanneh’s review of Moby’s new album yesterday...
I’m writing this reply without hearing the album, because the issues raised here are much larger than just a review of “Hotel”. Mr. Sanneh describes Moby as a “paradigm shifter”. Perhaps the music establishment doesn’t like the idea of changing paradigms because they are threatened by such ideas. As a matter of fact, the changes that took place in the 90’s around the time of “Play” put the whole music industry up for grabs (including labels and critics). It was no more of a bad thing for music as a whole than the evolution of opera or the tone poem. As a matter of fact, electronica was the first new instrumental popular music to emerge since jazz, and it scared the industry because they couldn’t understand it. Anonymous artists that used pseudonyms, no lyrics, concerts that consisted of playing other people’s recordings, music as a backdrop for social interaction, it was all just too much for most people to grasp, which is what made it so exciting. And it was the popular manifestation of many ideas from the avant garde of the 60’s and 70’s such as Fluxus, Happenings and conceptual performance art that originally were far too strange for mass consumption.
Francis Fukuyama’s description cited in the article of a future defined by "economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” points to a need for exactly the kind of eclecticism for which Sanneh attacks Moby. Ipods with a million different songs for every millisecond of your life, no matter what the emotion. Artists as search engines (i.e. DJs) rather than creators of original content...With design superseding art, art appropriates the commercial because otherwise it feels obsolete, and art changes from a product industry to a service industry. Dematerializing, if you will. Is that bad? Is that why we have “the end of music”? I think it’s more because in today’s sensational story-driven world, how can something as mental as “Music” (especially instrumental music, which is nearly impossible to write about and therefore to sell) compete with gang wars between rappers and Michael Jackson’s sex scandals? Of course people like “those oversized personalities who clog the radio stations” in the same way they like reality tv shows about plastic surgery. But is Moby really to blame for “the end of music”?
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