What Is It?
A bald, bespectacled, scrawny little twerp who makes electronic music. UR: -18
Why is it underrated?
O.K., look—Moby is not cool. He never was, even during those few years when he was the coolest thing around. (If you remember, geeky was in that summer.) Moby is that dorky, whiny kid with allergies and Coke-bottle glasses who gets picked last for kickball. And on the celebrity scale of annoying, he ranks right up there with Gilbert Gottfried. He’s a socio-political activist, which earns him two demerits automatically just for quietly judging and criticizing our slothful, wasteful lifestyles. He’s ballsy and pretentious enough to stuff his albums’ liner notes with ranty screeds about religion and meat and government. He’s a vegan (yuck) who owned a now defunct tea shop (oy) in New York’s East Village with the adorably aggravating name TeaNY (gag). And also he’s the most overexposed sell out in the history of the music industry.
At this point, you may be asking: So how and why is this skinny bald asshole underrated?
Because, well, it’s all about the music. Moby’s majestic melodies transcend his celebrity and status as a musician. He gets slammed as a person and written off as an artist because it is no longer fashionable to enjoy Moby’s music, like Billy Joel or disco. He was too popular in the past to be relevant now; you have to hate on Moby in order not to have your other musical opinions laughed at. Paradoxically, the best-case scenario is for your friend to select a Moby track on the bar jukebox, so you can mock his shitty taste while still enjoying the excellent music he’s picked.
Moby’s career trajectory looks like this:
1980s-1998: obscure but beloved by those really into music
1999-2000: total media saturation
2001-present: Moby who?
It was his greatest album, 1999’s Play, that was also Moby’s downfall. After years of something that resembled indie success with techno/dance/rock/pop fusion tracks, and some near-legitimate success as a remix DJ, plus some actual big-time success scoring movies, Moby decided he was tired of hearing his distinct sound ripped off, and licensed every one of the 18 tracks on his new album to anyone that wanted it.
And the thing is, everyone wanted it. This thing was musical hotcakes. 99% of all TV commercials and movie soundtracks now bounced to Moby’s groovy, bluesy beats, and half of these tracks became ubiquitous to the point of ridiculousness. There’s just something about his sound that lent itself to any imagery or story or sales pitch; it was like Coke or the little black dress, complementary to anything you threw at it. While Moby’s early stuff included hardcore punk and industrial rock and ambient electronica and breakbeat techno, agreeable only to fans of the respective genres, this new album was techno music for Middle America. Early Moby, the D.J. and the musician, was HOT SHIT on the club scene, but middle-period Moby was a laughingstock: any real raver would thumb his nose at Moby’s music for the masses. What was cutting edge club music last year was now elevator music, harmless enough that your grandmother could recognize it. And thus, Moby’s cool cache was buried by his own success. Play became played out. His follow-up releases, 18 and Hotel were disappointments before their first notes were played, and his future efforts already have the stink of has-been on them.
But, it should be remembered, popularity is not a measure of a work’s quality. And Moby is a musician who reeks of quality. Moby’s early single “Go” is a techno anthem, with a moan by Laura Palmer echoing hypnotically over a mesmerizing, get-your-ass-shakin’ drumbeat, and it’s impossible to sit still when you hear it. Your head starts nodding, your foot tapping, your heart thumping, and you suddenly wish you were a 16-year-old suburban kid tripped out on Ecstasy and waving glowsticks in an abandoned warehouse in 1997. And then after three minutes, you’re dehydrated when you the song ends and you snap back to mundane, grown-up life as you know it. Such is the magic of Moby’s music.
I Like to Score is the cleverly double entendre’d collection of Moby’s soundtrack songs. You at best “sorta” recognize some of these pieces from films like Heat and Scream, but the singles here, especially taken out of context, show you how adroitly Moby can set a dramatic mood, be it mysterious or sexy or gloomy or uplifting--and sometimes, as in “First Cool Hive,” he achieves all of those in one haunting tune. Most of these tracks are archetypical definitions of the ambient genre: ethereal and dramatic, present but intangible. And his remix of the 007 theme is a standout, taking what was tired and cliché and making it fresh (although, unfortunately, this is the Moby sound, the squashed and stretched beats right here in the Bond theme remix, that is most often ripped off and has itself become trite).
On Play, he notoriously crafted a collage masterpiece of dance beats, pop hooks, and blues samples—and these blues bits are really gutwrenching, as in “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad”. Here’s where Moby the music fan shows off, yanking together a collection of retro samples he found in junkyards and garage sales, rescuing these blues and gospel vocals from historical relic and making them relevant, alive, and modern via computer artistry. Add Techno Beat 1 here, drop in Moaning Girl’s Voice B over there, Random Sound Synth here, and voila! You can’t stop dancing! Now let’s remix it with Gwen Stefani! Presto! “Bodyrock” indeed gets your body rockin’, and “Porcelain” is an aptly titled piano and strings lullaby, in which Moby figured out that if he adds enough computer trickery to his own voice, he can get a great non-singing sound from it. Play rambles through genre, with pop tunes and rock songs and dance tracks all unified via digital drumbeat. Listening to this album is like watching flipping channels through a deluxe cable package: black-and-white classic, click, gritty Western, click, unintelligible foreign film with nudity, click
Moby is at the top of his game musically. It’s hard to put a label on his work - the closest comparison is usually Fatboy Slim, which is both accurate and horribly off the mark, in the way that Johnny Carson and Carson Daly are both, technically, late night talk show hosts. Anyway, Moby’s credibility as an artist is pretty much shot for good—not because he “sold out”, whatever that means, but because for a time, we were all justifiably sick of him. There’s almost nothing you can do to make people forget that. He’ll keep working, hopefully, producing wonderful, surprising music and not offending too many people by being heard everywhere. But his fans have forgotten him, the critics have written him off, and the masses just do not care about him anymore. Which is good, kind of, because it returns him to what he once was, when he was at his best and beloved by music snobs: largely unheard.
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