Ten Years Later: Moby – “Play”

My first post will actually be about an anniversary I noticed today. June 1st is the ten-year anniversary of Moby’s Play. The album is mostly known for having every song licensed for commercials as a promotional/commercial tactic, and for being the most successful “electronica” album of its time, entering mainstream popular music.

The first thing to note is that Moby did not come out of nowhere as is usually thought. He garnered a fair bit of critical praise and visibility in the alternative press for his 1995 album “Everything Is Wrong”, even headlining the second stage of Lollapalooza (back when it was the banner carrier for the 90s alternative scene). The mid-to-late 90s were a time when “electronica” music acts such as The Prodigy, The Chemical Brother, and Aphex Twin were seen as the next big thing, pitching their various  genres under one big tent of electronic (dance) music).  Moby himself came from the New York club scene in the late 80s and early 90s, and the influence shows up on Play.

Play is combination of the ambient and house genres that Moby usually inhabited with old (or old sounding) gospel and blues vocal samples, more often leaning towards the ambient side, with piano and string added in. It’s a much calmer record than his previous two, the often joyous “Everything is Wrong” and the punk rock sojourn “Animal Rights”. Moby does have a knack for throwing together a good hook if he wants, evident on tracks like “Honey”, “South Side”, “Natural Blues” and “Why does my heart feel so bad” off the first half. Most of the tracks in the later half are mellow ambient, and by the end they become wearyingly dull unless one is in the need of background music. That every track would find a way into a commercial or other medium in some form is no wonder however, as every track is distinguished from the rest enough to bring something of its own, even only for viewing a Mercedes glide past as if on a cloud. The music itself is not my forte usually, but its well-made enough to be recognized as something that stood out from the fray of late 90s pop music. However, I personally don’t believe it has aged well, its songs sound far less compelling now, perhaps due to “Play”‘s particular sound becoming common place in media. “Everything is Wrong” stands as a better album, its more “dated” sound giving it greater character than the increasingly indistinguishable  “Play”.

What’s more interesting than the music is the album’s status as a specific artifact of its time. The turn of the millennium was not a great time for popular music, as bland pop from the likes of the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Celine Dion stood next to mook rock such as Limp Bizkit and Korn, and gangster rap like Eminem, Dre, etc. Sure there were exceptions and good music in there, and elsewhere, but the overall picture was bleak now that the alternative pseudo-scene had burned itself out into the charred remains of Creed and pop music continued to go for the lowest-common denominator. Moby stands out as a symptom of how these conditions left cracks for seemingly strange and unusual acts to gain mainstream acknowledgement. This of course was only in the very dawn of the download era. Underground/indie/non-mainstream music was far harder to access, and an album like “Play” entering the mainstream would have been an awakening to many weaning on the souring popular music teat. Moby’s promotional tactics seemed then to be corporate whoring, but now are commonplace publicity tools for lesser-known acts to reach wider audiences through commercials and television show licencing. The idea of having your own music (that’s not necessarily what’s all over the charts) provide the backdrop for shared moments (ie watching an OC episode) is only something the iPod generation could have, earbuds plugged at every step. The download era has not necessarily meant success and sales for indie and non-mainstream acts, that would be the wrong hypothesis. It has  allowed for easier exposure, broader audiences, and a little more sales, with more niche music tastes, not dependent of record store inventories, among the younger generations becoming viable. Moby stands as an oddity of its time, that helps fill in the gaps in history that led to the current decline of record labels and music sales. Pumping out absolute, polarizing shite will bring on consequences, like vegan DJs having platinum records, and a music industry model that can’t figure out what it’s doing wrong.

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~ by thenationalhum on June 2, 2009.

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