During the Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics this past March, the performing artists cruising around on motorized stages received as much or more face time than the actual athletes. KISS, Harry Connick Jr, Christina Aguilera, even Scott Hamilton – they all mugged for an adoring camera and millions of viewers. Then Moby took the stage, and all of a sudden NBC couldn’t take its lens off of the athletes hurling enormous spheres of Styrofoam at one another. Within the mix, a muddy crowd mic seemed to pick up “Bodyrock.” But it could have been FatBoy Slim’s “Rockefeller Skank.” In the distance, behind those goofy balls of Styrofoam, there were flashing lights and shadowy figures thrashing away at what might have been instruments. But it could have been any bald, Christian vegan back there in the darkness, forgotten by NBC’s Olympic coverage.
As Moby gears up for the May release of “18,” his follow-up to 1999’s “Play,” he might remember his cool reception in Salt Lake last winter. Because there’s no doubt that “Play” was a hugely successful endeavor. And since his emergence as a pop star, Moby has definitely made a name for himself and his ideals. But “Play” was also the kookiest, most oddball hit album in a long, long time. Moby’s bold mixture of Lomax field recordings and downtempo beats – this in the age before “O Brother Where Art Thou?”‘s success – might not have ever found a larger audience without his blanket use of licensing agreements to propagandize the material. Could he use the same shtick twice? Musical “Die Hard?” What can Moby do next, besides make another great record, and hope that the casual audience he constructed with “Play” support him without first hearing his music in a Nordstrom’s ad?
The success of “Play” was due in large part to Moby’s talented work as an arranger, DJ, and producer. But it was also a fluke, a marketing guru’s dream. Barring another licensing barrage (which isn’t completely out of the question), “18” must stand on its own musically after the initial label and marketing push. This summer’s Area:Two tour will certainly help. David Bowie has already signed on, as well as Busta Rhymes. And “We Are All Made Of Stars”, the advance single from “18,” is a great song. It suggests the porcelain textures of French electronica while showcasing that warm honesty which defines Moby’s work. Plus, Gary Coleman’s in the video and MTV gave Moby his own show. So the hype machine is humming along, energizing the buzz on “18.” But the challenge is in the intangibles. There’s probably a contingent of “Play” purchasers that love the album. But ask them to pick Moby out of a police lineup with 9 other balding art dudes, and they’ll pick the ringer in the afro. If Moby wants to achieve “Play” success with “18,” he’ll likely be forced to deploy some of that wily commerce splicing that changed his music career forever in 1999. And since then, licensing music for advertising purposes has only grown more prevalent. And not even mentioning Nissan’s continued reliance upon classic Who songs, or Cadillac’s recent dip into the Led Zeppelin well. It’s the aping of current radio hits for major ad campaigns that has become de rigueur. Sheryl Crow has already sold the rights to her single “Soak Up The Sun” to American Express; her new album, “C’Mon C’mon,” was released April 16th. It’s not an issue that “Soak Up The Sun” has become an AMEX ad. It’s an issue that the practice is so quick, and so blasé.
Moby has gone on record numerous times to defend his licensing decisions, depicting himself as a sort of guerilla Robin Hood, campaigning against the multinational corporations he loathes. But there’s a corollary to that argument. By framing his activism as such, it makes it okay to do it again. Like to boost “18”? Maybe. But what if he conducts a different kind of experiment, wherein he unleashes a series of whooshing variables into a control group 3 million strong? If the esoteric electronica of “18” was to do as well as “Play” without the atropine of licensing, it might be a bigger coup than selling an album full of Americana samples to an unwitting pop public (and a series of dopey corporations).
On his website, Moby interviews Bowie and Bowie interviews Moby. The Thin White Duke asks The Thin White Vegan about who he makes music for. “Oh boy,” Moby answers. “I have no idea…I never imagine my music being listened to by more than one person at a time.” It’s true: ever since he found fame, Moby has pretty much remained Moby. Even his episode of “Cribs” finds him acting the homebody in a well-appointed, but sensible, NYC apartment. He’d be making music forever all by himself, for himself, if he’d never become Moby the rock star. So he probably doesn’t give a crap whether “18” matches the success of “Play” or not. But for the rest of us, isn’t it sort of interesting to watch unfold?