Monday, January 28, 2008

No. 341: Play

Band: Moby
Album: Play
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Trust me. You know this album, considering you couldn't see a movie or watch TV without hearing something from this album. Somewhere near the intersection of Moby's native electronic and soft rock, “Play” is full of samples, guest vocalists and white-guy soul.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's hard not to hear the term “sell out” in this record. Every song was licensed from this album for something, so it was, uh, kind of overplayed.
Best song: “Natural Blues” is pretty great.
Worst song: "Guitar Flute & String"
Is it awesome?: I don't know, quite frankly.

What is the nature of selling out?

I guess it's less of a concern now that the Internet and advertising companies have infiltrated the music industry and will poach any mildly interesting band to use in an ad, TV show or movie.

Maybe it's just gutter punk politics. Back when I was in high school and college, the idea of “selling out” was as bad as murder. In punk and indie circles, making money and creating something commercial are some of the worst sins an “artist” can commit.

The first issue is a previously indie band signing on to a major label. Let's take Death Cab for Cutie as an example. Death Cab started as a nothing band on a nothing label in a nothing town and gained a small modicum of fame when their critically acclaimed second album, “We Have the Facts And We're Voting Yes” was released in 2000. The band then released two EPs (“The Forbidden Love EP” and “Stability”) and two more LPs (“The Photo Album” and “Transatlanticism”) on smallish indie Barsuk.

At this stage in the game, Death Cab had found itself as something of a force in indie rock. Between Chris Walla's angular guitar work and Ben Gibbard's teenage lyric/vocal situation, the band found a following among emo college students, teenage girls and almost-rock critics. Record companies took an interest in the band and eventually Death Cab got signed to Atlantic, a major label.

There weren't many screams of “sell outs!” when the record came out. That surprised me. Eight years before, Elliott Smith was called the same when he moved from tiny Kill Rock Stars to giant Dreamworks to record “XO.”

However, thinking about it now, the difference between the two artists could not be greater, despite my love for both. Elliott Smith went into the studio with major label money and made albums that could be artfully described as self-indulgent. He took what he was great at (writing songs) and expanded it to include strings, honky tonk pianos and saxophones. This didn't ruin the songs – the subsequent album, “XO,” was actually pretty good – but it took away Smith's greatest asset, intimacy.

At the time, Elliott Smith also licensed four songs to the film “Good Will Hunting” and supplied a fifth song – newly written “Miss Misery” -- to the soundtrack, aslso. His fans in 1998 looked at him as a sellout.

My own feeling is that selling out doesn't exist in any way unless a band is totally whoring it up – like, uh, Three Doors Down. In the case of “XO,” Smith got money to fulfill his vision for what an orchestrated record would sound like. While I see intimacy as his greatest asset, he might not have. Certainly, the songs were still beautiful and well-written. The difference between the sublime “Either/Or” and “XO” is that “XO” suffers from overproduction. Plain and simple.

In the case of the film, I also have no problem with making money. I do not believe any band should turn down money and Elliott Smith was smart to do so. The guy wants money – who can blame him? -- and he had an avenue to get some. Having spoken to people at his record company before his death (this was when I was in college and new something about music), the label never put anything on Smith. Any changes in Smith's music from KRS to Dreamworks were because he wanted them.

It's really easy for everyone to want artists to not concern themselves with money, but this is their job. In a mediocre interview with AV Club, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam talked about his music being in commercials:

Yeah, there have been a couple of them. Some people have problems with songs in commercials, but my feeling is, I've got kids to feed. My criteria comes down to, basically, "I like M&M's." It's a product I actually use. I think I did a Clorox one, too.

(Emphasis is mine)

Look, no one isn't a sellout a little. I love my job – most people can't say the same, by the way – but I am not doing exactly what I want with my life. To do that, I'd get paid money to do this project or I'd be on the radio or something. Due to a myriad of reasons (oversaturated media market, I suck at radio, etc.), I am a Web producer for a magazine and I keep my hobbies as my hobbies. It's called “being part of a society.” If we all just did what we wanted, bedlam would ensue.

There are two main reasons Death Cab didn't get a world of shit when they jumped. The first is because of Moby and his licensing every single song from Play. That opened the door to bands licensing anything they could. Teenage girl emo fans don't know of Braid, no less Elliott Smith, so to expect them to know what happened 10 years ago is silly.

Secondly, of course, Death Cab, didn't change their sound much when they went to Atlantic. The album wasn't really good, but the band has become pretty uneven since Ben Gibbard started using his best material for the Postal Service and Chris Walla did the same for his solo stuff. Comparatively, “Plans” is just a s mediocre as “The Photo Album,” a Barsuk release.


I can't really say a ton about “Play” that hasn't been said already. It's remarkable catchy and you have heard every single track. I don't love Moby as a musician – white guy soul doesn't work on me and I'm not a big dance music fan – but I respect the hell out of him as a person. He's remarkably principled, yet not pretentious. He's slammed Eminem in a very classy way, only to be lambasted by Eminem in both song and public.

Like I said, Moby licensed every single song from this record. He licensed them for things he was in support of or ambivalent to, like the Weather Channel or movies. He licensed them for things he didn't support, like Ford Truck ads. For the latter, he mentioned that he would donate all the money made to an environmental cause. Again, I find him principled, even if his music is often annoying.

“Play” is a classic if only because it soundtracked much of the late 1990s. You heard it at the mall, you heard it at the movie theater, you saw it on MTV and you've heard “Bodyrock” as basketball games since. It's overplayed and it's dated, but it's catchy.


padraig said...

Those are interesting thoughts on selling out - I think that it's heavily dependent on each band/producer's context, their origins and goals. I remember a few months ago you wrote that it was ludicrous to consider REM as having "sold out" post-Reckoning - I largely agree, b/c they never set out to do anything but make accessible jangle pop albums, and thus there was nothing to "sell" in the first place. On the other hand I do find Michael Stipe's posturing to be nearly as unbearable as Bono's - I mean, dude, you're on fucking Warner Brothers, you know? Which means Time Warner, and I'm 99% certain that if you were to trace back Time Warner's innumerable assets you'd find that it's invested in more than a few things that Michael Stipe finds distasteful.

Now, I came up on Crass and by extension all the British peace-punk bands (Zounds, The Mob, etc.) - who of course were all 100% against selling out. I know waaaay too much about that scene but there are a couple interesting cases of how bands with radical politics dealt with "selling out". Crass were the truest - they broke up in 1984, just like they always said they would, after playing a last benefit show for the miners' on strike and they've never reformed (though various members have at times performed together and even done Crass songs informally). Of course, they were really older hippies who were in it for the politics all along - they never gave a toss about pop music. Flux of Pink Indians were another - around 1985 they changed their name to "Flux" and started doing more dance-related music (well, dub/avante-garde stuff produced by Adrian Sherwood) and their label, One Little Indian, went on to release the Sugarcubes, The Shamen and eventually Björk. And now, in a fine piece of irony, Chumbawamba was on OLI and the infamous "Tubthumper" album was rejected for not being commercial enough. Of course it then went on to be a huge novelty hit. Chumbawamba were always a little too weird for the anarchopunk scene - too eclectic - another band that was in it for the politics and not the music - and they used the money from "Tubthumper" to fund tons of radical political causes. When I've read interviews with them their take is that their isn't that much difference between a large capitalist and a small capitalist besides scale, which I'm inclined to agree with. In a final interesting point did you know that Moby was originally in a couple of hardcore punk bands back in the early 80s before he moved to NY and became a DJ?

What is my point? That "selling out" to me is more of a fluid concept than anything with concrete boundaries. Ultimately it's up to the artist - I'm not going to criticize an artist for licensing their music to commercials, but I might be disappointed. And it's on them to find out what they're investing their art in, if it coincides with their beliefs and if it not whether the $$ is worth it. Like I said, it all depends on context.

I know this comment is ridiculously long but I'd like to add one more thing - this fabulous quote by Juan Atkins, one of the holy trilogy (along with Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson) of Detroit techno pioneers - "In this country it's very hard for creative thought to escape capitalism".

R.J. said...

I think a band whoring it up solely for money is not good, but I'm with you, Padraig. It's not necessarily my place to criticize those bands. My favorite two bands have both sold music to things I'm ambivalent (Mogwai to Levi's jeans and Tortoise to the Weather Channel) so it's probably easy for me to say that selling out means nothing. On the other hand, Cat Power -- an artist I love -- has sold her music to DeBeers, a company that makes its money from the blood of dead Africans (and also by creating false monopolies). I'd be lying that I wasn't disappointed by that.

Here's the thing that Sam Beam touched on a little bit in the interview: A great way to make money as a musician is licensing. I have no real problem with that. Yes, it's annoying when Explosions in the Sky sells their music to Cadillac -- GM isn't exactly going to the mat on solving the climate problem -- but I was never bugged when they sold their music to "Friday Night Lights." Explosions is from West Texas and their music sounds like West Texas. On a lot of levels, it just makes sense.

padraig said...

rj - yep, exactly. I just think you have to take it case by case. of course once you reach a certain age you don't care nearly as much, or at least not for the same reasons. for me as a fan it essentially comes down to - do I want to support this artist, you know? I don't care about Cat Power at all but if I did like her music and I found out she was involved w/DeBeers it'd be reason enough for me not buy any of her records or go to her shows. if other people disagree, whatever, that's fine.

I still believe nearly all the same things I did when I grew up on Crass and co., but I realized a long time ago that no band will change the world, not really - that's not to say that musicians like Bob Marley or P.E. or Crass haven't done something meaningful, but pop music (I mean in the broad sense of popular music, not Top 40), no matter how subversive, isn't going to radically alter any power structures. It's doomed by it's intrinsic links with advertising, dependency on the record industry (dominated by giant media conglomerates) and the impossibility of delivering complex, nuanced messages via the available mediums. I mean, fuck, we're all beholden to the $ and everyone has to eat and music is a capitalist endeavor - artistic integrity is a personal decision.