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.