Why on earth is Moby so popular?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 9 2002 4:48 PM

No More Moby!

Why on earth is he so popular?

Illustration by Keith Seidel

Not long after the release of his latest record, 18, the megastar DJ Moby posted this journal entry on his Web site:

#1 In The World
5/21/2002—Cologne, Germany
i've just been told that '18' is the # 1 selling album in the world.
whoo-boy, that's just nuts.
i'm a little bald guy from the lower east side of manhattan and i make records in my spare bedroom. how have i ended up with the #1 selling album in the world?
thanks everybody. and thanks to christ.
very strange, huh.
–moby

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Actually, according to Billboard magazine, 18 never got above fourth place on the Top 200 Albums chart. But it did become the No. 1 electronic record, the No. 1 record sold on the Web, and, for what it's worth, the No. 1 album in Canada. The press also seized the bait in a big way, with the usual effluvia in the music rags and a flattering cover piece in the New York Times Magazine. Which raises the question: How can it be that at this pivotal moment in our history, when the entire world is looking to America for leadership, our most robust music-maker is a 36-year-old hermit who can barely play a guitar?

Admittedly, Moby-hating is too easy a pose to strike. Eminem has that base covered, and he's welcome to it. In fact, I have nothing against Moby and even owe him a small favor: At some point in the mid-'90s, he mentioned to the press that he liked a band I was in, the Upper Crust. So, thanks, Moby. But even so, I find it utterly baffling why so many people are bewitched by Mobymania. His music is pretty and ambient, but so is wallpaper. Everything about 18—the goofy spaceman photographs, the bad computer art, the aimless liner notes about life's rich diversity, and, of course, the music—comes off as a well-executed high-school science project, conceived by a nice loner who could use a few more friends. Could someone please invite this guy to a keg party?

Take "We Are All Made of Stars," the album's opening track and first single. The Times Magazine piece tells us that Professor Moby is obsessed with the occult science of hit-making. If we extrapolate from this track, Moby's alchemy of the hit can be defined as follows: Take some mechanical drumming, add a farty synthesized bass, inject some noodly guitar, and then sing cryptically about the unlimited potential of the human spirit. Either that, or about extraterrestrials—I can't quite tell.

The second track, "In This World," is more promising. It includes a lovely fragment of singing by a female guest vocalist, and it reveals an interest in gospel that sprouted on Play and is now in full bloom. Quite a few tracks on 18 radiate an evangelical quality. But to my ears, there is something mildly sinister about using the Lord's music this way. It's fine to use gospel inflections to do the devil's bidding and sing about carnal urges, as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin did way back when, but to just snip out a piece of gospel and repeat it on an endless loop seems worse than Satanic—it's like a Microsoft engineer is in charge. Moby's cousin Herman Melville said it best: Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appall.

(But it's not just Moby's distortion of gospel that strikes a hollow note. His long, lugubrious instrumentals are not exactly rocking either. "Fireworks" is inaccurately named, to put it mildly, and the title track sounds like something 101 Strings would have recorded in 1969 for the skating-rink market.)

One of Moby's distinguishing features is that he doesn't sing much on his records. Is it because his voice sucks? I don't think it's that bad, though he doesn't have the biggest pipes in the world. Rather, it seems to be part of a North Korean strategy of raising his profile by seeming everywhere and nowhere at the same time. 18 features 10 different guest vocalists—which may be a big part of the appeal for people who find different voices titillating in some anti-rock-star way. Many great bands—Sly Stone, the Staples—have spread their music among different voices. But this has nothing to do with a band. It's all about Moby, who seems to loom up larger the fewer songs he sings. There's something a little sinister about the messianic words of the first track ("growing in numbers … no one can stop us now"), and the album's Trojan horse gift: Inside my copy were 20 cards with pictures of Moby and instructions for assembling them into a Moby Shrine. Hilariously, these cards are "limited edition"—thank God I got my order in when I did!

The music sends out the same cultish vibe song after song, Moby finds a riff, then repeats it, repeats it, repeats it. (This bit from "In My Heart" gives you the idea.) It might work in a club, at deafening volume (what doesn't?), but it's boring at best and totalitarian at worst when you're listening at home. What's missing is the organic feeling of real people bouncing real musical ideas off each other and living in the moment—the basic performance honesty that true gospel never strays from, which is why the best gospel is always heard live under the tent or in church. There are beautiful bits and orts of music, but after rote repetition, they lose their appeal and you start to hear them as interchangeable pieces of a rock-by-numbers kit. You never escape the feeling that a computer keypad is generating the beat. Indignant Moby fans should consult the song "Moby Dick" by Led Zeppelin to hear what animal skins are capable of when struck by a live human being.

Give Moby his due: He seems well-intentioned and certainly works hard for the money. Day after day, he enters his quotidian thoughts into his Web journal, and even if it begins to seem like The Truman Show, you've got to admire his industry. He's got a knack for assembling techno collages, and he's done pleasant, ambient work for movie soundtracks ("God Moving Over the Face of the Water" in the Al Pacino flick Heat, for instance). He's a decent composer. But he's just not a performer. He is a talented collector, a lepidopterist of sounds, a builder of ant farms, but he is definitely not a rocker. Which is why it's weird to keep hearing about his ambitions to change rock itself and about his barely restrained punk sensibilities. Punk? On the scale of rockingness, Moby ranks only slightly above N*Sync and well below Britney Spears. While listening to 18, I kept thinking back to another recent album by a lonely musical genius—Joey Ramone's achingly beautiful swan song, Don't Worry About Me; maybe because its title echoes Moby's "I'm Not Worried at All." To my ears, there's no comparison. Even from the great beyond, Joey plumbs deeper below the surface than Moby will ever know. Rock 'n' roll is just too important to be left to the Vegan-People.

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