Label me, if you dare
Friday, 14 May 1999
Most musicians stick to what they know. A few mavericks continually reinvent their sound; are they jumping on every bandwagon or just refusing to be pigeonholed? Martin James talks to Moby, rave DJ turned avant-garde composer turned punk turned…
Ch-ch-ch-changes” sang David Bowie in the 1972 song which came to epitomise the chameleon-like nature of his career. For Bowie, the changeling ethos manifested itself in his shifting musical styles as regularly as he swapped skirt for catsuit, and baggy pants for Union Jack tail jacket.
Thankfully, few musicians have chosen to follow his fashion mistakes and even fewer appear to have actually changed musical style with a similarly cavalier attitude.
New York’s Moby has long eschewed genre restrictions in order to follow his own musical vision. From his early days soundtracking rave parties with seminal tunes such as the Twin Peaks sampling “Go” to his explorations of the classical avant-garde on the Underwater collection, he has walked his own path with a perverse sense of self-belief. When in 1996 he delivered Animal Rights, an album of garage punk songs, Moby’s willingness to go against the grain of pop culture resulted in ridicule from dance and indie press alike.
This week sees the release of Moby’s latest album, Play, a wonderful concoction of hip-hop beats, lush, string-soaked ambience and sampled indigenous American folk and blues songs from the turn of the century. As with all Moby albums, it sounds nothing like anything he’s previously released. A fact which will doubtless lead to criticism and suspicion. Moby puts such thoughts down to fundamentalism.
“Whether it’s religious, or with music or whatever, fundamentalism is so attractive to people because it provides you with a rigid, unchanging lens through which to see the world,” he argues. “Everything is neatly compartmentalised and easily slotted because the world is so complicated and confusing that people love belief systems that are reductionist. This is how they make sense of all of the ambiguity in the world.”
The past 30 years of pop music have been defined by the culture industry attempting to make sense of ambiguity. In defiance of the liquid nature of music, the industry has continually attempted to place artists into genre strait-jackets. In turn, musicians seem to have been doggedly reticent about trading in their well-worn rags. The reason is, of course, obvious. Fans already buy the old version. In such a tightly marketed climate, can you imagine the reaction if Bob Dylan had gone electric, The Beatles had gone psychedelic, and U2 had discovered dance? Well, yes… Each shift in focus of these artists caused a rash of public and media condemnation, but resulted in the creation of some of their most compelling albums. Take U2’s own infamous headfirst dive into dance music which involved enlisting Scottish beatmaster Howie B as the band’s fifth member. The resulting music was far more rewarding than any of their previous outings yet they were largely ridiculed in the music press and sales failed expectations.
Similar commercial underachievement met David Bowie’s recent attempts to turn junglist while hip-hop star Ice T almost destroyed his b-boy career when he attempted to seduce the minds of America’s white middle- class youth with Bodycount, his thrash-metal project. Only the Beastie Boys seem to have mastered the genre shifts between thrash punk, hip hop and lounge funk to both critical acclaim and commercial success (although in the case of the Beasties, it could be argued that these are ideological shifts rather than genre changes).
So why do some artists feel the need to change direction and risk alienating their audience? The suspicion that surrounds such shifts is usually centred around the idea that the musician has been coerced into exploring a potentially more lucrative market. Where this must certainly be the case with some, most changes in direction have less to do with making money than the artists need to express their creativity.
As Howie B points out, U2 (and more recently The Band’s Robbie Robertson) came to him as a way to explore new ideas. “I think they felt that they’d done the rock’n’roll thing as much as they could at the time,” he explains. “I came in with a bag of records and just started dropping beats for them to work to and it completely revolutionised their way of working. They’d been interested in dance stuff before but they’d never found a way of expressing themselves through it.”
But just as soap stars don’t always make great pop stars, rockers rarely rule the dance floor the second they buy a computer and technoheads don’t always fire up the stage-divers as soon as they strap on the old six-string.
However, it’s thanks to those moments when artists have defied all restrictions, crossed the boundaries and explored other alternatives that some of the finest albums of our time have been created (from The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper to Prodigy’s Music for the Jilted Generation, Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On to Miles Davis’s Black Magus – the list goes on). In a recent marketing report for one of the major record companies, it was declared that niche marketing was a thing of the past. Today, we are all into a little bit of everything, the market being defined by its eclecticism.
In real terms, this means an end to investment in music’s mavericks and a Robbie Williams ballad for breakfast, a Robbie Williams pop song for lunch, and a Robbie Williams rock out for tea. In such a narrow climate, artists such as Moby, who are prepared to explore extremes, regardless of success, should be celebrated for their willingness to go out on a limb.
“Purism is anti-evolution,” concludes Moby. “People who fear change also fear human development.” Changes: they may not always work, but in the face of the mediocrity of eclectic marketing, it’s worth turning to “face the strain”.
Moby’s `Play’ is out now on Mute Records