Moby came under fire from The Guardian‘s Michael Cragg yesterday for his comments to AOL’s Spinner UK about the current pop world. “It’s fun, but I don’t think of it as music,” the artist told Shelley White. “It’s manufactured. I appreciate it as pop culture phenomenon and some of the songs I like if I hear them in a shopping mall or something, but it doesn’t function as music for me.”
Moby has put his foot in his mouth enough times in the past to know better than to name names, so White can only state that his comments are in reference to “current chart-toppers like Ke$ha, Rihanna, Britney Spears and the Black Eyed Peas.” Even still, his comments about the “function” of music and the apparent lack of “emotion and integrity” in today’s “hyper-produced corporate product,” speak to a lack of understanding of the realities of the music industry.
Cragg’s criticism here is completely on target, particularly since Moby went from the bottom of the industry straight to the top without having to deal with the messy middle: after minor success as a electronic pop musician (his biggest hit before 1999 was “Go,” a progressive-house take on “Laura Palmer’s Theme”), Moby reversed a life of financial struggles almost overnight when he licensed the entirety of 1999’s Play several times over and then invested his gains into real estate on New York’s Lower East Side, joining the Blue Man Group in an exclusive club of “bald dudes who own a bunch of property southeast of Houston and Bowery.” (It certainly helped that Play was mega-popular in its own right.) Critics tend to particularly bristle at catholic taste judgments such as Moby’s from those who have “bought in” to the economics of pop in this way, so it’s no surprise that Moby referred explicitly to methods of production in his criticisms of corporatization (providing a handy loophole for the after-the-fact licensing of Play), nor that Cragg ignored the feint (his exact phrase was “blatant hypocrisy”).
Furthermore, big-name artists often don’t understand the issues that face artists who exist below star status: take, for example, Trent Reznor‘s genuine shock and disappointment when fans who eagerly paid for downloads of Nine Inch Nails music would not as eagerly do the same for the Saul Williams album he distributed.
Cragg loses the script when he takes specific issue with Moby’s comments in an interview with The Quietus. When asked to clarify if Britney Spears is the “self-involved, entitled douchebag” whose work he likes, Moby insists otherwise, explaining, “Britney’s actually kind of like a broken-down shell of a human being, that’s what makes her so endearing and compelling. She was lovely, but really broken. Like, Blanche Dubois-style broken.” Cragg takes the phrase “broken-down shell of a human being” to be a further criticism of her art, when in reality it likely has more to do with her actual self. Moby is likely applying not a little hindsight to this assessment, as his work with her on “Early Mornin” from 2003’s In the Zone predated her highly publicized mental health issues by a number of years, but he’s not off base. Britney’s father James Parnell Spears maintains indefinite conservatorship over Britney’s affairs, and although sources told TMZ last year that the legal control is now largely a formality, it has continuing consequences. James Spears is now insisting that his daughter is mentally incapable of testifying in the defamation lawsuit that Britney’s former manager Sam Lutfi filed against her mother Lynne Spears regarding allegations made in the memoir Through the Storm. Britney herself is the one person who lacks the legal ability to comment on whether she is fit to testify. So Cragg is the myopic one here.
Listener experience is something else Cragg fails to understand. He characterizes Moby’s classification of “music” and “not-music” as a call for a false authenticity: “At the heart of it is the theory that all music needs to have been wrenched from the emotional core of a tortured soul.” That theory (“rockism”) is indeed a frequent bogeyman in discussion of music’s qualifications. Cragg then goes on to praise pop songwriters like Max Martin and the vocal delivery of Britney and Rihanna as examples of art in pop, accidentally implicating himself. In identifying individual “artists” within the structure of the pop mechanism, he continues to focus on production, as though every listener is reading the same thing into a song. Not to get all cultural-theorist (in this case Stuart Hall) but pop listeners have interpretive minds of their own! The classic 1990s example is the Spice Girls, whose “girl power” message rang particularly hollow for veterans of the riot grrrl movement and its concurrent socio-political activism, but felt all too true to very young girls. Could these girls also be accepting, unthinkingly, messages about gender and sexualization? Maybe, but certainly not in all cases! As it turns out, pop is complicated. Moby and Cragg apparently both missed the memo.