Advertising And Authenticity With Moby

Nov 19th, 2008 // 6 Comments

Anyone who’s given some thought to the question of popular musicians licensing their music to advertising should read this fascinating Q&A with Bethany Klein, the Philadelphia-born media industries lecturer at the University of Leeds whose book, As Heard on TV: Popular Music in Advertising, comes out in April. Klein delves into the examples of Moby’s Play and Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” I have one minor quibble, though. Klein’s statement that, “Historically, if you look at the terms of constructed authenticity in popular music, you’ll find that Moby gets out of certain aspects of it because it is electronic music; it’s not rock ’n’ roll. It doesn’t have the same stakes in the art-vs.-commerce debate that rock ’n’ roll might,” overlooks the fact that dance-music aficionados tend to define “authenticity” in terms every bit as stringent as rock fans–maybe more so, since dance fans tend to be, as a relatively tiny subculture, more protective of their music.

Klein’s take parallels that of Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor in their instant-classic 2007 book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, which features a chapter on Play:

Moby’s success came about because he clothed dance music–which had been since the advent of disco the most transparently and gleefully “inauthentic” of musical genres–in the trappings of authenticity. He used a ragbag of the hallmarks of authenticity: old black roots music, slide and acoustic guitars, vegetarian diatribes in the liner notes, navel-gazing lyrics (as on “If Things Were Perfect” and “The Sky Is Broken”), even his emphasis on autobiography on his Web site, which includes a personal journal.

Again, this presumes that one fan’s “authenticity” is automatically that of another. The techno Moby is most frequently identified with has its own set of rules for authenticity, in which liner notes and acoustic instrumentation are essentially irrelevant, as opposed to those of a rock fan for whom disco is considered dessert, not the main course. Dance-music authenticity often boils down to creative use of samples and production gear and the way an artist skirts the edge of accessibility: recognizable motifs are generally OK as long as the context is tweaked just enough so that it doesn’t seem too pandering, too “pop”; catchy-for-its-own-sake is often looked down upon. For these reasons, by many dance fans’ lights, Moby has been a sellout since before he sold a single song to a single ad.

Which isn’t to say Moby himself doesn’t have things to say about authenticity. In his just-up interview-through-records on Resident Advisor, he sheds interesting light on the split early rave caused in New York’s DJ community:

[In the early '90s] The older house guys looked down on us because they had had a little bit of success and we were playing faster and harder. It’s not like there was a war or anything, but you’d go into Dancetracks or Vinyl Mania [local record stores] and there would be the house guys and the techno guys. There was a period in the late ’80s where they blurred a little bit—Inner City were called techno, but would be played by house DJs—but there was a definite difference.

It all came down to BPMs and samplers really. House records were made with drum machines, organs and pianos and had vocals more often than not and techno just kept getting faster. At the beginning, techno was right around 122, then all of a sudden it was 128, then 132. And it became much more distorted and sample-based. (And, from my perspective, more exciting.) I love house music, but in 1991 techno and rave and early jungle were entirely new genres that were really exciting. The house guys kind of reacted against it. They got slower and even more song-oriented.

Rock Star! (Brought to You by Huge Advertiser) [Miller-McCune]
Playing Favorites: Moby [Resident Advisor]


  1. jetsetjunta

    Right but also, by the time Play came out, I don’t think the general buying public was out there hemming and hawing about Moby’s genre affiliations or authenticity. All those millions of people didn’t go “Am I a Moby fan?!?!” and then decide yes. He was already locked into the sales machine that was making a concerted move toward lifestyle marketing. I would even argue that in terms of what’s “authentic” in his music, it is the stripmining of blues and gospel sounds that gave his stuff the patina of artistry, even while his rampant commercialist collaboration stripped away whatever ethical high ground he had bought with his liner note rants (and I think the number of fans who felt burned pales in comparison to the number of fans who couldn’t give a shit).

  2. Michaelangelo Matos

    Without question, the numbers are lopsided here; both Klein and Barker-Taylor have excellent points. I just think it’s worth considering the other side of it, however small it is by comparison.

  3. dippinkind

    having been somewhat involuntarily inside the early rave scene in san francisco (i hated most of the music at the time – which has since changed – but those kids would pay crazy $ to design flyers for them) and having promoters and djs and all the rest of the “in” crowd hanging out in my apt all the frickin’ time, i can attest that almost everyone was virulently dismissive of moby even back in 91-92. it may have just been jealousy over the success of Go and such, i dunno, but house folks, techno folks, tribal folks, all folks on the scene seemed united in their belief that he was a sellout hack.

  4. T'Challa

    @dippinkind: I heard that. During that same time period in Detroit, Moby was basically the anti-Christ. It wasn’t even a question: “serious” dance fans HATED Moby. But who’s laughing now?

  5. Audif Jackson Winters III

    I still remember enjoying the hell out of some remix of “We Are All Made Of Stars” that John Digweed played on an Essential Mix set. I think by Timo Maas or somebody like that.

  6. natepatrin

    @T’Challa: Anyone who’s heard Hotel?

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