Music

'Animal Rights': Moby's Attempt to Agitate Everyone Who Refused to Listen

Press photo by Mike Rosenthal from Moby.com

Moby the artist -- and electronic music as a whole -- could not and would not be contained by fans' status-quo-worshipping conservatism.

Nearly every major artist claimed by the Western canon of popular music has at some point dramatically rebranded themselves. To maintain popularity over a long career, musicians are forced every so often to creatively redirect themselves in some unexpected way, to abandon a complacent audience and a cozy reputation in the pursuit of new ground to break. Some do it begrudgingly, others enthusiastically, but it happens almost compulsively; storied veterans embrace contemporary styles in dogged attempts for relevance while young stars break into old sonic territory in the quest for long-term legitimacy, and even the most dynamic artists in the world test themselves in wholly unfamiliar genres just to see if they can. Whether as the result of some focus-tested commercial marketing strategy or the desire for the mythical, abstract concept of artistic fulfillment, artists can only remain attractive if they are remade over time.

Yet some musicians use the call of change as an opportunity to be made unattractive, to remove themselves from fashionability, to send the message that they refuse to be contained by the expectations of loyal but frustratingly rigid fan bases uninterested in seeing them as anything but romantic fantasies embodying whatever idealized perceptions can be projected onto them. We think of Lou Reed’s infamous, seemingly unlistenable mélange of guitar feedback and modulated noise Metal Machine Music (1975) or Bob Dylan’s equally notorious collection of awkward cover songs, random live cuts, and haphazard originals Self-Portrait (1970), two challengingly uncharacteristic records aimed at provoking audiences who for too long suffocated their idols in order to protect their seemingly fragile, porcelain identities from the blemishes of potential change. These are artists who aren’t above directly confronting and antagonizing the perceptions of their fan base, aggressively dismantling whatever unauthorized public image has been erected in their place, and subverting their own creative past with hostile determination. Such artists are rare.

In the electronic music community, only one of the most divisive artists present during the formative years of the genre can lay claim to being in Reed and Dylan’s company in this regard: Moby.

Like Metal Machine Music and Self-Portrait, Moby’s all-but-ignored 1996 album Animal Rights was a shocking left turn away from his familiar approach that, at best, confused fans and critics upon release and, at worst, utterly alienated them. The album was a departure from the artist’s dance music roots into the nostalgic (yet, thanks to grunge, still contemporarily relevant) embrace of hardcore punk, heavy metal, and alternative rock that, more than act as a bridge over the gap between the rock and electronic communities, seemed to actively shun both of them.

In the spirit of Reed and Dylan’s epochal stunts and the subversive agit-pop of the post-punk Moby loved as a child, Animal Rights was conceived as a reimagining of Moby as an anti-establishment, rave-rock hybrid artist without regard for the feelings of an insular dance music community that had already been turning against him and his efforts to take electronic mainstream. Of course, three years later Moby would return to the public’s favor with an album that would become a major entry point to electronic music culture for the rest of America, the ubiquitous Play (1999), but it’s important to recognize the significance of the fact that the album’s predecessor was a blistering kiss off to both the musical mainstream and those on the fringes of pop culture that not only permanently readjusted Moby’s place in the social order, but also set the stage -- thematically and, in a roundabout way, stylistically -- for what would be his eventual artistic ascent.

Establishment Politics

It was abundantly clear by 1996 that Moby regarded electronic purists with the same dismissive attitude and skepticism as the long out-of-date rockists who resented the burgeoning era of digital music that was already applying its heavy influence on the more conservative alternative rock space.

Throughout the early ‘90s in the US, the electronic community had failed to find its commercial breakthrough. Acts like the Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack, and the Prodigy who were just beginning to dominate overseas barely made a dent on American sales charts and radio, and even homegrown up-and-comers like Moby struggled to connect with anyone outside the isolated subculture.

Part of this, of course, was due to mainstream reluctance to accept electronic music into widespread legitimacy, but the techno buffs of the early ‘90s were, in their own way, regressive, in that they were inherently mistrustful of any and all outside influence, especially as the movement began to grow beyond its isolated framework and draw mainstream attention, however little. Moby, as a rapidly rising artist within the community, quickly became a figure who represented the broader aspirations of electronic dance music after a string of reasonably high-charting (again, mostly in the UK) and well-received singles and pop remixes -- most notably 1991’s Twin Peaks-quoting “Go”, a minor breakout hit and only his second official single. As a subculture shaped by underground movements and radical, antiestablishment acts -- with foundations in the LGBT and black communities and the working class experience, illegal urban raves as primary gatherings, etc. -- its ascent into commercial favor was met with great apprehension from its fiercely loyal base, so Moby, as a beneficiary of this potential breakthrough, became an idol symbolic of the genre’s early “selling-out” period.

With this already boiling dangerously under Moby’s reputation in purist circles, his traitorous admission of traditionalist hard rock heritage into the still blossoming institutions of the progressive dance music scene with Animal Rights would unsurprisingly be met with intense disdain, and for some it proved to be the final nail in the coffin that secured Moby as the movement’s great heretic.

But despite its reputation as a single-minded descent into the shallow conventions of rock music past and present, the nature of Animal Rights (1996) was, in reality, entirely dialogic, a conversation between two distinct musical spheres that lived within Moby’s artistic sensibility: that of murmuring ambient music (a continuation of the aesthetic of his mildly-received 1993 album, Ambient) and his resurging passion for the raw disorder of overdriven electric guitars and shouted vocals. Unlike many other similar genre-bending experiments, these two sides remain, for the most part, isolated from each other throughout the album; instrumental ambient interludes separate chunks of metal and punk songs without bleeding over or being encroached upon and vice versa, illustrating a rift in Moby’s musical conscience, a separation born of the wider-felt phenomenon of a mutual, seemingly irreconcilable dissociation between electronic and rock music and its fans at the time. That Moby maintained throughout Animal Rights a considerable commitment to his electronic sound despite the popular consensus of the album as a “rock record”, shows how factionalist popular music had become in that moment when anything short of 100 percent loyalty to the cause was regarded as an indefensible betrayal.

So with punk and alt-rock die-hards inevitably turned off by any association with the electronic movement and techno devotees already aggressively suspicious of Moby’s sacrilegious attempts to thrust their music into the mainstream, Animal Rights was doomed never to find its audience even before release. To make it worse, those within the two distinct, oppositional, highly-insular communities who did give the album a chance did so on their own partisan terms, creating a version of the record in their minds in which the less favorable qualities of the music (meaning those simply outside of the stylistic dogma of their genre of choice) tainted the purity of that which spoke to their predilections. Because of this split, following the album’s release, Moby naturally found himself a man without a country.

But might this have been by design? Moby surely recognized the tempestuous climate of both the rock and electronic communities at the time, so he no doubt expected at least some of the extensive backlash he would eventually receive for this undesired hybridization. Indeed, his ambition with Animal Rights seemed to be to create a sound that was rooted in his own nostalgic comfort but was also provocative, even transgressive, to that tense and factional cultural environment. The mainstream music press, still locked to a rock-centric mentality following the boom of grunge and Britpop, had for years failed to properly acknowledge the flourishing underground electronic music movement and, to some extent, Moby himself.

Because of his appetite for commercial recognition and his willingness to “dilute” (from the point of view of uncompromising purists) the essence of rave and techno music in service of broader appeal throughout the early ‘90s, Moby had alienated an insular electronic music community which prided itself on its isolation from a dominant pop culture that seemingly couldn’t care less about them. From this perspective, it’s hard to see how Moby could have possibly crafted Animal Rights intending it as an artistic “compromise” between the divided worlds of electronic and rock, or as a beacon of unity between the two parties; on the contrary, the album plays more like an outpouring of sheer frustration, meant only to antagonize the two communities who refused to acknowledge each others’ space within the same devastatingly fractured culture.

With Animal Rights, Moby yearned to agitate everyone who refused to listen, from the gatekeepers of music culture in the press and the corporate classes to the dogmatic rockists to even his own fairweather followers who were abandoning him in droves even before the album release. From its stylistic roots in the music of Moby’s youth to its deeply provocative spirit, the album was an attempted personal liberation from these restrictive bonds and, in the spirit of Reed and Bowie, a message that Moby the artist -- and electronic music as a whole -- could not be contained by a status-quo-worshipping conservatism. Moby pushed against the movement’s stifling, self-imposed confines so it might continue to grow, particularly in its commercial ambitions.

Sparking a Dialogue

Within this context, the album is much easier to wrap your head around. Either to misdirect expectations or to set the stage for his angry transgressions against the domineering principles of an isolationist rave culture, Moby began Animal Rights with “Dead Sun”, a crawling three-and-a-half-minute build-up of synth strings and pads that would mingle with his unwanted rock experiments so, from that point on, Ambient and Moby’s hesitant techno base audience would be inextricably linked with an equally averse rock crowd. After its repetitive climb over duplicated chords, the track fades away into “Someone to Love”, the initial fierce shock of punk that kicks off Animal Rights proper -- the opening of the can of worms after a familiar and comfortable appetizer.

The two songs have more in common than it may seem at first. Both make the most of very few tools: “Dead Sun”, with its slowly surging and limited chord progression, somehow manages to evoke the warm sentimentality of nostalgia, emotions mirrored by the black-and-white family photograph on the album sleeve; “Someone to Love”, in the hardcore tradition, utilizes a limited stable of notes as well, but they come instead in the form of simplified power chords, played quickly on distorted electric guitars with a backdrop of incessant digital snare shots on the offbeat and kicks in-between to arouse the emotional cycle of anger and catharsis. With this juxtaposition, the two aesthetically diametric sounds reveal their kindred philosophies, each paring down music to its basic elements and provoking feeling through minimalism. Moby lends dynamism to the chords in “Dead Sun” by lengthening them, letting the waveforms swim in their reverberations, the slow-attack instruments creating a soft and soothing bed for its intangible poignancy; “Someone To Love”, in contrast, flattens, accelerates, intensifies, and loudens. Though both tracks use it in different ways, they both maintain that essential minimalism.

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