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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.

A Man Without a Country


This juxtaposition is cultivated over the course of the record. “Now I Let It Go”, another instrumental, introduces a serene sentimentality through acoustic guitar picking and the slow vibrato of a violin between the whip-crack drums and searing guitar solo of “You” and visceral rave-up single “Come on Baby”. After “Soft”, a downtempo headbanger bearing a faint but favorable resemblance to ragged Black Flag cuts like “Damaged I”, comes album centerpiece “Anima”, which revisits the gradual flex of ambient synthesizer pads and droning bass notes with (for the first time within the album’s instrumental pieces) a digital drum set, obscured slightly by delay and reverb, and the hint of a melodic refrain played with some bright keyboard patch. Later, “Old” initiates the album’s surprising final section, abandoning the guttural vocals and buzzsaw guitars that dominate the rest of the record for airy acoustic ballads and poignant instrumentals.

As Johnny Rotten “betrayed” his fans to criticize the punk movement, so too, a frustrated Moby challenged the electronic and rock worlds' refusal to push their music and culture outward.
The album’s most remarkable one-two punch, though, hits hard in its third quarter with the ten-minute “Alone”, characterized by another swell of ethereal chords, this time punctuated with a thunderous percussive groove and a thumping house kick, and the ten-minute “Face It”, an over-the-top dramatic rock opus unlike any of the other explosive tracks on Animal Rights. In both of these songs, Moby luxuriates in their disparate designs: in “Alone”, he adds a new harmonic component every minute or so, first adding more pads in a higher octave, then strings, then a subtle twinkling piano riff, all to quietly escalate its emotional fabric over time, while “Face It” features a Nirvana-inspired intro featuring raw, clean electric guitar strumming and Moby’s mumbled vocals, several minutes of the kind of exuberant guitar noodling that punk and alternative rock normally don’t allow for, and a drawn-out ending in which Moby’s shouts fade into haunting near silence and the harsh guitar dulls out into the quiet hum of digital strings. Sequenced beside each other, “Alone” and “Face It” make for a compact summary of Animal Rights’ dichotomic essence, and because of their exaggerated qualities and their expanded sonic footprints, they may stand even today as Moby’s definitive artistic statements for each of their respective genres.

Many critics misinterpret the crucial point of Moby’s clash of styles. Writing in his review for Spin, James Hunter says, “On Animal Rights, Moby’s insistence that rock is rock, techno is techno, and electronic intellectuals should keep to England just undoes him,” but while Moby mostly divorces his ambient and rockist sensibilities throughout the album, he still keeps them in proximity of each other in such a way that invalidates the total disassociation that Hunter seems to suggest. The album is structured as a dialogue between the two (recognize the perfect dichotomy of “Alone” and “Face It” played back-to-back); if Moby wanted them completely separated, he wouldn’t play up this relationship so frequently, or, better yet, he wouldn’t have made the album at all.

The Overlooked Origins of Pop Provocation

This kind of misunderstanding was common upon release during a time when Moby was regarded as boorish and undignified in comparison to “artier” and more hip techno stalwarts like Aphex Twin, the Orb, and Underworld, so critics had the tendency to be needlessly reductive with Animal Rights. Because the album stood in stark contrast with the rest of Moby’s discography and indeed anything coming out of the electronic community at the time, it made sense that discussion of the album centered around its audacious, brutish aspects, specifically its significant hard rock influence -- chugging guitars, screaming hooks, an incessant and propulsive rhythm section -- rather than its substantial ambient and techno layers which were nearly comparable both in scope and substance. Animal Rights would forever be easily reduced to the designation of a rock album first and foremost, with a disengaged undercurrent of electronic music not consequential enough to distract from that initial characterization buried underneath it -- an assessment that was never particularly accurate.

But because grunge, early post-hardcore, and all other flavors of ‘90s alternative weighed so heavily on the brain in 1996, and because there was such a nagging impulse to simplify and underplay the hidden complexity of Moby’s seemingly bull-headed approach, the massive influence of ‘70s and ‘80s post-punk on Animal Rights regrettably went neglected by the press and by the fans. Entertainment Weekly briefly noted the record’s modern prog-rock and hardcore qualities, and AllMusic linked it to the industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails, but few made mention of any impactful influence earlier than 1985. Of course, the album features a cover of Mission of Burma’s 1981 classic “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”, and as a prominent single it garnered substantial conversation in the press, but few thought to consider what the song’s presence on the record might actually signify beyond the generic analysis of Moby’s nostalgic regressivism.

What makes this so glaring is that understanding Animal Rights hinges on recognizing the way it reworks latent post-punk themes, and by ignoring or dismissing this aspect, it’s much easier to see the album as a clumsy, simplistic, and misbegotten trudge through dead rock clichés.

Specifically, seeing the post-punk movement as a predecessor to the album is essential to understanding the fundamental provocation Moby was making. Throughout the record, Moby follows the spirit of post-punk’s progenitors who early on took to a half-ironic, subversive appropriation of traditional and mainstream pop culture materials to comment on the particular space they occupied; in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was mostly disco and the classic rock nobility whose authority was being tested, notably with a wave of punk covers of more canonical tracks lauded by the establishment press as the best the medium had to offer: Devo’s mechanical piss-take of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, the Slits’ monumental, pseudo-reggae version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, and the Raincoats’ discordant cut-up of “Lola” by the Kinks. On Animal Rights, Moby adopted this technique with a quintessentially ‘90s spin with his Mission of Burma cover -- a band he actually respected -- with the musical tools characteristic of his generation: computerized drums, ragged grunge guitars, and naked, warbly vocals. In another tribute to the ghost of post-punk, Moby even graced the B-sides of both the “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” and “Come On Baby” singles with an Animal Rights-style Devo cover, “Whip It (Death Metal Version)”.

Like the post-punk greats who embraced the stylistic contours of music their less open-minded contemporaries in the punk scene aggressively demonized (reggae, funk, disco, R&B, electronic, and, worst of all, popular rock music), Moby used Animal Rights to introduce his own conceptualization of the musical establishment -- at the time, alternative rock -- to a dance music community skeptical about the prospect of growing or branching out into the mainstream, and at the same time indict the alternative rockers for turning their backs on the innovations of electronic music. In the same way that legacy artists like Johnny Rotten “betrayed” their punk audiences with danceable and sonically-adventurous projects like Public Image Ltd. to criticize their unwillingness to build a constructive (rather than purely destructive) movement, Moby resented the electronic and rock worlds’ stubborn refusal to push their music and their culture outward, and Animal Rights was the result of that frustration.

By paying homage to his own personal heroes with jagged ‘90s-flavored covers of ‘80s classics, Moby was inviting a conversation about how the essence of post-punk and ‘80s college rock had been born, matured into grunge and ‘90s alternative, then assassinated by a diseased over-commercialization and sonic conservatism that plagued live music clubs, record stores, and radio waves with hundreds of generic, corporate-developed punk/metal crossover soundalikes in record time. For a bonus punchline, Moby even changed the title and lyrics of his Mission of Burma revisit to “That’s When I Realize It’s Over” to accommodate objections by MTV and broadcast radio stations who were worried that the song promoted violence in a way inappropriate for general audiences. By 1996, grunge had been utterly buried by a post-Nirvana wave of one-hit wonders doing laughable Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder imitations; Moby’s unabashedly ‘90s version of a highly-influential 1981 alt-rock tune, by taking its influence from both periods, spiritually bookended the movement, and it was, in many ways, a fitting eulogy for its speedy demise.

Lessons Learned

With all this in mind, it’s understandable why Animal Rights was met with derision, bewilderment, and even apathy upon its unleashing in 1996. Moby had conceived of an unholy fusion of two arguably incompatible genres held together by two insular and contemptuous audiences, and the finished product, as compelling as its story is, wasn’t really true to either.

This is made all the more fascinating by the fact that Moby found unprecedented commercial and critical success for the electronic music community just a few years later by doing essentially the same thing he did with Animal Rights by taking blues, gospel, and roots music samples and integrating them into ambient techno on Play. That one of these albums is today regarded as somewhat of a short-sighted and shallow failure and the other an enduring, innovative success seems at first to be the result of a difference in execution: while Play is primarily dance music that merely alludes to the rhythmic and melodic palimpsests of its bluesy forebears, Animal Rights is chiefly regarded as a rabid rock experiment that only dabbles in Moby’s traditional electronic sensibility, and even still its generic classification can be murky.

“Come On Baby” is perhaps the album’s most successful attempt at blending together squealing lead guitars, drum machine rhythms, and pop hooks, but no right-minded listener (purist or not) would venture to call it “punk” or “metal”, and certainly nothing aligning with contemporary electronic sensibilities, either. Now, as then, Animal Rights stands as an entirely unique experience stylistically separated from its many inspirations.

The truth about why Play casts such a long shadow over Animal Rights is more complicated. When regarded as the two flip sides of Moby’s artistic consciousness, Animal Rights and Play serve nicely as examples of the timeless duality between an artist’s creative inclinations and their commercial ambitions. By abandoning the predilections of his fan base and making few meaningful attempts to appeal to the rock-oriented observers, Moby took a leap of faith with Animal Rights, one which proved doomed to very nearly sink him from a commercial standpoint; using what he learned, he returned just three years later with a moderately innovative record that didn’t sacrifice mass appeal to make its statement. That his experimental, modernized treatment of punk was disparaged for being a perverted and uninspired attempt at genre-mashing makes his incessant determination to derive modern dance tracks from outmoded musical styles like blues and gospel all the more impressive. Play very easily could have been another critical failure, but this time one that very likely would have proven fatal for Moby’s career.

But then Animal Rights, in having to navigate the expectations of two distinct and highly insular musical communities, was far more subject to the cultural politics of fandom than Play. Animal Rights was limited by its devotion to two audiences who wanted nothing to do with it, and with a broader public still learning what the basic concept of electronic music even was, it had a marginal effect on those watching from the outside. It was much easier to misinterpret and malign an unrefined experiment that no one was listening to than to contend with what it was actually saying at the time.

Still, the turnaround was remarkable. In 1996, Moby was a rebel seeking to confront the dance music establishment he had come to resent; once Play caught on by the turn of the century, he was its pacesetter. Arguably, Moby would have never reached the high-point of Play without the digging-in-the-dirt genre fusion of Animal Rights, an experiment that helped shape his warped sense of individualism, his status as a self-assured, defiant outsider and establishment agitator, and his boundary-breaking vision for the future of electronic music. It helped him to see the barriers of what both general audiences and the dance music faithful would accept as “worthwhile” art, develop an understanding of the balance required in crossover experimentation, and determine a more sensible approach to the advancement dance music culture -- all lessons he would take with him into the millennium. On Play, Moby would continue toying with guitars and the nostalgic essence of classic popular culture, but he would make it inviting rather than alienating. He would finally see the American mainstream recognize the underground movement he once upon a time helped develop, and for a few more years he would remain a vital contender in its global community.

Play got him and the country to that point, but Animal Rights got them to Play.

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