Pictured in the liner notes for Brian Eno’s 1985 ambient piece Thursday Afternoon is a lined paper that scrupulously diagrams the song structure. The page shows a series of rows of timelines, each one surrounded by Eno’s penciled-in notes, chronicling the flow of the self-titled and sole song on this album: “Hints of shimmer” it reads in the second row of Eno’s notes; “increasing density” it reads in the fourth. Although this isn’t traditional sheet music (Eno, in his unorthodoxy, didn’t even know how to read sheet music), these instructions helped prepare such a graceful-sounding installation of ambient music—and it all may seem like a lot for an hour-long drone on a G note.
Thursday Afternoon may have a calming effect, but its artistic message isn’t straightforward: The combination of familiarity (the title is a day of the week, a time of day) and avant-garde, minimalist artwork (a smattering of aquatically colored shapes painted by artist Tom Phillips) renders it nebulous. This is ambient music concerned with neither commercial appeal nor bearing an obvious artistic message. Conversely, around the time of Eno’s piece, and during the next few years, the genre of ambient split off into a much more straight-ahead distillation easier for the mainstream to grasp, something perfect for the burgeoning “adult contemporary” market. Enter the commodified ohm of new-age music, which began to garner confounding, unpredictable success in the mid to late ’80s.
Taking on a tone as wispy and innocuous as Bob Ross’, the new-age movement has implored its adherents to covet one thing: absolute calm. There’ve been past marketing attempts at stressing a sonic journey to chill out—the “beautiful music” radio format of the ’60s, the sailing fantasies of Christopher Cross from the early ’80s—but none of them cultivated a sound quite like that of new age. While it’s a bastardized version of the progressive, painstaking artistry of Eno and his peers, new age still manages to evoke that abstract essence so intrinsic to authentic ambient. But any new-ager can closely evoke it with the right synthesizers.
Initially, the term “new age” characterized soloists who devoted their instrumentations to the grace of Mother Nature, whose track lists and discographies swam with references to solstices, rainfall, and other outdoorsy phenomena. The works of William Ackerman, Paul Winter, and other lighthearted virtuosos were solely played and made available for purchase in the budding health-food stores of the time—like Fresh Fields and Mrs. Gooch’s before they got co-opted by Whole Foods. Synth kitsch gradually started to creep into the picture, though, and pop songwriting mannerisms began to replace the more free-form playing intrinsic to the likes of Ackerman and his sprawling guitar-solo pieces. With these various shifts, the genre skyrocketed and garnered the specific record-store section title “new age.”
With new age coinciding with the rise of America’s now favorite holistic practice, yoga, the two became inextricable and indelible within society. Soon yuppies everywhere were doing sun salutations to the soothing, melodious invocations of artists like Yanni and Enya. “New age music and yoga are fused at the hip because they are both powers for diminishing the capacity to respond to an overwhelming world,” says professor Robert Hullot-Kentor. He’s chair of the department of Critical Theory And The Arts at New York City’s School Of Visual Arts. He also compares the conflation of new age and to past sociological trends: “They are contemporary forms of how late Stoicism functioned during the disintegration of the Roman Empire as people needed to find techniques for removing themselves from the increasingly unrecognizable and intolerable public world around them. Christianity emerged in this same context, vying with Stoicism for spiritual devotion. In many ways, they merged.”
In 1987, the Grammys unveiled the Best New Age Album category; Andreas Vollenweider’s Down To The Moon won that year. In 1988, the new-age movement scored its first big pop hit with “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” by mystical Irish songstress Enya, which peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 7 on the Adult Contemporary chart. In the span of these two years, new age was on an unstoppable rise and proving itself to be commercially viable. For “Orinoco Flow,” the national anthem of new age, Enya evokes the aforementioned soft-rocker Christopher Cross’ love for boating with the hook, a mantra: “Sail away, sail away, sail away.” She captured the free-your-mind mentality of the genre and put it in a pop song, epitomizing new age’s popularization in the process: Ambience got festooned with pop hooks and compressed into shorter song durations (since the typical consumer hasn’t the patience for, say, an hour-long drone song), rendering the ambience more accessible while eradicating its key “sprawling” sonic quality. An average Joe might’ve considered “Orinoco Flow” a watershed, some new ethereal-sounding direction for pop music. But in the eyes of a zealot of Eno or Ackerman, the song is an insulting distillation.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking peace and calm—it’s a beautiful thing, in fact. What’s irritating is how new age has preached the same message—“sail away, sail away, sail away”—that many of its artists have become seemingly desensitized to its significance. Oftentimes it’s hard to believe that some new-agers embrace seeking calm, since they can say the word but struggle to go beyond that. Just skim the track list of any album by mustachio/pianist extraordinaire Yanni, such as 1992’s Dare To Dream (gosh, that title alone), full of stock song names like “Once Upon A Time,” “A Love For Life,” “Nice To Meet You,” “So Long My Friend.” It doesn’t take a certified yogi to realize that the path to calm isn’t as obvious and straightforward as the new-age aesthetic prefers to be.
Hullot-Kentor doesn’t attribute this superficiality to sheer artistic laziness. Rather, he seems to see it as a technique for provoking an escapist mind-set within the consumer, a way for folks to forget they’re becoming “fragmented” within such an overwhelming, fast-paced world. “New Age Music is a surrogate ego function that helps its audience survive characteristically by offering to replace the intolerable experience of fragmentation—of disintegration of the self—with the soothing experience of non-integration. That’s its ‘spirit,’” he explains.
Despite its prevailing superficiality, new age experienced an innovative moment in 1990, by way of German producers Michael Cretu, David Fairstein, and Frank Peterson, collectively known as Enigma. It’s surprising that their first single, “Sadeness (Part 1),” attracted the amount of attention it did, topping pop charts around the world and making it into the top five of the Billboard Hot 100; this catalyzed the multiplatinum success of their debut album, MCMXC A.D. More surprising is how the hook to “Sadeness” is an esoteric vocal sample, transforming it into a worldwide sensation. It’s a Gregorian choir chanting a biblical passage in Latin—“Procedamus in pace!” sung by Capella Antiqua München. It made a weird puncture in the pop-music paradigm by representing a crossover of epochs: the ultra-antiquated (a Gregorian choir) blended with the timely (a plump hip-hop beat). Additionally, airy synths and automated pan flutes serve as the prime new-age textures, infusing a sense of otherworldliness into Enigma’s megahit.
While their song’s allusions to French philosopher/eroticist Marquis De Sade went unregarded by listeners for the most part, Enigma had nonetheless stumbled upon a formula that intrigued the world of pop music. The formula that popularized “Sadeness” also endowed the trio of producers with their next big hit, “Return To Innocence” in 1994. It became the sensual, motivational theme of the 1996 Olympics as well as, like “Sadeness,” an international hit. “Return To Innocence” ended up being their highest charting single in America, peaking at No. 4 on the Hot 100.
Artists like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel often get tagged as “worldbeat,” but the formula that Enigma had helmed seemed to define that subgenre’s particular ethos in the ’90s. For instance, new-age French duo Deep Forest followed the German producers’ example and scored a minor worldbeat hit with “Sweet Lullaby” in 1992, which peaked at No. 78 on the Hot 100. Lawsuits began to emerge against Enigma, though, when the group was called out for having used unauthorized vocal samples in not just one but both of its hit songs. Capella Antiqua München sued for “Sadeness,” husband and wife folk singers Kuo Ying-Nan and Kuo Hsiu-Chu sued for “Return To Innocence,” and the two parties eventually received their royalties and credits. But Enigma’s mistake validated the contrarian notion, which is held by some (and has been used to scathe albums like Paul Simon’s Graceland), that worldbeat music might simply be an exploitative effort.
Alongside the unauthorized ones, however, there are some original vocals on “Return To Innocence,” sung by a minor German pop star named Andreas Harde. But the lyricism reeks of new-age superficiality and hackneyed, wannabe-yogi wisdom. Harde muses: “Love / Devotion / Feeling / Emotion / Don’t be afraid to be weak / Don’t be too proud to be strong / Just look into your heart, my friend / That will be the return to yourself / The return to innocence.”
As the buzz of Y2K was setting in, the hunger for new-age chill was starting to dwindle in the pop marketplace. “Return To Innocence” was the last major sign of the genre’s prominence on the pop charts (though there were some smaller-scale hits, like Madonna’s “Rain,” which has been considered her own stab at new age). That is, until 2000. “Only Time” was Enya’s biggest hit in over a decade as well as her highest-charting song on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 10. The sound of it is nocturnal and incantatory—it’s the musical incarnation of a DeviantArt forest landscape.
That “Only Time” suddenly shot up the charts, despite its ultra-forlorn style and the new-age sound’s years-long sabbatical from the pop music world, is surprising on the surface, but Enya’s hit took off, and plausibly so, due to its association with various pop cultural milestones. The first milestone was kind of banal, with the song being used to promote the eighth season of Friends. But the second was centered around tragedy, and it rendered the song more ubiquitous, as “Only Time” immediately became the leitmotif for news coverage of the September 11 attacks. The crux of the lyricism postulates that time is irrevocable and always flowing: “Who can say where the road goes / Where the day flows, only time / And who can say if your love grows / As your heart chose, only time.” It’s a soothing tune, though it’s merely another return, not to innocence, but to superficiality.
“Only Time” was the final blowout of new age’s presence on the pop charts, yet it wasn’t a complete death knell. In 2013, the song was re-excavated to soundtrack an intrepid Volvo commercial—a slow zoom out on Jean-Claude Van Damme balancing himself in a split position against the sides of two moving Volvo trucks, high above a desert road—that went on to accrue over 84 million views on YouTube. And the song has become a motif in the popular, very current internet subculture of “dank memes”—a hyper-aggressive, dadaist approach to humor—used in videos when someone looks like they’re troubled, like in a Vine of a Captain Feathersword puppet from The Wiggles. He’s seen falling backwards out of frame in the last few seconds, in slow motion and black and white, as Enya coos, “Who can say where the road goes…”
Overall, new age has seen a resurgence on the internet, though not in such a sincere manner. At the start of the decade, artists Ramona Xavier and Daniel Lopatin helped develop a genre that’s idiosyncratic to the internet: vaporwave. Xavier released Floral Shoppe as Macintosh Plus (her overarching moniker is Vektroid) in 2011, and Lopatin released Eccojams Vol. 1 the year before as Chuck Person (his salient moniker is Oneohtrix Point Never). The blissful tones of new age are incorporated into vaporwave, as heard in the precedent set by these two artists, often given a chopped-and-screwed treatment and decombusted with obfuscating audio effects. In vaporwave, new age actually functions as a satirical device, with artists poking fun at its superficiality and capitalistic undertones. All those bygone products (mostly from the ’80s) that promised ostensible serenity, newness, and escape—workout DVDs, vacation vouchers, Miami Vice montages fraught with Palm Beach vistas—are the sources of vaporwave’s aesthetic imagery and energy; the genre compacts the vestiges of this consumerist dreck into messy, funky, slow-burning electronic music.
“I was listening to so many new-age records, and they’re undeniably bad records, but there’s something about them I was listening to and enjoying,” Lopatin said about his music-making process during a Red Bull Music Academy lecture.
But I was fixated on this idea that you could use the tropes of new-age music to describe something beyond the cliché that is new-age music: Like, chill out, and be in your Zen-like cave amongst nature. I don’t even like that… But that’s an interesting idea that people would want to do that, to create music that’s a simulated Zen-forest vibe. That’s a terrible idea. You should never do that.
What Lopatin said about his “simulated Zen-forest vibe” is the best way to summarize new age: It’s both terrible and interesting. This is a musical product of “pseudo-spiritualization”—a term that Hullot-Kentor mentioned in conversation—that’s remained commercially viable to this day: Yanni (who, back in January, dropped a tepid attempt at electronic dance music called Sensuous Chill) still sells out arenas worldwide, Enya’s post-“Only Time” endeavors have sold millions, and the Grammy category is still finding album after album to reward. But it’s all far from canonical, except in its own insulated canon. A devout new-ager can give you Yanni recommendations based on your chakra, for instance, but you won’t find his stuff on general “best of” lists. New age, since its popularization, has been all about sameness and playing it safe, making it basically impotent. Homogeneity and superficiality render new age trite and uncreative, yet it stays alive and (deep) breathing.