Scroll Top

Throwback Thursday: Enya deserves better context


For a writing project in my senior year of high school, I analyzed the use of rhetoric in individually assigned instances of passively-consumed media. Mine was a series of commercials for mac and cheese, sharing the common premise of a child’s misbehavior being quelled by the calm contentment of a Kraft dinner. This contrast was made especially clear by the latter scene’s choice of background music: “Only Time,” a 2000 single by Irish singer-songwriter Enya. 


On the surface, the artist’s reputation for calmness is perfect for this use. Songs from her discography were included, for instance, in a 2011 study by Mindlab International on anxiety-relieving effects of music commonly said to be relaxing. In the wake of 9/11, outlets frequently used “Only Time” to provide a cathartic backdrop to their coverage, resulting in a well-selling rerelease of the single. I, for one, first heard the song played during kindergarten to encourage allotted naps.


Enya is considered one of the hallmark artists of “new age” — a genre of the late 80s and early 90s that blended “new” technology with influence from other-cultured “world” music. The context of “new” tech and flagrant exoticisms soon faded in favor of the fact that it made good yoga and spa music. I think the “new age” designation itself is problematic, lumping forerunners like Brian Eno and Beverly Glenn-Copeland with acts like Celtic Woman — with apologies to any of their fans.


This designation also ignores her work’s cultural influence. The authenticity and character of her vocal delivery, for instance, can’t be considered without her previous role as vocalist for her family’s folk group. As single-named stars from Ireland continue to flex their roots, from Bono’s “Bloody Sunday” to Hozier’s “Butchered Tongue,” I often recall Enya’s integration of Irish-language lyrics into her own brand of lush pop.


Even more overlooked is Enya’s innovative use of sound production technology. Her trademark choir-like background vocals were deftly-layered tracks and enhancements of her own voice. Her lush, orchestral-sounding arrangements in actuality featured the larger-than-life sounds of pioneering digital synthesizers, the use of which left an undeniable mark on digital composition going forward and aged far more gracefully than similar attempts. Informed as much by the times as it was by her own experience, her irreplicable sound was sampled by numerous artists from The Fugees to The Weeknd.


These factors result in a quality that makes for wonderful deeper listening or complement to other activities ­— yoga and otherwise. As the second best selling Irish artist, I believe Enya deserves assessment beyond the generalizations of an instant pasta commercial.

Zach Zelinski
+ posts