“Enya: A Treatise on Unguilty Pleasures” – review and reflection
It’s been almost 9 months now, since the virus has turned the world upside down. Time, in which Chilly Gonzales birthed a song with Gary Barlow called “Oh What a Day” (alongside Barry Manilow on the same album), recorded a Christmas album and wrote a book about Enya. Some people would call every single element of each “bad taste” initially. Why? Because what we wear, like and listen to is a form of social demarcation. Take the typical hipster as an example: “somebody trying too hard to be different by rejecting anything that is deemed popular. [...] hipsters aren’t actually different at all, they’re just people that are snobbier and more annoying about their taste in ‘alternative’ things, which are all popular now thanks to the other hipsters.” (Urban Dictionary) The hipster is the extreme representation of a trap we fall prey to in different forms when we transition from innocent, uninfluenced children to beings who have learned about effect, reaction and manipulation. In an attempt to be cool, more distinct and outclass others, we deny things we actually love, and intellectually adopt what we think we should like. We foster those well-groomed pets in the rational chamber of our brains and cage the wild spirits that once lived in our souls and nurtured our emotions in the forbidden “guilt box”. The book is a plea to rerelease our authentic, pre-adolescent, guilt-free selves – or rather that’s the afflatus I draw from it.
My day starts with a text from my mum, and it ends with a text from my mum. Those messages consist half of words and half of emojis: kisses, hearts, hugs, thumbs up. I dread the day when I wake up to a void. A void, I’ve never known. I grew up in a humble home, but we were never short of love. I felt my mother’s warm hand on my cheek in the nightfall and I heard her soft voice until I transitioned into sleep, wrapped in a blanket of unconditional love, security and peace. Sacred moments, I pass on to my 9-year-old daughter (who carries my mother’s name), even though I’m more of her jukebox than an autonomous source of soothing nowadays. I can’t imagine a world without lullabies – I can’t imagine a life without mother love. So, why an intro starring my mum to a review of Chilly Gonzales’ book “Enya”? Because Gonzo junior had to go to bed without lullabies.
And like I pretend to write about him/her, but end up writing about myself, Gonzo reveals more about himself than about the Irish singer which makes it one of his most personal (written) works. Under layers of wit and humour, he lays bare the universal urge for maternal love and (parental/outside) approval as drivers of our adolescent and adult selves. Even more so, it’s a pamphlet of emancipation: the emancipation of taste, the cutting of the umbilical cord of convention, outer assurance and an elitist need for simultaneously distinction and belonging. His message is simple, and as so often, simplicity is genius. It contains wisdom that runs deep into all fields of life: the moment you stop to care about what others think, you are actually free. Free to enjoy and seek whatever pleases you, free to indulge in what makes you happy without Damocles’ sword of judgement dangling over your head. It’s also a story of catharsis, of reconciling the super-ego and id of taste within one self, and about the journey to self healing. Compensating for a lack of maternal love, Gonzo the Elder appoints Enya as the chaste uber-mother of his inner, deserted child, an Angela Merkelian Chancellor of Inner Affairs, the Eve that never met the evil, phalloid reptile. If you like rhetoric figures as much as I do, here’s your new testament, a plethora of striking metaphors, “A Treatise on Unguilty Pleasures”.
There are at least two central leitmotivs in Gonzo’s exploration. One is the sacrifice of musical virginity on the altar of impression, coolness, and acquired tastes: “My taste devolved from an involuntary physical reaction [goosebumps] to a wilful but desperate act of self-definition.” The other thread follows contrasts in Enya’s life: punk rock attitude (no interviews, no tours, no compromises) versus new age music (no drums, no language or even invented language, synthesized strings etc. etc.). About the latter – read the book. It comes in about claviature length, so it’s a cosy weekend-in’s read. On the first aspect, that’s where he plugs right into your mind and causes one short circuit after another. He’d call it “epiphany”.
Birkenstock sandals and purpose
“The songs I turn to in trying times are the background music of filling the void, the original score to the movie of my life.” For me, that exactly nails the reason why I turned away from Enya: the memories her music tattooed into my brain are too painful. I buried Enya 2001 in the rubbles of 9/11, when “Only Time” became the unofficial anthem to heroic stories, but also unbearable suffering. The second time I tried to lock her out of my consciousness was 12 years ago, when my parents sold the house my grandfather built after the Second World War and I grew up in. I left Enya with the new owners hoping she would haunt them like an abandoned ghost. When my mum was home, she would always listen to music. Next to the CD player, she piled up her “heavy rotation” albums. Händel’s “Messiah”, Gounod’s “Cecilia Mass” and Enya. When I hear “Anywhere Is”, it beams me into our living room, it drops a certain curtain of melancholy on me that makes me mourn for my childhood. The last time I literally wanted to run away from Enya was at a person close to me’s place who blasted out “Orinoco Flow”, and we got into an argument about – (no) drumroll – taste. I said Enya to me sounds like flakes made of Birkenstock sandals raining down on me, and smells like incense sticks mixed with odors from hand-knitted woolen jumpers that have been worn for too long.
And that’s where my epiphany begins – it begins with this book. I praise myself as being a tolerant person, yet quarrelled with my dad over the music in the car for years. I neglected some of the artists I used to love, and went on as a journalist to proactively look for concerts to review that I knew in advance would allow me to write a slating. I enjoyed riding the high horse of arrogance, thinking that my “taste” elevated and separated me from the crowd of musical illiterates. It’s those hours in the car with my dad I treasure, and when he picks me up from airports or train stations these days, I simply smile and tap my feet to “his” music. Performances I destroyed with words – but isn’t it something beautiful that “this Dutch violin pompadour fiddled 2,000 silver-haired people into ecstasy, got them to stand on their chairs and play with giant air balloons”? It is.
Beauty and art lie in the eye and ear of the beholder. Judgement is what adds ugliness to it. Children are the best teachers for such lessons, that’s why Gonzo’s lullaby analogy makes so much sense. A lullaby is an almost archaic tradition, it’s puristic and an audible form of love. If you sang a lullaby to an adult, the person would most likely cringe, laugh or tense up. A child is receptive to it and finds ultimate peace of mind. Their souls are unpolluted and without any judgement other than the way it makes them feel. Dance Monkey doesn’t appeal to me, but seeing my daughter dance to it, I can’t help but join. And all of a sudden, there’s a facette to the song that I wasn’t aware of before, as if I can all of a sudden hear it with “cleansed” ears and succumb to its catchy melody and beat.
Gonzo says in his book, all he ever wanted is for his music to serve a purpose. That’s as close to a lullaby as it gets and it sums up what he has always been vocal about: He sees himself as an entertainer serving a purpose and inciting emotions as opposed to being a musical masturbator. There are three all-time favourites on my list, however, I could never make a final decision to pick from his oeuvre. “Othello”, “Manifesto” and “C Major” from “Soft Power”. There was a time, when “C Major” alternating with “House of the Rising Sun” (version replacing the lyrics with lalalas) was the most effective of lullabies to finally get the little one to sleep. Somehow, the song has Enyan elements: the harmonies, the chord progression, no drums, no language, just humming. Add some artificial orchestra sound in pizzicato, replace male voices by a female one multi-tracked into some elfin Gregorian choir – and there you go. Also, “Soft Power” – isn’t that probably the album that goes most into a “guilty pleasure” direction? He once called it “a beautiful piece of garbage”, on which he “sings his ice-cold heart out.” It’s the album that got me hooked on his music. It’s a love/hate provocer. It’s very Enya.
Actually, reflecting on it, I think my strong feelings towards Enya partially derive from envy. I envy Enya, this independent, silently rebellious supersiren. She lives in my home of heart, Ireland (maybe she lured me into it since her CD ended up on my mother’s pile), in a castle (!) with cats (I’d replace them with dogs and horses), and millions in her account, her voice is aethereal, pure and unaffected – and as if that wasn’t enough, Chilly Gonzales dedicated a whole book to her. However, Enya, I’m at peace with you now. May you reign as the fairy queen of our childhood gardens and ever serenade those who need it most.