A decade after the fact, I’m re-exploring my love of Enya

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

This past winter, I found myself in the unenviable position of clearing out my teenage bedroom. My parents were finally moving, as both me and my younger sister had been situated elsewhere for quite some time. Anything we left behind during this trip home could potentially be tossed, and thus lost forever; we were to mark out what we explicitly wanted to hold onto so it could be preserved in the move.

Among the yearbooks with HAGS graffitied over and over again in adolescent script, the stuffed animals (ranging from the giant pig I’d won for someone else but then decided to keep for myself, to the smiling golden monkey my grandparents gave me before my grandma passed away), and my meticulously organized DVD case of bootleg Japanese animated TV shows, I slipped two flimsy CD sleeves, their contents carefully spelled out on the discs within in thin Sharpie letters:

The Memory of Trees


A Day w/o Rain

After some hesitation, I took the sleeves out, along with a legitimate copy of her album Watermark, then packed them into my suitcase for the flight back to LA.

Before I borrowed and burned Red Hot Chili Peppers and Vanessa Carlton CDs from “learned” peers and the local library, before I began to read early Pitchfork and subsequently got deep into indie rock and pop and illegal file sharing, before I actively billed myself a fangirl of anything, I was an Enya fan. The genesis of my love for her music is probably from my dad, who’s the more musically “experimental” parent; he had Watermark filed away along with albums from the Mannheim Steamrollers, Boston Pops, and other not-Trans-Siberian Orchestra musical groups no one now under the age of 50 should know. (Enya, to some, belongs in that category. I can’t say I totally disagree.)

I’d reserve Enya CDs on my mom’s library card, then scoop them up for repeated listenings at home or on my Discman. The first CD I ever burned was A Day Without Rain; my Xanga profile oftentimes had Enya song titles or lyrics in my page title: ~*~*~paint the sky with stars~*~*~, animated so that phrase would crawl across the browser. When the Lord of the Rings films came out, I gleefully noted that “May It Be,” the song that closed out Fellowship of the Ring, was Enya’s. (She contributed vocals to many other LOTR tracks, in a culture marriage fit for a [return of the] king.)

Then — the shift from Enya to “serious” music, to mostly men with guitars and drums and bass and bones to pick with the world. Angry, confrontational, cathartic; a perhaps unexpected outlet for somebody who was far less suited for a mosh pit and far more so for, like, reading indoors during sunny days. I was scandalized when, on The Killers’ seminal Nice Guy hit/karaoke killer “Mr. Brightside,” Brandon Flowers sang “Now, he takes off her dress”; I would physically wince to the sounds of The Used, My Chemical Romance, Taking Back Sunday. But this was the music I was *supposed* to listen to, so I sucked it up, taking notes of what band shirts other students wore and researching magazines like Spin and Filter (now Flood) for an idea of what was in.

Some of that music was good; much of it was bad, as was it alien to me. I “persevered” in the face of popular consensus though, and gone went the hours spent bathing in the warm wash of Enya’s New Age sound. Even when I eventually expanded and whittled down my musical palette to what I actually liked, I didn’t return to her.

When the American The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film came out in 2011, I’d just finished the fall semester of my sophomore year of college and — surprise — was struggling to pin down exactly what it was that I wanted to do with my life. I felt low; not exactly sad, but uninspired and unsure if I was doing anything worth doing at all.

I went to go see the film on a whim, and it blew me away. To this day, it’s still one of my favorites, but nestled within the violence and Swedish snow was a scene that used one of the most Enya, Enya songs of all time: “Orinoco Flow,” of “Sail away, sail away, sail away” fame.

I must’ve grabbed my armrests when the song came on. Never mind that its use was intended as a moment of complete cognitive dissonance; never mind that it was a joke to the filmmakers. In that moment, I felt nostalgia bubble up from my gut and clock me right in the feels — and as I left the theater, I felt the urge to revisit the songs that’d captivated me a decade before.

One of the strangest things about growing up has been learning that all of the things I used to obsess over and worry about regularly, debilitatingly so — my looks, my perceived intellect, my various pop culture loves and enjoyments — were the things that most people obsessed over and worried about regularly too. It wasn’t that I thought my tastes were singular, although there’s certainly an element of defensiveness there; instead, I was so worried about what outside me said about inside me that I never considered that inside me could actually just be outside me, that I could just deal with or ignore whatever judgments or assumptions others made about me.

I would thrive among people who liked the same things I did, but as soon as their tastes shifted, I felt that I had to change along with them. What was it that I really liked? How much of the music library I’ve amassed is actually enjoyable to me? Why did I spend so much effort trying to “improve” my tastes? Sure, a person can certainly stagnate when it comes to their consumption of culture — AKA the “everything was better back then” mentality — but why did I spend so many years rejecting the things that’d formed my core foundation? What was actually wrong with listening to Enya, and why didn’t I own my preference instead of drop it?

My roommates laugh when they come home to find me sprawled out on my bed, looping “Caribbean Blue” on speakers with the lights off, and on driving excursions, my fellow passengers groan when I take control of the aux cable and blast “Only Time” (though sometimes they sing along).

But their derision comes from a place of understanding: My love for Enya has much less to do with the singer herself (whose Facebook page has almost two million likes but which only started posting this year, whose estimated worth is astonishing but honestly not that surprising, and who’s dropping her first new album in years today), and much more to do with what she symbolizes to me and the identity I’ve built and re-built around myself. And though I can’t turn back the clock, listening to her music nowadays is a portal to not a simpler time, but to a simpler version of my life — when my biggest worries were finding another blank CD to burn, which Enya album to slip into my Discman.

Even though I’m at a point where I can say, proudly, that I’m well on my way to achieving the dreams I’d set for my younger self, I still sometimes miss that girl and that dreamland way of being. Enya is the luminous, gentle gatekeeper to those memories, a totem to remind me that I’ve always had it in me to be, well, me. Masterpieces of stillness and atmosphere, Enya’s songs, at least for me, haven’t evolved so much as ripened — and that even as time rushes all around and through the stories I write about the world around me, I can pull on her music to take me back to where it all began.

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(Image via Warner Music Group.)