Monday 21 January 2019

Enya? Love ya! Hate ya!

Enya made a rare public appearance in Los Angeles on Sunday night as she collected a Grammy, her fourth, for latest album Amarantine. After U2, she is Ireland's best-selling musician - but opinion is sharply divided on her abilities.

Enya made a rare public appearance in Los Angeles on Sunday night as she collected a Grammy, her fourth, for latest album Amarantine. After U2, she is Ireland's best-selling musician - but opinion is sharply divided on her abilities. Is she the gifted stylist her fans calim, or the Queen of Bland as judged by the critics? Here, the fan and critic lock horns on this most divisive of artists

The fan: She doesn't need the music critics - and they just hate her for that

Enya's recent 'Best New Age Album' Grammy win will, no doubt, unleash a torrent of begrudgery and abuse in the Irish media. It's not cool to like Enya, and she has absolutely no currency with Irish music critics, who greet her every achievement with a roll of the eyes.

There is a tendency in this country to slate achievement and to laud mediocrity. The Irish film industry is a case in point. Badly written, badly acted and poorly produced Irish movies receive rave reviews from critics, but perform poorly at the box office. The inverse applies to the music industry. The Frames, for example, regularly sell out gigs and have an avid fan base, but they are lambasted in the media. Similarly, well produced, albeit middle-of-the-road, music like Enya's is rubbished by critics but sells by the truckload.

Even though she has numerous awards, four Grammys among them, and an Oscar nomination ( May It Be, written for Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings), and is the second biggest selling Irish artist after U2, Enya has never been accepted by critics here in her homeland. It is unlikely that she loses much sleep over all this. As a result of her talent and business acumen, she is sitting on millions.

People love her music. They love her music because it is not aggressive or flashy. It doesn't demand your attention; it doesn't scream 'listen'. It is quiet and unassuming, almost passive. It is perfect dinner party music; it stays in the background and doesn't interfere with conversation. You call it muzak, I call it music.

It can also serve a more important cultural function. Take the United States post-9/11 for example. Enya's single Only Time was practically played on a loop in the weeks following the tragedy and became the soundtrack to America's grief. Like a Banshee, her polished wailing expressed for people what words could not. If you Google Enya and 9/11, the same song can be found as a backdrop to many amateur films on 9/11. It is a good song, it soothes the soul.

Much of the criticism levied against Enya is that her music never changes, that she never develops as an artist. And of course, there is a very obvious through line from her breakthrough album Watermark to Amarantine - but that's what Enya fans want.

The hugely successful Orinoco Flow, which topped the UK charts for three weeks, is a fine example. The way the lyrics are enunciated as syllables is an interesting linguistic twist to her staple methodology - layering her voice over and over until she creates a luscious choral tapestry.

With her two writing partners, Roma and Nicky Ryan, she has created a musical genre all of her own. Admittedly the creation and explanation of Loxian, the language used in three songs on Amarantine is a bit cringe worthy but that's beside the point. Enya fans don't care whether she is singing in Loxian, Japanese or whether she uses words at all. Enya is all about soul and atmosphere, capturing moods.

Her music aside, what fans love about Enya is how she embodies the old concept of a Hollywood star. We know absolutely nothing about her, just rumours of her living in a castle. She is a blank canvas on which fans can project whatever they want.

Enya doesn't play the game. She is notoriously media-shy, thus she doesn't fill the column inches. She will never be pictured alighting from a car with her nethers exposed, she is unlikely to be involved in a kiss-and-tell, or any other gambits many of her contemporaries use to sell albums. She doesn't need to. And she doesn't need music critics. And they hate that.

- Yvonne Hogan

The Critic: She has a terror of being anything other than absolutely safe

In a way, it's too easy to criticise Enya. Shooting fish in barrels, and all that. Still, needs must. After all, few have inflicted such wearisome tosh on us in the name of art for so long. And few have striven for profundity in their music and come up so short.

Let's be blunt for a moment: There's a frigidity to the music made by Eithne Ni Bhraonain, a terror of being anything other than absolutely safe. Not once in her career has this woman taken risks. Instead, with her shadowy, media-shy songwriting, production and management partners Nicky Ryan and Roma Ryan - without whom the Enya brand simply wouldn't exist - she delivers a bullshit synthesis of New Age 'whale music' and Celtic mythology. Celtic codology more like.

Enya is music's answer to Graham Knuttel. Like the Dublin painter, she's content to deliver the same bland nonsense over and over again. It's art's answer to Groundhog Day - and proof that there will always be idiots who can easily be separated from their money.

The modus operandi in studio has remained the same for more than 20 years. Keyboards and multilayered vocals create the characteristic Enya sound and rarely if ever are outside collaborators brought in. Incredibly, it can take the trio up to five years to deliver a new album, despite the fact that Enya never tours and doesn't usually engage in such pesky stuff as promo, which is expected of all big-selling artists.

Her most recent album, Amarantine, released in November 2005 and winner of the Best New Age album at Sunday's Grammy awards, marks virtually no progression musically since her 1988 breakthrough, Watermark.

One thing that's notable about Amarantine is that English - and Irish, for that matter - no longer provide quite enough words for Enya to communicate. As a result, Roma Ryan has invented a new tongue, dubbed Loxian, which she calls "a futuristic language from a distant planet".

This gibberish is supposed to make Enya seem mysterious, and presumably some of the many millions who bought the album reckon it is. Here's Enya on the subject: "Loxians are beings who live on another planet and are looking out wondering, 'Are we the only ones who exist?'" Er, okay. Let's digest that for a while.

One of the songs is sung in Japanese, which at least shows that Enya spends some time on this planet. It also shows that she might be a more canny operator than some give her credit for: she's always enjoyed massive popularity in the Land of the Rising Sun.

This week, in the name of research, I listened to Amarantine four times. It was a distressing experience. There is a creepy, trance-like quality to many of the compositions, a sort of Lord Of The Rings-meets-Clannad soundscape. Great swathes of the music are about as memorable as the stuff piped into elevators.

One of the most damning criticisms I've come across was from a spa manager who insisted that Enya no longer be used as background music while people were having body treatments. Apparently, an unusually large number of clients - and therapists - said they felt "on edge" when forced to listen to choice cuts from her back catalogue.

That the spa's customers were infinitely happier with pan-pipes - one of mankind's most hideous inventions - reveals the sheer awfulness of Enya.

It's telling that she enjoyed a new lease of life after 9/11. CNN thought there was no better way to soundtrack the horrors of the terrorist attacks on its news bulletins than to use her unwittingly sinister composition Only Time.

My skin is crawling just thinking of it.

- John Meagher Irish Independent Rock critic

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