Hard Core New Age

The evolution of a music critic's aesthetics

by Benjamin Shapiro ’06

I listen to new age music almost every night of the week. My routine is pretty much always the same: I settle into the front room of my apartment and flip the power on my stereo receiver. I remove my shoes, lean my head back on the couch as the music swells around me, and begin to hallucinate lightly, experiencing subtle entoptic phenomena like light trails and Technicolor floaters. The music’s calming, glacial drones, built from synthesizers and sine waves, allow me the space to reflect on the minutiae of my life. I leave the experience feeling cleansed, as if I’d been beaten with oak branches weighted with fine soap.

In a sense, this deep cleanse is what the genre is meant for, which is to say, new age music has a purpose. As hippies turned into yuppies and eventually into new agers, many of them looked to Eastern religions, faith healers, and positivist human-potential movements to recover from their alcoholism and drug problems. All of these situations are predicated on self-improvement and self-realization. New agers want to make the most out of life, and their music isn’t just designed to sound good—it’s designed to unlock human potential. The records are meant for highly specified functions, as evidenced by their titles: Deep Theta 2.0; Ascension Harmonics; Easy Listening Relaxation Music for Meditation, Relaxation, Sleep, and Massage Therapy. Often the good stuff is extremely rare. Doctors and gurus made a lot of the albums and tapes at home in the 1970s, privately pressed onto vinyl or cassette in editions of 1,000 or so.

This is an alumni magazine, so it’s statistically possible that you’re a former classmate of mine wondering when I morphed from the svelte, starry-eyed freshman you remember into a piece of stoner wookie trash. Let me be clear, old friend: I haven’t grown a ponytail, and I don’t wear sandals—ever. I’m 30 years old, I don’t meditate, I don’t exercise, I eat poorly, and I still smoke more cigarettes than I’d like. Pretty much exactly where we left off 10 years ago.

Since college, my favorite genres have had awkward names like powerviolence and goregrind, and the music is built from Cookie Monster vocals, mouse-heart blastbeats, and muddy, chugging guitars. I’ve always found extreme music to be oddly therapeutic and healing. The sounds elicited a physical reaction in me, like a horror film jump-scare, or a flush of freezing water. I felt that a physical reaction was tangible proof I was feeling something. When I listen to extreme music, I experience a sort of muscular clenching in my arms and hands, which naturally constrict into a pose known in metal circles as the “invisible orange.” The satisfied listener appears to be holding an unseen citrus fruit aloft, a primal expression of Norse delight.

Since I was about 15, all I cared about was syncing up my professional life with my personal taste. The life of a critic seemed to be the noblest profession imaginable. After college I was a touring drummer for five years, and then a music writer. But my enthusiasm quickly waned. Frank Zappa summed it up in 1977 with this pithy zinger: “Music journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”

As a journalist, I would listen to the first 10 seconds of an mp3. If I liked it, I would file it into a playlist named “Good Music” without actually listening to the full song, let alone album. Then, in conversation with other music editors, I would recommend albums I hadn’t heard in their entirety. The process wreaked havoc on my ability to actually enjoy listening to music.

I had just left my job as a critic when I got into this new age stuff. It felt like a refuge. I just can’t listen to loud sound anymore, and I’m turning into a wuss. But in many ways, this music is heavier than anything produced by people with neck tattoos wearing cut-off denim vests.

I don’t see new age as all that different from punk rock. Both genres attempt to empower the downtrodden individual through association with a community. Both genres employ do-it-yourself aesthetics through self-released records. Both genres employ a grassroots touring circuit. And both genres rest on a contradiction—a stress on the dissolution of the self while simultaneously positing the individual as the catalyst for social change.

Everyone goes through his or her own narrative of taste. Mine was thrown off when taste was linked to my employment. What I didn’t realize was that I would get sick of being paid to put forward an opinion on popular music. Now I’m done with it, and music can serve a therapeutic function in my life again. For that, I’m grateful.