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Cultural Analysis, Volume 11, 2012

The Dynamics of a Cultural Struggle in Academia: The Case of New Age Music Research1

Omri Ruah-Midbar
Netanya Academic College, Zefat Academic College, Israel

Marianna Ruah-Midbar
Zefat Academic College, University of Haifa, Israel

Abstract: Music is not just about sounds. It is a political act. Likewise, the academic discourse about music plays a role in cultural polemics. This paper deals with the characteristics and dynamics of the academic struggle over a research topic that is the subject of a cultural conflict—New Age music. An in-depth analysis of the academic discourse and its polemic dynamics leads to an identification of the struggle strategies, and a distinction between different dispositions and paradigms among the researchers. Our conclusions demonstrate the penetrability of the academic sphere by cultural fashions, as it is not rational considerations and factual findings, but rather trends, habits, socio-cultural or professional affiliations, and ideologies that motivate and “advance” research.


In recent years New Age music (NAM) has become a widespread and familiar musical category—on radio stations, in music stores, at festivals and at musical performances. Along with the massive inculcation of NAM into the cultural market, a lively debate has arisen regarding the values it represents, the way it is marketed, and its artistic value.

When we began studying the cultural conflict being waged around NAM, we discovered that the emotions, ideologies, politics, and balances of power that characterize this struggle are also reflected in the arena of academic study. Academic research is perceived as neutral, objective, and as providing only scholarly analysis. However, academia is actually an additional arena for the cultural struggle, echoing the same claims.

In this article, academia is the object of the research. We examine the way an academic struggle is conducted over a cultural issue, and highlight the processes that form norms, standards, and truths. We focus on the characteristics of the struggle, namely preferred values, manners of thought, and ways of expression—both for NAM’s defenders and opponents. A unique challenge in conducting such a study is keeping in mind that we the authors belong to the field being examined.

We will begin with a presentation of NAM and the broad cultural context from which it emerged—New Age culture. Later, we will address the various academic discourses that are at the core of our study (see Fig. 12): research of New Age culture and of popular music, and cultural criticism. The latter constitutes a theoretical infrastructure for this article, as will be elaborated on in the methodological paragraph. The main body of the article is a description and analysis of the academic discourse about NAM. Finally, we will summarize the findings and discuss their implications.

Fig. 1: New Age music research as it relates to relevant academic discourses

New Age Music

NAM is a vocal and instrumental musical style, which developed in the second half of the twentieth century as minimalist music meant to create a particular atmosphere, usually tranquil and meditative. Among its first harbingers one may recall Brian Eno (Hibbet 2010, 299), Mike Oldfield, and Wendy Carlos (Berman 1998, 256, 259). In the 1980s NAM entered public awareness and began to be an accepted category in the marketing language of record companies. In the early 1990s some people identified NAM as the one of the most significant components of the music industry, although it also became the most disputed musical genre (Zrzavy 1990, 33).

NAM is a super-category that includes many musical sub-categories3 such as ethnic, World, Trance, ambience, space, healing, meditation, nature, minimalist, Muzak, environmental, and so on. For instance, at AllMusic Internet site, a well-known online music guide service, New Age is listed among twenty one musical super-categories (such as Rock, Jazz, and Classic),4 with twenty four “subgenres and styles.”5

NAM’s widespread cultural presence is expressed in extensive marketing activity, festivals and performances, on websites and in databases that feature music and video-clips. For example, the Amazon website features a NAM category among twenty categories such as Rock, Classical, Jazz, Opera, and Vocal music. While the New Age category contains 86,358 items, Blues contains 85,946 items, Classical 382,311, and World music 600,680.6

Among the many NAM singers and artists, suffice it to mention a few central examples. Enya is one of the most famous New Age artists and singers. She began to become famous in the mid-1980s as a performer and composer of World music and Irish music, through the documentary series The Celts, which was broadcast in Great Britain by the BBC, and which traced Celtic culture in Europe (a popular subject of interest in New Age culture). Enya’s success grew in the 1990s, and her album A Day Without Rain sold 15 million copies in 2000. In the 1990s, her albums were rated several times by Billboard, a magazine that bases its ratings on sales and radio broadcasting in the U.S.A., in their list of the 200 albums of the year.7 In 2001, she was awarded the annual international prize in Monaco at the World Music Awards by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, where she was declared the singer whose sales had been the highest in the world that year.8 Enya won many more awards, including four Grammies and the esteemed Academy Award nomination from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood.

Another example of a New Age musician who achieved international acclaim is Yanni, a pianist who plays NAM (of the Classical sub-category). He publicized a video-clip of a performance of his in Athens in 1993, Yanni Live at the Acropolis, which was very successful, and was considered one of the bestselling music videos of all time. Yanni was awarded many platinum and gold albums, and performed in dozens of countries in the world for millions of fans. Billboard rated Yanni’s concert tour, following the release of his album Ethnicity in 2003, as the fourth largest concert tour in the world that year. In February 2011 Yanni’s album ranked 91st in the world on the Billboard 200 list.

Ryan Farish is an American producer and Disc Jockey of electronic NAM. One of the peaks of his career was when a fifteen-year-old girl made a video-clip for soldiers in Iraq to his composition Pacific Wind, which she entitled “Remember Me.” The clip had 30 million views and was rated 48th in April 2008, in the search category of “most watched YouTube video of all times.”9

These examples indicate the success of NAM and its penetration into the mainstream of contemporary popular music. Notwithstanding its great distribution, NAM has remained controversial in almost all its aspects. Which artists are New Age artists? What are the musical attributes of the genre? Is it even worthy of being defined as a musical genre? What are its historical roots? Is it music of high quality? What is the secret of its success?

As part of the struggle surrounding NAM’s cultural status, some researchers and artists deny that NAM is a musical genre. Thus, in the New Age Encyclopedia, NAM is presented as a “marketing slogan,” and it is explicitly indicated that it is “not a musical category” (Aidan 1990). The musician Wendy Carlos, who tends to be identified as the creator of the first New Age album (Sonic Seasonings), uttered the same claims (Berman 1988, 259).

The current study does not deal with the question regarding the existence of the musical genre called NAM, nor trace its historical roots, nor judge the quality of the music. We accept the existence of the phenomenon as a cultural fact: there are musicians who create NAM; there are companies that market it; there is an audience that consumes it; there are artists associated with it. In our view, as such a cultural phenomenon it is worthy of research. Furthermore, the denial of NAM being worthy of research is what especially stimulates our study.

New Age Culture

One cannot write about NAM and the dispute that surrounds it, or its social and ideological characteristics, without describing its broader context as part of the New Age movement. The New Age movement emerged through a range of counterculture phenomena in a continuous process that came of age in the 1970s, such as alternative medicine, meditation, Far East doctrines and practices, admiration of indigenous cultures, neo-shamanism and neo-paganism, spiritual feminism, consciousness and self-help groups, spiritual psychotherapies, and channeling (Hanegraaff 1998; Heelas 2008; Roof 1999; Sutcliffe and Bowman 2000).

Along with external factors such as fashion accoutrements, the New Age movement is characterized as a rich world of ideas and values, and as having a typical discourse (Ruah-Midbar 2006). Inter alia, it is characterized by sanctification of the self and a call for full realization of human potential, a holistic approach, opposition to authorities and institutions including modern Western science, preference for experiential epistemology over rationalism, an encouragement of the externalization of emotional expression, an accent on healing, expectation of planetary transformation as well as encouraging personal transformation, desire for closeness to nature, admiration of femininity, an interest in mysticism, and the “perennialist” philosophy ascribing a common source of all religions (Heelas 1996; Hammer 2001; Hanegraaff 1998). The emphasis on music in New Age culture is part of its special interest in creativity and art in general (Weissler 2007). Music plays a role in New Age culture in various ways, from its ceremonial context to its therapeutic uses.

Although the New Age movement started out as part of the counterculture with the “drop out” slogan, it gradually was integrated into mainstream institutions, including medicine, education, economics, religion, and even the military (Heelas 1996; Heelas and Seel 2003; Puttick 2000; Ruah-Midbar and Zaidman 2013). The current sociological profile of New Agers fits the updated inclination of the New Age Movement towards the mainstream: they belong to the upper middle-class sector, and are characterized by relatively higher education (Kemp 2003).

Among the most established mainstream institutions is academia, with which the New Age has a complicated relationship. New Age culture is ambivalent towards Western science, whereas on the one hand, it opposes knowledge authorities that are external to the individual (Hammer 2001), but, on the other hand, it is interested in creating a bridge between science and religion by means of presenting holistic worldviews that use pseudo-scientific terminology (Hanegraaff 1998). Thus, for New Agers, modern Western science is a “significant other” (Hammer 2001), as is also reflected in their extended level of education (Kemp 2003).

This constitutes some of the background of the academic discourse regarding New Age, which has been characterized by a sharp polarization between those who would caution against contemporary spiritualities’ dangers, and those “apologists” who would defend their research objects (Zablocki and Robbins 2001).

The academic debate as to New Age phenomenon found expression also outside academia—in the media, in courts of law, and so on (see for example, Lewis and Melton 1992)—attesting to the ideological background that motivates the dispute. In addition to the academic struggle, New Age is criticized in various contexts: economy (for example, some people blame the New Age for extreme encouragement of a capitalistic attitude—see Carrette and King 2005), religion (since the New Age draws adherents from different religious communities –see Saliba 1999), and professional contexts (such as in the case of the mental health profession –see Shupe and Darnell 2006).

Thus, NAM is a cultural product of a broader disputed phenomenon, in which academia is an interested party. Expectedly, some of the “fire” that is aimed at NAM stems from the larger context of the dispute. Actually, NAM contends with double marginality in the academic discourse, the marginality of New Age culture and that of popular music genres (see Fig. 2, and the next section). This problematic cultural positioning also places NAM in the eye of the storm of scientific debate.

Fig. 2: New Age music as a cultural-artistic phenomenon

Academic Discourses on New Age Culture and Popular Music: Debates, Trends and Cultural Criticism

The cultural struggles related to New Age culture surface in a period overlapping similar controversies about popular music, and new social movements, and coinciding with the rise of the postmodernist discourse, beginning in the late-1960s and early-1970s, parallel to the counter-culture movement (Roof 1999). These cultural phenomena were gradually reflected in new emerging academic discourses: a critical-cultural discourse in different academic disciplines, and academic studies of New Age culture, as well as of popular music. Those polemic academic discourses are parallel to—and occasionally affect—one another.

In anthropology, an emerging critical approach perceived scientific research as an active part of colonial expansion (Hymes 1969; Asad 1973). This new anthropological approach featured reflexivity as a substitute for the positivist approach that aspired to verified knowledge (Geertz 1968; Pratt 1986). Reflexive anthropology asserts that in the process of research, cultures that possess different value and language systems intersect: the researcher’s culture, and that of the phenomenon being studied (Garriott 2006). Similarly, anthropologists began to promote the method of participant observation (Urry 1984) as an expression of a reflexive position that is aware of the relativity of the researcher’s point of view, and the influence of her presence and interpretation (Fontana 1994, 211-218).

Since the mid-1990s, scholarly voices that were empathetic to the New Age increased, opposing the anti-cult movement and its academic patrons. Taking part in the empathetic wave were researchers such as Elizabeth Puttick, Steven Sutcliffe, and Joanne Pearson, who were active in the arena of contemporary spirituality and still partially identify with it, thus expressing the participant observation approach. Paradoxically, this research, which had been influenced by critical academic trends, was more empathetic—and less critical—toward the research object. The longer the controversy goes on, the more it exposes the value system of researchers: research questions ostensibly presented as technical, are revealed as questions that are actually politically charged (Ruah-Midbar 2006; Sutcliffe 2006; Zablocki and Robbins 2001).

It is insightful to acknowledge that the critical-empathetic discourse among the researchers of the New Age is part of a broader trend, which promotes new realms of research—popular, marginal, eschewed phenomena. Those researchers commit a political act merely by engaging in this research (likewise in the choice of research queries and methods), expressing subversive self-consciousness.

In the research of popular music, the political agenda is to undermine, or question, the basic assumption of classical musicology, mainly the distinction between “high” music and “low” music (McClary and Walser 1988, 240). Middleton summarizes the contrast between classical musicology and popular music research, by denoting three aspects that characterize the former: terminology (musicological language is specialized and ideologically charged), methodology (focusing on the musical “text,” namely notes, rather than performance), and ideology (perceiving music as autonomous, transcendental, and true, and focusing on the artist, rather than on the social enjoyment of the listeners) (Middleton 1990, 103-126).

Popular music expresses alternate values and requires completely different research methods. Thus, the subversive research is usually committed not by musicologists, but by sociologists and culture researchers. Here again, we see how the academic struggle reflects the cultural one—between classical (“high”) and popular (“low”)—as popular music research struggles to be granted the recognition and appreciation accorded to classical musicology.

Within the field of popular music, a similar controversy exists between various styles of popular music, such as Country, Rock, and Jazz. In order to portray itself as “authentic,” each genre attempts to distinguish itself from the modern music industry (Wall 2003). All participants in these struggles—artists, the industry, consumers, and of course the academics—use evaluation criteria of the musical genres as a means to overpower (Negus 1996, 162). Another tool in the dispute is expressed through the label of a musical genre.

The stylistic label has a great deal of importance in popular music, for the marketing companies as well as for the consumers. Just like truth claims, which camouflage power struggles in the guise of knowledge, experts, and facts (Foucault 1980, 88), in the musical context, the labeling of a phenomenon as a “genre” gives it status and power. Various researchers have noted the importance of assigning a musical product to a genre as a tool that provides an entry ticket into the marketing department of the record companies (Frith 1996, 74; Shuker 2002). Types of music that have not been labeled as a “genre” in shops and on websites, such as music on the telephone and on television, are not found in the catalogues of the record companies, and they do not exist in cultural or academic discourse (Kassabian 1999, 113).

Ascribing musical product to a specific genre influences, in turn, their industrial organization, namely their social-cultural function, position, and the ability to produce and distribute them. In addition, the identification with a genre mediates, fashions, enables, and limits the consumers’ musical experience (Negus 1999, 17). The genre is also a tool for the government to regulate musical fields. It makes possible the regimentation, or canonization, of musical education processes by means of allocation of funds, censorship, and so forth (Holt 2007, 3). Consequently, the creation of conventions, that is, criteria, according to which music is assigned a specific genre, is not just a result of the analysis of musical parameters but also of the discourse of artists, consumers, and authorities (ibid, 23).

In light of the great importance of recognizing music as a genre, it is not surprising that the debate surrounding NAM focuses on the question of genre. Consequently, researchers discuss questions such as: Is NAM a musical genre? What are its boundaries? Is this a new genre, and what are its historical roots? These questions, which are relevant for every popular genre, become even more acute with regard to NAM because of its eclectic nature. These questions become crucial, since the denial of NAM as a genre ostensibly “justified” its exclusion from academic discourse.

Methodology: Reflexive Research Methods and the Research Field

Reflexivity grants the cultural researcher an opportunity to achieve “objectivity” in cases where her involvement in the field of research is significant (Davies 2008, 10). The reflexive glance at academia arose with postmodern discourse, raising questions about the relationship between the reality being studied and the scientists, and about the manner of scientific advancement. Karl Popper claimed that the natural sciences cannot achieve truth, but can only choose from theories about reality (Popper 1963). Thomas Kuhn turned to a critical path of a different sort, when he identified the cultural influences on the scientific “paradigm”: accepted scientific beliefs, customary rules of research (in a certain discipline), and accepted resolutions. Kuhn also related to the conditions that allow for deviating from these norms and generating a “paradigm shift” in science (Kuhn 1962).

Using critical tools to analyze an arena that is in itself perceived as critical, the academic arena—might be complicated. Various critical approaches have been our beacons in our analysis of the cultural and social mechanisms in which NAM researchers function.

As researchers, we belong to the community that is being researched, namely to the battlefield within academia. We are aware that our research will also contribute its part to the academic politics around the New Age. It therefore behooves us to recognize the part our position plays in the formation of this research. Keeping in mind that each researcher—us included—is biased, we strive to be reflexive and aware of our predispositions. As the end of this paper is enhanced reflexivity and disclosure of the politics of academia—be it concealed of revealed—some biographical notes seem required.

Our position is a result of our personal choices as well as our academic training. In Omri’s undergraduate studies in music, along with acquiring classical musical skills he also absorbed disdain for popular music: the professors, the study program, the methods of evaluation, and also the extra-curricular events echoed the same conservative message. As he developed interest in technology in his graduate studies, he gradually found himself opening up to new worlds of knowledge, in a multi-disciplinary program that emphasized cultural and critical aspects of technology and science, which he applied to the musical world. He became interested in popular musical phenomena, and more suspicious towards the classical dogma. Marianna wrote a doctoral dissertation on the topic of New Age culture. Since in Israel there was no study of New Age at that time, this area was suspicious for academics, especially in Judaic Studies, where she originated. Her training in critical theories encouraged her to notice the politics and discursive acts behind the academic criticism of New Age. It became her goal to make this field legitimate to study. Part of this project was her establishment and co-chairing of ICSCS—the annual Israeli Conference for the Study of Current Spiritualities, where invited scholars from abroad featured, establishing the status of research on New Age and alternative spiritualities. Our meeting led to some research questions that fascinate us both with regard to NAM.

Our field of research includes the academic publications explicitly referring to NAM—about two dozen research studies from 1987 to 2010 (see appendix).10 In these studies, NAM constitutes the central topic and occasionally appears in the title. We will start with a survey of all those studies, followed by an analysis.

Academic Discourse on New Age Music

The first academic study about NAM, from the late-1980s, asserted the importance of NAM as a reflection of a belief system growing within Western society (Garneau 1987). Garneau’s study could have served as a catalyst for subsequent studies analyzing the reflection of New Age beliefs and values in music, but the majority of the studies published since then curbed this direction of research. Instead, most researchers of NAM addressed fundamental questions. Writing in an argumentative manner, they mirrored the cultural struggle on the questions of the quality and legitimacy of NAM.

Presentation of the research studies derive from a chronological point of view, but will be based on analytical divisions. The primary division is between those that negate NAM and those that affirm it, where the first group is the larger one.11

Opponents of New Age Music: Negation of the Music

Leslie Berman, a music critic, curator and president of various musical organizations, openly describes the change that began for her regarding NAM, from “simplistic dismissal” to “debate” (Berman 1988, 253). The question about the quality of the music is at the center of Berman’s writing, in which she notes that its rise was “offering a forum for increasing numbers of mediocre musicians and half-baked knock-offs of more successful and imaginative purveyors” (ibid., 265). In which case, according to her hierarchal perception of music, Berman places NAM in a low position.

The inferior value of NAM has continued to echo in later academic works. The journalist and critic Mark Prendergast, for instance, describes NAM in his book Ambience Century 12 as a music that is perceived as inferior, and for the most part “emotionally shallow,” although he gives it credit for promoting minimalist music (Prendergast 2000, 144, 147).

It is noteworthy that similar remarks on quality appear in researches of New Age cultural products in general. For instance, Hanegraaff, a prominent researcher of the field, writes about one of the New Age books he analyses, that it is

[…] an appallingly shallow piece of writing, produced by an author without an ounce of literary talent and whose “insights” evince a remarkable lack of profundity or originality […]

He further explains that the book is “important” in order to understand New Age “not because of its qualitative merits but in spite of their absence” (Hanegraaff 2000, 289).

Helfried Zrzavy raises the question of why academic research has neglected NAM (Zrzavy 1990, 35). His main conclusion is that the cause is its lack of coherence and eclectic character. His analysis leads to the conclusion that the only aspect of this phenomenon that indicates coherence is the graphic design of the record covers. He also mentions the high quality of those albums’ pressing. In other words, not musical, but economic and marketing interests, make-up this genre (ibid., 37):

The question of New Age’s rather enigmatic cohesion, despite its obvious musical identity crisis, thus cannot be answered without taking into account the wider context of the targeting, packaging and marketing of the product.

He completes his paper expressing a wish that NAM continued in existence not on account of its packaging but on account of its other features, as it consolidates (ibid., 51). His sincere investigation of the reasons of the scholarly neglect of the field might have place him as a supporter of the phenomenon, however, in fact he reproduces the view that in order to be worthy of academic investigation the genre must be musically coherent, and reassures that it is not. Consequently, since in his opinion, the coherence of NAM derives only from marketing forces rather than musical ones, he categorizes it as lacking in quality.

Appearing in the New Age Encyclopedia are the entries “Music and the New Age” and “Music, Channeled” written by Kelly Aidan. Aidan mentions the interests found at the very basis of NAM—its composition, marketing and distribution—claiming they are not derived from purely artistic or ideological motivations. Although he does mention the characteristics of the music and its uses, such as “background music for meditation for attaining some change in the state of consciousness” (Aidan 1990, 296), he notes, however, like Zrzavy, that it is a “marketing slogan and not a musical category” (ibid., 295). He notes, in the context of the economic interests that motivate the production and distribution of the music, that “a major reason for the popularity of NAM among radio stations is that it enables station owners to operate stations with virtually no paid staff” (ibid., 299).13Aidan is one of the leaders of Wicca. As an academic who is also involved in the spiritual field, one would expect him to avoid being critical of NAM. However, since neo-Pagans are especially stringent in dissociating with the New Age label and being differentiated from that group (Pearson 1998; Pike 2004), it is perhaps not surprising that the ideological-sociological adversity between neo-Paganism and the New Age would find expression in academic writings.

Criticism in the marketing-economic area is very typical of academic writing about New Age culture, also in the broader context beyond the musical aspect (see, for example, Carrette and King 2005). Thus, Zrzavy’s and Aidan’s analyses of NAM recall the findings of another researcher on the emergence of the New Age movement in Germany, Christoph Bochinger, who claimed that the term “New Age” is

[…] nothing but a label, which was “pasted on” the new religious scene by the publishers, the secondary literature and a few protagonists: in the German-speaking domain, “New Age” has never lived, and even less is it a social movement which might be described in the singular (Bochinger, as sited in the translation of Hanegraaff 1998, 377).

Bochinger argues that “there is no such thing as ‘New Age Movement,’” and that the term “was actually produced by the application of marketing principles to the religious domain,” denying that it has any coherent worldview (ibid., 377-378). The latter argument—that there is no real religious philosophy, and therefore no movement of New Age—echoes the claims for the lack of coherence in NAM, suggesting that it is not a real musical genre.

A different route of judgment of NAM is in terms of authenticity and cultural appropriation. Jennifer Bain, a musicologist who specializes in medieval music, claims that it is because of NAM that the musical compositions of Hildegard von Bingen from the twelfth century have penetrated public awareness. Nevertheless, she says that “what made Hildegard famous may prove to be her demise,” whereas her commodification generated products that were not faithful to the source nor to the cultural-historical context in which they were created (Bain 2004). This accusation echoes similar claims against other cases of cultural appropriation by New Age Adherents (see, for example, Aldred 2000).

Another claim that has to do with historical—and even more generally, scientific—fidelity is that of Lisa Summer, a researcher of music and therapy, and of Joseph Summer, a composer and expert in acoustics and musical technology. In their study, they severely condemn using NAM for healing, and the approaches and beliefs that underlie this practice. Although they both approve of therapy by means of music (and although Lisa herself works in this kind of therapy) they oppose doing it by means of NAM. For this purpose, they present a historic dynasty of charlatanism and false pseudo-scientific claims, starting in the late-19th century with Madame Blavatsky and continuing with Rudolf Steiner, theosophical thinkers who deeply influenced New Age. The authors explain that important criticism of New Age therapists is avoided mostly because of the feeling that their intentions are good, even though their explanations about therapeutic advantage have no clarity or logic (Summer 1996).

Exclusion of the Music

Whereas the studies recounted above are actively opposed to NAM, part of the academic discourse expresses passive opposition. This opposition ranges from minimum mention of the term “New Age” to absolute avoidance of relating to it academically. The avoidance of academic discourse about NAM means avoidance of creating knowledge about it. As knowledge equals power, the absence of intensive research in this field constitutes a tool of weakening it in the struggle against it, a means of nullifying the power of groups interested in distribution or consumption of this music (Foucault 1980, especially 52). Even if it is not possible to indicate a conscious choice, interest or direct action to avoid academic study of NAM, the absence of a significant body of research on such a prevalent and influential phenomenon constitutes a political act of exclusion. This is an actual execution or reproduction of the opposition.

Another similar act is the treatment of cultural phenomena directly and closely connected to NAM without mentioning this connection explicitly, which weakens the cultural visibility of this music. Not far from this is the act of marginal and slight mention of the genre, where it is necessary to expand on this connection. Academics “whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice” (Kuhn 1962, 11), and in our case the standard is that NAM is not perceived as an important or even as a worthy research topic.

The following examples illustrate the power of silence with regard to NAM. The article by Gordon Lynch, a researcher of religions who focuses on the sociology of secularism, deals with popular and spiritual music, but the phrase “New Age Music” is not mentioned at all in the body of his work, and similarly not in the literature with which he corresponds (Lynch 2006). Penelope Gouk, an historian who edited an anthology of research studies on healing music and its cultural contexts (Gouk 2000), does not mention NAM, either in the introduction to the book or within the framework of the studies she included in it, although the use of this genre is ubiquitous in music therapy methods, so much so that it is sometimes hard to distinguish between healing music and NAM (Summer and Summer 1996, 8).

In many research studies that deal with sub-genres of NAM, the term is hardly ever mentioned by name, or it is mentioned as marginally as possible, as though it were not significant for the purposes of the research. Thus, for example, Anthony D’Andrea, an anthropologist and cultural researcher, demonstrates in his book about Trance music (D’Andrea 2007) a profound familiarity with the New Age scene. However, even though he is dealing with Trance music, which is a sub-category of NAM, and even though the concept “New Age” appears in the title of his book, Global Nomads: Techno and New Age as Transnational Countercultures in Ibiza and Goa, the term “NAM” is mentioned minimally, only twice. The first time in an offhand manner, within a biographical description that does not contribute directly to the content of the research, and again in noting that NAM is the super-category that includes Trance Music, the subject of the book’s research.

A single mention of NAM can also be found in the collection of articles on Psytrance, which was compiled by Graham St. John, a cultural anthropologist who deals with new cultural and religious movements as well as electronic dance music culture (St. John 2010). Out of 17 articles, only one of them mentions NAM incidentally. A few more articles mention the term “New Age” once or twice, but not the music of that culture, usually as one of the factors in a system of many contexts and influences.

Whereas some scholars recognize the connection between Trance music and the New Age, in the book about Trance music in Goa by Saldanha Arun (cultural geographer), NAM has no reference, while the New Age culture appears only once:

The concept of trance-dance was popular in the early nineties to capture the strong religious undertones of electronic dance culture, having developed alongside and sometimes interwoven with New Age philosophy and dance therapies (Arun 2007).

The study of Bryan Meadan on the culture of Trance music goes one step further. It does not mention NAM or New Age at all (Meadan 2001).

Keith Potter, a researcher of contemporary music, and a founding member of the Society for Minimalist Music, tells in his book about Minimalist music the story of the founders of that musical style. Even though he focuses on four composers also considered to be among the progenitors of NAM, this genre is never mentioned in the book (Potter 2000).

Vilas Bohlman, a composer and researcher of Jewish music and Modernism, writes in his book about World music, that the record industry amused itself with different names for this genre in the 1980s, and only in the 1990s did the term “World music” become established. Among the names that came up, he notes “music of the New Age,” which has no place beyond this in the whole book (Bohlman 2002).

While Bohlman recognizes the connection between NAM and World music, Richard Nidel, a lawyer who published a book about World music in an academic publication, denies this. NAM is mentioned only once in his book, where he claims unequivocally that World music is not New Age music (Nidel 2005, 2).

Obviously, we cannot survey all the cases of exclusion of NAM from those studies in which it could or should have naturally occurred.

Supporters of the Music

The academic discourse that expresses a position in support of NAM is varied: ranging from the presentation of clearly positive views regarding the phenomenon, to the neutral stance in which one may see a relatively positive outlook, considering the pervasive exclusion and criticism of NAM in academic discourse. We will begin with the outright supporters and then present the “neutrals.” The group of supporters is smaller than that of opposers, as we shall presently see.

Approval of the Music

The article by Dennis Hall expresses definite solidarity with NAM. Like those who disapprove of the genre, he too notes the difficulty in defining the phenomenon, but his sympathetic writing style uses this fact in favor of the music and its unique characteristics. He continues in this vein further on in the article, where he characterizes NAM as designed to be heard on the edges of listening or as postmodern music: eclectic in its components; “seeks to confuse boundaries” between genres and hierarchies; playful and ironic; uses quotes extensively; expresses anti-intellectualism, and so on. He does not see these attributes as problematic or deficient. On the contrary, he connects these attributes, which he sees as complimentary, to his thesis that NAM is exposing “the building blocks of the culture,” and contributing “to the formations demanded by the condition of postmodernity.” The culmination of this writing may be seen in an advertising quote of NAM producers with which he identifies, since, in his opinion, it clarifies and reinforces his thesis that this music is “a haven from the demands of the world around us” (Hall D. 1994, 18-20).

An article by Susan Grove Hall, “An Analysis of an Ecstasy,” declares her position in the presentation of the research query: “What is entrancing all these listeners, myself included?” and this personal, positive, bold undertone is maintained throughout the article. The entire article expresses great appreciation for the phenomenon. Hall expands passionately on the secret of the appeal of NAM and concludes that it is a phenomenon that must be understood in the context of American popular culture, whereas the listeners respond in accordance with the cultural mentality they have acquired (Hall S. G. 1994, 24, 32).

Inclusion of the Music

The “neutral” positions regarding NAM assume that NAM is a genre and a legitimate cultural phenomenon, and make no value judgments on the phenomenon, for better or worse. The inclusion of NAM in research studies is not at all perceived as problematic, and does not necessitate, in the eyes of these writers, any discussion as to the esthetic or qualitative good or bad in NAM. It is treated as any other legitimate field of research.

Three academics, who specialize in the psychology of music and its applications in education and in society, used NAM in order to study gender bias related to music (Colley 2003; North 2003). Selecting NAM as a tool for testing the issue of gender bias, without expressing any undertone of apology, attests to the approach that it is not problematic music, which may assist in studying the psychological characteristics of listeners. A similar “neutral” approach also appeared in other empirical studies (which compare results of listening to NAM or classical music)—one in the field of music therapy (Mead 1991) and the other in the field of researching states of consciousness (Joyce 2003; Smith 2004).

The research of Ryan Hibbet, a researcher of English literature and popular music, entitled “The New Age Taboo,” focuses on characterizing the position that opposes NAM. This critical study examines the widespread declaration of consumers and suppliers of assorted kinds of music—“This is not NAM” (Hibbet 2010). The understanding at the basis of the research is that the suggested objection to NAM as embodied in this manner of speaking indicates a mental and ideological stance that is worthy of investigation. Although it does not present any personal value judgment with regard to the music, nor with regard to the opposition to it, the very choice of the research query indicates a position that is not entirely “neutral,” because of the problematization it creates regarding opposition to NAM. Since he does not express overt support for NAM, we have placed Hibbet in the category of “inclusion,” although he takes a step beyond inclusion of the music, in creating a problematization of NAM’s criticism.

Analysis and Discussion: Research Paradigms and Types of Academic Struggle

Investigating the academic controversy around NAM, we found two directions—opposition to the phenomenon and support for it. Each direction is split in two groups that express struggles of different types: those who approve of or negate the phenomenon express an overt conflict, while those who exclude or include it express a covert conflict (see the chart below).

The two groups of overt conflict express a direct and pronounced argument for or against NAM, an explicit ideological position, and are mostly aware of the conflict. In contrast, the two secondary groups, of covert and indirect conflict, express a pragmatic position that is a practical realization of the ideology. They seemingly act on the basis of a given discourse (of exclusion or inclusion of NAM), without being aware of the existing conflict and the ideology latent in their choice. Their academic work reproduces the ideology, and thus take passive part in the conflict.

Beyond these divisions, we wish to characterize the criteria and values that underlie the academic position, i.e., the arguments and reasons for opposition or support. This content addresses the researcher’s choice, and uncovers her predisposition. Thus, the following remarks relate to studies that contain a direct struggle, and which explicitly raise criteria as part of this conflict.

In striving to endorse or nullify NAM, its researchers indicate different scientific evaluation criteria such as eclecticism or authenticity that are supposed to decide NAM’s quality and status. Since the criteria are value charged, it is significant to inspect them when analyzing the academic polemic. Some criteria are accepted by all researchers, while others are identified with a certain group. For instance, it is agreed that NAM is eclectic, except that some see eclecticism as a blessing while others expect a genre to be coherent. In the case of historical authenticity—the mere criterion indicates an opposition to NAM. Thus, the controversy over the music’s quality does not necessarily lie in disputed facts, but in the evaluation of those facts.

We would suggest sorting the values and criteria into two groups, one of them expressing a modernist paradigm and the other expressing a postmodernist paradigm (Butler 2010; Jameson 1991; Lyotard 1984; Pericles 2007).14 While the opponents of NAM, who are the majority, write in a modernist style, its supporters use a postmodernist one.

Both paradigms—modernist and postmodernist—are actually the framework within which the debate around NAM takes place. Each of the paradigms relates differently to musical tradition, to aesthetics, and to science. Each of them upholds different values and therefore raises different criteria for evaluation, while imputing varying importance to each of them. Needless to say, this dynamic—which actually determines the research’s conclusions as to NAM—occurs behind the scenes. It is not present in the text, and may even be derived from values of which the writers themselves are not aware.

According to the modernist paradigm, a musical genre is perceived as coherent, distinct from other styles and possessing clear boundaries, and the quality of the music is measured by a clear hierarchy. Ideal music is perceived as high-quality and intellectual, therefore understandable by the elite, as opposed to inferior music consumed by the masses, and concurs with a scientific approach. Its presence is at the center of the listener’s attention, as opposed to ambience music, which is played in the background and is on the periphery of one’s attention.15 “High-quality” music is unique, and it does not try to imitate other musical works; its stylistic and cultural affiliation is clear, and there is clarity as concerns its composer. There is mutual feedback between appreciation for the producer of the music and for her products, with emphasis on the product, according to the quality with which the producer is esteemed. “Pure” music is a product of mere artistic expression, as opposed to functional music, which has underlying non-artistic intents.

The postmodernist paradigm upholds different values than those noted above. Whereas the modernist seeks authenticity, the postmodernist denies the possibility of attaining it. In lieu of modernist research that tracks historical sources in the past, the postmodernist prefers to focus on the cultural context at present. Whereas the modernist would laud the stylistic coherence derived from defined boundaries, the postmodernist would praise the eclecticism of the sources and the stylistic diversity. Instead of the quality of the music, the postmodernist would seek its utility. Instead of focusing on composers and compositions or “depth” and “authenticity,” the postmodernist would focus on consumers and on the composition’s effect on them; “surface” and “death of the composer.” Instead of dealing with philosophical questions, the postmodernist prefers to focus on social and utilitarian (e.g. therapeutic) questions. Intellectualism is substituted, for the postmodernist, by an accent on emotion and experience.

An interesting case that exemplifies the paradigm’s power is a negating research study (Summer 1996) that deals with music therapy. While one might expect a discussion on therapeutic utility (a typical postmodern criterion), in actuality the authors deal with questions of authenticity and scientific truth, which stem from their modernist paradigm.

Even when opponents of NAM present its positive sides, these are also derived from judgment according to modernist criteria. For example, Prendergast, an opponent of NAM, who describes it as inferior in quality, gives it credit for advancing minimalist music of “genuine quality,” i.e., he attributes positive value to it in accordance with modernist criteria, which distinguish between qualities that are “genuine” and “false” (Prendergast 2000, 144). All in all, the opposition can be summed up as concentrated on the claim that NAM does not measure up to modernist criteria.

It would serve the discussion to add the conceptualization that distinguishes between an etic and an emic discourse (Headland, Pike, and Harris 1990). In Anthropology, an etical discourse includes the scientific terminology and categories stemming from the researchers’ view (e.g. the term “inconsistent” or “agency”), whereas an emic discourse stands for the language of the adherents/believers being studied (e.g. “flow”, “sacred”). The etical terms chosen are crucial in dictating the research’s outcome, since an etical term that is too distant or different from the emic discourse might portray the research object as negative, incoherent, irrational, and unworthy. On the other hand, etic categories that too closely echo the emic discourse might lead to an apologetic non-critical research that lacks fertile and significant insights.

Therefore, the end of the studies is determined at their beginning. Since all researchers would agree that NAM is a postmodernist phenomenon, the salient unsuitability between the conservative etic discourse of the modernist paradigm and their research object, necessarily leads to the conclusion that it is an unworthy phenomenon. On the other hand, postmodernist researchers find NAM to be a true manifestation of the paradigm they hold, since their etic discourse is inspired by the emic discourse of postmodern phenomena, and in a no less predictable manner they view it favorably.

Actually, each researcher puts together some putative facts into a narrative, using different etic categories that reflect her values. Some issues that are shared by all the researchers—such as the eclecticism and widespread distribution of NAM—are understood by modernist researchers (e.g. Zrzavy 1990) as incoherency that prevents the music from being recognized as a real genre, and thus appealing only to the laity. The parallel postmodernist account (e.g. Hall D. 1994) of the music portrays it as hybrid, subversively blurring boundaries between genres and classes, and thus a sophisticated mirror of our culture, which rightfully appeals to the masses.

The proximity between New Age phenomena and postmodernism is not confined to the music, as has been noted by several researchers. Among the common values of New Age and postmodernism, one could mention criticism of Western rationalism, an emphasis on experiential epistemology, a preference for utility over truth and the blurring of boundaries (see, for example, Huss 2007; Lyon 1993). An example of the proximity between New Age and postmodernism might be found in a central research study of the field describing New Age adherents as

a manifestation par excellence of postmodern consumer society, the members of which use, recycle, combine and adapt existing religious ideas and practices as they see fit (Hanegraaff 2002, 249-250).

The characteristics of New Age culture mentioned in this citation (e.g., eclecticism, the costumer’s/adherent’s empowerment) were reiterated in academic descriptions of NAM.

In summation, the cultural and value-related distance between researchers of NAM and the object of their studies produces predictable results for their research. Bourdieu taught that controversies in the social court are in fact struggles about the rules of the game, including the conditions for being allowed entry into the court, acceptance of presumptions upon entry and so forth. Likewise, one can see the conflict between the two paradigms in the field of NAM research as a struggle, that seeks to conquer the cultural arena by means of an attempt to determine the principles of the game, by deciding between modernist and postmodernist discourse (Bourdieu 1995, 7274).

Epilogue: Dynamics of the Cultural Struggle in New Age Music Research

Music is not just about sounds. It is a political act. Composition and marketing, broadcasting and consumption, exclusion and silencing, disapproval and approval—these actions in the artistic field are culturally, morally, and socially charged. The academic discourse about music, we claim, is part of a cultural polemic of this sort. Moreover, the research of NAM contributes to the identification and understanding of cultural ideas that make their way to the mainstream.

The academic discourse about NAM started with an unusual article by Garneau, in 1987, which did not have the nature of a debate, and which suggested examining the characteristics of the phenomenon in light of its widespread cultural context, i.e., learning about the system of beliefs growing in Western society through the new music being created in the New Age arena. The ongoing academic discourse on this subject, did not follow the trail blazed by Garneau. It seems to us that the ongoing controversy in the academic arena has reached a point of exhaustion (similar to the one portrayed by Zablocki and Robbins 2001), at which it is worthwhile to go back and examine Garneau’s suggestion, and proceed from there toward a constructive way of dealing with the field of NAM beyond a discussion of good or bad.

Concomitantly after the publication of Garneau’s article, an academic debate was embarked upon in two double stages (see fig. 3).

Fig. 3: The chronological course of research of New Age Music

The first stage was ideological, and it started with overt opposition, which began with three research studies in the years 1988–1990: Berman, Zrzavy, and Aidan, and soon afterwards there appeared support and defense in two studies in 1994: Hall D., and Hall S.G., followed by more opposing voices in four research endeavors, conducted between 1996 and 2004. In the second stage, the conflict was translated onto a pragmatic plane, in research studies done by those who excluded it, beginning with studies published since 2000, and those who included it after an exceptional predecessor in 1991. Four appeared in the years 2003–2004, and one in 2010, which accompanied the ideological conflict as a back end conflict, with a sense of not being completely aware of being part of a battleground. Consequently, whereas the first stage was overt and ideological, the second was covert and practical, and, whereas opposition appeared first in every stage, defense appeared afterwards. It might be the risk in taking NAM’s side in a hostile professional arena that brought fewer researchers to take the supporters’ side

Ostensibly, this progression creates an impression of rationalism, a progression that advances in accordance with the Western scientific ethos—from premise to conclusion, from finding to finding, from claim to claim. However, in actuality, we have seen that a sincere internal dialogue between the different studies has never taken place. The research studies do not only disregard Garneau’s suggestion but avoid reliance on conclusions or findings of others. There is no real attempt to convince or to be convinced, to reject claims or to test them. Mention of previous research on the topic of NAM in the studies reviewed is minimal and marginal. Every researcher presents an ideological position based on her own criteria, or implements her taken-for-granted internalized stance. There is at no stage any reflection on the basic assumptions.

We found, that when the academic discourse expresses values, it is motivated by ideological presumptions, and when it does not express them, it is motivated by habits and fashions. Neither of them constitutes rational consideration, but these are the actual generators of the dynamic of the polemic.

Even though the researchers are not conducting a dialogue among themselves, they raise similar questions, such as the extent of NAM’s coherence as proof of its quality. These questions, one might guess, are derived from the lively public discourse surrounding NAM. This indicates how much the academic discourse is nourished by public discourse and its prevalent fashions, more, in fact, than it is nourished by internal, analytical causality. We are thus apprised of the permeability of the academic realm. It is neither an isolated and autonomous field, as purported to be, nor coherent and continual.

In this study we have dealt with the dynamic of a cultural struggle as it is reflected in the academic arena. Dealing with a controversial research object facilitates characterizing the course of the academic debate. It enabled us to examine academia’s isolation from the other cultural arenas versus its penetrability by cultural fashions, and its rationality (in accordance with the Western scientific ethos) versus motives and ideologies that affect its current. The penetrability of the academic sphere by cultural fashions, one might ponder, increases the likelihood that as the postmodernist discourse advances, so shall the research of NAM flourish.

1Acknowledgement: This paper was supported by Zefat Academic College and Netanya Academic College. [ Return to the article ]

2Cultural criticism is actually not just a separate research circle, but a research approach that influences and penetrates other circles in the illustration. For the sake of simplicity, the categories are presented in the illustration in an inaccurate way, as noted. [ Return to the article ]

3It is interesting to note that the sub-categories of the New Age genre are occasionally displayed without being identified as New Age but as independent genres, such as mere “World music.” [ Return to the article ] the links in this paper, and their data, were accessed on 18/02/2013). [ Return to the article ] [ Return to the article ]

6 [ Return to the article ] [ Return to the article ] music-awards. [ Return to the article ] [ Return to the article ]

10Research studies that are not part of the academic arena (for example, if they have been published by a publishing company or in a journal that is not academic), are not included in this review. Although they often see themselves as researches (e.g., if the authors have a Ph.D.), they are not actually taking part in the academic discourse, and are not players in this arena. An interesting example might be a manual for healing using NAM, co-authored by a Ph.D. holder, which was not published in an academic press (Watson and Druri 1987). It is also worth mentioning that since research about NAM does not always include this term (as we will explain further in the discussion about the “excluders”), we could not locate all the researches, and the cases brought forward should be seen as representative examples. [ Return to the article ]

11In very few of the cases, the research discussed presents views in both directions, but we organized the classification according to the weight of the claims that contribute towards the legitimization and the value of the music. [ Return to the article ]

12 We include this book within the academic discourse, because of the style in which it is written as well as because it is used as a source by researchers (for example, St. John 2010, 97). [ Return to the article ]

13The economic aspect is mentioned in the definition that appears in the Grove Dictionary of Music, too, where it says that NAM brought a great deal of revenue to the recorded music industry (Schreiner 2001). [ Return to the article ]

14Even if some researchers maintain both paradigms, ultimately only one paradigm is pronounced. [ Return to the article ]

15Theodor Adorno is identified with the claim that qualitative and authentic music requires active listening from its target audience, whereas products intended for popular consumption (whether it is popular music or classical music) is designed so that inferior listening is required for them (Adorno 2002, 506, 276). [ Return to the article ]

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A list of the studies included in the paper (according to the order being mentioned):

Garneau 1987
Opponents of New Age Music

Negation of the Music

Berman 1988

Prendergast 2000

Zrzavy 1990

Aidan 1990

Schreiner 2001

Bain 2004

Summer and Summer 1996
Exclusion of the Music (only examples)

Lynch 2006

Gouk 2000

D’Andrea 2007

St. John  2010

Arun 2007

Meadan 2001

Potter 2000

Bohlman 2002

Nidel 2005
Supporters of the Music
Approval of the Music

Hall D. 1994

Hall S. G. 1994
Inclusion of the Music

Colley, North and Hargreaves 2003; North, Colley and Hargreaves 2003

Joyce 2003; Smith and Joyce 2004

Mead, Cogan and Cox 1991

Smith and Joyce 2004

Hibbet 2010