song rehab

Eighth Grade and the Pop Culture Redemption of Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’

Enya: queen of relaxing Photo: Isa Foltin/Getty Images

Eighth Grade is a film permeated by anxiety. It is a persistent, low-level hum that trails its 13-year-old protagonist, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), in the fluttering electronic heartbeats and 16-bit synth blares of composer Anna Meredith’s score. But director Bo Burnham gives Kayla — and everyone else — one much-needed breather: After a tough day at school, Kayla retreats to her bedroom and the ambient glow of her MacBook, where her slackened face floats through a comforting abyss of Instagram selfies and BuzzFeed quizzes, hoping for the abyss to click “Like” back. It’s a mesmerizing and especially poignant moment in a movie full of them — the scene that feels most likely to be placed in one of those time capsules Kayla’s school is so obsessed with. In this wordless swirl of Snapchat filters, Burnham captures the peculiarly hyperengaged detachment of the Extremely Online generation, like an update on Dustin Hoffman drifting aimlessly around his family’s pool in The Graduate to “The Sound of Silence.” And Burnham gives the scene its own, similarly indelible soundtrack.

“I wanted so badly for the sequence to feel spiritual, and not like ‘hacking into the internet,’” Burnham tells Vulture. “How can we feel the internet — not in a way that’s tongue in cheek and funny, but genuine?” Burnham turned to the song he says he “would listen to when I was in eighth grade, to feel bigger than I was, to feel deeper and more exciting.” That song is Enya’s New Age pop hit, “Orinoco Flow.”

“In screenings, the moment it came on, people would chuckle, maybe for just a split second,” Burnham says, though that certainly wasn’t his intention. Still, we’ve been trained by countless commercials and Will Ferrell movies to find the retro needle-drop inherently funny — and “Orinoco Flow” is, as of October 15, now a hilarious 30 years old. Besides, there is something obviously waggish about Enya’s reverie on “sailing away” across a geographically impossible archipelago of pleasantly rhyming islands, paired to someone scrolling listlessly through social media. But even beyond that, we’ve been conditioned by decades of pop culture to think of “Orinoco Flow” as a punch line, something Burnham was well aware of when he set out to redeem it. “I don’t love that it’s always been used as a joke,” he says. “I’ve always loved that song, and I felt Enya had gotten a bad rap, because she’d been appropriated into what we think of as, like, massage music.”

Massage music. Scented-candle-shopping music. “Bland, bloodless music ideal for elevators,” as the Los Angeles Times sneered upon release. “Orinoco Flow” has been derided as a dull song for neo-hippie drips and dentist’s waiting rooms since its debut in 1988 — though that certainly didn’t stop it from becoming a massive, omnipresent hit, launching its parent album, Watermark, to quadruple-platinum sales, and making Enya one of the wealthiest artists in the world. Some of this, surely, came down to serendipity: Released the same year as Cocktail and The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” the song’s dreamy “Sail away, sail away, sail away” refrain reflected the collective, seafaring fantasy that so gripped the 1980s, a Miami Vice-fed, Sex on the Beach-soused, palm trees-and-pastels high where the ocean seemed ineffably, inextricably tied up with sex, success, and happiness, and the luxury yacht was the ultimate Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous status symbol. Like “Kokomo,” “Orinoco Flow” was a Sandals resort package of a song, speaking to a pent-up yuppie longing for escape. Also like “Kokomo,” people sure did love to hate it.

You can probably attribute some of that attitude to Pure Moods, the Virgin Records compilation whose TV commercial ran incessantly in 1994, before a captive audience of snarky, Beavis & Butt-head–watching kids. You know the one: Over a montage of dramatically crashing waves, nobly striding unicorns, and a truly dangerous spread of candles, a narrator whose voice can only be described as “horny yoga instructor” urges you to imagine “a world where music carries you away” — a world now opened to you at last in one incredible volume, mailed direct from the mysterious, cloud-borne land of “Europe.”

While Pure Moods boasted some hip cuts from Brian Eno, The Orb, and Ryuichi Sakamoto scattered among its Kenny G and oddball soundtrack selections (Fire up the Jacuzzi and unwind to The X-Files theme!), it also crystallized the brief, eternally early-’90s period when “world beat” once called to ravers and soccer moms alike. That exotic, ethnically vague brew of spirituality, soft-core sex, and down-tempo electronica slathered with tribal chanting yielded surprise hits for groups like Enigma and Deep Forest; in 1994, it even garnered some Benedictine monks a No. 3 album. By packaging them as “the soundtrack to your way of life,” Pure Moods made this sound synonymous with a strain of soulfulness and self-care that’s largely expressed as interior decorating. “Orinoco Flow,” unfortunately, fit right in, its cavernous reverb, haunting synth sounds, and angelic intonations creating not just walls, but plush, Pier 1 Imports–outfitted bedrooms of sound. And thanks to that ad, a whole new generation got to know and mock “Orinoco Flow” as the aural equivalent of donning a cozy cashmere wrap, sipping Chablis, and skimming Deepak Chopra beneath a “Live, Laugh, Love” poster.

Over the decades, this notion was only perpetuated by the movies and TV shows that have made ample use of Enya, which are many. After all, licensing, along with semi-regular Christmas records, is Enya’s incredibly lucrative side-hustle, and the cornerstone of what industry analysts have long termed “Enya-nomics” — that unique, somewhat baffling business model that allows Enya to go up to seven years between albums, never tour or sell T-shirts, rarely do press, yet still have enough money to buy an honest-to-god castle next door to Bono. It’s why Enya currently boasts more than 80 IMDb credits, lending her voice and gravitas to everything from Far and Away and Cry the Beloved Country to Toys and Lord of the Rings.

And it’s also why she’s turned up as generic “bubble bath” music in Knocked Up and Friends, or allowed her elegiac 2000 ballad “Only Time” to appear in a deadpan Volvo ad starring Jean-Claude Van Damme — which then spawned an entire meme, which then led to Deadpool 2 using it during a scene of violent, slow-motion teabagging. Solemn nature documentaries or Ryan Reynolds’s taint: It seems to make little difference to Enya what her music is paired with, an amiable approach that’s kept her in the cultural consciousness, even as the years pass without another hit. Although Burnham was so determined to land “Orinoco Flow” for the modestly budgeted Eighth Grade, he personally penned a “Dear Enya” letter telling her how much it meant to him — a letter he signed, “Sail away” — the evidence suggests she probably would have given it to him anyway (although, likely at a steeper price). After all, in its nearly two-dozen movie and TV appearances, “Orinoco Flow” is usually a joke.

“I think of someone sitting in bed, weeping about a breakup,” says Dan Goor, co-creator of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which featured “Orinoco Flow” in its 2017 finale, over one of the show’s signature, slow-motion hero walks. That was star Andy Samberg’s suggestion, Goor says, building on an earlier scene where Samberg’s cop requests “‘Orinoco Flow’ on repeat” while he broods. Like the many “Only Time” memes, the joke isn’t really about Enya, but rather the ironic juxtaposition: “It’s not like we were shitting on the song — that was not the intention,” Goor says. “We weren’t trying to attach ourselves to a history of making fun of it. The joke was just that it’s 100 percent the wrong music to play. It’s supposed to be this triumphant, badass moment, and instead we’re playing that song.”

Still, that joke only works, thanks to the years and years of “Orinoco Flow” being that song — the one Courteney Cox and Josh Hopkins did a dorky dance routine to on Cougar Town, and the one that punctuated a sad handjob on the cult Britcom Peep Show. “Orinoco Flow” has been sung a cappella by bougie, tasteless buffoons like Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge and irritating dorks like Will Forte on The Last Man on Earth, and worked into the evil PowerPoints of Shrek villains. On South Park, “Orinoco Flow” (or a convincing sound-alike, anyway) conveyed how it feels to be old, so feeble and lame that you’re left openly begging for death. In all of these, the very qualities that make “Orinoco Flow” so enrapturing to fans — its dreamy expressiveness, its bleeding heart, its smeary, watercolor beauty — are exactly what make it such enduring fodder for ironic laughs. And after decades of winking musical cues, it’s difficult for anyone to take it seriously.

That changed with the previously most famous use of “Orinoco Flow.” When The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo director David Fincher decided his grisly torture scene needed a little music to lighten the mood, it was Daniel Craig (who had Enya on his iPod) that suggested “Orinoco Flow.” The result was a classic moment of cinematic dissonance, an innocuous pop song incongruously scoring a scene of intense brutality in the tradition of Reservoir Dogs, Blue Velvet, A Clockwork Orange, et al. Like Goor, Fincher wasn’t trying to say anything about “Orinoco Flow,” specifically: “It’s just that he likes soothing music as he does his deeds,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2011.

But as with Reservoir Dogs and “Stuck in the Middle With You,” or A Clockwork Orange and “Singin’ in the Rain,” the film definitely reshaped the way it was perceived. There had always been hints of darkness beneath its glassy, placid surface — those wordless vocal interludes, which Burnham uses to such great effect, have a haunting tonality reminiscent of Philip Glass — but Dragon Tattoo was the first to bring them to the fore. The film lent “Orinoco Flow” an undercurrent of dread, one that Black Mirror was later able to tap into effortlessly in an episode where a woman relaxes to the song, shortly before she’s torn apart by murderous drones. And it also gave it unexpected cachet, sending “Orinoco Flow” back to No. 1 on the New Age charts (where it replaced, yep, “Only Time”). More importantly, it introduced it to another, younger generation, one for whom Pure Moods now seems every bit as archaic as mail-order music, TV commercials, and CDs themselves.

You can measure this impact on the internet, which has seen a notable uptick in “Orinoco Flow” appreciation since 2011. Those shimmering, pizzicato synth plucks have wormed their way into dozens of trance, house, and dubstep remixes, and down through the pixelated micro-genres of vaporwave and “nightcore.” South African provocateurs Die Antwoord have rapped over it, as has some dude named Skankdaddy. It’s been mashed up with The Prodigy and Dr. Dre, chopped and screwed, amped up to Chipmunks speed, and slowed into a truly disconcerting “male version.” There are countless amateur renditions to be found on piano, heavy metal guitar, ukulele, recorder, and, weirdly, a whole lot of drums, alongside myriad aspiring American Idols singing it with such gusto that it defies easy mockery. (Except for this, maybe.) You can watch equestrians perform elaborately choreographed dressage to it, or witness Carlos Santana wanking away on it in concert. It sets the appropriately hushed mood for fan tributes to everything from Star Trek to American Horror Story to the late River Phoenix, and adds an extra layer of Zen to Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. You can, as I did while writing this piece, even listen to “Orinoco Flow” in a continuous loop, your own stream of thought dreamily wending its way from Bissau to Palau, from Fiji to Tiree, for an hour straight.

Some of these are also piss-takes, it’s true. But the majority — and their accompanying comments declaring, “This song is the shit!” — seem enthusiastic, even earnest. Maybe they first came to “Orinoco Flow” ironically, whether through Fincher or Brooklyn Nine-Nine or somebody’s dumb Harambe joke, but their love for the song has since become genuine. Perhaps you could trace this evolution of “Orinoco Flow” fandom according to David Foster Wallace’s oft-cited mini-manifesto for New Sincerity, where he predicted that trendy, postmodern jadedness would inevitably give way to people willing to “risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘oh, how banal’,” to make unabashed pursuit of sentimentality and something real — the purest of moods.

Or maybe it’s just that here, in the speak-your-truth/haters-to-the-left ethos of the internet, there’s no longer any delineation between “guilty” pleasures and real ones. “Orinoco Flow” is a pretty song, and you can chill to it; even Nicki Minaj and Grimes are self-proclaimed Enya fans. Maybe we could all stand to sail away for a while.

Besides, in a space occupied by millions of Kayla Days offering their own melodramatic, slightly cheesy, yet heartbreakingly sincere self-expressions, all of them pleading implicitly to be carried away in the babbling of the great digital brook, it only makes sense that “Orinoco Flow” would be in heavy rotation. As Burnham puts it, “Enya just sounds like the internet to me. It’s like she knew what it would sound like before it happened.” Like Kayla, “Orinoco Flow” might never be accepted by the eye-rolling cool kids. But as the film makes plain, that’s not what really matters. In Eighth Grade, “Orinoco Flow” finally gets to be itself.

How Enya’s New Age Hit ‘Orinoco Flow’ Was Redeemed