On “Coolness,” Enya, and Embracing Your Weird

We were not cool in high school. And yes, Brittany and I have totally bonded over this. 

We know, it’s super hard to believe we weren’t cool.

Last week both of us were freshly reminded of this fact when I found and shared this epic and inspiring tribute to Enya from Pitchfork. We went through intense Enya phases in high school. This article made us both feel seen, and we felt fiercely grateful.

Let’s back up a couple dozen steps. I went to a prep school where students were highly prized if they were a) killer at academics, b) Christian, and c) athletes. No, I’m not making this up – this was the actual criteria for most of the awards that were given out at the end of the school year. Despite a certain outdoorsiness and A++ archery skills, I only rocked 1 out of 3 of those metrics. You already know which it was: I always had my nose in a book. (Admittedly it was usually a fantasy novel rather than a calc textbook.)

But it wasn’t really the formal differences that made me feel like such a weirdo. And I think just saying “I listened to a lot of Enya” is a pretty good shorthand. I wore jeans, but I also wore a lot of long, swirly skirts and black boots with high heels. I was completely obsessed with King Arthur, and I always had a book by Patricia McKillip or Charles de Lint in my backpack. And I listened to a lot of Enya.

This became agonizingly clear one fateful day in 10th grade English class. My teacher, faced with the task of getting a bunch of 15-year-olds excited about poetry, asked the class to bring in their favorite songs. We’d listen to them in class, he said, and analyze the lyrics like poetry.

My classmates brought in songs by Billy Joel and Beyoncé, the White Stripes and the Dixie Chicks. (No shade – they had great taste, and I was definitely rocking out, in my quiet and awkward way, in my chair while listening.) And then it was my turn, and Enya’s “Anywhere Is” filled the classroom.

If you haven’t already listened to this song, go listen to it. I’ll wait.

It’s awesome, right? But it’s not a billboard classic. It is not what a bunch of fifteen-year-olds would call a jam. It’s cyclical and atmospheric. It sounds like the ocean, a labyrinth of sound, a riddle. The words are enigmatic. 

I loved it. I still love it.

My classmates stared at me like I had two heads. One guy did a mocking little dance while grimacing. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t listen to this song for at least a year without cringing. But I still listened. Even though it wasn’t cool.

So when I read this piece about Enya last week, I felt… gleeful. If you haven’t read it, basically it traces Enya’s unconventional career and her utter refusal to play by the rules of the music industry. It reminds us how Enya was relegated to “doctor’s office” music and demonstrates the wildly powerful influence she’s had as a “mother” of so many contemporary artists across genres. 

For a long time, Enya’s music was put in a box. A box labeled as “uncool.” But somewhere along the line, a magic trick took place. The box is empty, and her music is everywhere. It’s even a bit… dare I say it… cool?

The thing is, though, the cool factor doesn’t matter.

Embracing what you love? And not being shamed out of your weird? That’s what matters. Enya went on being Enya and doing her multi-vocal oceanic sound and kicking ass. And I’ve embarked on a long journey of learning not to care quite so much when people don’t get my weird. (“You’re a…folklorist? What is that?”)

But the thing is, embracing your weird is your superpower. Loving the stuff you love and letting it fuel you is how you get stories – it’s how you make poetry and art and fan fiction and communities. It’s how you think up something as crazy and wonderful as Carterhaugh. It’s how you get best friends.

There’s nothing like finding other people who get your weird. And, if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you’re one of those people too.

Comments

  1. Carrie

    Sara. Sara Sara Sara. I feel you. Let me tell you how hard I feel all of this. I went to a Catholic school that was a lot like you describe your school, mainly in that athletes were lauded above all other students, no matter how horrible they were as people. In fifth grade, when it was my week to be “student of the week” and have my favorite things posted on the bulletin board that would eventually cycle through every student in the homeroom, my “best friend” suddenly didn’t want to be seen with me because the boy she had a crush on thought it was weird and stupid that my favorite band was the Beatles. In high school, I joined the drama club to be with my fellow weirdos and because I wanted to act; but even there, I was one of few who didn’t drink and didn’t have sex. In Art class, the teacher allowed students to bring in CDs for the class to listen to while we worked; usually this was my stoner classmate’s Bob Marley CDs (thus fostering a deep loathing for Reggae in me, unfortunately). The one time I brought in a Blackmore’s Night CD, the Marley fan started to make fun of it. Fortunately, the art teacher was also a friend of my family, so she stood up for me and said “she has to listen to your music, you listen to hers.”

    Like you, I always had my nose in a book. And like you, I found that weirdness eventually paid off. The first day of move-in weekend at college for Freshman year, I said during our dorm hall’s icebreaker session that I listen to weird music like David Bowie, and afterwards a hallmate walked up to me and said “David Bowie’s not weird.” We became best friends. The first time I met my now-husband, he was wearing a shirt that said “Save me from the normal people.” Nervous workplace admissions to being a fan of things from Anime to Wrestling have brought out fellow weirdos who have become great friends. It sure sucks as a kid all alone in elementary and high school, but I’d rather be weird than “normal” and boring anyday 🙂

    1. I’m honestly just confused when I encounter someone who doesn’t like the Beatles! And hurray for Blackmore’s Night, Bowie, and finding your people!

  2. Gina

    I loved this post! I’ve definitely got my own weird going as no one knows quite what to say when I ramble on about what I’m into. Still looking for that best friend, though…

  3. MaryP

    I always have loved Enya but I was much older when her music came to my ears – in my 30’s actually and heard her first when she sang with her family – Clannad. My other favorite was Loreena McKennitt, and yes, so out of the mainstream and hard to find at times back then, but oh……. their music was transcendental to me and still fills me with deep longing.

  4. Shveta

    *wanders around the beach resort town dressed as a faerie*

    😉

  5. Jeanne Domek

    Just had to Share Enya. I was in my thirties when she was popular here in the States. I don’t think she was as popular with the top 40 set. But my girlfriend and I could not get enough.

  6. Claire Thomas

    I wasn’t familiar with this song, but wow, it is so cool!

    This post brings back so many memories of high school lol… I was homeschooled and didn’t start high school until my junior year, which spawned some interesting rumors. (Apparently, a significant portion of my class thought I was a French exchange student for some reason?!) At the time, I was totally obsessed with David Gray, and would write his song lyrics all over my notebooks. I don’t know a lot about Enya, but this makes me want to listen to more of her songs!

    Actually though, I think starting work was when I felt most pressured to conform. As I’ve let my personality come through more, the rumors continue. In my last job, my boss’s boss apparently thought I made my own clothes, and told everyone in the office I did… which I guess means I dress weirdly? I’m going to take it as a compliment in any case. 🙂

    1. Those are some really strange rumors!! And your clothes always look beautiful when we video chat, so I guess those people were just jealous of your supposed epic seamstress skills?!

  7. Linda M Willson

    Oh, Sara, I totally relate. I was never thought to be cool in high school or my freshman year in college. I was quiet and shy and walked around with my head down. But in my sophomore year at Wesleyan, I played Medea, the witch who married Jason of the Golden Fleece. When she finds out he is sleeping with another, she kills the other woman with a poisoned dress AND murders her own children–all to ruin her husband’s life. How I won the part I do not know for I was a virgin, had never been in love and was not the jealous type. But it changed me and I was no longer shy and awkward. I could play any damn music I wanted. And I still do. I have all my Enya CDs. But I also love Bowie, k.d. Lang, Josh Groban, Meat Loaf, Melissa Etheridge, Bette Midler and…..all right, I’ll admit it–Barry Manilow! I have been teased for years about this last choice, but there are nights when I want to listen to Weekend in New England. And anyone who says that the Beatles are NOT the greatest music group EVER can just leave the room.

    1. Have you read Circe by Madeline Miller? There’s a brief cameo of Medea that’s pretty interesting in there, and the whole book is just spectacular!

  8. Heather

    When you discover that what others thought was uncool in high school and college ultimately made you hip because you were ahead of the trends and they finally caught up to you.

  9. Lynn Ristau

    I fell into the Nerd/geek category throughout school myself. In elementary school on certain Fridays the music teacher let us bring in our own records (I’m old!) to play. There was a lot of Donna Summer, “the Locomotion”, and other rock songs but I once brought in one of my mom’s 45s of “The Donkey Serenade”-as left of field of rock music as you could get! I’ve always listened to a variety of music and I do like Enya. I also always had my nose in a book, usually fantasy or mysteries, though a friend introduced me to Charles de Lint after I got out of college. I was lucky that I fell in with a group of like minded friends in high school.

  10. Beth

    My husband and I both loved Enya in college. Watermark and Memory of Trees were my favorites. We can still pick out her songs…like when she was on the soundtrack for the first Lord of the Rings movie.

    I’m more partial to the songs without lyrics but will live with them. Hearts of Space was also out there that my peers didn’t appreciate. I loved the synth music that gave an outerspace feel to the music.

    1. I just about died when I found out she was doing music for LOTR – another high school obsession <3

  11. Gayle F Cunningham

    Hmmm….in today’s parlance, I was a super nerd in high school. Shy, read anything I could get my hands on, listened to whatever music I could get on my a.m. radio. I had been reading sci-fi (what there was of it) I’d borrowed from the library; I took piano lessons, I sang in the college choir, and sort of kept my head down rather than calling attention to me. I graduated in 1964 (yup – ancient is my middle name,) and graduated college in 1968. So it was the medieval period.

    College, however, was another story. I was still a nerd, but the music had begun to change around me and I listened to the likes of Blowin’ in the Wind, Simon and Garfunkel, Bach, Beethoven, you know, a regular nerd’s cornucopiea….

    And one day I came upon a book (well, three volumes that together amount to one book) by a chap named Tolkien. In a totally un-nerdish move, I bought the pirated version and (horror of horrors) skipped two days of classes in order to read the LOTR cover to cover. When the legitimate version with the appendices came out, I read it all over again, including the appendices.

    From that point on, in fits and starts, I figured out a little about me… I celebrate “This is the day when I woke up, realized I did’t know anything at all and that I could spend the rest of my life finding out.” pretty much every day. Music – oh goodness me, we have had some exceptionally intereting times musically. Reading. Raising my son and daughter and watching them develop their own personalities, which gave me permission (I still needed that) to do a little developing on my own. I went to my first rock concert in my late 30s. Never did get to go to a Metallica concert, although I wanted to. Learning about the world around you and picking up some of the fine points while your children are doing the same thing is one of the benefits of being a parent, I think.

    Yup, I was a nerd, and about as cool as …uhm…dry dog food. I still am somewhat nerdish (okay, a lot nerdish), and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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