The New Dawn of New Age
How the consciousness-raising movement emerged from the margins to become a predominant force in American pop culture—and where the light might shine next.
Interest in the eclectic philosophies and practices of New Age have always been cyclical. It’s been the case since the late nineteenth century when occultist philosophers and mystics like Helena Blavatsky and George Ivanovich Gurdjieff began exploring concepts related to broader spirituality and consciousness, which led to the American movement propelled by the countercultural milieu of the 1960s. Since then, it’s become something of a quiet force in culture, popping up in film, TV, and music, and disseminating from there. In the new millennium, where the pulsing of smartphones soundtracks modern anxiety and ideological unrest seeded by twenty-four-hour online media divides families and friends, many of its core principles seem more relevant and are more widely proselytized than ever—from yoga studios and meditation apps to reissues of work by early New Age music makers and contemporary sonic acolytes.
New Age’s relationship to or embracing of varying religions is nebulous and ever changing. As such, it’s viewed largely as a decentralized movement concerned with spirituality, drawing from religious and occultist practices that span the globe. It’s a movement most concerned with sweeping concepts related to positivity—self betterment, love, beauty, peace, community, and fulfillment, as well as the idea that the bettering of oneself leads to better treatment of one another and the planet. Concepts that are now fairly mainstream among Americans—eating whole foods and awareness of vibes or karma—originated stateside with New Age’s early adopters.
Like any movement cultivated by human beings, there’s a large margin for error, and New Age has received its share of criticism, largely in the wake of opportunists seeking a pay day under the umbrella of enlightenment. There are well-documented instances of hucksterism, from producer Irv Teibel translating field recordings of swamps and ocean sounds into the popular Environments series in the 1970s to the scandals of author and speaker James Arthur Ray, whose very expensive vision quest at a sweat lodge near Sedona, Arizona, claimed three lives in 2009. A sullen exchange between Midwest everyman talk-show host David Letterman and the actress Shirley MacLaine, a figurehead of celebrity New Age–ism of the 1980s, on Late Night in 1988 illustrates perfectly the overarching skepticism New Age endured during the approaching Clinton era (“As far as past lives go, I vaguely have a feeling that at one point I delivered a pizza to the Eisenhowers,” Letterman quipped), when it was dismissed by Gen X-ers as a cultural flash in the pan hawked by plastic shamans to the rich and vapid.
As with any spiritual practice, the most negative aspects often glean the most press coverage. Someone dying in a sweat lodge is news. An enlightening seminar in Marin County is not. As such, many OG New Age followers, who’ve been attuned to its higher frequencies and positive vibrations from the start and endured the movement’s public ups and downs, posit that the false shamans and profiteers never intended to get it. They were never tuned in, and they only intended to cash out. A similar argument is often echoed from more moderate Protestant Christians, Muslims, Catholics, and others about their groups’ press-grabbing extremist factions. It’s not to say that the co-opters shouldn’t be outed, but it’s important to note that they don’t represent a majority.
After being all but quashed by baby boomer offspring in the ’90s, New Age experienced a sort of renaissance in the wake of George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2000, when many voters felt cheated by the electoral college. It’s a sentiment that manifested itself in protests, doubt, and division—a sort of low-cal precursor to La Résistance drumming among the 48.2 percent of today’s’ electorate who didn’t connect the arrow for President-Elect Trump on November 8. Now, combine those feelings with what many view as a boon to New Age practice, at least as an entry point for the uninitiated. At the turn of the most recent century, science began to support what many practitioners have always believed of some of New Age’s tenants—that practices such as yoga and meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, serving not only a philosophical path to inner peace, but also a concrete path to good health. In an era of such political uncertainty it’s no surprise that people turn to alternative means to find peace and sanctuary. That scientific evidence backs its claims can’t hurt.
And it shows: the number of Americans who practice yoga is up 44 percent from just four years ago, according to a 2016 study that also found that practitioners cite flexibility, stress relief, mental clarity, and overall health as believed benefits. Transcendental Meditation (TM), which first garnered significant attention in the late 1960s with The Beatles’s spiritual journey in India, is a widely practiced form of meditation that is taught in American schools and universities, in the military, on Wall Street, and to survivors of abuse to help manage stress and prevent depression. The concept of Mindfulness has permeated the US, from the magazine racks at Whole Foods to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley, and its technology makers are spreading the gospel in the form of apps and other platforms built for daily home practice.
In an era of such political uncertainty it’s no surprise that people turn to alternative means to find peace and sanctuary.
An aesthetic extension of the increased interest in yoga and meditation is the surge in popularity of classic New Age accessories. A search for “healing crystals” on Etsy produces more than 175,000 results, and what have been traditionally viewed as energy centers or conduits are now being incorporated into the stock lists of health-food stores and National Park gift shops. Seattle resident Bekah Zeitz, who is also publicist at Sub Pop, started her candle company The Dank Crystal in 2015 as a way to spread positive vibrations and love in a world that can be negative, particularly in the current political climate. She doesn’t claim to be an expert in New Age, but believes in its higher principles. As such, in each of her handmade candles is a crystal that has undergone a personal purification ritual. “I know that I have connected to that crystal when I’ve purified it and I try to infuse positivity so that whoever receives it can enjoy it in that same way,” she says. It’s her way of participating in the culture, finding that bridge between its historic principles and modern attitudes.
Boutiques from LA to Brooklyn stock everything from tinctures to sage bundles and Palo Santo sticks alongside triple-digit price tagged clothing and accessories. Cynics might argue that it’s a way for retailers to cash in on trends—which might certainly seem the case when these items and language pop up in Free People and Urban Outfitters, and even McDonald’s Instagram posts. But there’s an argument to be made for a middle ground, too. Because of New Age’s increasing appeal, why shouldn’t modern yogis or meditation devotees be able to scoop up a sage stick and a sweater? And from a local shop no less? As New Age ideology and practice has emerged from the margins, so too does its cultural accouterments.
New Age music is experiencing a new dawn, too. Yoga Records founder Douglas Mcgowan, who has researched and reissued numerous works by musicians of the original era, says that a 2002 Left-Field Americana column in Wax Poetics magazine by noted Chicago-based record collector and music historian Dante Carfagna raised awareness about the genre. After Carfagna’s column pointed to the sonic merits of a few early New Age albums, Universal Sound, a division of UK reissue giant Soul Jazz, re-released Laraaji’s 1978 album Celestial Vibrations, which arguably paved the way for subsequent interest in New Age reissues by labels such as Light in the Attic, Numero Group, RVNG Intl., and Leaving Records. Today, Mcgowan is responsible for two compilations that have helped propel New Age to contemporary music’s greater consciousness: 2013’s I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America and The Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe, which was released in November of last year.
Though his origins are solidly of the New Age music collector camp, Mcgowan has come to appreciate many of its teachings and hopes that one day contemporary fans of New Age music and iconography might also embrace facets of its thinking—that there is a middle ground that can be reached between fandom of its accessories and being a guru. “All of this stuff is undeniably cool, but to reduce it to that is a grave mistake,” he says. “Just like being all about the ideas and not having an awareness of how this looks in the outside world is a bad idea. These two camps need to come together and ask themselves, ‘Isn’t all of this stuff amazing? What does it mean?’”
New Age has demonstrated a staying power regardless of trends. And its merging with technology via music, yoga instruction, and daily intention practices only indicates that at least aspects of it are here to stay. Whether more people become tuned to vibrations remains to be seen, but many followers and thought leaders believe it’s possible. And on a foundational level, it’s essential to understanding any piece of New Age pie chosen from the bakery case of options. “The whole point of my music is to facilitate and help people raise their vibrations so they can get more in touch with the higher octaves of their own being,” Iasos says. “And also to connect them vibrationally through music with higher dimensional realms that are saturated with harmony, beauty, and love.” Increased flexibility, mental clarity, and interesting homespun music aside, the through line of New Age is something that’s desperately needed come January 20, regardless of which side you’re on. FL