Spaghetti hoops, luxury cars, whisky, compact discs, bleach - if you can think of it, somebody has advertised it. And that's fair enough. As long as it's legal, any producer of a service or product has the right to attempt to persuade us to buy it; just as we have the right to flatly refuse the offer. On the whole, I trust the consumer to make smart choices - reject the rubbish and embrace the quality.
Occasionally, however, this all goes terribly wrong and a whole industry springs up, selling utter nonsense by the truckload. On the strength of insistent marketing campaigns and a guillable audience, millions of pounds are made. Welcome to the 'New Age'
Someone I knew in the nineties was very much into this stuff. I liked them, which is why I was persuaded to attend some ‘New Age’ events. I figured the only way to approach these things, was with an open mind. Hours of unbridled scepticism would have been too exhausting. I tried, but the entire culture was clearly an exercise in the exploitation of the naive.
For starters, everything was fantastically expensive. A couple of minutes having your ‘runes’ read was twenty quid; half an hour lying on a bench, with lumps of quartz on your back, cost the best part of fifty pounds. My friend ‘treated’ me to a photograph of my ‘aura’. The apparatus was quite obviously fitted with a light diffusing lens, producing the requisite, wobbly blur. These people were purporting to offer a spiritual alternative, but were actually making investment bankers look like ascetic hermits.
Then there’s the music. Good grief. There’s plenty to enjoy in the ambient field, as any Brian Eno fan will confirm, but that’s not the same thing at all. ‘New Age’ music is nothing if not plentiful. On websites, at fashionable markets, across pop festivals and certain exhibitions, it’s impossible to miss the mountains of CDs with names like ‘Mantras In Harmony’, ‘Into The Light’ and ‘The Spirit Of Wesak’. They’re all the same. They’re tinkly, wooshy, flippity-floppity, tuneless and empty. All the same and in endless supply.
‘New Age’ philosophy is not only flimsy, it’s quite capable of being insulting too. If I were a native American, keeping bar in a Cherokee casino, I’d be more than a little perturbed to see rich, white businessmen, peddling a horrible mash-up of my traditions, dolphins and fortune-telling. Devout Buddhists would be forgiven a similar annoyance. As an atheist, I find many aspects of the world’s major religions perplexing, but at least they are rooted in a general, collective belief. ‘New Age’ adherents are putting their faith in an amorphous conglomeration of anything that takes their fancy, leaving them vulnerable to the money chasers who attach themselves to the ‘movement’. This relationship is every bit as exploitative and unhealthy as those TV appeals from imploring, red-faced evangelicals. Some folk are so busy believing, they’ve stopped thinking.
The ‘New Age’ may well have risen and evaporated in a puff of its own ectoplasm, had it not been for the eagerness of celebrities to embrace its various strands. From Madonna’s ludicrous Kabbalah fixation (again, a rather insulting take on Judaism), to Gwyneth Paltrow’s alternative lifestyle site, every unproven and whimsical notion now has a famous face to endorse its dubious claims. Of course, Homeopathy has hit the mother lode – it has Prince Charles to promote its evidence-free treatments. Rather sadly, many people are easily convinced by a fool with a public profile, and so this tumbling ball of half-thought and make-believe perpetuates. At one extreme it’s merely infantile; at the other, people are encouraged to entrust their health to charlatans proposing a ‘no food’ diet, or coloured spotlights as a cure for cancer.
It’s just possible I’m missing something here. Maybe certain stones do have a sprite living within them (available for sixty US dollars). Perhaps a burning cone of waxed paper shoved in my ear, will improve my hearing and balance. I’ll never know. Because I prefer to place my belief in the proven, the visible and the tangible. If that makes me a grumpy, aging cynic, then so be it. You can keep your insistent marketing, bring on the ‘Old Age’
Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant