Is there ever a definitive “song of the summer,” or is that label just one more premise for the debate over which music truly matters? Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a viral sensation that led to a major genre controversy when Billboard took it off the country charts, has become the longest-running No. 1 song on the Hot 100, having dominated for 17 weeks — surely that qualifies it for the honor. Tracks from Lizzo, Carly Rae Jepsen and Billie Eilish have also found their way into contention, and they may finish the season strong as we tire of the Yeehaw Agenda.
But the truth is, I find the whole exercise to be academic. Yes, these are great pop hits, worthy of any beach party; none, however, may claim to have bested the others. It’s no failure on the musicians’ part, be assured — only the continued triumph of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” now the official song of the summer for 30 consecutive years.
Congratulations to her.
Don’t you dare laugh. This isn’t a joke, and I don’t do irony. I want you to listen to Enya’s masterpiece right this second and accept a vital fact into your heart: It’s an absolute banger. We didn’t have the language in the fall of 1988, when “Orinoco Flow” was released, to articulate that it fucking slaps, yet there is no longer any excuse to deny the power radiating from those pizzicato strings and majestic timpani. I defy you to hear that shift into minor-key arpeggios — or the airy, drifting vocals of the bridge — and not be utterly transported.
Pity the humans who lived and died before this four-and-a-half-minute slice of heaven was committed to tape, before it was released as a maxi-single that I would buy at a vinyl fair for $3 some decades later, almost trembling in ecstasy.
I’ve hardly made a secret of my love for Enya, the Irish singer-songwriter born Eithne Pádraigín Ní Bhraonáin. Many a dark, rainy night have I tweeted about taking off my shirt, smoking a joint and losing myself in her dreamy atmospheres. They are both cosmically remote and so vast as to touch everything: an aurora borealis of sound.
Enya herself, living an intensely private life in a castle full of cats, having amassed a staggering fortune without a single tour, lends an essential mystery to the silver, stratifying voice that is her supreme instrument. And while bewitching gems are scattered across her eight albums, “Orinoco Flow” is one with the pull of eternity — it voyages our planet, island to island, thrilling and restless as the tide. It makes me feel like a dolphin, or a spangle of sun on the crest of a wave. It will always be the song of the summer.
Last year, to observe the track’s 30th anniversary, culture writers explored how it had gone from the towering zenith of the “New Age” trend to a punching bag for hacky movies and sitcoms that regarded Enya as corny muzak. The reappraisals noted the affecting usage of “Orinoco Flow” in the darling indie film Eighth Grade, whose director, Bo Burnham, had seen through that scorn to the roving, dazzling spirit of the composition.
But I want to be very clear: Enya’s exhortation to nautical escape didn’t need to be rescued. Her soaring refrains were never brought low by the sneers and slights of critics numb to beauty. “Orinoco Flow” has been flawless from the jump, a visionary achievement without compare. What else might stir your pulse as it does? Only a return to the start of the song — your passage into a profoundly blissed-out loop. Sail away.
Nonetheless, fate saw fit to revive the reputation of the standout on the mid-1990s Pure Moods compilation right as “mood” became the defining substance of internet chemistry. What’s funny in revisiting that once-ubiquitous TV ad, often blamed for the knee-jerk dismissal of Enya as syrupy wallpaper, is just how cleanly “Orinoco Flow” cuts through the surrounding pap. Where other featured selections were chosen for innocuous drone, a surefooted, celestial dance shines even brighter. It is a pure mood, in a way that Enigma’s “Sadeness – Pt. 1” can barely gesture at — Hot Girl Summer, if you like.
So with all due respect to Megan Thee Stallion and her fellow 2019 breakouts, we must once again bow to a divine current that knows neither time nor dimension. From Bali to Cali, far beneath the Coral Sea, let the song of the season flow into being.
At this point, it may be our genuine last hope.