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Ambient music’s first wave of popularity came during a time of rampant capitalism and social discord. As history repeats itself, Jack Needham scrutinises the impulse for musical solace – and whether we should always follow it

“People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture,” Thatcher said to Granada’s World In Action in 1978. The rhetoric of what would become the BNP was gaining traction in late-70s Britain, Thatcher had her eyes on Number 10, and this stoking of anti-immigrant sentiment was her way of clawing back support from far-right voters. It worked, and this watermark moment helped secure the party an 11-point lead over Labour, later paving the way for Thatcher’s election.

A few months after Thatcher’s racist pandering speech, the term “ambient” was coined with Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It was a blissful and phenomenally successful work, remaining the dominant reference point for an entire genre decades after its release. It precursed an era of the individual.

As ambient evolved throughout the 80s with Eno, Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto, it encouraged us to become immersed in the art of listening and to discover fragments of beauty in our daily struggles. Popularised during the era of Thatcher and the presidency of former actor Ronald Reagan, it wasn’t protest music, but rather a serene soundtrack for those who mostly witnessed the Falklands War or The Troubles via news bulletins.

History repeats itself. In 2015 David Cameron spoke of “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”, a dog whistle during the refugee crisis for a Tory base who’d defected to UKIP. This message, near identical to Thatcher’s, foreshadowed today’s landscape of illegal deportations, anti-immigrant hate speech and celebrity Presidents.

Amongst this backdrop, as records are exhumed by DJs and reissued by labels keen to capitalise on trends, it’s understandable why ambient is resonating with audiences once again in the very same way it did during its inception.

For listeners, it provides solace from stagnating wages or a lack of job security. But ambient has cultivated its own necessity to exist in times of hypercapitalist anxieties and feeds itself on these environments. It’s celebrated as something which softens the edges of capitalistic structures, rather than challenges them.
Although growing as a largely apolitical genre, ambient almost followed the policy of Reaganomics, an artform designed for the betterment of the self. But cocooning yourself away from the AIDS crisis or miners’ strike to the austerity-driven politics of today is when apolitical beliefs becomes apathy. And if your music draws influence from the world around it, yet cherry picks the parts it engages with, it can easily be manipulated.

Ambient exists in a strange paradox, a genre made for mass consumption and solitude. As a relatively non-offensive, almost ambivalent form of music it falls neatly into the hands of advertisers and venture capitalists who cite it as a booming moneymaker, proven in dozens of studies to influence consumer behaviour.

On the broader spectrum of background music, Beethoven and Bach are currently used to deter rough sleepers and who the Yorkshire Post describe as ‘yobs’ from bus stations across the UK. Similar methods of human deterrent from public spaces were planned for Berlin’s U-bahn stations, until widespread protests forced their shelving.

The ways background music is utilised for unethical means are not on the onus of artists, and weaponised music should not be conflated with ambient, but from the very beginning ‘listening’ has accommodated hyper-capitalist dystopia. Music for Airports, after all, soundtracks the flow of people using a profitable, planet-destroying method of transportation.

"Music doesn’t need political motives to be culturally significant amidst a backdrop of carnage"

Although on the more extreme end of the spectrum, the art of listening has morphed into an entirely different beast, extending itself to ASMR artists and YouTubers cultivating wealth through an ad-revenue funded, Nazi-riddled, regulation-refusing video platform.

Artists such as Sam Kidel and his 2016 album, Disruptive Muzak, do much to dismantle this status quo, and field recordists Jana Winderen and Chris Watson record natural sound to convey how climate catastrophe is affecting habitats. “Ambient is never only music for escapism,” argued the Room40 label owner Lawrence English in FACT, stating how it can “acknowledge sound’s potential values in broader spheres (the social, political, cultural).”

Music doesn’t need political motives to be any less culturally significant amidst a backdrop of carnage. Laraaji, who uses ambient as a vessel for his own beliefs in mysticism, is not to be convoluted with the business of background music. Yoga, meditation, screaming into pillows, everyone needs coping mechanisms, and countless studies have explored how ambient can help in everything from stress fatigue to calming the psychic maelstrom.

But in the same way ambient swayed in the breeze while The Specials and Eddy Grant protested Thatcher’s crusade toward inequality in the 80s, today, the genre’s growing popularity is doing the same as the Stormzies and slowthais of the world fight the battles others can afford to ignore. Overlooking that is being proudly indifferent to your environment, not more attuned with it.