- Music and Irish Identity: Celtic Tiger Blues by Gerry Smyth
Building on a career spent examining Irish music, literature, and cultural identity, Gerry Smyth, in his latest book, provides a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary look at the various contexts in which music, or the idea of music, participates in the formation of Irish identity. [End Page 318] Structured as a series of case studies that span the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, the majority of the book's ten chapters treat subject matter from the latter half of the twentieth century, especially the years surrounding the meteoric rise and equally precipitous fall of the Celtic Tiger economy.
The text is brilliantly written, as Smyth balances his own personal anecdotes as an Irish musician with close reading and theoretical analysis. Each chapter is well structured and concise. He begins by outlining his personal interest in the topic, moves on to reviewing the salient methodological approaches, and concludes by applying those approaches to the given subject. Five chapters approach music through a literary lens—poetry and prose—and in so doing Smyth adds to his own earlier work, such as The Novel and the Nation (London, 1997) as well as to that of other Irish cultural scholars such as Harry White's Music and the Irish Literary Imagination (Oxford, 2008).
As Smyth identifies in the Introduction, three key issues relating to the consideration of music appear throughout his text: first, the ubiquity of sound and music in society and the importance of the aural imagination as a crucial element of the way in which most people experience and relate to the world. He vividly illustrates this idea by opening the text with a short Prolegomena entitled 'A musical day', in which he nimbly takes the reader through a twenty-four hour period of his own life. Music, especially popular music, appears as an omnipresent influence. This will certainly make the reader take note of his or her own aural surroundings, which, I suspect, is the point.
The second key issue with which Smyth engages is the idea that what qualifies as music differs from context to context, and the value of that music is a subjective function of its relationship with the listener, rather than any inherent quality the music may possess. This is not a new idea, and indeed Smyth admits it is 'a rather banal point', but nevertheless its 'implications are profound' (p. 3). Throughout the text, ideas of Irish identity are either affirmed or challenged through music. This is clearly seen in the fifth chapter, 'Musical stereotyping and Irish identity: The case of the Pogues', in which Smyth grapples with 'the ways in which various musical texts, events and practices are approachable in terms of an understanding of colonial power negotiated from within the auditory imagination' (p. 75). He begins his analysis by relaying a personal experience performing at a Liverpool pub on St Patrick's Day in 1990. Unable to fulfil audience requests for 'A Nation Once Again' as sung by the Wolfe Tones or 'The Birmingham Six' by the Pogues, the authenticity of his Irish cultural identity was called into question—'You're not fucking Irish at all, are you?' (p. 76). For the remainder of the chapter, Smyth deconstructs the Irish identity created by the Pogues, deftly examining the iconography of the band's lead singer and principal songwriter Shane MacGowan in the context of postcolonial theories of stereotype as developed by the scholars Homi K. Bhabha and Frantz Fanon.
The third key issue that recurs throughout Smyth's text is the notion that traditional musicological disciplines are ill equipped, in theoretical and methodological terms, to 'engage either the musical object itself or the many and various ways in which the subject encounters the musical object' (p. 3). One wonders what exactly Smyth includes under the label 'traditional' musicology Certainly if he is referencing pre-Kerman methodologies, his argument has traction. The thrust of Smyth's analysis...