Review of Millar: ‘Sounding Dissent’

Sounding Dissent: Rebel Songs, Resistance, and Irish Republicanism.

Stephen R. Millar

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020

ISSBN: 978-0-472-13194-5

248 pages. Hardback $80

Music and Irish nationalism have a long, co-dependent history, one that, for some commentators, was not to the advantage of musical life in Ireland. For Harry White, the cultural nationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries relegated music to the service of politics and entirely prevented the development of a nationally informed ‘art’ music as in other fledgling European nations. Music, when not ignored, was pressed into service as an agent of political consciousness raising: “insofar as music stimulated political feeling (…) its cultivation could be enthusiastically commended. Its redundancy otherwise was painfully apparent” (White: 1998, p. 9).

In the absence of ‘serious’ music, songs of various kinds, from the genteel poeticisms of Thomas Moore, in the early years of 19th century, to the anthems of Young Ireland in the 1840s and the Fenian Songster of 1866, constituted a shared songbook from which nationalisms of equally various kinds took inspiration.

Continue reading “Review of Millar: ‘Sounding Dissent’”

Outsourcing Taste: Are Algorithms Doing All the Work?

Outsourcing Taste; Are Algorithms Doing all the Work?



It is a truism that is nevertheless true that creativity does not come into existence in a vacuum. Creative endeavour, whether individual or collective, requires a material and social context within which it can practice. This context includes, but is not limited to, the existence of an audience that might be expected to understand the work produced, the means by which the work can reach that audience and at least the possibility – within capitalism – that the single creative practitioner or collective enterprise can profit from such work.

Popular music, by which, for the purpose of this essay, I take to refer to – for the most part – music produced from within the post- Rock and Roll, Anglo-American cultural space, has always had a specific and necessary entanglement with the technology by which it is disseminated and consumed. An alternative definition to the one offered above might simply state that popular music is recorded music: not music that is recorded, but music that is made as recordings. In other words, the primary object is not the song, or the score, but the record. Over the more than 60 year history of this form of popular music, the physical – and later ‘virtual’ – form that recordings have taken has changed many times: I imagine it would be possible to listen to the same Elvis Presley recording 0f ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ as a 78 rpm disc, a 45 rpm single, on a 33 ⅓ LP compilation, on cassette tape, on 8-track tape, on a CD, as a digital download and as streamed content from a platform such as Spotify – and, of course, on the radio. It is even possible that the same listener might have purchased or consumed the same or similar content in all these formats.

Each of these formats bring with them specific affordances: the car radio, the high- end stereo system, the smartphone, all permit differing modes of attention and demand specific social contexts. The argument I wish to pursue here is that the technological and social context in which popular music, and the associated industry, reached its commercial –and some would argue, artistic – apotheosis in the roughly two and a half decades  between the mid-sixties and the late nineties of the 20th century was supported by a notion of taste that had its roots in ‘high’ modernism, albeit misconstrued, and that as listening habits and industry structures have been transformed since the start of this century, so have the ways in which taste is understood and mobilised by the industry. The first section will look at how notions of taste and judgement, rooted in Kantian aesthetics, were smuggled into the commercial music industry, even as the inheritors of that tradition – the Frankfurt school – railed against it. The second section will examine how the technological changes and consequent shifts in listening practices wrought by the move to digital means of production and dissemination have disrupted this ‘ideology of rock’ and the final section will posit some possible outcomes. Continue reading “Outsourcing Taste: Are Algorithms Doing All the Work?”

I Was Listening…..

I Was Listening… but Did Not Succeed in Hearing You.


The very idea of soundless music seems impossible, a contradiction. Certainly, we can imagine music, recall or compose it in the mind’s ear, and the skilled sight-reader can ‘hear’ the score before her eyes. A silent musical performance is less conceivable: it is this absurdity that John Cage exploited with 4’33”.

In this paper, I wish to examine two episodes in mid-20th century Irish novels where instances of this kind of experience are posited. One of these novels is relatively well known, though perhaps, by its singularity and gnomic playfulness, it is a book that still manages to avoid being thought canonical: Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)’s The Third Policeman (1967).[1] The second is much more obscure: Ralph Cusack, better known, if known at all, as a painter, published one novel, Cadenza (1958) a surreal, absurdist work, grounded in autobiography, but avoiding any claim to fidelity or truth. Continue reading “I Was Listening…..”

The Country and Irish Problem

This is a draft of forthcoming paper on the curious case of Irish country music…..

The country and Irish problem


Country music has been popular in Ireland since the 1960s: most notably in the work of homegrown performers. Despite the durability of this appeal in the face of huge changes in Ireland and in the Irish music industry over a half-century, it remains curiously underexamined in the literature on Irish popular music. In this paper, I wish to argue the following:

  • Country music did not simply arise ‘naturally’ in Ireland as a reflection of musical or national characteristics: it was promoted as such.
  • Both popular and academic literature on the subject have tended to unreflectively echo the narrative that was introduced alongside the music in order to fix its audience.
  • In so doing, the literature reproduces a set of anxieties about modernity as it arrived in Ireland, about the postcolonial condition and about authenticity, even as it attempts to locate Irish popular music within these concerns.


In the late 1960s, the pages of New Spotlight magazine, then Ireland’s only national popular music journal, were filled with comment, features, and readers’ letters discussing the so-called ‘country boom’. The sustainability, authenticity, even the existence, of this phenomenon were discussed at length and from many conflicting points of view. The topic under discussion was the divergence, over the previous few years, in the repertoires of many groups on the showband circuit, itself a distinctively Irish phenomenon. During the peak years of these groups, spanning the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, their music would encompass most popular genres.

Audiences got a pot-pourri: rock –and-roll, country and western, skiffle, Dixieland, céili, waltzes, Irish ballads. Versatility was the name of the game. (Brendan) Bowyer [singer with the Royal Showband, one of the most popular of that ilk] sang ballads and rock equally well. He could hit the high notes with the Holy City or Boolavogue one minute, and gyrate to the Hucklebuck the next (Power, 2000: 24)[1]


By the later sixties, dealing with competition from other sectors of a growing Irish music industry, the showbands had begun to take on more distinct musical identities and to dip their toes in ‘original’ or at least specially written material. Where previously, accuracy in the reproduction of the hits of others, and the liveliness of the stage show, were almost the only criteria for success, now an ‘angle’ was required. Broadly speaking, the showband scene split into two camps: country and pop.

Half a century later, in 2020, with the showbands a distant memory, and the circuit of ballrooms that nurtured them long converted into the furniture showrooms and carpet warehouses that skirt many small Irish towns, country music remains popular in Ireland. The means of production, marketing and consumption have changed as with every other sector of the music industry, but, in common with country artists in its ‘home’ territory of the USA, Irish artists within the genre, such as Ray Lynam and Susan McCann,  have extraordinary commercial longevity. New artists – Nathan Carter for example – continue to emerge alongside the veterans and it is at least possible, by some metrics, that country remains the most popular genre of commercial music in Ireland.[2]  Despite this, it is underrepresented in coverage in the national media, and it falls to the local radio stations in the music’s heartlands, the ‘Border, Midlands and West’ (BMW) of the republic and the western counties of Northern Ireland, to sustain it. Continue reading “The Country and Irish Problem”

The Sound of Silence

Jacques Attali, in 1977, looked into the future and saw a commuter train in 2017:

‘Today, repetitive distribution plays the same role for noise that the press played for discourse. It has become the means of isolating, of preventing direct, localized, anecdotal, non-repeatable communication, and of organising the monologue of the great organisations. [….] Power, in its invading, deafening presence, can be calm: people no longer talk to one another. They speak neither of themselves or power. They hear the noises of the commodities into which their imaginary is collectively channeled, where their dreams of sociality and need for transcendence dwell’

Attali – Noise, trans. Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1977, 2014) P 122

Running On, Empty.

I saw Kelly Reichardt’s 2014 film, Night Moves the other day, as part of a season of her work being shown at the BFI/ NFT to coincide with her latest movie, Certain Women, which I saw the previous Friday. ‘Slow’ is a word that bedevils the critical reception of her work and in the Q&A after the showing of CW she complained, with justice, that the supposed ‘slow’ shots in her movies were, like, 10 seconds long, and that the fault was with a culture that was unable to look rather than with her style.

Night Moves is unusual for Reichardt in being, sort of, a thriller, and in having a preponderence of male characters. One of those characters is Jesse Eisenberg’s Josh, and, to my eye, also one of the chief problems with the movie – his face is close to immobile throughout, playing ‘angst’ but looking more often like a child with a particularly difficult peice of homework to deal with. Dakota Fanning’s Dena is much better, and characteristically for Reichardt, although she and Jesse appear to know each other more than incidentally with regard to the action central to the plot, that relationship is never quite clarified. Continue reading “Running On, Empty.”

Two Vignettes

At an ‘industry networking event’ out in the wilds of Essex:

Number one: talking to two nice women in community arts from Bradford, and I mentioned, for some reason, a trip to Derry:

‘Ah, Londonderry!’ says one….not, as it would be in Ireland confrontationally, but in a sort of imaginary familiarity – like the way people will go ‘ah, Roma!’ to show they know what you as a native would like the place to be called; as if it were a pet name. They so completely meant no harm, it made the whole worrying about the name thing seem silly for a minute.

Number two: on the bus they’d laid on back to the station, a young woman heard my accent and said, in broad Westmeath: ‘you sound Irish’

I agreed I was and she asked me where I exactly.

When I said Dublin, she looked visibly disappointed – a reaction I’ve had before.

Late one night, in a hotel lobby in Birmingham, two older women from Cork who had been out for the evening began to chat as we waited for the lift. ‘Where are you from?’ came the question


‘Ah, I’m sorry’

Head tilt

The Spell of Labour…..

I joined the Labour Party here in Britain to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn. When I joined it was relatively easy but the right continued to raise ever higher barriers to try and flush out the plague of Trots they imagined were descending on the party in the run up to the re-run.

I’m stubborn though, at least about some things, and I jumped every hurdle that was put in the way of voting. I hadn’t really though through the idea of being the member of a political party again, for the first time since I flounced out of the Irish Labour Party sometime in the late ’80s. The local party here in Wycombe started contacting me, and, since I come from a generation that understands political commitment to be about more than liking things on social media and conceding that I should probably do something to earn my keep, I showed up to a few meetings and promptly ended up being Branch Secretary, by being the only one at that meeting that didn’t have a job to do.

One thing immedately becomes apparent; my sense that being in the party is about more than slacktivism was not shared by the rest of generation Corby. The party now has somewhere in the region of 800 members in the constituency, a 400% increase since 2015, of whom maybe 50 have ever shown up to anything, and most of those are people who’ve been in the party for years. There are a few newbies, and in every sense they are a different breed to the old guard core of the local organisation.

The second thing that is obvious to someone coming from Irish political life is how spoiled we are with an electoral system that, at least in Dublin, allows almost everyone to have a leftish TD of their very own. London apart, there’s barely a handful of Labour MPs in the South East, never mind anyone further left, and there are, literally, millions of left voters in the south unrepresented in parliament. Continue reading “The Spell of Labour…..”