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From 'boys' to 'lads': masculinity and Irish rock culture

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-08-30, 13:56 authored by Sean Campbell
Musicality has been an enduring trope in constructions of Irishness since at least the twelfth century (Smyth 2009: 2-3). Moreover, music making has played a major role in Irish culture at home and among the global diaspora (Cullen 2012; Murphy 2012). However, as late as the 1990s, the musicologist Harry White could observe that ‘music does not form much (if any) part of the vigorous discourse which preoccupies thinkers in their assessment of the condition of being Irish and of Ireland’ (cited in McCarthy 1999: 5). This curious lacuna has been counterbalanced in recent years via a series of texts on popular musical practices in Ireland and among the diaspora (Campbell 2011; McLaughlin and McLoone 2012; O’Flynn 2009; Smyth 2009). While this emerging address has been useful in opening up our understanding of Irish music, it has – with few exceptions (McLaughlin and McLoone 2012; Sullivan 2006) – sidelined issues of gender generally, and masculinity particularly. This is unfortunate, as the Catholic-nationalist ideologies of independent Ireland have unquestionably had ‘specific implications for the construction of young masculinities’ (Mac an Ghaill 2000: 52). Moreover, male Irish musicians have often engaged with gender issues in noteworthy ways (Frith and McRobbie 1990: 374, 382; Gilbert 1999: 45; Reynolds and Press 1994: 48, 68-9). This article explores invocations of masculinity in Irish popular music culture, addressing how they operate alongside ideas of marginality in the work of key Irish-associated rock acts. Masculinity is, of course, ‘not static or essential’, as Taylor Houston explains, but it does have hegemonic modes that stress certain values such as ‘strength, competition, violence, prestige, rationality, heterosexuality, sexualization of women, homophobia, and suppression of emotion’. Its alternate modes, meanwhile, have comprised less conventionally ‘masculine’ or (what might be socially perceived as) feminine values, including, for Houston: ‘expressing emotions such as caring, joy, sadness, anxiety, and fear; being openly affectionate with peers; maintaining stylized/fashion forward dress codes that accentuate the body … and performing activities that sexualize the body and draw the gaze of onlookers’ (Houston 2012: 159). This article explores the enactment, contestation and restoration of hegemonic masculinities in Irish rock culture across three decades (1970s-1990s) and different musical milieus (hard rock, post-punk, indie), whilst addressing instances in which alternate modes of masculinity served to challenge hegemonic norms. Beginning with a reflection on Thin Lizzy, the bulk of the essay focuses on the work of the Dublin-based band U2, and the Manchester-Irish act Oasis.



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Popular Musicology Online




Popular Musicology Online

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