Imelda rocks the boom boom: Rockin' nostalgia and the positioning of Imelda May within the crisis of Austerity Ireland

Carlton Brick, Kelly Davidson

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Abstract

In recent years ‘Rockabilly Retro’ has emerged as an umbrella term used to categorise a set of urban, popular cultural styles, sounds and consumption practices orientated around a distinctive mid-twentieth century visual aesthetic and American rock ‘n’ roll. A highly visible rockabilly ‘street look’ is manifest in the restructured iconography of the inner-city, exemplified in the numerous vintage and repro clothing outlets, barber shops, old-school tattoo parlours, diners and performance spaces that are markers of the adjacent forms of (sub) cultural practices and scenes associated with retro culture.
This paper seeks to provide a framework through which to understand how retro culture, and rockabilly in particular - as exemplified by the Irish singer, Imelda May - has excited interest in academic, industrial-creative and wider media circles, and how it has become implicated in a cultural politics located in the fluid discursive and ideological intercises between feminist critique, nationalism, new forms of social activism and civic cultures, and neoliberalism.
As identified by McRobbie (2008) much recent feminist work has highlighted the highly gendered nature of retro culture and how individual investments, performances and acts of consumption invite subject positions that are symptomatic of a regressive or progressive femininity and the ‘crisis’ of women’s positioning within the ‘austerity’ culture of our current economic circumstances (Abramovitz, 2012; Jensen, 2012).
Imelda May’s public profile and retro-(hetero) feminine performance rests on common perceptions of an ‘authentic, working-class Dublin’ identity based on a long-suffering stoicism, strength in traditional family and shared musical heritage. In this paper we consider how these have been mobilized discursively and ideologically in Ireland’s post-recession culture of austerity. Following Bramall’s (2013:137) reminder that austerity is ‘a complex and contested terrain of meaning and political struggle’ we locate May within various conflicts over the sustainable restructuring of the Irish state and economy. On one hand May speaks to a prominent anti-austerity constituency as the face of the Credit Unions, a campaigner for SVP and performer at Anti-Austerity Alliance events. On the other hand she has been vocal about her avoidance of ‘politics.’ Her endorsement of The Gathering 2013 and controversial plans to commercially redevelop the Dublin Liberties as a digital and creative hub marks her as a harbinger of the forms of gentrification that cut against more rooted forms of community engagement. That her individual success was secured in the midst of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has simultaneously played an important symbolic role in normalising and legitimating an austerity discourse within the Irish public sphere, a reminder of Stiglitz’s (2013) comments about Ireland’s ‘astonishing’ ability to accept the pain of harsh economic and social measures.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2014
EventG(u)ilt and Glitter: Economic Crisis and Burlesque in Ireland - Boston College, Dublin, Ireland
Duration: 5 Sep 20145 Sep 2014

Conference

ConferenceG(u)ilt and Glitter: Economic Crisis and Burlesque in Ireland
CountryIreland
CityDublin
Period5/09/145/09/14

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