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Simon Frith, Martin Cloonan and John Williamson (eds), Made in Scotland: Studies in Popular Music

New York, Routledge, 2024, 204 p.
David Leishman
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Simon Frith, Martin Cloonan and John Williamson (eds), Made in Scotland: Studies in Popular Music, New York, Routledge, 2024, 204 p.

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1Glancing at the title Made in Scotland readers might be forgiven for imagining it was a cheeky nod towards another expression of cultural specificity in modern-day Scotland, with a potentially Irn-Bru inspired tagline (“[…] from Girders”?) reaffirming this book’s national focus as it treats contemporary media-informed identities within Scottish popular culture. However, rather than a standalone monography, this broad-ranging exploration of popular music in Scotland fits into the Routledge Global Popular Music Series which already contains a sizeable collection of other “Made in […]” volumes, each attending to a particular nation’s popular music scene and focusing primarily on countries whose musical output is less well‑known to Anglo-American audiences.

2As such, this Made in Scotland: Studies in Popular Music volume is both a logical choice (given Scotland’s vibrant reputation for popular music ranging from folk to pop) and a surprising one (given the high international profile and transatlantic commercial success of Scottish acts such as Texas, Franz Ferdinand or Calvin Harris). But since the series aims to critique the Anglo-American hegemony in popular music, the Scottish music scene proves to be a fascinating case-study. As the editors Simon Frith, Martin Cloonan and John Williamson note in their introduction, Scotland’s cultural positioning is complexified due to its constitutional position as both part and apart from the rest of “Great Britain”. It is this tension between periphery and core, between local distinctiveness and wider shared identity, between cultural autonomy and financial dependency which will inform much of the discussion throughout.

3This collective work thus takes the form of a series of essays and interviews illustrating a stimulating range of topics which range from the role of 1960s “regional” broadcasting in shaping new tastes in popular music, to how awards ceremonies necessitate a formalization of what defines Scottishness, or to the recurrent question of how access to funding (for example to provide popular music education, community facilities and local festivals) resolutely shapes the nation’s participation in the playing, broadcasting, study and enjoyment of popular music. Taken as a whole, the input of a rich mix of specialist commentators builds up a knowledgeable and relevant argument that Scotland’s popular music culture both informs and reflects its wider socio-political status within the UK. At various points, authors return to the idea that Scottish musicians’ cultural duality implies the need to be both perceived as authentic at home while marketable abroad. Consequently, in order to ensure the revenues necessary to make music-related careers viable and durable, the role of the power brokers, institutions and networks guaranteeing access to audiences across the UK and beyond is shown to be paramount.

4The book is divided into three broad thematic sections although there is an inevitable overlap in these, due to the interplay of the cultural, commercial and political forces raised by the book’s central questions. Each section is introduced by a brief but enlightening text by one of the volume editors. Part one embraces a broadly historical perspective illustrating varied facets of the development of Scottish popular music through chapters which cover early music TV shows, popular concert halls and festival sites, homegrown record labels, and a focus on musical genres and styles which have largely remained out of the mainstream of the Scottish canon. Part two revolves around the cultural politics and the specific policies influencing varied styles of music including hip‑hop, jazz or hard rock. These are studied via specific case-studies which exemplify the institutional context which so influences local and national initiatives in the arts. In turn, this section also examines the impact of popular music on the political culture of the day. The final main section comprises a shorter collection of three chapters which explore the articulation of Scottishness and national authenticity as imagined or materialized through popular music. This takes the form of a literary study of popular music in Scottish fiction and also relates the personal and academic exploration of how a national music tradition inevitably comes to address questions of birth and belonging in a country known to celebrate a civic form of nationalism.

5In sixteen short chapters, the volume thus presents a dynamic and eclectic overview of Scottish popular music which manages to give a solid analytical grounding to specialists of popular music who might be less familiar with questions of national identity and cultural tradition in Scotland as theorized by the likes of David McCrone, Tom Devine, Michael Billig and Cairns Craig. (On a self-congratulatory note, it is gratifying to see a 2016 Études écossaises article by Jeremy Tranmer “Popular Music and Left-Wing Scottishness” being cited on more than one occasion.) On the other hand, the volume also offers a practical application of how ideas about Scottish cultural traditions and identity politics can specifically play out through the domain of popular music. The work also has pertinence therefore for specialists of Scottish studies seeking to build on their knowledge of the country’s musical culture. While the high-profile contribution of popular acts such as Lulu, The Proclaimers, Jimmy Shand, Big Country and The Corries are all naturally mentioned, the volume’s broad-ranging panel of academics, performers and industry experts characterise Scottish popular music by underlining its diversity and dynamism, thus depicting a constantly evolving repertoire that goes way beyond mainstream pop or traditional folk. In doing so, the collected work here pays homage to the vast wealth of artists and sub-cultures which collectively comprise the Scottish scene, complementing the more well‑known indie / pop names such as Mogwai or The Jesus and Mary Chain with well‑deserved reminders of the contribution of iconic but lesser-known acts. For example, without limiting itself to the likes of the DIY Scottish artists who were so influential on the US grunge scene (The Pastels, the BMX Bandits), the book revives Glasgow beat group The Poets or the 1990s all‑girl surf-punk trio Pink Kross while also leaving space for contemporary creation, such as the progressive hip‑hop of Edinburgh’s Young Fathers or the folk-infused piano jazz of Fergus McCreadie. Rich in analysis rather than mere arcana, the book is also careful to continuously look beyond the “pop” in popular as it encompasses issues such as the impact of the National Mòd on sustaining the tradition of Gaelic music in Scotland or the way that the 1987 Glasgow International Jazz Festival played its part in reshaping the city’s sense of itself.

6In the first section, the chapters on 1965 TV pop show “Stramash” (John Williamson), indie record labels (Bob Anderson), and culturally-significant sites and venues such as the Glasgow Apollo or T in the Park (Kenny Forbes) all highlight in their own way the economic challenges faced by the creative industries in a small country remote from major markets, decision makers, and sources of capital. The risk is never one of a dearth of local talent, but of the commercial forces which must be confronted in the process of developing and nurturing musical creativity. With fewer resources for apprenticeship, expansion, transmission and renewal, musical vocations in Scotland permanently risk being overlooked, marginalized, cut short or forced into exile. The next chapters, which cover jazz in Scotland (Alistair Braidwood), neglected girl bands (Carla J. Easton), the EDM Riverside Festival (John Williamson), and performing in Gaelic (John Williamson), all return to such themes while acknowledging the individual energies, cultural dynamics and local or national institutions that allow music in Scotland to flourish. The central role of bodies such as Creative Scotland or the Scottish Music Industry Association is frequently underlined and contrasted with the perspective south of the border.

7Section two focuses more explicitly on how collective cultural energies interact with the political sphere and broader economic forces both national and international. Sub‑national regional identities are evoked through chapters which study the impact of music on rural and urban communities in Scotland, whether AC/DC-inspired tourism in the birthplace of J. M. Barrie (Emil Thompson) or the cultural positioning of Glasgow as a host city for international jazz events (Martin Cloonan). Meanwhile, social stratification within Scotland is also addressed in the chapter on popular musical education, with for example the observation that hands‑on instrument training in Scotland boosts the ecosystem of practising musicians in Scotland while unintentionally reinforcing class-based inequalities. The role of popular music in expressing national identity would (as duly noted by Martin Cloonan who takes on this challenge in one brief chapter) merit an entire book to itself. However, the overview given here of how of Scottish identities can be performed through music manages to go beyond the necessary roll‑call of tartanry, Celtic influences and kitsch to look at the ways musicians adopt or adapt Scottish identity discourses such as self-deprecation, differentiation from England and the challenge of expressing a voice perceived as authentic. In the context of Scottish hip‑hop, the evocation of questions of authority in literature and music (Dave Hook) via the work of rapper / writer Loki / Darren McGarvey leads to the comment “You canny be saying anything serious if yir rapping it” (p. 121). This statement further underscores the theme of how Scottish-sounding voices have historically struggled to gain credibility in British culture, and a brief mention of the trail-blazing work of Tom Leonard and James Kelman in this regard might perhaps have been appropriate here. Scottish cultural dynamism across the arts during the Thatcher and Major years and its ties with the 1980s/1990s pro‑Independence and anti‑Poll Tax movement indeed forms the starting point for a chapter which explores the complexities of the political endorsements and party affiliations of popular music in Scotland both pre- and post- devolution (Adam Behr).

8The question of the interplay between cultural forces is again the focus of a subsequent fruitful chapter on literary fiction, identity and music (Simon Frith) which begins the third section addressing future and imagined forms of Scottishness. Kelman’s Dirt Road is notably evoked for its study of the power of music in shaping a sense of personal authenticity and re-establishing a sense of place, kinship and belonging. The wandering, taciturn heroine of Morvern Callar could appear to be a counter-example, but the analysis of Warner’s use of musical mixtapes as a mode of self-expression for Morvern also builds on the general argument that music and literature can work in tandem to address the “unsettled” sense of identity at the heart of Scottishness. A connection is thus formed with the final two chapters which explore questions of Scottishness among those who are not necessarily of Scottish descent including an interview with celebrated German-born Scottish folk singer-songwriter Alasdair Roberts (Martin Cloonan) and a final chapter by musician and academic Diljeet Kaur Bhachu. Her analysis of how perceptions of Scottishness in popular music are infused with notions of ethnicity and origin form a salutary reminder that Scotland’s celebrated cultural diversity should not mask the bias and inequality faced by some artists. As elsewhere, however, contemporary Scottishness is ultimately portrayed as a shifting, multi-voiced, choral construction. Before a final, brief afterword that looks resolutely to the future, the book presents a “coda” which reaffirms the international context in which Scottish popular music genres necessarily develop, underlining how the sense of the “local” has had particular resonance in a country where identities have been so infused by the global forces of empire, international tourism, overseas markets, and expatriate communities.

9As a whole, despite the necessary limitations of the short-chapter format which sometimes sacrifices the fuller development of a worthwhile argument in a bid to encompass a broader range of subject matter, this book successfully provides a dynamic and engaging exploration of a great many different genres, epochs, institutions, and individual actions which together have forged Scotland’s vibrant and durable musical culture. By constantly showing the development of individual creative voices in Scotland within a framework of much vaster cultural, commercial and political forces, the work fully satisfies the remit that it sets for itself: to convincingly examine the particularities of a Scotland that is both fully part of the Anglo-American musical tradition while remaining a small, distinctive nation on the geographic periphery of the United Kingdom. Tantalizing questions are sometimes raised without being fully developed, such as the reclaiming of tartanry, Burns and the codes of traditional culture by contemporary musicians, the political engagement of Scottish artists in the post-Devolution era, the cultural tensions between competing musical traditions and identities in sub-national localities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, the possibility of overturning the power dynamics of periphery and core in the decentralized era of digital music distribution. However, it is no doubt the mark of this work’s success in that it leaves the reader eager to continue their exploration of how Scotland’s cultural identity has been expressed and transformed through the idiom of popular music.

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David Leishman, « Simon Frith, Martin Cloonan and John Williamson (eds), Made in Scotland: Studies in Popular Music »Études écossaises [En ligne], 23 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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David Leishman

Univ. Grenoble Alpes, ILCEA4, 38000 Grenoble, France

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