Mad Scientists of Music Live – Pictures from the Gig

Photos from last nights incredible experimental music night in Twisted Pepper. Featuring Deathness Injection, Siam Collective, Karakara, Infotoxin, Glotchbot, Luxury Mollusc and MarQu VR.

More photos below…

Continue reading “Mad Scientists of Music Live – Pictures from the Gig”

Mad Scientists of Music Live – Playlist

The event is called ‘Mad Scientists of Music’, and it’s on Tuesday
16th September in Twisted Pepper. We’ll have chiptune, circuitbending
and experimental electro-acoustic noise stuff, from a variety of crazy
Irish experimental artists.

Acts featured on the night include Deathness Injection, KaraKara,
Luxury Mollusc, Siam Collective, MarQu Vr & The Trumpets of Time &
Glotchbot. We’ve cooked up a wee playlist to give you a taster!

And here’s a wee interview about the gig, from Near FM’s Art’s Show last week (interview starts 6 minutes in).

Postcards from the Edge – Episode 6 – Mad Scientists of Music

The final episode of the series looks at the future of Irish experimental music. We find out how techniques like ‘Live Coding’ (where computer programming during a concert, creates the music and visuals in real time), ‘Geocached Music’ (intrepid explorers following clues to discover hidden caches of music in the real world), and new interfaces like ‘Leap motion’ (which tracks users hands as they move through space) will change how audiences can interact with the music. This episode ties together the threads of the series, and offers a glimpse into the future of music, technology and creative collaboration.

Part 1 – Geocaching with Ewan Hennelly

Irish electronic musician Ewan Hennelly, formerly HERV, now known as ZPG, has combined his love of hiking and electronic music in an unexpected way. Climbing the hills and valleys of the South Downs, Ewan takes part in geocaching. Tracking down geocaches (tiny boxes for marked on an online map) with his GPS, Ewan leaves tapes of his experimental music for curious travellers to encounter.

Part 2 – Simon Kenny’s Inventions

Simon Kenny (Bitwise Operator) is a musician and inventor. He takes us on a whirlwind tour of his software experiments, working with a variety of groups like Galway Autism Project. Simon also shows off his cutting edge software synthesiser ‘Oscar‘.

Part 3 – Andrew Edgar’s Weather Machine

Andrew Edgar of Gamepak Collective has a dream. He wants to build a new kind of instrument, a ‘terrarium’ that can be teased into sonic life by musicians ‘like Gods of yore’.

Part 4 – Ed Devane’s Binaural Recordings

Electroacoustic musician Ed Devane has been experimenting with binaural recordings: Sending these hypnotic microphones out to vocalists all over the world. The results are beautiful and dreamlike.

Part 5 – Sebastian Heinz of Patchblocks

Patchblocks are a new invention, successfully kickstarted by Belfast based, German born Sebastian Heinz. Part synth, part midi instrument, they can be used alone or as a programmable effects pedal; with a huge library of community effects to download.

Epilogue – Success in music

Niamh De Barra and Roger Gregg talk about succeeding as an artist in the twenty first century.

Episode 6 – ‘Postcards from the Edge

About the Series

BAI logo mark colourMad Scientists of Music is a six part, BAI funded documentary series on Near FM. The show explores the world of Circuit Bending, Chip Tune, and Electroacoustic music in Ireland. Low cost technology, recycled instruments and a new attitude to tinkering embodied by the ‘maker movement’ are helping to reinvent music. A new generation of Irish musicians raised around computers, the internet and video gaming, see noise as something to be hacked, taken apart, and reconstructed. These artists build their own instruments, whether by recycling toy keyboards, modifying video game consoles, or attaching electronics to traditional stringed instruments. They often share their music online for free, and in doing so challenge our ideas about copyright and ownership. Their playful attitude to technology finds new uses for obsolete devices and brings the collaboration of musicianship to engineering and the arts.

Tracks Used

ZPG – Conjunx Endura
ZPG – Slow Cell
HERV – It’s OK I’m a collage
Oscar, Leap Motion Demo, Graphic Score Cam – Sounds and music courtesy of Simon Kenny / Surface Tension
Patchblocks – Sounds and music courtesy of Patchblocks. Including patch blocks demo track by Box Cutter
Weather machine – Includes the following creative commons sounds:

  • S: FishTank Bubbles.wav by skeetdawg | License: Sampling+
  • S: fish.tank_trickle.mp3 by dobroide | License: Attribution
  • S: wind3.wav by eliasheuninck | License: Creative Commons 0
  • S: spray_bottle.wav by stephendemaria | License: Attribution
  • S: Rain_06.wav by Q.K. | License: Creative Commons 0
  • S: Dolphin screaming underwater in Caribbean Sea (Mexico) by felix.blume | License: Creative Commons 0
  • S: kilauea-lava-01.wav by e__ | License: Attribution
  • S: Atari-Volcano-Erupting.mp3 by rambut | License: Attribution
  • S: Monks of Punakha Dzong.wav by RTB45 | License: Attribution
  • S: hair dryer.wav by Tomlija | License: Attribution
  • S: Storm200408.mp3 by csengeri | License: Attribution
  • This recording is released under a non-commercial, no-derivatives Creative Commons Licence.

    Chipzel – Culture File Report

    Chuffed to be able to present my first piece for RTE Lyric FM’s ‘Culture File‘ programme. It’s a short on Chipzel, the Chiptune artist profiled in Episode 2 of Mad Scientists of Music. The piece features much of the same material from that report, but presented in a more straightforward way, which was an interesting challenge. I grew up religiously listening to the incredible BBC Radio 4 arts programme Kaleidoscope, and Luke Clancy’s Culture File is a sort of modern day descendent of that show.

    Download: Chipzel

    The Instrument of the Law – Episode 5 – Mad Scientists of Music

    This episode looks at how innovative new ways of making and distributing music are coming into conflict with our legal system. Some argue that copyright and patent laws, created to encourage innovation, are no longer in touch with how artists remix and reinterpret our cultural landscape.

    Part 1 – Piracy

    We learn about copyright law, the ‘copy left’ movement and new licensing schemes like Creative Commons. Eoin O’Dell corrects some common copyright misapprehensions, Ed Devane and Simon Kenny discuss their experiences having their music pirated. Niamh Houston (Chipzel) discusses how small Chiptune artists are challenged by ubiquitous piracy and major label plagiarism alike.

    Part 2 – Sampling

    Ewan Hennelly and Meljoann talk about the culture of sharing. MarQu and Meljoann describe about how ready access to the internet enabled them to learn techniques and exposed them to niche scenes that would have been unavailable historically; and how our always on, connected society is reshaping music. MarQu VR discusses the endemic and transformative use of samples in VJing and parody.

    Part 3 – Illegal Art

    Karakara (Kieran Dold) and Siam Collective (John Leech) discuss the idea of remixing as a crime and illegal art as a wilfully provocative act.

    Featured Interviewees:

    Eoin O’Dell, Colm Olwill (DJ PCP), Seb & Emma of Deathness Injection, Niamh De Barra, Simon Kenny (aka Bitwise Operator), Ed Devane, Meljoann, Ewan Hennelly (also known as HERV / ZPG), MarQu VR, Andrew Edgar, Kieran Dold (Karakara), Niamh Houston (Chipzel), John Leech (Siam Collective).

    Episode 5 – ‘The Instrument of the Law

    About the Series

    BAI logo mark colourMad Scientists of Music is a six part, BAI funded documentary series on Near FM. The show explores the world of Circuit Bending, Chip Tune, and Electroacoustic music in Ireland. Low cost technology, recycled instruments and a new attitude to tinkering embodied by the ‘maker movement’ are helping to reinvent music. A new generation of Irish musicians raised around computers, the internet and video gaming, see noise as something to be hacked, taken apart, and reconstructed. These artists build their own instruments, whether by recycling toy keyboards, modifying video game consoles, or attaching electronics to traditional stringed instruments. They often share their music online for free, and in doing so challenge our ideas about copyright and ownership. Their playful attitude to technology finds new uses for obsolete devices and brings the collaboration of musicianship to engineering and the arts.

    Tracks used

    Chipzel – Only Human Foilverb Remix (RoughSketch)
    Karakara – Illeagle – Thesis Song
    Karakara – Illeagle – You called it that
    Karakara – Illeagle – God only knows
    Karakara – Illeagle – Really
    Karakara – Illeagle – In Light of your misleading

    Lobat – my little droid needs a hand
    Covox – Sunday – handheld electropop

    Siam Collective – Melatronic Mission (unreleased rough mix)
    Siam Collective – Meatloaf Madness (unreleased rough mix)
    Siam Collective – Simpson Chemical (unreleased rough mix)

    Jocks on Acid

    This slideshow requires JavaScript.

    A stroll down Killiney beach last Saturday would have taken you on a dark ambient journey. Under the illustrated pier of the old icecream shop huddled a group of alternative sound tinkerers. This was the second ever ‘Seascape Soundscape‘, an occasional non-hierarchical collaboration facilitated by Sebastian Dooris, one half of ambient drone duo ‘Deathness Injection‘ (profiled in Episode 1 of ‘Mad Scientists of Music’). With a single battery powered practice amp, and a motley collection of distortion peddles, korg microsynths, tape loops, kaossilators and contact mics, we hammered away – our noises sheltered and reverberating under the victorian overhang. We were a mixed group, real musicians like Stewart Geelon of Luxury Mollusc, sonically feuding with enthusiastically tone deaf participants like me. Weather permitting, we will return, to sheer the beach of bathers and darken the glorious blue skies.

    ‘Mad Scientists of Music’ – April Update


    It’s April and I’m closing in on a final shape for the show. It’s been almost a year since I started preliminary research and interviews for ‘Mad Scientists‘, an enormously self indulgent amount of time to work on a radio documentary series. And yet, I feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the Irish experimental music scene. Creativity is a process of continuous curation, in fiction and especially in documentary, where research and footage accretes into a melange of gooey information that threatens to overwhelm you. Several years ago I embarked on an ill fated project to document the experience of Irish refugees at the hands of immigration services. Ultimately I had to abandon the project. I was simply unprepared to deal with the responsibility of capturing the experiences of people who’d been so cruelly treated, made so invisible by our state, by our indifference.

    Maybe that’s why I switched to writing comedy. While the stakes are the same – failing or succeeding on the public stage, the consequences are purely personal. I’ve grown up a lot in the years since the documentary film flatlined. I find one of the positive aspects of getting older is an increase in organisational capacity – the ability to plan, to anticipate how long a task will take, to reassess a project as it develops. I’m still a disorganised shambles, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but these days I get the things I start done.

    With that in mind, here’s where I’m at with the doc. I’ve got four thirty minute episodes almost finished, with two further episodes about half done. I’ve also pulled together a bunch of bonus content – four additional web only episodes, that will flesh out the musicians featured in the show, and focus on topics (like musical influences, nerd culture and so on), that the series doesn’t have time to fit in.


    Episode 1 ‘Learning How to Listen‘, will take you on a tour of educational music projects. Starting at a circuit bending workshop in the Northside Shopping Centre, we stop by Roger Gregg’s eclectic home studio, before calling in on an instrument building workshop led by Ed Devane. We finish up with a visit to noise duo Deathness Injection’s incredible Culture Night mass collaboration, where hundreds of visitors to Exchange Dublin experienced the thrill of performing together.


    Episode 2, ‘Growing Up Digital‘ will examine the impact of videogames on contemporary electronic music through the childhood anecdotes of a variety of performers. We’ll introduce you to chiptune – music made with retro consoles and home brew software, and take a tutorial in gameboy synthesiser ‘Little Sound DJ‘ in the capable hands of chiptune diva Chipzel (Niamh Houston).


    Episode 3, ‘Taking Toys Apart‘, starts off in Germany, in the home ‘laboratory’ of author and musician Julian Gough (Toasted Heretic). Then we’ll hear about the impact of the geography of consumerism on toy hacking, from Gamepak Collective founder Andrew Edgar. Andrew, MarQu VR, and John Leech will explain the genesis of Dublin’s first chiptune collective. Finally, John demonstrates the dark art of cartridge ripping.


    Episode 4, ‘The Hacker In the Gallery‘, is still a work in progress. This episode will example the relationship between hackers, musicians and the world of fine art audio.

    Episode 5, ‘The Instrument of the Law‘, tackles copyright, sampling, and illegal art, introducing two fantastic unauthorised albums from Kieran Dold (Karakara), and John Leech (Siam Collective); and featuring the legal wit and wisdom of Trinity College’s Dr Eoin O’Dell.


    Episode 6, ‘Postcards from the Edge‘, is still to be finalised. This episode will bring listeners some of the latest developments in electronic music, including a geocaching tour of Brighton and the South downs from Ewan Hennelly (HERV, ZPG), and an astonishing new software synthesiser under development from Dublin musician / programmer Bitwise Operator (Simon Kenny).

    That’s it for the radio series. For web listeners, four additional interview based episodes will be released during and just after broadcast of the radio series. ‘Beginnings‘ covers the early musical influences and development of musicians like Meljoann, Oswald Green, Kieran Dold and Niamh De Barra. ‘Copyrights & Copywrongs‘ delves deeper into Creative Commons and the much needed reform of Irish copyright law, and touches on the patenting of music technology. ‘Irish Electronic Scenes‘, examines a variety of recent underground music scenes, through the eyes of Colm Olwill (DJ PCP), the Gamepak Collective, and Ewan Hennelly. Finally, ‘Nerds vs Chicks‘, collects two fascinating conversations, around the role of nerd culture and gender respectively, in electronic music. These bonus episodes are pretty rough at the moment, and will likely consist simply of voices, without music or on location recordings, but they include some of the best anecdotes and most fascinating characters of the series.


    I can’t wait to get the show out there, and introduce new listeners to the incredible artists featured. I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the show so far – Ewan Hennelly, Andrew Edgar, John Leech, MarQu VR, Niamh DeBarra, Niamh Houston, Meljoann, Colm Olwill, Simon Kenny, Kieran Dold, Seb & Emma of Deathness Injection, Roger Gregg, Ben Gaulon, Stephen Mcloughlin, Ed Devane an Eoin O’Dell.

    Mad Scientists of Music will be out June 2014, on Near FM, and online at this site.

    New Radio Series in production ‘Mad Scientists of Music’


    I’ve just kicked off production on my new radio series, my first documentary. It’s a 6 * 30 minute show about experimental music in Ireland, entitled ‘Mad Scientists of Music’. Experimental music is a pretty big topic, covering everything from bedroom tinkering with Fruity Loops to technically and aesthetically sophisticated electronic ‘noise’  to Harry Partch style microtonal music. Clearly, I can’t cover everything, and this won’t be an effort to comprehensively catalogue the field. Instead I’ll be focusing primarily on participatory music – chiptune, circuit bending, music apps and other techniques and technologies which allow untrained musicians to take part in creating music.

    For a number of years I was involved in the day to day activities of Exchange Dublin. Exchange was at that point a consensus based arts institution in Temple Bar Dublin; more recently the centre has moved away from total democracy, for better and worse, and apparently plans are afoot to leave its Temple Bar HQ for less contentious surroundings. When Exchange kicked off, the initial idea was to let open groups  co-ordinate creative projects in different mediums. Exchange Focus (founded by Dr. Jason McCandless) let enthusiast photographers and complete novices alike learn the intricacies of DSLR photography. My pet project, Exchange Words, ran workshops, lectures, and collaboratively organised spoken word performances. No Signal, a group organised by Dublin based artists like Jonah King, Daniel O’Donovan, Patrick Hough, Aine Belton, and Sebastian Dooris, fooled around with experimental audio video production and performance. No Signal was great fun, I used to head along as an interested if utterly unqualified observer. This was 2009, and demonstrations of 3D digital projection, live coding, and circuit bending seemed to come from a different world, a sizzling technoutopia where devices could be opened up, rejigged and tickled to reveal their secrets.  This open access mixture of mad scientists laboratory, artists workshop and technofetishists basement encouraged a playful attitude to technology, a million miles away from the intimidating math heavy culture of academic engineering and computer science. It was the purest expression of the hacker-artist culture I used to read about in Bruce Sterling think pieces for Wired Magazine or hear breathlessly described in The Net in the early 90’s. Talented amateurs using prosumer technology in interesting and innovative ways to make art, just for the love of it. Around the same time I took part in one of Ben Gaulon‘s ‘Sound Dig’ workshops, learning the very basics of circuit bending and hacking my first kiddie keyboard.

    Later I got to know the guys behind Gamepak, a loose knit Dublin chiptune / circuit bending collective. Gampaq run chiptune gigs at festivals like KnockanStockan, and circuit bending workshops in association with Harold’s Cross based A4 Sounds. Taking part in these unstructured peer learning workshops helped inform the ideas behind Open Learning Ireland. Most recently, MarQu and Andrew Edgar of Gamepak helped organise the Open Learning hacklab at our week long festival of learning.

    Bitwise Operator, one of the acts interviewed for the series.

    I’m no musician. I took piano lessons as a kid, and wrote some awful singer songwriter music after leaving school, but I can’t play any instrument with any degree of competence. What I like about these technologies, and the folks who play with them in an inclusive way, is that my lack of ability doesn’t matter as much as my desire to participate. This isn’t just fiddling about with a ‘my first musak’ toy either. Participative electronic music, like gamelan and other traditional forms of non-expert collaborative music making, let non-musicians take part in producing real music: Improvising with ambient noise duo Deathness Injection, fiddling with Andrew Edgar’s homemade keyboards, or jamming on Bitwise Operator‘s upcoming iPad app. That’s the feeling I’m trying to convey with this series.  The experience of playing with things beautiful, unsettling and deliriously novel. In my next post I’ll talk about some of the folks I’ve interviewed so far, and the techniques and radio series that have influenced the approach I’m taking with  ‘Mad Scientists of Music’. For now check out this collaborative performance curated by Na Hailtiri in association with Deathness Injection. 1000 members of the public converged on Exchange Dublin, to join in in the spontaneous performance – noodling on theremins, effects pedals and chaos pads.


    Mad Scientists Of Music should be done by early – mid 2014. If you’d like to be interviewed for the series get in touch. If you’d like to follow production, check it us on Facebook.

    What is a Hipster anyway? Part 1

    Prelude – One Hipster’s Story


    In my final year at college I helped start a music magazine that briefly went nationwide. For a little while we covered a brutally hip range of ‘indie’ and electronica acts: Interviewing, smooching, listening to a lot of great new music and occasionally finding time to publish some decent writing.

    Then, about a year ago, exactly twelve months after we’d started the magazine, and just before the release of our sixth issue and third nationwide release, trouble hit paradise like a leaky tanker with a drunken captain. After a dip in my involvement while I finished my undergraduate thesis, I’d developed three features for the magazine- one of which was the piece below, a tongue in cheek consideration of what makes music good.

    yes these are bruises from girl talkA couple of weeks before we were due to go to print I received an ominous email from the editor… My ‘Pop Music Sucks’ article, though ‘there is an irony involved in the way you’ve written it’ was ‘overtly arrogant and pretentious’, and worse the magazine was not ‘established enough to print such a strongly worded discussion between two writers in disagreement’. It felt like the doe eyed puppy I’d lovingly raised had chewed my face off while I slept. The eighty thousand words of features, blog posts, and interviews I’d written for the magazine were as nothing, the numerous pieces I’d worked on as assistant editor, the friendships and collaboration which had seemed to lie at the heart of the project didn’t matter- there was to be no discussion as ‘my decision as Editor… is final.’ It was just another piece getting rejected from a magazine, just another power play that mattered not a whit, but to me it was my whole world falling down. We’d recently begun producing a national radio show spin off, and I’d written and co-presented one episode, and produced and recorded two. I could see some sort of future as a professional writer folded up and put in a pocket, a childish fancy.

    The magazine carried on for another couple of issues, before the advertising blood bath got the better of it. For a long time I stopped listening to music. Eventually I cancelled my pity party and decided to be even more of an obstreperous little shit than before. From now on I’d only put my creative effort into my own projects. If I failed at them, I’d have no one else to blame. Like a chocoholic thirty something office girl whose heart has been broken one to many times, I resolved to stick to chocolate fingered masturbation.

    So here’s the article, the point of which dovetailed neatly with it’s consequences. The names have been changed…

    Pop Music Sucks

    cafe hips

    Two music journalists sit outside a franchise coffee house. Young, urbane and ostentatiously hip, they are arguing. Their discussion, staged in the controversial milieu of a Starbucks decorated to match the Autumnal colours of their Abercrombie togs, is about something vital. As the boy raises a Venti Caramel Frappuccino to his lips, suckling the frothy mass of corporate cream and coffee, the girl berates his immovable pretension. She nurses a tiny herbal tea and readjusts her nautically themed mini as he mocks her trivial preferences. Outside a Starbucks on the Camden Road, these tragic hips are fighting, not about the re-ignition of the cold war, nor the global financial meltdown. Our heroes, writers for a pretentious indie publication both, are arguing about authenticity in music.

    A struggle rages high in the battlements of scene. On one side, popsters like Bon Dijonaise and Meadbh Glint protest that the crowd is too exclusive, an elitist misrepresentation of the interests of its core and wannabe’s; snobbishly avoiding popular music in favour of credible indie darlings. Ranged against them are folk like myself, Snedar Vashni, Tove Chumbly, you know the crowd. We see a cultural landscape supersaturated with pop coverage, radio stations payola’d and market researched into little more than store fronts for the latest Timbaland remix, the newest leather jacketed major label ‘indie’ stars, the latest on-screen Abba revival. We are, as we see it, though our individual tastes may differ radically, concerned that our independent musical presses be places original music can be discussed, seriously and frivolously.


    At face value, this argument is trivial, a petty squabble among dilettantes over the etiquette of formal dining. Look a little deeper and it resonates with a crisis of cultural capital, an argument about the validity and future of Western culture itself. Last year, Adbusters magazine, a publication which hopped up on Chomsky, Baudrillard and Naomi Klein, attempts to use the glamour of industrial capitalism (fashion shoots, photoshop, ironic distance) to subvert its consumerist message, wrote a sterling attack on hipsterism. This latest global subculture, the magazine argued, represents a departure from youth movements of the past, from the hippies and the punks, a departure even from the hedonistic valueless underground raves of the 90’s, in that it is wholly constructed, marketed and cool hunted; meaning nothing, representing nothing, remixing historical motifs into ironic outfits and flickering kinetoscopes of fringe interest. Dan Hancox, writing in the Guardian, dismissed Adbusters critique. Hipsterism, Hancox wrote, is nothing more than “fashion people, doing what fashion people have always done.”

    Hipsters, dressed ironically as hipsters

    At a time when the culture is more self-conscious, more aware of its history and artifice than ever before, a crisis of confidence has descended. A variety of dichotomies; authenticity versus inauthenticity, sincerity by contrast to ironic distance, original cut into remix, taste as distinct from fashion, symptomise the implosion of the counterculture, the final digestion of a pill designed to be too difficult to swallow. In 2006, iconic lower East Side club CBGB’s closed its doors. Large men with hammers moved in, cracking away graffiti encrusted walls, where once Poly Styrene made love to the audience like a Viet Cong Millie Small. The plan was to move the place, lock stock and branded barrel to Las Vegas. Fortunately the rock gods intervened, fatally popping owner Hilly Kristal’s cash lined clogs. It seemed like any vestiges of punk, once the epitome of the rejection of sanitised, monetized pop, officially died with him.


    What we now term the counter-culture arose spontaneously, a modern version of ancient processes of cultural evolution. It stands in stark contrast to the fictive mainstream tele-visual culture, constructed and marketed from watered down replications of the past. Adbusters’ argue that the desire for authenticity, prizing the real and innovative over derivative artifice, has grown so large in the contemporary capitalist dystopia that, commercialised sans radical intent, it becomes just another currency, traded for street cred by vacuous hipster fuckitalls.

    Perhaps both hipsterism’s ironic recycling of pop culture, and its contradictory obsession with the underground, are really both reactions to a contradiction which has always existed at the heart of the counter-culture; the illusion of authenticity. Whether it be white academic musicologists scouring the Mississippi delta in the 1930’s for the ‘pure’ black roots of blues (and ‘discovering’ Led Belly), hippies in hemp smocks writing protest songs in a reconstructed ‘folk’ idiom, or hell contemporary gaelgoir hips ordering Guinness in a dead language in Dublin’s Conradh, what we assume to be authentic is most often deliberately constructed to serve a social function.

    If hipsterism is no less organic than the most cynically moulded Louis Walsh pop hit, then why regard it as intrinsically better?


    Authenticity, in relation to music, is often used synonymously with sincerity, and it is in this sense (according to Webster’s “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character”) that pop music can never be considered authentic. As a medium of mimicry, chart music has no intrinsic character beyond stylist buffed billboard illusion. At the same time, whether fusion (think Simon Bookish), remix (Pittsburgh copyfighter Girl Talk) or revival (Appalachian flavoured indie darling Joanna Newsom), ‘independent’ music is by definition sincere – no matter how commodified.

    This distinction is epitomised in the parallel careers of two of the twentieth century’s biggest stars. David Robert Jones, known to us all as David Bowie, and Madonna Louise Ciccone Ritchie, most often referred to simply as ‘the hag’. Both are multi-decade internationally platinum selling musicians, purveyors of the latest cultural trend, instantly recognisable icons whose celebrity transcends familiarity with their work. Yet it’s hard to think of two musicians more differently regarded. Bowie, despite his gradual drift into irrelevance, produced some of the most critically acclaimed contemporary hipness of the last five decades. His work as a writer, singer and producer across glam rock, new romantic, krautrock and disco, inspires some of today’s most important acts. His many and varied persona leave whole subcultures in their wake.

    Bowie1From one perspective there is nothing honest about David Bowie. The man’s whole shtick is illusion. His characters are mythological archetypes: Nietzschean supermen, imaginary rock stars, mimes and white bluesmen. Yet it would be impossible to term Bowie inauthentic. Whether manifesting the destiny of a doomed rocker or a cocaine fuelled fascist, Bowie was ever the artist, producing rich, often accessible but consistently multi-layered work which sprang from his interests in literature, the occult and history; his explorations of persona, of celebrity, of sanity, rather than a slavish addiction to prevailing tastes or market research.

    In stark contrast, witness Madonna. Similarly commercially successful, possibly even more famous, she is an iconic personification of liberated libidinous femininity. Madonna too has explored varied musical styles and riffed lyrically and through her cinematic roles on her own iconic status. Madonna like Bowie, has collaborated with a host of musicians and producers, from Timbaland to William Orbit. However, while both artists have produced commercially successful anthems, Bowie’s music is considered hip, while critical opinion of Madonna’s oeuvre has at best lauded her inarguable cultural significant, and at worse labelled her a crass slag.

    classic-madonnaWhat distinguishes these two musicians? In part, it’s the machine. Madonna’s talent has never been music, but rather the ability to affix herself to the mast of the good ship pop, pitching this way and that to catch the gusts of fashionista taste. By contrast, Bowie has often worked closer to the coal seam, whether it be the cutting edge of glitter rock, Berlin minimalism or electronica. While never creating a wholly original genre, his four decades of boundless creative energy produced celebrated work in a multiplicity of voices. Bowie’s hip was always artificial- up till 2003’s Reality LP, characters and narratives were not intended as literal representations of his personality. Yet his art remained authentic, because it was so rarely insincere.

    There are two primary meta-theories of artistic interpretation. To the social constructionist, taste is encultured (and thus entirely relative); by contrast the evolutionary perspective, while acknowledging a multiplicity of preferences, posits that taste (and hence critical evaluation) is at least in part routed in innate critical faculties, adaptive human universals. To the relativist, the only value of a work of art is its situation in the contextual system of the western canon. By contrast, if we acknowledge that it is not merely our physiology, but our neurophysiology that we inherit, that commonalities of cognitive function facilitate mutual comprehension (including the acquisition of language and yes music); then one work of art can be viewed as objectively better than another. One artist can be accurately be described as a genius, another a fraud. Bowie’s music managed to articulate the fears and hopes of two generations, while Madonna’s is consumed as chewing gum. Sweet, disposable and yet grotesquely indelible chewing gum.


    For this is the function of pop music, the very reason behind its omnipresence. Pop is the aural representation of a culture that celebrates banality in the guise of ingenuity, conformity disguised as individualism, and the accrual of wealth as talent. ‘Pop music’, chart music, is by definition that which is neither necessarily good nor original, but merely purchased often. Setting aside the rigged and managed measurement of sales; the implicit assumption of the whole game is that which sells most is best. At least until next week. Perhaps this is the reason for hipsterism’s clichés, its thrift store fashions, its ironic distance and blog-inspired fixations. The desire to seek out quality despite commerce, to approve through consumption only briefly, to move on before such approval is appropriated, nullified and codified in next seasons diesel jeans, in Holy Fuck’s new remix.


    As I sip my iced coffee, I tell Meadbh of my visceral reaction to pop, to vocodered power ballads and over-produced country songs, to saccharine R&B and big-me-up hiphop. It’s the same instant headache, the sulphur burp twinge you feel seeing a spandex micro mini or a concrete underpass – functional mass production minus aesthetic considerations. It isn’t elitism, it’s taste. Thankfully Andreas Pavel invented the stereobelt (though the Sony Corporation stole the idea, rechristening it the Walkman), making it possible to travel on public transfort, enter a clothing store or shopping mall, or pick up a cinema ticket without collapsing into a speaker-vandalising, Duffy-assassinating rage. That’s the problem with pop, it fills every crevice with at best inane, and at worst perversely nonsensical lyrics, and tired vaudevillian melodies. Pop bursts, over-compressed and without warning, from taxis, hospital lobbies and the leaky headsets of the perpetually bewildered. It seeps and jangles, depositing earworms like September flu. Hits that chew through your brain and leave you jibbering for days.

    52036.MIA04-216x300There are inarguably exceptions. Popular songs that are none the less classics, indie classics that are, despite all the odds, popular. These are diamonds in the dustbin, poppies in the sewage pipe. Almost universally, pop music acts to dull the sensibilities and nullify the critical faculties, lulling the listener into temporary senility. Its message is equipotency, uniformity, apoliticism, hypersexualised infantilism, and the illusion of choice. That’s the whole point. Pop music is designed to appear controversial, whilst saying nothing truly dangerous. It’s not merely bad, it’s insidious. Who will Britney kiss next? Which part of Janet Jackson’s greased up anatomy will slip ‘accidentally’ into the public eye? When will the Bay City Rollers reform? Who the fuck cares? Pop music sucks.