Interview with Lucy O’Brien

Cazz Blase interviews the author of She Bop II

, 16 December 2002

It is seven years since the publication of Lucy O’Brien’s She Bop: The

definitive history of women in rock, pop, and soul, a much enjoyed, and

highly influential historical account of women in music. 2002 saw the

publication of She Bop II – an updated, new edition of She Bop. An

inspiring, enjoyable, and – above all – accessible book to read, She Bop II

commences its story with 1920’s blueswomen and the jazz age, and concludes

with The Spice Girls, Lilith Fair, and Ladyfest whilst taking in 1950’s pop

sirens, sixties girl groups, punk, Madonna, disco, rap and much more along

the way. Whilst concerned with the history of women in music, the book is

also concerned with the parallel rise of feminism, and more general social

change, and is interested in how the two interrelate. She Bop’s author,

Lucy O’Brien, is the author of two previous books – Dusty and Annie Lennox.

She has also written for the Guardian, Q, The Face, and NME amongst other

publications, and has worked in TV and radio as both guest pundit and

producer. This interview was conducted, via email, on the 30th November

2002 by Cazz Blase. She Bop II is published by Continuum Books, and is


In naming the book, what made you decide on the title She


She Bop was the title of a 1984 chart hit by Cyndi Lauper about

female masturbation. I liked the play on words. Female masturbation is about

women expressing themselves (in its purest form!)…and the book is all about

how women have expressed themselves musically and creatively. I liked the

linkwith jazz and be bop, cos the book covers all eras and genres from the

early 20th century onwards.

In updating and adding to She Bop, did you find it difficult to include

everything that you wanted to say. Was there anything you wanted to include

that you couldn’t?

Not really. I wasn’t trying to be encyclopedic, I was examining themes

and trends…so each chapter is more conceptual than chronological. Having said

that, with more space I would have liked to expand on women in world music,

and more of the current female-centric rock bands, and lesser-know lights

from each decade. One has to stop somewhere tho, or I’d be like that man


has spent the last 20 years writing a George Bernard Shaw biography. He

still hasn’t handed it in, cos “there’s more research to do”. Once you’ve

got to a certain point it’s important for the book just to be out there.

There’s a pattern that runs throughout She Bop II of musical


and of music that has been buried in the past being uncovered and


later. Is this something you see as being important in the current musical


So much of women’s history is buried, even a few years after the event!

Definitely. I was shocked when interviewing Lou Beattie from Glasgow’s

Ladyfest 2001 that she found out about Riot Grrl by reading 1995 She Bop.


much of women’s history is buried – even a few years after the event! Lots

of female punk bands have been ignored in the “official” histories of punk

(even key acts like X Ray Spex and The Slits). Many of the vaudeville blues

women are ignored in histories of the blues, and, as for women in rock like

the wonderful Sandy Denny – don’t get me started!

Another theme running through the book was a trend for highly


women such as Janis Jopliin, Dusty Springfield and – recently-ish – Kirsty

MacColl, to be only seen as seminal once they had died. Do you see this as

being something that relates specifically to female artists, or do you


it’s more general than that?

That’s a good question. It’s a classic case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve

got till its gone’. Dusty was struggling with a ‘difficult reputation’


up to her death. Women do have to work twice as hard to remain visible –

particularly if they’re older and no longer the hot young thing. Unlike


artist such as Lou Reed, Dylan and even Phil Collins, who always have a

ready audience and a record deal. Alt country singer Nanci Griffith


this – younger gals who ‘couldn’t hold a note in a basket’ who are getting

recognition instead of her.

Death does confer greatness, eg Lennon. There’s a sense of nostalgia, an

indefinable ache, that crystallises the artist’s repertoire at a certain

point in time. It’s all you have, all you’re ever going to have, so you

appreciate it. What I call the Eva Cassidy syndrome.

Do you find the presence of punk-inspired fashion on 21st century


and shop dummys a little strange?

The influence of punk is quite sweet and gratifying. Madonna in bondage


25 years after the fact! It shows it was a movement built to last. In the

same way that growing up in the ’70s we had nostalgia for 40s and 50s

clothes, today there’s a sense of style from two/three decades ago. It’s a

cartoon, cleaned up MTV-variety, mind you.

Were you surprised by the way She Bop has been taken up by


students and used in coursework in a v. academic way? Is this what you

envisioned happening when you first wrote the book?

Apparently now She Bop has become a set text on many courses (cultural

studies, commercial music, media studies etc). That’s exciting. It’s not

what I envisioned, because I was writing from a very personal, polemical

point of view. I didn’t set out to be ‘objective’ and academic, but I guess

I’d done the research and had a wide body of material and it struck a


I’m thankful for that. Now Continuum Books are making it a backlist copy in

the UK and US (ie, always available). I enjoy the fact that once I put it

out, She Bop took on a life of its own.

Do you think the increasingly sexual nature of pop would have

happened without Loaded, FHM, etc?

unfortunately women still find it difficult to break free from the pressure

to ‘look sexy’

FHM and Loaded are just part of a culture that sexualises women. I always

saw those mags as the new soft porn, and most female artists interviewed


them felt the pressure to pose in their underwear. In the 1990s consumerism

took off in a big way – sex sells, and female nudity guarantees sales – so

unfortunately women still find it difficult to break free from the pressure

to ‘look sexy’, particularly those artists signed to major record


Mavis Bayton, in her book ‘Frock Rock’ seemed slightly dismissive of

She Bop, Amy Raphael’s Never Mind The Bollocks, and Karen O’Brien’s Hymn To


on the basis of you all being music journalists, and by insinuation only

interested in writing about the big names. How would you respond to


I take her point that I focus on stars, but as I said in the Intro to my

book, I’m insterested in what it takes for a woman to be a star in any

genre. Many of the artists I’ve covered started out as part of an

underground culture and crossed over to the mainstream. They had an

incredible singlemindedness. They are all cultural flashpoints – whether

it’s Quatro and her bass guitar on ’70s Top Of The Pops or Missy Elliott

counteracting sexploitative gangsta rap with her innovative beats and less

than sylph-like frame. (OK, she’s changed image recently, but that’s a


other story). They’re part of a larger picture I’m drawing.

I’d argue that although I have a background in journalism, She Bop


both the academic and popular market because of its conceptual approach.

What made you want to examine the role of women as consumers of

music, particularly in relation to creating mix tapes?

Men have always been very confident, active consumers of music, to a

trainspotting degree. It’s like football, something they talk about in the

pub. An accusation I’ve encountered so many times over the years in writing

for the music press is that women aren’t interested, or buy less music and

less music mags than men. It’s my observation, however, that though women

might consume music differently, it’s no less passionately. Women have had

less disposable income, so they spend more time listening to the radio or

making mix tapes, or borrowing CDs. This picture has been changing recently

– interviewing someone in HMV’s marketing department, for instance, he said

that women regularly come into their stores and are now buying more music

than ever before.

It’s important to look at women as consumers, because they affect record

company policy, and in turn influence the careers of female artists. As an

audience, they are a key part of the equation.

As regards women working within the business side of the music

industry: do you think the difficulties they have simply mirror those of girls

and women working within other industries, or is it more complicated than


Women in the music business are subject to the same discrimmination that

affects women in all areas. What intensifies it is the fact that the music

industry isn’t unionized, so record companies can get away with unequal


unequal opportunity, long hours and exploitation. There’s still a cowboy,

outlaw side to the business – the same element that makes it vibrant and

exciting also makes people open to exploitation. In lots of ways the music

industry is behind other areas in its treatment of women. As long as you

have to persuade female stars to take their clothes off to sell records,

there isn’t going to be a culture of respect.

Cazz Blase is the author of several feminist/riot grrrl zines, including Real Girls and Euro Tourist.

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