Pop Culture Classic, Revisited
“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”
Gloria Steinem, attributed
In the mid-‘90s, at a time when women were making their biggest impact ever in popular music and culture, it was only inevitable that the publishing industry would inundate the market with book after book about the phenomenon. It seemed as if a million books all hit the marketplace at once, all claiming to be the best or the first or the only book about the subject you’ll ever read. (“Not another book about women in rock!” exclaimed feminist band Le Tigre in 2000.) There were so many poorly written, hastily construed, thrown-together books filling the bookstore shelves that it wasn’t long before they began showing up in the discount bins or sent back to the publisher for shredding. But a few—always too few it seems—such as Lucy O’Brien’s book, She Bop, were so good they were sought after and plucked greedily from the shelves, not just by curious and thoughtful readers, but also by many in the music biz themselves.
Such was the simple power and majesty of O’Brien’s tome. Originally published in 1996, it has been re-released this fall as She Bop II, with additional new material to bring it up-to-date on the femme music scene.
What’s that? Did I call it a “tome”? At just over 500-hundred-plus pages, O’Brien’s book definitely qualifies as one, both in word and deed. More than an encyclopedia of women in music, this book is a well-written and researched account of the actual going-ons in a seldom heard from side of the music industry.
O’Brien starts her story in the early 20th century, with oft-overlooked female blues shouters and musicians, details what it was like to be a women in the big band era trying to break into the business, shows us jazz players and country singers, dancers and songwriters, punkers and rappers. She recounts the sad story of doomed songbird-drummer Karen Carpenter, the rise of Madonna, and shows us less famous wonders such as the Raincoats. The reader gets the lowdown on what really happens behind the scenes at music videos and in music industry boardrooms. O’Brien lets her musician subjects rant and speak and have their say, leaving very little out of the story. Detailed, yet concise, the book gives us a tell-all without being a tattletale. The author is that rare thing nowadays: a forthright, professional, trustworthy journalist.
A keyboardist in various late ‘70s and early ‘80s bands and initially influenced by the revolutionist punk band, Gang of Four, O’Brien began work on her book well before her subject matter became trend-worthy while writing for British music magazine, New Musical Express. Throughout the years, O’Brien has interviewed hundreds of musicians and pop icons, many of which make up the bulk of her book. She may write with a decidedly and most attentive feminist bent, but she’s smart enough to let each person tell their own story, knowing when to play devil’s advocate while always giving the reader plenty of background to make their own judgments.
With this re-release, the publisher has allowed the author to tack on an entirely new concluding chapter to reflect the changes the new millennium has brought, (“Girl Power!” A 32-page chapter on the rise of the Spice Girls, Britney, Lilith Fair, etc.) as well as to rewrite several other chapters, updating the stories therein. A wise move for them, fortuitous for us. Let’s hope O’Brien continues to update it every decade or so (her take on Fox Television’s recent American Idol would be most welcome). Hers is a voice worthy of being heard for many moons to come.