Book review by Cazz Blase
Lucy O’Brien: She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop and Soul (Jawbone Press)
One thing I always feel the need to explain whenever I’m reviewing the latest edition of Lucy O’Brien’s classic text is that, despite the subtitle, She Bop doesn’t include every woman in the history of twentieth and twenty first century music making.
This truism was particularly hard for me to take as a sixteen-year-old reading the original 1995 edition for the first time, but these days it’s something I’ve come to accept with grace; to write a book that includes every single female musician since 1900 would entail creating a multivolume work that would need to be housed in its own library, be updated constantly, and would regularly need re-housing in bigger and bigger libraries. Much as I like the idea of a library of knowledge exclusively about women and music, I’ve also come to increasingly appreciate that this isn’t the point of the book.
She Bop acts as a gateway to a world of women and music. It gives you a taste of hidden histories, underestimated musicians, and influential innovators, but it doesn’t give you all the names or all the answers. You’re meant to read it and then look up and explore the work of women featured, to explore YouTube rabbit holes of excellent music, to Google people who feature in only a few paragraphs maybe but who you definitely want to find out more about. It provides the classic text, plus a very helpful discography and bibliography, and it sets you thinking, inspires you, and guides you but – after a certain point – you’re on your own.
The book’s central strength is that it manages to be both comprehensive and accessible, with a style that remains readable throughout. Beginning with the blues and early jazz, the first chapter concludes with the swing boom of the 1940s. The book then continues with fifties stars such as Doris Day and Alma Cogan, before examining the sixties rock chick, seventies punk and its various daughters, and the female singer/songwriter, pre and post Joni Mitchell. There are also chapters on disco, dance music and R&B as well as hip hop and dancehall and their various offsprings and hybrids, plus a look at global music beyond the usual focus of the UK and the US.
In addition to having a broad historical outline, the book is also arranged thematically, with chapters based around the construction and control of image, androgyny, protest music and the business side of the music industry. Since 1995, three new chapters have been added: ‘GirlPower!’, which focuses on The Spice Girls, Ladyfest and Lilith Fayre; ‘The Fame’, which focuses on digital pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Lily Allan, as well as divas such as Mariah Carey and Celine Dion; and the most recent chapter, ‘Future Feminism’, which explores the experiences of female musicians in the age of social media and #MeToo, as well as the impact and influence of artists such as Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey, and the impact of trans and non binary musicians such as Arca and Anohni.
There are a number of strong highlights within the book, including the use of artwork by Gina Birch, which bookends the book to great affect. O’Brien has a flair for picking up on and shining a light on unconventional artists who were not necessarily appreciated at the time, but who deserve a reappraisal. In this respect, there is a moving elegy to the much under reported and under estimated talents of Laura Nyro in the songwriting chapter.
At the opposite end of the fame spectrum, it’s also hard not to enjoy the exuberance that fuels O’Brien’s elegant salute to Beyoncé in the R&B section. She also proves adapt at handling both the Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse stories with sensitivity without straying into sentimentality, which is more difficult than it sounds.
Chapters that have only improved with age would include the ‘Final Girls’ chapter on punk and its various offsprings and the ‘In search of our mothers gardens’ chapter on hip hop and dancehall and their various descendants. In both cases, O’Brien has gained access to and provided a clear overview of the original scenes and their key players, while evoking their respective worlds with a clear eyed lack of sentimentality and a good dose of gritty realism when it comes to the challenges faced by women within these scenes. In linking up various genres and sub genres, she shows a knack for mapping out the legacy of subcultures, and for clearly demonstrating women’s continued presence across multiple generations, a quality that should not go unacknowledged, if only because precious few music writers have bothered to do this. Read any of the staple punk bibles that include any discussion of the movements musical legacy, and you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention of a scene such as riot grrrl, let alone queercore. With this in mind, it’s also worth saying that it was great to see Big Joanie feature in the 2020 chapter: ‘Future Feminism’.
On a lighter note, O’Brien’s slightly sarcastic but very satisfying skewering of The Spice Girls‘ pretensions in the ‘GirlPower!’ chapter continues to delight.
If I’m in any way disappointed by She Bop, my gripes are small ones. In the main, I do sometimes find myself wishing that O’Brien had found space to include bigger discussion of certain newer trends or newer artists within her existing chapters. Towards the end of the ‘Talkin’ Business’ section, for example, she does acknowledge that the proportion of female radio DJs in relation to male has improved a lot since the book was last updated in 2013, and while she does list a number of examples – including the excellent Lauren Laverne, Maryanne Hobbs and Jamz Supernova – she doesn’t discuss their careers or explore an area where radio is really lagging behind in terms of equality, namely airplay: Male artists on UK radio are being played far, far more than female artists. Though, admittedly, this might be down to timing.
Similarly, I found myself wondering if it would be possible to widen out the ‘Oye Mi Canto’ chapter on global music into a series of more geographically specific chapters, meaning that the middle east, Latin America, Africa and Asia could be covered in much more detail.
As I said earlier, She Bop was never intended to be an encyclopaedia, it was only ever intended to be a guide. And that is enough.
If you have a teenager a home, buy them this book. And buy yourself a copy as well.