Imagine changing just one word in the title. The Definitive History of Men in Popular Music. Sounds weird doesn’t it? Like so many areas of life, men are the norm, and it is only the fact that women in music are still seen as something of a rarity that makes the subject something to write about. Aware that ‘music is a politic issue’ Lucy O’Brien explores the relationship between the music business, the music consumer, and the female. A prolific writer on women and music, having written for The Guardian, Q, The Face and NME, O’Brien is authoritative and thorough in her knowledge.
The stories, anecdotes and evidence that the book is built upon come from over two hundred interviews conducted by O’Brien between 1984 and 1994, and voices of women across the industry are documented loud and clear, with quotes from Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, Madonna and Tahita Bulmer amongst others. There is no denying that this is not just a catalogue and record of women in music, and O’Brien’s feminist agenda comes across clearly, but rarely is oppressive. Although ‘Girl power’ in the hands of the Spice Girls is rightly vilified, and O’Brien warns of the cause being used to market and brand, risking the word feminism becoming ‘a meaningless bumper sticker’, as singer Ani DiFranco put it, there are no rallying calls to arms, just essays and explorations into the observations that O’Brien has made.
Structured thematically the book is an exploration of trends such as images and marketing, identity and androgyny, protest pop and navigating the music business. Clearly passionate about her subject, O’Brien starts her story with her own introduction to music, in the form of The Catholic Girls, her teenage band formed in response to the pervading culture of nothing that was in her home town of Southampton, in the idealistic day when ‘it wasn’t so much what we sounded like, but what we stood for.’
There are some surprising revelations, one liners and facts that really do accentuate the point that women have been treated as second class citizens in music. For example, Elvis Presley’s classic ‘Hound Dog’ was actually sung by female Big Mama Thornton in 1953, three years before the King got his hands on it. The relentless work ethic of women forced to work twice as hard as their male counterparts in order to be seen, often before they were heard, pervades the book.
O’Brien is not pessimistic. Obviously a huge chunk of the writing is devoted to the objectification of women, and the acceleration of the importance of image in the MTV and video age, but she sees hope in artists such as Lady Gaga, who challenge stereotypes. She believes that the internet and digital technology offers women an opportunity to create and navigate the business in a way never possible before, citing Lily Allen and Azaelia Banks’ dedicated use of social media as an example of the control and freedom available and the democratizing effect it can have. The growing popularity of female acts such as Warpaint, Best Coast and Big Deal over the last few years points to improvements and space for women’s voices to come through, but in the pop mainstream changes are still to be seen. Record companies recognising that women play an important part as consumer’s of music may be an important influence of change in this area, affecting their policy and signings.
This is an informative and interesting foray into the relationship between women as individuals and as a concept and music. It’s depth and breadth has earned it a place on many university reading lists, and whilst based on academic research and an encyclopedic trove of information, the style is irreverent and enjoyable. Easy to dip in and out of, and written from the perspective of a music fan and critic, it’s a great book for anyone interested in popular culture.