Rock and Roll Book Club: 'She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music'

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'She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music.'
'She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music.' (Jawbone)

Referencing this book in the Rock and Roll Book Club e-mail newsletter, I quoted the frequently stated but still underappreciated maxim: "'women in music' is not a genre." It may be that no one understands that better than Lucy O'Brien, whose newly-reissued classic She Bop is a sprawling chronicle of popular music as made, recorded, produced, and played by women.

O'Brien writes that she used to be in a band herself: the Catholic Girls, a raw young punk group in the U.K. circa 1979. "No one told us that there were other girls out there too," she remembers, "apart from one sharp woman journalist" who said they reminded her of the Slits.

Now O'Brien herself is in that journalist's role, chronicling the vast and rapidly growing body of work by women artists spanning the breadth and width of popular music from the foundational blues artists of the early 20th century to Megan Thee Stallion and Billie Eilish today. She Bop is subtitled The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (buy now), and it's hard to imagine a book more fully living up to that promise. Revised and expanded for a new 25th anniversary edition, She Bop surveys 422 pages' worth of the countless contributions women have made to music.

Despite that countlessness, we can count the number of women in music's most visible roles, and the numbers don't add up to equity: far from it. The United Kingdom's music rights organization says that women artists are only 18% of rightsholders, and the proportion of women producers is just a fraction of that. It does seem there's been some progress at the top, where women executives now fill 30% of seats...but 30% is still a long way from 50%.

The book's title comes from a song by Cyndi Lauper, who O'Brien notes was singing about autoeroticism in the top ten "six years before Madonna writhed on a stage bed in an orgy of self-consummation."

Still, it's Madonna who fascinates the author perhaps more than any other artist. Although O'Brien notes that blues artists like Bessie Smith were way ahead of Madonna in singing about female empowerment (their songs of struggle are justly celebrated, but to the exclusion of their more ribald and fun-loving numbers), Madonna's rise to superstardom set a new lodestar for women in pop. Even if Madonna ultimately became tied to her blonde-bombshell persona to the exclusion of the more nimble identity of her early career, she remained sufficiently fluid to credibly hop trends well into the 21st century, remaining the irreducible icon with whom later artists like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga would have to contend.

Lauper, one of hundreds of women interviewed by O'Brien, acknowledged that she wouldn't and couldn't keep up with Madonna's self-promotional drive. "It's always been a struggle for me to sell myself," she told O'Brien. Even her distinctive fashion sense, as displayed on the cover of She's So Unusual, was entirely Lauper's own. "People would give me grief about the way I dressed, then Boy George's success opened the door for me."

If there's a theme spanning She Bop, it's the way women artists have always had to negotiate the lenses men see them through. With men as the music industry's perennial gatekeepers, women have rarely had the freedom to embody their own authentic selves the way men have. The girl groups of the '50s and '60s were entirely contained within their packaged images, to the point where you couldn't even tell who was singing on a Phil Spector record by looking at the name on the label.

O'Brien devotes an entire chapter to those groups, and fascinatingly follows some of the stars of that era into later musical projects: among them Gladys Knight, who found a stronger voice when she left the Motown factory in the '70s; Diana Ross, who carried her Supremes sheen into the disco era; and Tina Turner, who found pop-rock superstardom with her '80s solo records but had to wait another two decades before the critical establishment finally credited her encompassing artistry.

By the '90s, women artists were increasingly pushing back against cartoonish sex-rocker roles, with the baby-doll dresses worn by Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love squarely confronting the male gaze and its infantilizing effect. For those of us old enough to remember "Madonna-bes," it's hard to believe that the Lilith Fair era was a quarter-century ago now; O'Brien writes about how founder Sarah McLachlan was inspired by promoters who said she couldn't go on the road with an opener like Patti Smith because an all-woman show wouldn't sell.

In a poignant anecdote, O'Brien recounts a backstage interlude at Lilith Fair in 1997, when Sheryl Crow — then a major commercial force — was "gracefully humble" before the Indigo Girls. "The perception of the media is that we're all these backbiting women and there's no sense of community," Crow told O'Brien. "An interesting outcome from the Lilith tour was a defiance of that. Not only can women get along beautifully, there is real camaraderie there."

O'Brien doesn't dwell at too much length on the various stereotypes and assumptions that have been levied at women artists, but one is truly shocking: Tracy Chapman being described as a purveyor of "professional disillusion," somehow not angry enough for a Black audience (in the era of N.W.A.), yet too real for a white audience. Of course, her sales numbers said otherwise, but it's an example of what O'Brien quotes Maya Angelou as calling "double jeopardy — the double bind of sexism and racism" that also torpedoed Janet Jackson after her Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.

With so much ground to cover, She Bop impresses with both its scope and O'Brien's pithy insights. She doesn't have space to do many deep dives, but she's penetrating in brief observations about how toxic hip-hop misogyny became part of a misguided masculine reaction to the genre going pop in distilled form; about how the success of intellectual singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell disproves ideas about how women succeed in folk because it's an "instinctive" genre; and about how Prince's approach to his women collaborators embodies the contradictions women in music often face.

Capitalising on gender confusion and male fantasy, Prince encouraged women to "get sexy" in a very traditional decorative manner, yet somehow stretch their artistic potential. His peculiar message sums up the contradiction that lies at the heart of women's image in pop.

Fascinatingly, Prince's only full sibling — his sister Tyka — challenged stereotypes when she released her debut album in 1988. "I get bothered by people saying I should slim," said the full-figured artist. "Weight may be a way to hide, and putting a brownie in my mouth may be a way of pushing down the pain, but at least let me have my viewpoint. Maybe I'm testing everybody to see. If you really like me, you'll accept me the way I am and not just think about my physical appearance."

Crucially, O'Brien also turns her attention to women in behind-the-scenes roles — from producers to engineers to journalists to radio DJs. Janice Long, the first woman to be a DJ on BBC Radio One, shared some pointed observations with the author.

One of the DJs said: hang on, what's she doing here, she's a woman, she won't know about music. You were always proving that you did. They'd say things like: we've heard another woman and she's really good, so watch out. Why would I have to go for another woman to come in? Also, looks were much more taken into account if you were a woman. Once when I was going to Japan I was told to dress like a star so of course I wore my scruffiest clothes on purpose. What did they expect me to dress like, Shirley Bassey? With blokes they wouldn't say his jeans are baggy or he's got a potbelly.

When the Spice Girls rose to fame in the '90s, they were criticized for appropriating the concept of "girl power" from the more meaningfully empowered riot grrrl rockers. "This is where the life gets sucked out of feminism," Ani DiFranco told O'Brien, "and the word becomes a meaningless bumper sticker." (The author also notes that they presaged today's "influencers," making a huge chunk of their income from product partnerships rather than relying purely on ticket and record sales.)

At the same time, though, the internet was helping women to circumvent the industry's idea of what they should be doing and saying — and singing. While Lily Allen's label tried to figure out what to do with her, she leaked her own songs on MySpace and became a sensation on her own terms before the label even knew what was happening. While the internet also made possible the cyberbullying of artists including Allen, it ultimately became a vehicle for the #MeToo movement.

The breakdown of the traditional music industry is challenging all artists, but it might not be entirely a bad thing for women like Kesha, who was wrapped in a restrictive production deal with her alleged abuser Dr. Luke. A fragmented, extremely online music world has seen the rise of artists like Lorde (shout-out to Tumblr), Lizzo, and Doja Cat, whose lives and art cross boundaries and transcend boxes. Women artists are increasingly free to be themselves online, on stage, and on record — inspiring their fans of all genders to be similarly authentic.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

November 19: The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America by Marcus J. Moore (buy now)

November 26: Thanksgiving

December 3: Dolly Parton, Songteller by Dolly Parton (buy now); and She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh (buy now)

December 10: Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year by Michelangelo Matos (buy now)


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