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Author Interview: Lucy O’Brien

When I spoke to journalist Pat Long about his book The History Of The NME a few months ago, he recommended a female music writer named Lucy O’Brien. Lucy worked for the NME in the ‘80s, has written a number of books on artists like Madonna and Annie Lennox, and continues to freelance for publications like The Guardian and Mojo. At present, she’s teaching Music Journalism at UCA Epsom and the third edition of She Bop, her seminal book about women in pop, is being released in September. After reading through the thoroughly addictive and inspiring polemic in what seemed like a split second, I spoke to Lucy about her experience being part of the music press over the past thirty years.


What was the best thing about being a woman working in the NME offices in the ‘80s?

What I really liked was having the opportunity to cover more female artists, and I really pushed for that because I felt that quite often they were relegated to the smaller features, or just reviews. For instance, Nona Hendryx released one of her albums in the ‘80s, and I thought she was a really important figure in terms of that crossover between soul and rock – a real innovator – so I argued for a two-page feature. When we were covering hip-hop, a genre that was emerging at the time, I made sure to interview the female artists as well.


Why do you think people were less willing to give female musicians less column inches than male musicians?

They weren’t taken as seriously and weren’t considered the big sellers. People were more readily entranced by men – whether it was conscious or unconscious sexism, male acts automatically got priority. There was a sense of nervousness if we covered more than our “quota” of female artists in the magazine. And the NME readership then was more male, but when I was there it was innovative and creative in terms of the writing, and very boldly intellectual at times. It pushed boundaries because it had the readership in order to do so – the NME had a lot less competition then, and it had a captive audience.


The readership of music papers has levelled out more in the past thirty or so years – do you think the style of writing has changed with it?

Generally, feminist ideas have become more mainstream anyway, and the chances are that male writers now had feminist mothers – so they think differently. When you come up against industry – consumer magazines, the popular music industry – they’re sold with sex. Most imagery is hyper-sexualised –female artists like Katy Perry and Rihanna present themselves in a very sexual way to sell records, and that has a direct impact on how women are written about and photographed. Magazines like Q photograph female artists in quite a sexual way, and that’s all part of the “industry”.


You talked about older female artists having to compete with the new younger artists. I thought of artists that grew up as part of the same generation – Patti Smith and Madonna – who present themselves in polar opposite ways – the former focussing purely on music artistry and the latter taking advantage of the hyper-sexual climate. Would you say that one had more integrity than the other, or that they’re just two different examples of how women in music can present themselves?

My gut reaction is that Madonna was always trailblazing, but for her last two albums she hasn’t been doing so. It’s not that useful for women of our generation to go around as hyper-sexual beings because that’s not what we want to project – we want to do or see something more subtle yet more radical. There are ways of being powerful without, say, getting your tit out on stage. What comes across with the way that Madonna projects herself now is the high anxiety of competing with younger female artists, and in doing that she almost gives away her power. She could be far more powerful if she wasn’t trying to compete with them on that level.


When did you decide that you wanted to write a women on women in rock?

I’d been doing a lot of interviews for a range of publications, and I wanted to draw all of my interviews together to write a history of women in popular music. I wanted to form it in a way that wasn’t just chronological – rather, looking at concepts and ideas such as ‘why is there no female stadium rock band?’. There were certain key questions that I wanted to explore within each chapter.


How did you decide who to choose to include in each chapter? Did you make the decision as to who you found was objectively the most popular or as to who you were interested in the most?

From the beginning, I didn’t want to write an encyclopaedia, so I unashamedly called the book a polemic. It’s my view of how I see women’s history within the industry – people like Suzie Quatro just had a few hits but embodied a real flashpoint at a particular time and said a lot about women in rock in the 1970s. So I wasn’t just looking at artists who had longevity; I was also looking at women who were like cultural dash points.


I feel that women who become memorable in music have always had a sense of vulnerability – is it this proneness of one type of personality that projected an image of the woman in music as the victim?

What I tended to find was a really interesting mixture of vulnerability and single-mindedness – for example, this was true with artists like Billie Holiday, Cyndi Lauper, Chrissie Hynde, and Dusty Springfield. They had an openness and vulnerability to their feelings and emotions, but also a single-mindedness about the kind of music they wanted to make – and that carried them through to success. Less strong artists may look pretty and may be able to hold a tune, but they’re easily swayed by an A&R telling them what to do. What marks out the really creative women are the ones that stick to their guns – and quite often, like Kate Bush, they produce themselves.

I think what’s different about the noughties generation is that they’re very savvy and they’ve learned from the mistakes that other people have made in the past. Female artists have a rich history now that gives them a certain confidence. I remember interviewing Tahita from the New Young Pony Club who said she was on tour with Katy Perry, and was very struck by her confidence which was extreme to the point of ruthlessness. A lot of female artists now are doing extremely well because they’re so assured – not just in terms of their performance but also in production because they’re doing it themselves.


Is there anything else you’ve noticed that has changed particularly for women in pop over the last ten years?

The key thing that I noticed is the split between the global pop music industry and artists that have grown more organically from the internet. The latter has a sexualisation, a certain kind of womanhood that’s on display, and is more about the image and production than their music, which is oddly unmemorable in my opinion. The former group consists of women like Imogen Heap, Grimes or Santigold, who are doing such interesting stuff – they’re making music in a different way, yet it’s still underground and ignored by the commercial mainstream as ever.


Do you think that we should start investing in music journalism again so that we can return to having the creative freedom to write long-form interviews like writers could often do up until the ‘90s? Do you think readers would still be interested in long-form?

I think that’s somewhere to which music journalism should go. Paul Morley came to talk at the college [UCA Epsom, where Lucy teaches] recently, and he was saying that he regularly used to write features that were around five thousand words – mini essays that could be very atmospheric if you wanted them to. If you were travelling somewhere with a band that would all become part of the piece – almost a Hunter S Thompson approach to music writing. The Quietus does that sort of thing online, but there’s room for it in print. Mojo touches on it but its features are still consumer-orientated and it has a more straightforward approach, using stars to score the albums and editorial methods like that. Print could really renew itself by developing more long-form, conceptual and adventurous writing.


What’s your opinion on new forms of journalism like social media and micro-blogging?

I’ve seen some fantastic blogs where people have really pursued their enthusiasms, covering solely genres like soul or math rock, in a really informed way. There’s room for blogs to tell you something, but a lot of them are just… blah. Knowledge is key – in particular, specialist knowledge.


Seeing as you used to work at the NME, do you ever think it could successfully rebrand in order to fit into the modern market and become that lead music publication that it once was?

I think it would be quite hard for them to do that now because they’ve gone so far in one direction, moving towards a younger demographic. The delivery of it now is much more straightforward – almost using the voice of the indie fan. It would be quite hard to return to what it was.


Which new music publications do you like to read now?

I’m a big fan of The Quietus, and I like Little White Lies. Good publications all have elements of the cross-cultural, intelligent approach that the NME used to have. I enjoy the Stool pigeon as well, because it’s humourous and really informed – it doesn’t have to be high brow to be interesting. What I look for in music writers is for people that really know their stuff and can tell me something I didn’t know before – a good example is Alexis Petridis of The Guardian, because he has enthusiasms, really understands the industry and puts across his thoughts in a humourous way.


What advice would you give to writers starting out who wanted to get published?

It’s all about your enthusiasms – for instance, with the subject of She Bop, it was something that gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. I had to do it. Publishers these days are very weary ; there’s no money in it anymore, and the field is wide open due to e-readers and e-books. There used to be a lot of stigma attached to self-publishing but there isn’t any more because a lot of it is very innovative. Just as you can put an album out and sell it via the internet, you can write a book and market it directly to your audience online.

-Bronya Francis

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