Bestselling music critic, biographer and
academic with a twenty-year career in journalism, Lucy
O'Brien has been researching material on Madonna
since the soon-to-become Queen of Pop arrived on the scene
in the 1980s.
She has contributed to a wide range of publications, from
the London Sunday Times to the Guardian,
from Marie Claire to Cosmopolitan and Q,
appeared as a guest on several radio and TV programs in the
U.K., coproduced the film Righteous Babes on rock
and new feminism for Channel 4.
A teacher in both writing and publishing and popular music
theory at London's Goldmiths College and Westminster University,
Lucy O'Brien, who is also the author of She Bop, She Bop
II and biographies of Dusty Springfield and
Annie Lennox, now stops by at Madonna Tribe to discuss
her latest book, Madonna - Like An Icon.
MadonnaTribe: Hi Lucy and
welcome to Madonna Tribe, the home of Madonna fans. You have
been writing pop biographies for quite sometime now. From
Dusty Springfield to Annie Lennox and Madonna. What is the
element that pushes you to investigate the life of such great
Lucy O'Brien: I don't find writing biographies
easy, so I only do books on people I find utterly compelling.
I'm naturally interested in female artists - I was in an all-girl
punk band in the '70s, and I've written a great deal on rock,
women's issues, and popular culture. I wrote biog of Dusty
in the late '80s when she was still a relatively cult '60s
figure. I updated it before she died in 1999, and by then
she had gone 'mainstream' again as people realized what a
huge contribution she made to British pop. I was fascinated
by her voice and her story. The same with Annie Lennox.
As for Madonna, I always knew I was going to write a biog
of her. I find her fascinating, provocative and a true crusader.
I was just waiting for the right time. With her 50th birthday
coming up next year, that seemed the perfect time for a serious
look at her life and work.
MT: In 1996
you wrote She Bop, a book investigating women's role
in the development of pop music, analysing acts from early
vaudeville to the MTV era.
Was it hard to put together such a portrait and do you fell
you reached your initial goal?
I felt that female artists didn't get the recognition they
deserved, I made a point of interviewing them whenever they
came to town - so by the early '90s I had dozens of interviews
with key women from Dionne Warwick to Nina Simone to Sinead
O'Connor and Chrissie Hynde. At that point, believe it or
not, no one had written a full history of women in popular
music, so I decided to do it, using a lot of my interviews,
along with some intensive background research.
I quickly realised
after starting work on the book that I was doing the equivalent
of climbing Mount Everest. There have been so many great women
performers, and how could I possibly cover them all?
In the end I took a more conceptual approach, and looked at
the women who made a key cultural impact in certain eras and
genres, whether they were major stars or not. It took a while
to come together, but what was thrilling for me was all the
different voices I was able to include in the book, and the
sense of building an oral history.
MT: As you were
mentioning earlier, you were the founding member of feminist
punk rock band The Catholic Girls before starting
writing articles for NME, The Guardian,
Q Magazine and Mojo. Were you a"catholic
girl" just like Madonna was and were you a young rebel
like she was?
LO'B: I was
indeed a Catholic girl - and formed the band with friends
when we were in the sixth form at convent school. Yes, I guess
I was a rebel. I was into punk and feminism, and politically
MT: And now
this year, you have just released a Madonna biography. How
did you approach such a task?
LO'B: I'd already
built up my own personal archive of cuttings, albums etc and
had been to every show apart from the Like A Virgin
tour. That was my starting point. I drew up a 'wish list'
of interviewees (which, as you can imagine, was pretty extensive).
As with previous books, my approach has been to analyse the
work, and through that, get to the heart of the person and
their motivations. Music is such an intimate, instinctive
thing, it's a way of understanding someone's true creative
self. I like to combine that with interviews and eye-witness
In writing about Madonna I wanted to get away from myths and
cliches and get a sense of what she's like as a real person
- in the recording studio, backstage, with her friends and
family. I went on a personal journey of my own, travelling
from London and Wiltshire to Michigan, New York, and Los Angeles,
interviewing dozens of people along the way, including musicians,
producers, film directors and dancers.
I also had the help of my wonderful researcher and Madonna
archivist, Rob Diament, the lead singer/songwriter of electropop
band Temposhark. He kept me enthused when the going
MT: How do
you think your Madonna biography is different from the others
that have reached bookstores in the last ten year?
LO'B: I feel
that previous biographies have concentrated on her sex life,
image and relationships at the expense of her work. As producer
Guy Sigsworth said to me, "It's not just 20 years of
great hair." I wanted to explore her music and live shows
with a depth and detail that had never been done before. People
have consistently underestimated her talents as a musician
and songwriter.With the generous, candid contributions of
many people who've known her, I wanted to build up a clear
picture of her as an artist and as a woman.
MT: What is
the main aspect of Madonna that you wanted people to see through
LO'B: A furiously
creative person, who's full of ideas. She's often represented
as a single-minded businesswoman, but I also wanted to show
a side that's rarely talked about - how she can be quirky,
childlike and sweet.
MT: You got
to interview people who knew Madonna in her school days or
in the early days of her carrer. By listening to those stories
how do you imagine young Madonna and what were, according
to your thoughts, her inner motivations to fight so much to
make it big?
surprised me was how aloof and guarded she was at school -
that she wasn't always the feisty alpha female.
Her mother's death left an aching gap in her life; one that
she felt compelled to fill with mass recognition and love.
It took her a while, though, to create the 'Madonna' pop persona
- that mix of Hollywood musicals, provocative pop and locked-down
dance rhythms. It was as if it fermented inside her for years
before finding its true expression.
a name for a Madonna biography book must be hard. It shouldn't
be too obvious nor too complicated. You named your book, "Madonna:
Like An Icon".
How did you come up with that?
I was batting around ideas with my husband (musician/composer
Malcolm Boyle). In the book I wanted to explore her impact
as an icon, but without getting too earnest about it - and
he came up with 'Like An Icon', a tongue-in-cheek
ref. to 'Like a Prayer/Virgin' etc.
MT: As you know
in recent year Madonna has become a"writer" in her
own right with her successful children stories, and after
all she has always been writing the lyrics of her own songs.
As a writer, what do you think about Madonna, the writer?
LO'B: She has
an ear for poetry, and that's present in her lyrics. They're
very instinctive, clear pop lyrics, sometimes with thoughtful
poetic twist and allusion. I'm not so sure about her as a
children's book writer - that's a very specific skill that
can take years to hone. With kids you have to get the right
balance of humour, rhythm, brevity and imagination. Not unlike
a pop song!
MT: The book
is published by Bantam books in the UK and they bill your
work as "the closest you'll get to Madonna's autobiography".
Is it that because, as a fan, you have the impression you
have come very close to Madonna's way of thinking?
LO'B: I feel
talking to so many people, travelling to New York, Detroit,
etc, and really getting to grips with her music, enabled me
to understand where she was coming from.That, plus being an
ex-Catholic girl of a particular generation!
MT: Many people
say Madonna has changed society with her body of work. She
pushed many boundaries foward. What
do you think about it?
LO'B: I don't
know if she has changed society, so much as reflected change
and made subcultures (from hip hop to vogue-ing, 'queer' sex
and parkour) central in her work.
She has been a constantly provocative force.
Sometimes this has led to mixed messages (eg
withdrawing the American LIfe video), and a degree of confusion
(at first, many women couldn't decide if she was a pop bimbo
or a feminist icon).
But looking at her work over three decades, I feel that she
has constantly conveyed a message of empowerment to women
- that women don't have to seek approval before doing something,
that they can be bold and brave and fulfill their potential
- and that's very inspiring. She has also been vocal in her
support of gay politics and latterly, has become involved
in the fight against global poverty. In pop culture terms,
she has been hugely influential - very few pop artists are
so determined and outspoken.
MT: In the
book you also put Madonna in comparison with other female
artists. Is there something, a special quality, according
to you, that makes Madonna different from any other?
the sheer range of her work. As I say in my intro, "Like
a cultural magpie, she has picked her influences from thousands
of sources and funnelled them into one vision." She expresses
herself first and foremost as a dancer, that's why her work
is so physical, and I find that very interesting. Apart from
the standard choreographed routines, few female pop artists
express themselves in that way.
MT: You also
published an Annie Lennox biography a few years ago, and you
know there's an Annie Lennox song coming out also featuring
Madonna. What do you think of these two women working together?
great. They're both highly respected women who emerged from
the early '80s pop scene, they're both compassionate and outspoken,
particularly about the African AIDS crisis and poverty. It
seems natural that they would get together.
MT: Next year
Madonna will turn 50. What is the thing you wish her the most
for her future?
LO'B: I'd love
to see her do something bold and experimental about being
a woman of a certain age - much like her dance heroine Martha
Graham, who created one of her most striking pieces (Herodiade)
I also wish her continuing happiness with her family.
like a great wish! Thanks for being with us Lucy!
- Like An
Icon - The Definitive Biography ", by Lucy O' Brien,
is out now from Bantam
in the U.K.
It will be published by Harper
in the U.S. on October 30, 2007.
This interview © 2007 Madonna Tribe.
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