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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 performers?

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?

LO'B: Because 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 active.

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 accounts.

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 got tough!

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 your book?

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?

LO'B: What 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.

MT: Finding 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?


LO'B: 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?

LO'B: It's 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?

LO'B: It's 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) at fifty.
I also wish her continuing happiness with her family.

MT: Sounds like a great wish! Thanks for being with us Lucy!

LO'B: Thank you!

"Madonna - Like An Icon - The Definitive Biography ", by Lucy O' Brien, is out now from Bantam Press in the U.K.
It will be published by Harper Entertainment in the U.S. on October 30, 2007.

This interview © 2007 Madonna Tribe.

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