Annie Lennox will disappear from public view for years at a time. She is a shape-shifter whose political and social concerns have defined her as much as her music. She is on my mind because Christmas Day is her birthday.
Lennox is not a Christian, but like most recording artists, she still released a Holiday album, A Christmas Cornucopia (2010) which features interpretations of traditional festive songs and carols, rounded out by a Lennox composition, Universal Child.
“Christmas is a really strange thing because originally it’s supposed to be the acknowledgment of the birth of Christianity. And I’m not a Christian, and I’m not religious but I have a sensibility for transcendent things. With the Christmas Cornucopia, there’s a leaning into the pagan, there’s a pagan side to it, a pre-Victorian calling in some kind of more ancient thing, something to do with nature.”
I have been a big fan of Eurythmics since the early 1980s. From the first moment that I first heard the single Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), the two-member band was a tremendous part of the soundtrack of our lives for that decade.
Eurythmics are Lennox and Dave Stewart. Stewart and Lennox were both previously in the band The Tourists, who split up in 1980. The duo released their first album, In the Garden, in 1981, but achieved huge global success with their second album Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) in 1983. The title track topped the charts all over the world including the USA.
Eurythmics went on to release a string of hit singles and albums before they split up in 1990. By this time Stewart was a sought-after record producer, and Lennox began a solo recording career in 1992 with her album Diva. After almost a decade apart, Eurythmics reunited to record their ninth album, Peace, in 1999. They reunited again in 2005 to release the single I’ve Got A Life.
About the life changing Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), Lennox wrote:
“We’d come out of the end of the Tourists battered and bruised. We were massively in debt, and I’d come across some real monsters in the music business. I’d lived in so many bedsits and was desperately unhappy. We’d survived, kinda, but it was tough. I felt like we were in a dream world, that whatever we were chasing was never going to happen. All this poured into Sweet Dreams.
From that first line, it’s not a happy song. It’s dark. Sweet dreams are made of this is basically me saying: ‘Look at the state of us. How can it get worse?’ I was feeling very vulnerable. The song was an expression of how I felt: hopeless and nihilistic.
‘I travelled the world and the seven seas, everybody’s looking for something’ was about how we’re all in this perpetual state of seeking. It’s about surviving the world. It’s not a normal song so much as a weird mantra that goes round and round, but somehow it became our theme song.
We wanted our visual statements to be strong and powerful, because we knew they’d be there forever. I wore a suit in the video with my cropped hair. I was trying to be the opposite of the cliche of the female singer. I wanted to be as strong as a man, equal to Dave and perceived that way. Wearing wigs and taking them off again was about the affectations that women create to become acceptable or beautiful to men, about removing masks and how none of it is real.
People didn’t always get that, or understand the irony of it. Because of lines like ‘Some of them want to use you … some of them want to be abused’, people think it’s about sex or S&M, and it’s not about that at all. Apparently, it’s the most misheard lyric in British pop. People think I’m singing: ‘Sweet dreams are made of cheese’.”
When I finally saw Eurythmics live in concert in 1985, I was struck at the unworldliness of Lennox’s voice, which I had erroneously credited to studio embellishment. I didn’t understand that a human being could make a sound like that.
Here comes the rain again: Lennox and I have always found the world a melancholy place. Lennox and I were somehow both born old and pensive and we were born just a tad more than a week apart. All her pain has been poured into her songs. I gasp at the intensity projected in that powerful, luscious voice, but I feared for her sanity and my sanity as well.
She is one of my favorite artists ever. If her music were not enough, Lennox is a fashion icon, among the greatest of all time.
Her next-door neighbor, Sting, insists she has a light side, and she hates being seen as a tragic figure, but she’s conscious that crusading on behalf of HIV/AIDS related causes doesn’t lighten up her image. Lennox:
“There’s nothing worse than someone who takes themselves terribly seriously. I want to avoid becoming a parody. Maybe I am already and I don’t know it.”
I believe her to be an artist of conviction and passion. Lennox is as genuine as they get. All her solo works find the darkness and pull light from it anyway. The songs don’t deny despair, but they don’t suggest that there is anything else.
Lennox’s last full album of original pop material , Songs Of Mass Destruction (2007) is described by Lennox as:
… dark album, but the world is a dark place. It’s fraught, it’s turbulent. Most people’s lives are underscored with dramas of all kinds: there’s ups, there’s downs – the flickering candle. Half the people are drinking or drugging themselves to numb it. A lot of people are in pain.
One song on the album, Sing, is a collaboration between Lennox and group of prominent female artists, including: Anastacia, Dido, Céline Dion, Melissa Etheridge, Fergie, Gladys Knight, k.d. lang, Madonna, Sarah McLachlan, Pink, Kelis, Bonnie Raitt, Shakira, and Joss Stone. The song was recorded to raise money and awareness for the HIV/AIDS organization Treatment Action Campaign.
“Get tested. Know your HIV status — it doesn’t matter who you are, how wealthy you are, how much safe sex you think you’ve had.”
Lennox is a true Gay Icon. The 1980s were a dreadful time for our country, the Reagan years and the first decade of the plague, and although Lennox is totally part of the present, I will always consider how she took part in the shaping of my time in the 1980s. Alongside other Gay Icons from that era, such as Boy George, Madonna, Morrissey, and Michael Stipe, this music represents the best decade of my own life.
Aside from her eight Brit Awards, she has earned four Grammy Awards and an MTV Video Music Award. In 2002, Lennox received a Billboard Century Award; the highest honor from Billboard Magazine. In 2004, she won both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Original Song for Into The West, written for The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King.
She only seems to release one album every decade (so we have to wait until 2024?). Her last one, the lush Nostalgia (2014), is another of her smart dips into the Great American Songbook.