Icon on her legacy, the ‘nostalgia’ of youth and why Beyoncé is ‘feminist lite’
By: Chris Azzopardi*/Special to TRT—
They don’t make hearts bigger than the one beating inside of Annie Lennox.
Despite the icon’s legendary recording career, dating back to the late ’70s, music has taken a backseat to another passion: people. While still dedicated to philanthropic work focused on causes like HIV/AIDS and global peace, the singer-songwriter returns with her first disc in four years, a covers album called Nostalgia.
On the heels of its release, Lennox called from London for a frank conversation about loathing her “gender bender” label, the reframing of feminism (Beyoncé is “feminist lite,” she says) and being uneasy with the superficiality of the music business.
Chris Azzopardi: During a recent Q&A in London, you mentioned that you stopped writing because, and I quote you, “I’m too happy.”
Annie Lenox: I said a lot of things that night! To be honest, looking back on being creative and what that was about and where the impulse lies to express yourself – there was a lot of darkness in my life. For everyone, we have our own darkness and our light, and I even wrote about that.
You know, I’ve been through a lot. It’s coming up on my sixth decade now, and I have less of the impulse to express myself in that way. I feel as if I express myself very well in other ways. I branched out, you know? Since I started campaigning a decade ago, I’ve got this need to voice myself and place myself into a certain kind of activism. I find that so inspiring and such a great thing to do, but for the last year I’ve also decided, “OK, I wanna make some music and that is Nostalgia.” So, I haven’t been able to be as proactive (philanthropically) this year as I normally am. I’m one of those people who, when I do something, I have to do it all the way.
Q. You mention “the darkness,” something you seem to have been attracted to for a good part of your musical career, and also one of the reasons people are drawn to you.
I don’t know if I’m attracted to darkness. I couldn’t say “attracted.” I pick up on that because it is interesting, isn’t it? Maybe we are drawn to it. Maybe it’s already a prerequisite within ourselves. I mean, humans have this capacity to be so joyful and so full of love, and sweet and light and all of those innocent things – like when you see children, you see how we are before we become adolescents, and we’re different.
I see children every day because they pass my house as they go to play in the park – 6 year olds who are skipping, and they’re dancing and they’re singing and they’re playing together. If you saw adults doing that, you’d think they were mad – you’d think they were completely bonkers! That joy should be our inheritance, but a lot of that gets hammered out of us, I think, because the world is a fucking dark place – excuse my French – but it truly, truly is. But there’s also beauty in it.
Q. It sounds like you’ve found a lot of beauty in your own life lately. Why not a write a joyous album?
(Laughs) Ehh. It’s funny; it’s really strange. You’re talking about this thing called the “muse” in a way. There’s something called the muse that people refer to – writers and poets – and I don’t know what that is. It’s kind of an urge, an itch you have to scratch, and right now I’m very inspired – truly inspired – and this album for me has been an absolute pleasure and a real joy. I love the songs. I love the music. I love translating them into my own kind of arrangements and sounds.
Recently, when we went to LA, I made nine really amazing performance videos with this wonderful filmmaker, Natalie Johns, and I’m so proud of what Natalie has done with me collaboratively. I think it’s beautiful, and I’m a bit like, “Wow, getting the chance to still do this, it’s great.” Like I said, I struggle a lot. And life – it just never stops being interesting in a way.
Q. While we’re talking about life and Nostalgia, what about your own life makes you feel nostalgic?
If I look back at my own life, it goes right back to the ’50s. I was 6 years old when it turned into 1960, you see, so I still have very strong memories of my childhood in Scotland – my upbringing, how that was. There was a lot of hardship, and my background – I don’t come from a silver spoon. It was never handed to me. It was working class, and you had to work damn hard; I’m talking about my parents and their grandparents before them.
I remember a time when there were hardly any motor cars on the road. I remember the man coming to light the gas lights on the street. Stuff like this – it’s really nostalgic. I don’t want to go back, obviously. Anyway, one can’t. There is no turning back, but sometimes I just kind of yearn for a gentler time. I say it was “gentler,” but looking back through Nostalgia, through this American Songbook, I also understand that going back to the ’30s in the United States and in so many parts of the world – this is pre-civil rights, before the movement had really got up and running. It’s like the voice of the civil rights movement was not being really acknowledged and the platform wasn’t as big as it became through Martin Luther King and all the work of these incredible activists.
If you think about it, it’s really not that long since people were in the closet about gay rights. It’s been extraordinary. I think that it’s accelerating in the West. I think that things are changing radically, and some things – many things – for the good. Other things I think will be challenging for people because now we have a whole new paradigm and it’s complex, as human beings are. There will be upsides and there will be downsides, and it won’t just be heaven on a stick.
Q. Because you’ve always embraced your LGBT audience, your music has been a safe place for many people who identify as such. What do you attribute to the loyalty of your gay fan base?
You see, that’s a question you have to ask the people that you’re describing. I can’t answer for the gay community. I truly can’t. I just make music, and I have no idea who is going to listen to it. I’m just the person that I am.
When I was given this label of “gender bender,” I really felt it was diminishing in a way. It was very simplistic. I wasn’t bending gender; I was making a statement in a kind of subtle way. I thought it was subtle, but to some people it might have seemed overt. I was saying, “Look, as a woman I can be equal to a man,” and in this partnership with the Eurythmics, where I was in a partnership with a man (Dave Stewart), the two of us felt so connected that my gender didn’t matter. In a funny sort of way, ultimately I was coming out to say, “Look, I’m not going to be what you think I am. I’m intelligent. I’m not a dancing doll just because I’m female and I’m singing. I’m not singing for your pleasurable entertainment. It’s not about that. It’s cerebral and it’s heartfelt and it’s intelligent.”
This is something I’ve been saying to a lot of my gay compadres: One day we’ll get rid of this word “gay,” because it’s irrelevant. Of course it’s terribly relevant when you are trying to create a campaign. During a human rights movement, it’s terribly important to have labels and to have platforms that are very identifiable, but ultimately we should just be fine with everybody no matter what our sexual orientation is. It’s nobody’s effing business.
Q. Our use of labels is evolving. So many people are resisting them or calling themselves “queer” because it’s a broader term.
Even that – no. It’s diminishing. Broaden out. And it will come.
Q. As a longtime feminist, how do you feel about the way the term “feminist” has been reframed in contemporary culture?
It’s a process. It continues to be reframed, and necessarily so, because people’s relationship to the word has been a bit ambivalent over the last few decades. According to who you speak to, they don’t sometimes quite know what to do with the word. I did one event in particular called (Barclays) Women of the Year and they select certain people for certain kinds of recognition, and I was given an award not so long ago. I was so touched to have this award. I felt like I’m with a certain kind of camaraderie here and we’re all together in this room – 400 women from all walks of life – and I said at the podium, “I’m proud to be a feminist; let’s everybody stand up.” Half of the room stayed seated. It was such a hard moment for me because I realized that some women, many women, still have issues with the word and almost distance themselves from it because they’re afraid it’s synonymous with hating men.
Q. Which is something you don’t believe to be true, right?
Not at all. I think that what happened over the years, and quite rightly so, is that women had to be incredibly radical, stringent and strident about the voice of feminism. They had to do that, but I think that nowadays it’s a more subtle thing. But we need men to be onboard with us. That’s my view. Some women might disagree with me. I’m not saying I hold the key to the absolute truth – I’m not saying that at all – but I also feel very much that the LGBTQ movement and the women’s movement need to get together far more frequently because we’re coming from the same place of human rights and civil rights.
Q. So what do you make of someone like Beyoncé? She recently performed on the MTV Video Music Awards and proclaimed herself a “feminist” during her set.
I would call that “feminist lite.” L-I-T-E. I’m sorry. It’s tokenistic to me. I mean, I think she’s a phenomenal artist – I just love her performances – but I’d like to sit down (with her). I think I’d like to sit down with quite a few artists and talk to them. I’d like to listen to them; I’d like to hear what they truly think.
I see a lot of it as them taking the word hostage and using it to promote themselves, but I don’t think they necessarily represent wholeheartedly the depths of feminism – no, I don’t. I think for many it’s very convenient and it looks great and it looks radical, but I have some issues with it. I have issues with it. Of course I do. I think it’s a cheap shot. I think what they do with it is cheap and … yeah. What can I tell you? Sex always sell. And there’s nothing wrong with sex selling, but it depends on your audience. If they’re 7-year-old kids, I have issues with it.
Q. For years, you’ve resisted the “celebrity” moniker. You don’t like to think of yourself as that.
No, I don’t. Again, I feel quite diminished by it. Obviously, I’m sometimes given that moniker, but every time it happens I feel reduced by it. I cringe inside.
Q. When somebody sees you on the street and reacts to you in the way some people react to a “celebrity,” how does that make you feel then?
It depends on how it’s done. Sometimes people are so, so sweet and it’s so touching, and it’s very human because they approach me in a way where I don’t feel uncomfortable. It’s just a human exchange. Of course I try to just go in the street and be like everybody else. I’ve always done that. I don’t want to be singled out, but of course being a person in the public eye, from time to time, you will be. People will see the projection that they know you to be. In that sense, I’m who I am as a person and I’m also this projection for people, so I cannot be tough on people that recognize me because I’ve been doing this for years now. The only time when it becomes incredibly uncomfortable is when people are just a bit thoughtless and invade in such a way where they really don’t think. They kind of treat you like a species in a safari park, and really, it’s awful. It’s so terrible.
Q. Camera phones haven’t made things any better in that regard, have they?
I think it’s far worse when people are paid to steal your image. They pay money for that stolen image of you and you have no control over it – but they’re making money out of it! I mean, I haven’t played into that paparazzi thing – I’ve just tried to completely and utterly downplay it – but you can play it up if you want. You can have them following you 24/7 if you want that kind of life. Some people do. I mean, bizarrely, people seem to want it. I’ve never understood why.
Q. Is it true that you may never write again and that this may be your last album?
Who knows. I don’t know. I say this because I’m aware that I’m not a young person, but I’m so spirited in myself – it’s really strange. Just because I’m almost 60 now, it doesn’t mean that I’m less passionate or less intensely curious about the world around me. In fact, I’m even more curious about it in another kind of way.
There’s this youth culture that is really, really powerful and really, really strong, but what it does is it really discards people once they reach a certain age. I actually think that people are so powerful and interesting – women, especially – when they reach my age. We’ve got so much to say, but popular culture is so reductive that we just talk about whether we’ve got wrinkles, or whether we’ve put on weight or lost weight, or whether we’ve changed our hair style. I just find that so shallow. Because it’s a shallow place, it’s one of the reasons the music industry and the music scene is really not truly for me and never really has been.
Q. Have you thought about the legacy you want to leave?
I can’t think about legacy. I guess if you go onto the Internet you can find many things that were created over all of these years, and I guess that is the legacy. It is the music that’s been made, the interviews, the video, the photo shoots, and there were so many creative things that happened and they’re there. I have no control over what people think about it. They may love it; they may hate it.
Q. But your legacy is more than just music. You’re a humanitarian. It’s beyond just creating albums and making videos, right? You’re part of the bigger picture.
Well, thank you; that makes me feel complete, because to feel like an intelligent, rounded person with integrity, I don’t think that you can just be an entertainer. I think there’s another side – to me, anyway – that needs to be satisfied, and that is through contribution. I do it because I feel so despondent about the world at times. I feel I must do something, otherwise I feel useless. I’m not going to ever save the world, but because I have resources, I can at least make a contribution.
*Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.