Although she may humbly deny it, Annie Lennox is an icon. From her gender-bending days in the Eurythmics, to her Grammy- and Oscar-winning solo work, to her tireless philanthropy, she’s served as an inspiration for four decades.
Much has changed since Annie (who turns 60 this Christmas Day) first made the scene, and in many ways, being an artist — especially a female artist — is more difficult than ever. The current tabloid culture of celebrity worship, NSFW music videos, and instant Internet fame certainly seems out of sync with what someone like Annie Lennox represents. However, although her sixth studio album may be called Nostalgia, when Annie belts such jazz standards as “I Put a Spell on You,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Summertime,” and “Strange Fruit,” she proves that talent is timeless.
Yahoo Music recently sat down with Annie in her Los Angeles rehearsal space, as she reflected on her long career and colorful life. “I’m coming up on 60, which is a strange thing, because when you’re a kid you think, ‘Sixty, that’s ancient!’ And then you’re actually living in a 60-year-old body, and yeah, it is kind of ancient!” she admitted with a chuckle. “But I feel just the way I always have.”
Reflect on Annie’s words of wisdom here.
YAHOO MUSIC: OK, let’s get this out of the way. There was a blog you wrote last year criticizing overtly sexual music videos, and it got a great deal of attention. Many people assumed your words were directed at Rihanna or Miley Cyrus…
ANNIE LENNOX: I was talking about the over-sexualization of female performers. I desisted naming names; I don’t want to do that.
So what inspired that post?
What troubled me is… I’ve been here a long time. I’m not a moral prude. I’m not narrow-minded. I think sexuality is great and we can express it; there’s nothing wrong in that per se. But when you’re a young artist and you have a young following and you are going into sexualized territory with these 7-year-old children [watching], I don’t think it’s appropriate. I think it’s age-inappropriate.
So that’s the thing that disturbed me, and the mother in me is the one that’s responding, the parent in me. Although my kids aren’t 7, I’m sort of empathizing with the challenge of parents of young girls today and the role model that’s set for them, when they have to see this normalizing of overt sexuality. That just troubles me. It’s not rocket science. And you know what? The subject’s over for me now. I’ve said what I think.
You’ve had such a long and respectable career, and you never had to rely on overt sexiness. How have you survived all the pop-music gimmicks and fads, from the ’80s up to now?
Listen, we live in what’s called a “celebrity-driven” age. This word “celebrity” was nothing that I ever knew about, to be honest. I mean, “fame,” yes, “star,” yes — but “celebrity”? What is that? It could be anything or anybody nowadays. We all know what celebrity culture is, and for me I’ve always seen myself as a musician first and foremost. There’s a boundary around that. I don’t want to be a “celebrity,” per se. I find the label really demeaning and really diminishing.
Do you think it’s harder to be an artist now than when you first started out?
[With] female artists, it’s harder. You see you have to play the game; that’s what the system wants. So you have to make yourself available 24/7. And if someone takes your picture at a time when you really don’t want that picture taken, and you didn’t have any say as to whether you wanted that image taken of you, and that person just going to take it and they’re going to sell it and make a ton of money out of it, I find that really intrusive and really invasive. Some people welcome that, they want that — they want to live that lifestyle 24/7. I don’t understand that, I really don’t.
So for the young artist coming up, if they think that they just want to be famous, they have to live with that. They have to live with the responsibility of what that means. And it’s quite cannibalistic; it eats you up. You have no privacy. You are living in this goldfish bowl. If that’s what you want, fine, but once the genie’s out of the bottle, there’s no turning back. And I find that quite disturbing as a human phenomena… It’s here today, gone tomorrow. You can be famous like that and everybody in the world knows you for two seconds, and what happens after that? You crash, I can guarantee. You crash and burn, and where’s the sustainability in it? Where’s your real value as a human being?
So what advice do you have for new artists, particularly female artists, trying to establish a lasting and real career now?
It’s very challenging nowadays; the pool of music is over-subscribed and just so generic. You have so many talent shows with beautiful kids coming and singing, and they have this notion of fame and celebrity, and what that is — and really, it’s illusory. It’s completely illusory, and that concerns me, because it’s like this instantaneous notion.
The truth of it all is that, first of all, it’s exceedingly hard work. And maybe you want to do a lot of hard work, but it also can be a bit exploitative. And that’s the thing: You really got to have your wits about you. You have to be grounded, because if you’re not careful, somebody else is going to come and they’re going take your soul away. And you will be left with the shadow of the person that you really are. It’s dangerous.
It seems a lot of current female pop singers shy away from feminism. Does that disappoint you?
Well, I am a feminist and I’m quite happy to take that label and run with it… What it means for me, because I’ve traveled and I’ve seen a lot of the globe and I’ve gone to developing countries, is I see women that don’t even have the absolute basic rights — fundamental human rights that we have taken for granted.
In the Western world, women have the vote. We have the possibility to be lawyers and doctors and to have careers that we never would have dreamed of in our grandmothers’ time. And our grandmothers and women before us sacrificed so much to help the future generations. And what’s happened is the word “feminism” got trashed, it got completely devalued.
Now I think the time has come where we can really reconfigure it, and feminism must go to places where women don’t even have the fundamental human rights — sexual rights, reproductive rights, health rights, educational rights, all of these issues. It’s so important that we wake up to what the real issues of feminism are. It’s not about whether you shave your legs or wear high heels. That’s just smoke and mirrors, irrelevant.
It seems fame is something that you still grapple with…
I felt very privileged to be able to make music and record and sort of fulfill the dream that I’d had as a young person in my twenties… But I’ve been grappling with it for years, and I still grapple with it to a degree, because I don’t want people’s attention unnecessarily. Why would I want their attention? I’m a performer, so I like to express the music, and obviously I express my opinions, but I’m not asking for more than that. And I certainly don’t want to be treated any differently from anybody else.
It’s kind of like I want the privilege of being anonymous when I want to be anonymous, just being with everybody else. You can’t have it both ways, maybe.
Your new album is called Nostalgia. Let’s talk about your own musical nostalgia. What’s the first record you ever bought?
I think it was The Sound of Music! See, I never came from any money, I never had any money, so I really couldn’t afford to buy albums. But when I was a teenager, the first record I actually did buy was “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, and I played that record to death. I played it over and over and over again. I never had a record collection because I couldn’t really afford it, so that was quite a treasured item that I purchased.
You know back in the day, you felt when you had something it was like a special thing. It kind of defined you and what your taste was. And I mean that still to this day, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, that’s really up my street. That’s kind of where my heart lies, in music like that; it’s got soul in it, and it’s also got this kind of surrealistic element in it.
Your cover of that song on your album Medusa was incredible. Is there any other artist or piece of music from the past that especially inspired you?
I did have a bit of an “a-ha!” moment. I think it was when I’d been to the Academy of Music in London, and I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t meant to be there. It was a mistake, really; I got the audition and I guess I was so honored to have a place, I went there. I just felt out of place completely, and I tried my best to outstay my three-year course. I dropped out in the end because it was laughable, really. And then I was like, “Wow, well, who am I? What do I do?” I’d always thought that I was a musician, but I could see that the classical world was completely wrong for me.
And at that point in time, I was exposed to Joni Mitchell. And what Joni Mitchell has done for me personally, and for so many other female artists, was that Joni was — and is — a genius. We heard this extraordinary poetry, this extraordinary voice, this extraordinary and beautiful woman, so articulate, just beyond, playing these amazing instruments. And she was just flawless. She still is flawless for me. I don’t think there’s ever been anybody to match Joni Mitchell.
Do you consider yourself a role model, like Joni was to you?
Oh, I can’t think of myself as a role model. That’s a burden. I’m not answerable to anybody but me. I have a very lovely relationship with my daughters and I hope that whatever I’ve done in their upbringing has been of value to them, but I’m not perfect. I don’t aim to be perfect, an “icon.” I’m a human being; that’s the most important thing. I know that I know who I am, and I don’t buy into B.S.
OK, since we are on the subject of nostalgia, will the Eurythmics ever make new music together again?
Everybody asks this question, and they’ve asked it for years… We both came to a sort of watershed moment where we’d been doing it for so many years, and the momentum of the whole thing was just really big. And there was a part of me as a woman that just wanted to step away. I just needed to rediscover what it was like to be a person again, and not just somebody making all this creative stuff and touring, making records every year, making videos, doing interviews. I just wanted to get off the bus, really, and [the Eurythmics’] Dave [Stewart] also felt that musically, he wanted to explore another direction.
So we didn’t have a disagreement about that, we just knew that we needed to go in different directions. And really, that’s what’s been happening ever since. So if we get together or if we don’t get together, it doesn’t matter. I think for me, what’s important is I want to do what is meaningful to me at the time — whether it’s making music, or painting, or taking photographs, or blogging all the things that I love to do in life. I just want to have the flexibility and the freedom to do what I want, the way I want to do it. I’ve had that [freedom], and I feel so fortunate.