Rise Like a Phoenix: An Interview with Annie Lennox
I grew up with Annie Lennox. Not in the literal sense, mind you, but ever since her striking visage stared down my four-year-old eyes from the cover of Eurythmics’ Touch (1983), her presence has remained a constant through all different phases of my life. Like many listeners, I’ve come to expect a long gestation between her albums, so when word travels about a new Annie Lennox record, there’s a near intoxicating anticipation of, “What is she going to say now?”
Diva (1992), an emotionally charged exploration of love and longing with world-weary observations about fame woven throughout, solidified her break from Eurythmics. Lennox acknowledged her musical influences and exhibited her gift for interpretation on Medusa (1995), while Bare (2003) rendered loss and despair with chilling precision. With Songs of Mass Destruction, Lennox shifts her attention to the fragility of the human condition and the world we inhabit. Indeed, she says a lot on Songs of Mass Destruction, and, as the title indicates, it is not at all sugarcoated. Nor should it be, as that has never been her nature: “Some of them want to use you / Some of them want to get used by you”, Lennox intoned on Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” so many years ago. Because of that song’s enduring ubiquity as a pop anthem, it’s easy to overlook in the lyrics how Lennox removes the mask from those smiling faces to reveal what really lurks underneath. (In that regard, Marilyn Manson’s version isn’t such a strange bedfellow.) Throughout the course of a conversation with her, it is clear that Lennox is steadfastly invested in making listeners take notice of injustices and, hopefully, inspiring them to take action in the process.
On “Dark Road”, the album’s impassioned opening track, she sings in her soulfully soothing and soaring voice, but the words are tinged with sadness: “All the fires of destruction are still / Burnin’ in my dreams / There’s no water that can wash away / This longing to come clean”. It’s a sentiment that fits the album cover: Lennox rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of destruction, peering skyward, with a hint a determination in her eyes to soldier on amidst the debris, whether physical or emotional. “Love Is Blind”, a bluesy foot-stomper of a song, closes with a catharsis of the sensory overload that lit the fires of destruction, so to speak: “Tired of all this desperation / Tired of all this mad frustration / Tired of all the aggravation / Sick and tired of devastation”. I wonder how the idea of happiness pieces into such a bleak puzzle.
The ability to find and feel happiness in the midst of destruction, Lennox suggests to me, is “the art of living.” When the weight of cruelty and suffering can be witnessed simply by walking down the street or reading a newspaper, recognizing happiness is something of an existential dilemma. “It’s terrifying in a way, because the more you stop to think about it, the more vulnerable you realize we really, truly are. Here we are, bones and skin. We’re so fragile: that skull of ours looks like a little bird’s egg. You look at big juggernauts in the streets and you say, ‘Jesus Christ! How do we manage to traverse this planet without being smashed to pieces?’”
She continues in her thoughtful yet focused cadence,
“I think that after all is said and done, the fine art has to be about how to navigate it well, because there comes a place where you realize, ‘If I take all of this onboard, I am absolutely going to implode. This is absolutely too depressing,’ especially if one finds oneself in a circumstance that is really totally challenging. One of my dearest, close friends, for example, just discovered her young son has a very, very serious debilitating condition and there’s nothing that she can do to change that. It’s like, ‘This is how it is and it’s not going to change.’ You think, ‘Jesus, how do you get happy after you’ve been through x, y, or z?’ You can’t run away from it. All you can do is accept it and try to make the best of it. That’s it. Many of us are having to do that. I give such credit to those who make the best of it and don’t jump out the window.”
In a promo interview for Shine, released one week before Songs of Mass Destruction, Joni Mitchell offered the following words on the fate of the world and humankind: “Rationally, I have no hope, but irrationally, I believe in miracles.” Knowing her admiration for Joni Mitchell and the thematic overlap between Shine and Songs of Mass Destruction (the title track to Shine features the line: “Shine on mass destruction”), I share Mitchell’s quote with Lennox.
“There you go, there you go,” she responds, excited. “That’s beautiful. I totally, totally agree with that. To quote some Buddhist philosophy, maybe the place to be is, actually, in a hopeless place: accepting the fact that there is a kind of hopelessness and yet—and yet—you go beyond and accept what is. I think there is something very empowering about that.”
“Empowering” is an appropriate way to describe tracks like “Womankind” and “Sing”. More than 20 years ago, Lennox declared “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” with Aretha Franklin on Eurythmics’ Be Yourself Tonight (1985). Such spirit of solidarity and self-empowerment also permeates these new tracks. The latter is notable for the all-star choir Lennox rallied together to call for the national implementation of mother-to-child HIV transmission prevention programs throughout maternity hospitals in South Africa. Gladys Knight, Bonnie Raitt, Joss Stone, Pink, KT Tunstall, and Madonna (who sings lead on the second verse) are among the 23 vocalists who join Lennox on the rousing refrain, “Sing my sister…Sing! / Let your voice be heard”. The track briefly interpolates “Jikilele/Globally”, a song performed by the Generics, a group of HIV/AIDS activists who work with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa to mobilize discussion and disseminate information about HIV/AIDS, especially in communities where the stigma about the disease hinders open discussion. On the deluxe edition of Songs of Mass Destruction, Lennox explains how “Sing” will be a platform to focus on HIV/AIDS, and the issues that women and children face all around the world.
When I comment about how inspiring her work is, Lennox is modest. “I don’t feel I’ve done so much,” she says quietly. “I feel like I’ve done some. I’m trying, I’m trying. There’s so much more to do.”
Motivating government representatives to take action and making sure the public is aware that a cure for HIV/AIDS has yet to be found are daunting hurdles to overcome. Though the stark statistics are irrefutable, too many people remain oblivious to the facts. Lennox speaks passionately about the subject:
“You can quote the truth: one in three pregnant women are HIV-positive in South Africa. You can say that over 26 million people have died due to AIDS-related illness across the African continent. You can quote these figures and yet, they remain an obstruction unless you have the opportunity to kind of witness it and have your—I know this is going to sound really strange—but have your heart and your mind blasted open. Then you start to kind of understand what it really means on a human scale.”
There’s a misleading comfort level in western countries where the relatively sound patient-to-doctor ratio in hospitals guides the predominant mentality that HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Though people are living longer, it’s a smokescreen to an epidemic that thrives globally. The fact that there aren’t enough doctors and facilities to serve the tens of millions of people infected throughout different African countries, Lennox suggests, has created a resigned malignancy in those cultures. She offers a comparison between the two very different realities:
“I know people who are HIV-positive, and they have had their lives extended because they have had access to treatment and to good medical and nutritional care, so they’re still around 25 years after they first were diagnosed. For the majority of poor, black South African people, they probably don’t know their status and they don’t even want to know, because what difference will it make to them if they find out if they have it or to get access to treatment? In a fatalistic way, they’re like, ‘Actually, we don’t really want to know.’ This is another part of the complexity of the problem: many millions of people do not know their status, are not responding to it appropriately, are having unprotected, unsafe sex while they’re positive. It’s a big, big mess.”
Despite the cynicism that sometimes greets celebrities who take on high-profile causes, Annie Lennox is using her art to call attention to issues that matter. I wonder, though, how Lennox reconciles her art when a major company profits from her work. “This is always an interesting place,” she says. “Commerce versus artistry. I feel so privileged that I’ve been able to be an artist, a musician. I’ve been in a contract for most of my career, and I’ve thought, ‘Wow, I’m so fortunate,’ and yet, in actual fact, ‘they’ have had the lion’s share of any money engendered by my efforts. The whole thing is kind of unusual.” Her contract with the RCA Label Group expires after Songs of Mass Destruction, and Lennox is looking forward to using her website, “The House of Me”, as the place where her future creative endeavors will be exhibited. She regularly blogs on MySpace with fans, breaking the fourth wall between artist and audiences. Any and every topic is fair game, from the recent Peace One Day concert at Royal Albert Hall, where she headlined recently, to rat infestation, to health and beauty tips. Her passion to connect with listeners beyond a recording makes her musical and personal statements that much more ingenuous.
Central to Lennox’s longevity is her staunch creative autarky. “I’ve fought to maintain my own autonomy, my own independence,” she affirms. “I fought not to allow people to manipulate me into a place where I was really uncomfortable and I had to make a massive compromise. I kind of held my ground.” Annie Lennox maintains her indefatigable convictions with Songs of Mass Destruction. Her artistry is a testament to the healing power of music, that even when the human heart travels down a long “dark road”, there are glimmers of light, hope, and life.