The Diva's Bare
We all age, we all suffer—and as Annie Lennox sings, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw those stones, but something just flew through my window pane.” Lennox’s voice anguishes, argues, confides, seduces, and stomps, as it explores the ups and downs of love.
Annie Lennox’s Bare is a musical exploration of desire, love, pain, and rage. Lennox, in her solo work (Diva, Medusa) and especially in her work with Dave Stewart as part of Eurythmics, as well as in her tendency to wear black leather, sequins, feathers, plaid, male drag, ball gowns, and Mickey Mouse ears, has long embodied complexity: intelligence and sensitivity, rock and soul music, the technological and the passionate, the cynical and the tender, masculinity and femininity, the blaring and the subtle, the traditional and the new. From Josephine Baker to Little Richard to Diana Ross to Prince, from Elvis Presley to David Bowie to Madonna Louise Ciccone, performers have imagined what is yet to be, a glamour, a sensuality, a complexity, and have become it, and though sometimes dismissed as artificial or theatrical, they’ve then embodied real world possibility for people limited by ordinary circumstances. Singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell have mined their own lives for an art at once personal and social, intellectual and intimate. (Is anyone really like Joni Mitchell?) Emotions and truths that are hard to express are what Lennox expresses, and she does this with an alluring sense of drama, glamorously; and yet one wonders if giving in to emotion may not be what leads to the destruction she must then explicate and extricate herself from. Bare begins with “A Thousand Beautiful Things”, an affirmation of all there is to live for, and ends with “Oh God”, a confession of personal devastation and a cry for deliverance, and in between is everything else: the hopes and bitterness of love.
In “A Thousand Beautiful Things” it is easy, through the clarity of Lennox’s Scottish enunciation and the poetic inclination of her lyrics, to hear an echo of British poetry, though the lyrics touch on the cliché (in the attempt to see a glass as half-full rather than half-empty, and in listing gratitude for the “air to breathe” and the “heart to beat”). The song is obviously a gesture in the direction of balance, of mental health. (All songs were written by Lennox, and the album was produced by Stephen Lipson and engineered by Heff Moraes, except for “Beautiful Things”, which was produced by Lennox, Lipson, and Andy Wright, and has a somewhat elaborate orchestration.) “Pavement Cracks”, which immediately follows “Beautiful Things”, opens with a street scene, somber and mundane, and in it private disappointment intrudes on but is not reflected in public space (“love don’t show up in the pavement cracks”). The singer asks, “How come every day I’m still waiting for the change? How come I still say give me the strength to live?” Mournful sounds near the end of that song have a Middle Eastern tone. However, for me, the real beginning of the album is “The Hurting Time”, the third song and a beautiful ballad, in which Lennox’s voice is strong and the music is both spare and dramatic. It begins with lines that simultaneously evoke inevitability, the Bible, and death, such as: “Every livin’ thing will surely come to pass”, and the song also includes these lines: “A million little deaths you’ve died, the times that you’ve been crucified, the more you’ve loved and lost and tried, and still could not be satisfied. When will you be satisfied?” The predictability of suffering, and even of death in life, is what Annie Lennox makes plain in “The Hurting Time”, which ends with a jazzy coda with Lennox wordlessly crooning.
A contemplation of the battles fought in a relationship and its end, “Honestly”, has Lennox describing her failing strategy (“Don’t you know I tried and tried again to make you listen to me? But, everything I said, it always seemed to go right through you”), before admitting, “I turned myself into a person that I didn’t like, but please believe me when I say I know it wasn’t right”. And she remains haunted: “You know I never thought I’d ever live a day without you, and that’s why it makes me sad to think about you”. This is a classic scenario, which of course does not make it any more bearable.
In “Wonderful”, about an infatuation, she condemns herself, “Idiot me, stupid me, how could I be so uncool? To fall in love with someone who doesn’t really care for you. It’s so obscure. But I feel wonderful”, followed by a loud, soulful country rock chorus that affirms “all the heat of my desire, smokin’ like some crazy fire”. Where does this infatuation lead? Lennox has never been afraid to express her own rage, to express it and to mock it, and in “Bitter Pill”, after warning “Don’t you ever call me. I don’t wanna see your face”, some of her line readings seem self-mocking. The song “Loneliness”, with loneliness defined as “the distance between us and the space inside ourselves”, and “hopelessness is the darkness in your heart, it’s the sound of one hand clapping”, is one of the strongest songs on the album, with its guitars and drums, with its mix of tempos, and it ends especially well: “When I call your name, I’m gonna scream out loud. I’ll say, ‘Here I am standing in the crowd.’ You’ll say, ‘Come to me with your open mind, you never know what you still might find.’ But you keep me here like a cancelled flight, an empty train running through the night, an orphan child, a broken shoe, and I’m still down here looking out for you. Are you there for me? ‘cause I’m here for you”.
Reminiscent of “Why” and “Love Song for a Vampire”, “The Saddest Song I’ve Got” is merely a shadow of some of her best songs, though her singing “And I want you . . . not / I need you . . . not” indicate a self-contradiction, self-awareness, and wit that give the song interest. Lennox rages through “Erased”, a vow to forget a relationship with the knowledge that life goes on, but the intensity one hears and the insistence on forgetting convey how important the relationship has been. Who has not felt torn, both drawn and repelled, in this way? Lennox sings, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw those stones, but something just flew through my window pane”. And then, she sings “I remember, I remember everything you said to me” in “Twisted”, turning “I remember, I remember” into a crazed chant. “Oh God”, a quiet ballad with a childlike simplicity, is beseeching, sad, and Lennox’s voice is high and almost off-key; and though the song is a prayer Lennox admits to looking down into the abyss where no god exists; and this song, which is very disturbing, might be the perfect end.
When I first heard Bare, I wasn’t sure that I liked it: the songwriting seemed uneven, and a few of the rhythms seem borrowed (one song brought to mind a recent Mary J. Blige hit), and something about the album reminded me of a Michael Jackson album: passionate and polished, a mix of calculation and instinct. Listening to the album over and over, I was impressed with Annie Lennox’s singing and thought of the recording as a singer’s album, as Lennox’s voice argues, confides, distances, explains, laments, nags, seduces, and stomps. I tried to decide, Why does it matter? In a world of poverty and war, do these songs matter? Does art matter? The Epic of Gilgamesh. Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. The Arabian Nights. DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Michelangelo’s David. Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Jazz. Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Picasso’s Guernica. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. James Baldwin’s Another Country. Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. The Beatles’ White Album Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black. Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Patrice Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. Lasting forms of art, but has art changed the world, or has art merely changed perceptions and thoughts? In changing an individual life, does art change the world? In modifying the trajectory of art forms—and art industries, then—does art change the world? Is it only art commerce that changes the world, or is it also art content?
In the last two decades, the repetitive beats, rented and stolen melodies, and ghetto slang of hip-hop, and the angst and anger of do-it-yourself rock (punk-influenced rock), have been identified as the cutting edge of American contemporary music, but both quickly became mainstream, while the public is largely ignorant of or ignores developments and experiments in European classical music, African American improvisational music (jazz), Broadway, and various forms of contemporary music; and, though music from other continents and countries, such as Africa, India, and South America, are better known now they still have trouble reaching beyond American cities. Yet, many people talk as if hip-hop and rock are still “cool, contemporary, what’s happening”, and as if being perceived as current is the only standard. The dominance of hip-hop has meant a narrowing of the vocabulary used to describe not only male and female relationships but social values—reducing much to sex, violence, and money, and while rock has maintained a broader emotional range, it has been often stuck in the mundane, cynical about heroism, passion, politics, and transcendence.
What was once new is now old; and what was once transgression is now custom. Years ago, a Performing Arts Journal (1977) interviewer asked writer Susan Sontag about transgression in art, and she answered: “Transgression presupposes successful notions of order. But transgressions have been so successful that the idea of transgression has become normative for the arts—which is a self-contradiction. Modern art wished to be—maybe even was, for a brief time—in an intractable, adversary relation to the established high culture. Now it is identical with high culture, supported by a vast bureaucracy of museums, universities, and state and private foundations. And the reason for this success story is that there is a close fit between many of the values promoted by modernism and the larger values of our capitalist consumer society . . .” (Conversations with Susan Sontag, University Press of Mississippi, 1995, p.86) Similarly, the pop music industry is entirely behind the formerly transgressive forms of hip-hop and rock.
I listen to the radio and sample records in stores and periodically get recommendations from friends, and what is most striking about much contemporary popular music is how bad it is. It is as if both sounds and standards have been diminished. I find myself thinking again and again that we would benefit from hearing a wider range of music, different genres, by people of different ages. Of course, my generational and personal attachment to performers such as Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connor, Cassandra Wilson, Sade, Caetana Veloso, Angelique Kidjo, Terence Trent D’Arby, Anita Baker, Miki Howard, Tracy Chapman, Ben Harper, Jeff Buckley, Cheb Khaled, Marc Anthony, Abdullah Ibrahim, Shirley Horn, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, Nina Simone, Kitchens of Distinction, the Devlins, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Hole, P.J. Harvey, David Murray, Yo Yo Ma, Kathleen Battle, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Sister Souljah, Ice-T, Meshell N’degeocello, and others means that I can make easy comparisons between what is being sold as new and what I know to be good: thoughtful, responsive, charming, imaginative, persuasive, well-crafted and well-produced. It also means that I may be prejudiced. And regarding relevance? In the last few years I have had reason to be concerned about fundamental survival issues, something Annie Lennox hasn’t worried about for herself in years; and yet the feelings she expresses—of both hope and bitterness—are closer to what I feel than the hip-hop or rock that is most celebrated. (A bio of Annie Lennox mentions that when she and Dave Stewart were “starving” she made a meal out of a little rice, potatoes, and a piece of broccoli. Is that Annie Lennox more real than today’s? Was that Annie Lennox less musically astute than today’s?) Bare is partly inspired by the failure of Annie Lennox’s marriage of more than a decade, and Lennox’s music, which is not afraid of ambition or intimacy, and not afraid of abstraction, captures impulses: feeling, wanting, needing; and it’s true that even when you cannot have what you want, especially then, it is important to find articulation for what you want, though much of the world prefers to define us by the things we possess. Our wanting defines the range of our spirits.
Commenting on the Bare album and its cover, an upper-body shot in which she wears nothing but a pale clay dust, false eyelashes, and what looks like a dog collar, Annie Lennox has written in her album notes, “In a sense I have ‘exposed’ myself through the work to reveal aspects of an inner world which are fragile . . . Broken through experience, but not entirely smashed, I am not a young artist in their early twenties. I am a mature woman facing up to the failed expectations of life and facing up to ‘core’ issues.”
The question of age is not inconsequential. Corporate companies treat artists like products with sell-by dates of about 45 years of age. Critics afraid of politics, afraid of not seeming current, afraid of getting their hands slapped, pretend as if incompetence, incoherence, and irrelevance suddenly descend on artists at middle age. (Before the release of Madonna’s American Life album, The New York Times published an article asking, Is she still relevant? In a television interview that followed, Madonna asked, Is Frank Sinatra relevant? Is Aretha Franklin? Is any artist?) Critics say, “Oh, her/his work was so much better when she/he was younger.” Distinctive singers are sometimes expected to imitate novices—I recall reading a few reviews of two smart, beautifully produced records, Streisand’s A Love Like Ours (1999) and Sade’s Lovers Rock (2000), that basically asked, Why does this woman still sound like herself?, a question that conveys both a misunderstanding of consistent vision and integrity and a critic’s inability to think about what he’s hearing. Annie Lennox’s early work was good, but her last two albums with Eurthymics, Savage (1987) and We Too Are One (1989), reputedly the least popular of their recordings, were also among the most mature, most diverse, and the best, just as Lennox’s solo albums have been uniquely honest, strong, and emotionally vivid. Annie Lennox is not the only artist of whom this attractive maturity is true.
What’s wrong with our society? Conformity and stupidity. Yes—classism, sexism, racism, and homophobia are also (also!) problems, but within the social categories we give positive and negative attention to there is also conformity and stupidity (which means, for instance, that working class people resent the ambition of their own children, that many women reject feminism in the name of personal consumerism and institutional rewards, that African Americans have trouble supporting the creativity—not just the success—of African American artists and intellectuals, and that gay men often reject homosexual men who have the critical or moral sense to object to the drug and alcohol abuse and promiscuity in the gay milieu. I could also note the virtues of each of these groups, such as the practicality of the working class, or the loyalty gay men give to artists, but I’m not preparing a balance sheet but rather am noting limitations to progressive cultural development). What we require as individuals and what artists deserve is freedom, and to be evaluated and rewarded based on merit, even if we do not fit narrow molds with their meretricious contemporary disguises.
Annie Lennox’s Eurythmics legacy includes the songs “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, “Here Comes the Rain Again”, “Regrets” (which begins “I’ve got a delicate mind, I’ve got a dangerous nature, and my fist collides with your furniture”), and “Who’s That Girl” (a personal favorite), “Missionary Man”, “When Tomorrow Comes”, and the surprisingly sweet “The Miracle of Love”, as well as the albums Savage and We Too Are One, all from the 1980s, and also the late 1990s reunion album Peace. Savage has a cosmopolitan sensibility—topical, sexy, serious and ironic, moving from one emotional or social scene to another with energy and insight. “Take a girl like that, and put her in a natural setting—like a café for example”, begins the first song, “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)”. That song’s title alone, like the one that follows, “I’ve Got A Lover (Back in Japan)”, are not the references one expects in music marketed to western youths, who like novelty and sensation usually as long as they are simple. In Savage‘s “You’ve Placed A Chill in My Heart”, Lennox sings, “Love is a temple, love is a shrine, love is pure, and love is blind, love is a religious sign, I’m gonna leave this love behind”. I read that as a rejection of the ideology of love in the face of real world dissatisfaction. “Wide Eyed Girl”, about an exuberant young woman, is set in Rome. Hearing the drama of excess in “I Need You” first led me to think it was a brilliant, bitter joke: “I need you to really feel the twist of my back breaking, I need someone to listen to the ecstasy I’m faking” are two of its milder lines. The album concludes with the disappointment and resolution of “Brand New Day”. We Too Are One‘s songs are about bonds shared by the miserable, and politics, romantic revenge, loneliness, and compassion, and closes with the song “When the Day Goes Down”, which says, “All the people of this lonely world have got a piece of pain inside. Don’t go thinking you’re the only one whoever broke right down and cried”.
Lennox’s Diva (1992) album starts with the beautiful “Why”, as unusual a radio single as Streisand’s “My Heart Belongs to Me” almost two decades before—an intelligent, strong woman’s poignant rendering of a relationship’s demise, dignified, melancholy, philosophical. The album contains, among other songs, the uptempo “Walking on Broken Glass” and “Money Can’t Buy It”, a song against shallow distractions that includes Lennox’s “rich white girl” rap, a song now echoed by Madonna’s “American Life”. The closing song, “The Gift”, suggests spiritual evolution and unfolds like a play. The Medusa album (1995), made up of songs written by Neil Young, Paul Simon, and Bob Marley, among others, contains the lovely, theatrical “No More ‘I Love You’s’”, the rocking and soulful “Train in Vain”, the sad “Downtown Lights”, and the tender “Waiting in Vain”.
Peace (1999), produced after Lennox’s first two solo albums with Dave Stewart as part of Eurythmics, features “Peace Is Just A Word”, “My True Love”, and “Lifted”, and has a song, “17 Again” that reprises “Sweet Dreams”, in which Lennox sings, “Sweet dreams are made of anything that gets you in the scene”, a far from romantic sentiment. In “Anything But Strong”, Lennox asks, “What are we really learning when we make the same mistakes?” Such thoughts do not gratify the superficial. “I want it all. I don’t know what it is but I want it all Gimme, gimme some more of the same old stuff. It don’t make me happy and it’s never enough”, Lennox sings in “I Want It All”, hunger projected to the point of hysteria and hilarity. My guess is that she uses “I” to critique many of “us”. Having a large audience does not always require pandering, sinking to the lowest common concerns; sometimes it requires an artist to become broader, deeper, more imaginative.
Bare is not the odd thing even Lennox might see it as: she has long made music that reveals complexity and love and torment, and the lives in which they are situated. Does it matter? Does art matter?
Everyone is alone, and the world comes to each of us in the form of family, friendship, and love; and so, when we speak of love, we speak not only of sex but of our most personal relationship to the world—and that is why love takes such a large place in our imaginations, why it becomes symbolic. (Adrienne Rich has written, “An honorable relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, and often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other” in “Women and Honor,” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, W.W. Norton, 1979, p. 188.) To look at our lives, and to look at art, history, and politics, and to say that nothing has changed is to deny the sacrifice and suffering of yesterday, and of those who have come before us, whereas to say that not enough has changed is to take note of the work we have yet to do. We misunderstand that work when we misunderstand ourselves. We often tend to err on remembering mostly the good or mostly the bad and by defining reality by what we remember, by what we’re aware of, but art comes as close as we can to remembering it all. That is the service it provides. Art gives us pleasure, reflects our pain, and it is an important part of our collective human memory.
With Bare, Annie Lennox has added another chapter to an honest and valuable body of work.
* * * * Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. His book reviews have appeared in American Book Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Garrett’s essay “The Inner Life and the Social World in the Work of James Baldwin” was published by IdentityTheory.com. Garrett has published reviews of the Afghan Whigs in Hyphen, Matthew Sweet in Option, and various bands on the website of Frictionmagazine.com. Garrett’s essay “The Force Behind the Power: Jazz, Joy, and Social Vision in the Work of Diana Ross” was published by WaxPoetics.com, and also published in the Opinion section of AllAboutJazz.com.