Stevie Nicks
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How Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks Became the New Age “White Witch”

The idea of Stevie Nicks as Fleetwood Mac’s “white witch” is particularly poignant as the second wave of feminism rolled into the ’70s.

Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac
11 July 1975

Popular music performers are “involved in a process of double enactment,” “writes socio-musicologist and critic Simon Frith, “they enact both a star personality (their image) and a song personality, the role that each lyric requires, and the pop star’s art is to keep both acts in play at once.” In the case of Fleetwood Mac‘s Stevie Nicks, her astrological star personality and song personality have become intrinsically fused. Nicks has become associated with a “witchy” aesthetic through the song “Rhiannon”, and she has built upon this image.

In the 1970s, a spiritual and philosophical movement synthesized occult influences, medieval medicine, and indigenous traditions, often referred to as “The New Age”. Fascinations about the New Age have remained popular in the forms of reading tarot, crystal healing, and moon rituals, each of which is notoriously feminine rites. However, most of the musical figures displaying this occult persona in the ‘70s were men (e.g., Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath). In 1972, the Eagles released their #9 hit “Witchy Woman”, encapsulating the essence of the archetypal New Age woman and perpetuating the feminine association with the occult. Through Don Henley’s voice, we only hear the woman’s physical description and rumours surrounding her love life, but we do not get to hear from the Witchy Woman directly. Therefore, it was about time that Nicks hit the charts in 1976 with “Rhiannon” which reached #11.

“This is a song about a Welsh witch,” is how Stevie Nicks prefaces “Rhiannon” in live performances. Straightaway, this evokes the mystical folk tradition in which this character originates. Nicks first read about Rhiannon in 1973’s Triad: A Novel of the Spiritual by Mary Leader. However, the character is originally found in the Mabinogion, a four-branch collection of Middle Welsh (12th-14th century) prose folk stories. Although Nicks was unaware of this while writing the song, she didn’t necessarily deviate from the canon, which included birds, flight, and love as major tropes. In later performances, she delves further into the folklore through her stagecraft, as the backdrop of the stage during the song depicts wild horses running through a stream, alluding to the fact that Rhiannon, in the Mabinogion, is thought to be of close relation to the Gaulish horse goddess, Epona.

The mystical connection between bygone muse and poet fits into a long tradition of mythical interactions in literature. For instance, William Blake’s 1810 epic poem Milton, describes how the spirit of John Milton came through Blake’s left foot to walk with him. In 1976, Nicks explained her experience with Rhiannon thusly: “I’m sure that I was there at the time, and ‘Rhiannon’ somehow came through me.” This spiritually enlightened side that Nicks often shared (and continues to share) with interviewers aided in her association with New Age thinking. More explicitly, a lyrical and musical exploration of “Rhiannon” shows how she has become fused with the persona of a powerful, mysterious woman – traits that have often been associated with witchcraft throughout history.

The opening guitar riff for “Rhiannon” oscillates between A minor and F major, which in a Western musicological sense creates a slight dissonance that evokes feelings of eeriness. Within this sonically supernatural space, the opening lyrics use simile to liken Rhiannon to “a bell through the night”, which associates her with music, and “a bird in flight”, which identifies her with the natural world. The idea of the woman as a “bird in flight” is particularly poignant given the context of the ’70s, as the second wave of feminism, which began in the ’60s, was still rolling into the next decade. Nicks’ bird is not caged with the intention of entertaining. Rather, she “rules her life” and chooses who her lover will be. The bird imagery unintentionally links the song to the mythological Rhiannon, as in the Mabinogion, the Adar Rhiannon are the three birds who can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep”, which is a concept that is intrinsically woven into Nicks’ song.

Retrospectively, Nicks has said, “The legend of Rhiannon is about the song of the birds that take away pain and relieve suffering… That’s what music is to me.” Her idea of Rhiannon being representative of the uplifting powers of music, coupled with the line, “She rules her life like a fine skylark,” evokes Percy Shelley’s 1820 poem, Ode to a Skylark. His poem also ponders the uplifting song of the bird, and it becomes a symbol of everything the poet longs to be, with a passion that never diminishes.

Nicks’ use of bird imagery in “Rhiannon” also begins to establish her own set of bird characters that have become synonymous with her oeuvre; the Adar Stevie Nicks, if you will. She frequently draws upon the skylark, the white-winged dove, and the nightbird. These three birds play unique roles in her songs, often appearing at moments of falling in love and moments of haunting.

Contributing to the overall mystical feeling of “Rhiannon”, she sings of transformation in the line: “She is like a cat in the dark, and then she is the darkness.” In Western folklore, black cats have been associated with witches as either a familiar or a witch that has shapeshifted into a black cat. They also have the reputation of being bad omens, depending on the direction from which they cross your path. The symbol of the black cat has been perpetuated in popular culture in the form of parody with Lucifer, the cat in league with the step-sisters of Disney’s Cinderella, and Salem, the sassy cat in the television show Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Since she understood Rhiannon from Leader’s Triad to be a witch, it makes sense that Nicks would draw on popular symbols of witchcraft. In live versions of the song, she sings of the exclusive conditions for Rhiannon to appear, “…when the sky is starless / Once in a million years a lady like her rises.” Associating the resurrection of Rhiannon with the stars picks up on the interest in the zodiac and astrology as an alternative to mainstream religion. Many of the people involved in witchcraft in the 1970s took “merely an interest in certain divinatory and magical “technologies”; tarot, astrology, crystals, and herb healing”. With references to celestial powers and the use of witch iconography (the cat), Nicks’ lyrics easily appeal to these magical technologies. It’s only natural that her music would be attractive to a metaphysically-inclined demographic.

A significant amount of time is added to live performances of “Rhiannon” to compensate for a moment that Mick Fleetwood has compared to “an exorcism”. Nicks seemingly becomes a vessel for Rhiannon’s spirit during the instrumental break into the final coda of the song. The screeching guitar solo (originally by Lindsey Buckingham) and the hypnotic keyboard vamp (originally done by Christine McVie) provide perfect opportunities for Stevie to enchant the audience by performing her now-iconic twirls and “exotic” hand movements, which are enhanced by her whimsical stage costumes.

One of the main differences between the recorded version and the live versions is how “Rhiannon” builds from a melodic chant to a powerful shouting of the lines “Dreams unwind, love’s a state of mind” and “Take me like the wind, baby, take me to the sky.” Through the song’s instrumental evocation and primal screaming in the coda, Nicks is magically transformed into Rhiannon before the eyes of the audience in live performances of the song; fully merging herself with the character she is singing about – a shift highlighted by starting the song from a third-person perspective and ending it in first-person. 

By 1976, Nicks established her stage uniform; long, black, chiffon and velvet dresses with floating sleeves and shawls galore; reminiscent of the first image of Rhiannon in medieval brocaded silk. These stage costumes are purpose-built for embracing her femininity, contributing to the witchy aesthetic of her songs, and, in the case of many songs, mimicking flight. She embodies her lyrics about the bird in flight by using specific flapping motions with her draped sleeves.

Nick’s distinct image during the 1977-78 Rumours tour gave fans a fashion blueprint to follow when attending Fleetwood Mac or Stevie Nicks solo concerts. Mick Fleetwood mentioned that he noticed “hundreds- no, thousands- of girls dressed exactly like Stevie in black outfits, many sporting top hats, Stevie’s new stage costume, which they must have seen in magazines and on TV.” This appropriation ritual enacted by her fans allows them to feel part of the performance and part of Nicks’ personal “coven”. To this day, concertgoers are seen sporting Nicks-inspired looks from over the years, including top hats, shawls, and long chiffon sleeves. 

Stevie Nicks has said multiple times that she is not a witch; however, her identification with the “Rhiannon” persona and her love of the fantastical at the peak of her fame has had a lasting effect on her career legacy. Over the years, Nicks’ material with Fleetwood Mac and her solo career have drawn upon enchantment for inspiration; References to “crystal visions” in “Dreams” pulled on the same metaphysical threads as “Rhiannon”, and “Sisters of the Moon” created a label for Nicks’ dedicated coven, 1981’s solo album Bella Donna transformed her into the “White Witch”, and the list goes on. The artistic world of Stevie Nicks is populated with witches, angels, romance, and mythical birds. She was not the first, nor the only one to engage with this sort of aesthetic, but she popularized it for women in an unprecedented way; soon after, Heart and Kate Bush were seen in the charts with similar artistic approaches. 

Nicks has been given plenty of opportunities in film and television to engage with this witchy persona. She was asked to contribute music to Griffin Dune’s 1998 film Practical Magic, the story of two young witches and their struggle with love. She rerecorded the song she penned back in 1973, “Crystal”. Up until this point, on the Buckingham Nicks and Fleetwood Mac albums, Lindsey Buckingham was on lead vocals. That she makes it synonymous with her own voice, and therefore her own associations with the label of witchcraft take the magic of Practical Magic to the next level.

More recently, in 2014 and 2018, she was given a role as herself, “the White Witch”, in American Horror: Coven and American Horror Story: Apocalypse. Songs like “Kind of Woman”, “Gold Dust Woman”, “Rhiannon”, and “Seven Wonders” are featured in the background and in key moments throughout the series. In the show, the character Misty Day fashions herself like Stevie, with curled blonde hair and flowing shawls, complete with a crescent moon necklace.

This moon necklace is worn by fans all over the world, symbolizing their dedication to the White Witch and making themselves easily recognizable to fellow “Sisters of the Moon”. Through her life and music, Stevie Nicks has built a legacy that melds the hyper-masculine genre of rock ‘n’ roll with a feminine energy that has seemingly been charged by the moon, all originating with “Rhiannon”.

Works Cited

Davies, Sioned. The Mabinogion. Oxford University Press. 2005.

“Fleetwood Mac”. Behind the Music. VH1. 7 September 1977.

Frith, Simon. 1996. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Harvard University Press.

Goldman, Vivien. “Fleetwood Mac: John and Christine and Stevie and Lindsay and Mick….,” Sounds 30 October 1976.

McLane, Daisann. 1980. “Fleetwood Mac: They Dared To Be Different”. Rolling Stone, 7 February 1980.

Truzzi, Marcello. 1974. “Towards a Sociology of the Occult: Notes on Modern Witchcraft”. Religious Movements in Contemporary America. Princeton University Press.