Although their first album, 1981’s In the Garden, didn’t catch on fire, the Eurythmics lit the world all the way up with their second strike, 1983’s Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). And, for the past 30-something years, Annie Lennox has continued to prove herself worthy of our collective adoration and admiration for her work as both an artist and an activist. Not only is Lennox the top-selling female artist in UK music history, she was also honored by Queen Elizabeth II for her “tireless charity campaigns and championing of humanitarian causes” when she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2011. And, if that weren’t enough, VH1 further anointed her “The Greatest White Soul Singer Alive.” That’s a lot of accolades.
But, it’s Annie Lennox, for Pete’s sake — a woman with masterful albums titled Diva, Medusa, and Bare. Her latest, Nostalgia, takes still another artistic step forward even as it reaches back to revive and rework classics from the Great American Songbook. “I had the notion a while ago that I had never recorded in this particular genre of jazz and that my voice would, perhaps, lend itself to that,” the 60-year-old Lennox says. “And there’s an interesting challenge in that for me, especially because I’m now in the Autumn of my life and there’s a part of me that wants to put things down for posterity. And I felt that I’d really love to do that. That would be so interesting.” For the set, Lennox put her own contemporary spin on timeless pieces like “Summertime,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “I Put a Spell on You.”
Even if you are “The Greatest White Soul Singer Alive,” the task of tackling songs made famous by Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and Nina Simone must be quite a daunting one. “I think, for me, the challenge was, ‘How do I do these songs? Is there any value in Annie Lennox recording this?’” She continues, “And I wanted to bring this — whatever it is I have in my voice, in my interpretation, in my qualities as an interpretive artist… Obviously, one is in awe of the history and the magnitude of the writers and the body of work and the extraordinary artists and their presence and the very resonant memory of an artist like Billie Holliday or Nina Simone. But, really, if you’re going to tackle a work like this, it’s not appropriate to be too daunted by it. Yes, I’m humbled. Of course, I am very respectful.
“But the thing that connects me, you see, is my gender and that’s the point,” Lennox explains. “I feel a connection to other artists — specifically female artists. I think about their stories and what they’ve been through and the tragedies of many of these artists, the challenges they had to face very often being exploited and taken advantage of. Or having personal issues or demons that finally overcame them. And I feel very connected to them because I feel like we would stand shoulder-to-shoulder if we were together in a room.”
Lennox would, indeed, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats of days past, for she is a great of days present carrying the same torch of strength and resilience that so many before her have carried. And that’s the frustrating thing for her — that, after so many years, the torch that shines a light on hatred and violence must still be carried. “If you go back into the nostalgia of America, for example, then you will go into the cradle of the culture these songs have been derived from and you’re right back in the Deep South before the Civil Rights movement,” Lennox says. “These are still issues of violence and bigotry and hatred and racism that everyone still faces today right across the globe. And I found this thread that continues on… injustice, lack of human rights. How interesting, the theme of humanity — how it evolves over time or doesn’t.”
The weight of the ages in Nostalgia’s track list is prophetic and profound. With the continuing deaths of so many Black men at the hands of white cops, the message of “Strange Fruit,” in particular, reverberates across the decades. Lennox takes that as her starting point and spins off from there: “Of course, it’s defined by racism — but then I think about gender-based violence. And I think about domestic violence. And I think about warfare. And I think about terrorism. And about the series of acts that human beings carry out without boundaries upon each other — this drama of violence that’s played out continuously. And I think this is what the song is now, for me.” She notes, “I remember, even as a child, when I understood how cruel the world could be, I felt terribly outraged. And that sense of outrage has never left me. I’m still outraged. I’m shocked. I’m shocked at what I see. I’m shocked at how things are not resolved, that we can’t come to a better place of compassion and understanding, that we’re so limited and we’re so bigoted.”
Channeling that outrage into gender-bending, proudly feminist art and HIV/AIDS activism long ago earned Lennox the respect and support of the LGBT community. Her simultaneous recognition and dismissal of the differences between people, coupled with her deep understanding of and unwavering commitment to justice, might well be the key. “I have a problem with labels,” she laughs. “I understand that people need to use the labels. Because, when you’re in position to say, ‘We’re in the minority and we’re being exploited and we’re being abused and our human rights are not being respected’… you need to put your label up on a pedestal and shout it out very, very loudly. I get that. But, at the end of the day, I find the labels reductive. And, honestly, I don’t want people to see me as a heterosexual person. I don’t expect people to say, ‘Oh, she’s heterosexual’ before they see me… In the true evolution, that just gets put away. It’s irrelevant what your gender and sexual orientation are. That would be the real arrival point for me.”
This article originally appeared in Curve magazine.