Conditioned Soul

2.18.2009

By Aaron Hicklin

Writing in The New York Times in 1984, the critic Stephen Holden sought to draw a distinction between the Eurythmics and the rest of what he called the 'British synthesizer-pop movement,' including Duran Duran, Culture Club, and the Thompson Twins, then making inroads into the American charts. 'Miss Lennox,' he wrote, 'possesses one of the loveliest voices in English pop. She skillfully projects her husky folkish alto into piercing jazzy wails.'

Last November -- a quarter century, 10 albums, two husbands, two daughters, and much heartache later -- Miss Lennox walked onto the stage of the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles and held the audience of the American Music Awards rapt with a performance of 'Why' -- as beautiful a song as anyone has ever written. Watching her at the center of that vast and empty stage, sans orchestra, sans backup singers, sans the smoke and mirrors that had supported the evening's other headliners -- flames for the Pussycat Dolls, a storm of butterfly-shaped confetti for Coldplay -- it was impossible to separate the naked vulnerability of the lyrics from the life of the woman singing them. Hurt and loss and disappointment were contained there -- and catharsis too. The teenage girls might have come to see the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, but it was the then'53-year-old Annie Lennox who received the longest ovation of the night.

Holden was right, of course, not only in recognizing Lennox's talent but for drawing attention to the central tension at the heart of the Eurythmics. From the beginning they managed to be simultaneously cool and soulful, ironic and earnest. Early stars of MTV, they might have been swallowed up by the scale of their own spectacle if not for the intimacy of Lennox's lyrics. It's not simply the insistent hooks and muscular melodies that give songs such as 'Love Is a Stranger,' 'Here Comes the Rain Again,' and 'Sweet Dreams' their enduring power, it's the conviction with which Lennox sings them. Like Dusty Springfield's, her songs often have the quality of an exorcism, endlessly circling back to the twin themes of love -- 'It's noble and it's brutal, it distorts and deranges' -- and loss -- 'It touches and it teases as you stumble in the debris.' As a motif it's proved remarkably fruitful over her long career.

'I'm always trying to find a fresh way to say the same thing, I guess -- the same thing being a sort of language of the heart,' Lennox muses, a day before her appearance at the American Music Awards. 'There's always been an element of the tortured soul -- I mean there has to be, you know? It's kind of this existential angst that we all feel at different levels, whether we realize it or not.'

It's a bright, sunny afternoon in November, and we're sitting in the garden of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Lennox is jaunty and expansive, dressed in a light embroidered blouse and very poised, upright, as if she'd been taught to walk with a book on her head. One of her great paradoxes is a faintly prim and reserved mien that seems at odds with the transgressive, cross-dressing persona she projected in such early Eurythmics videos as 'Love Is a Stranger' -- yanked off the air during transmission on the fledgling MTV by executives who thought they were watching a transvestite -- and 'Who's That Girl,' which ends with the feminine Lennox kissing her masculine alter ego. But unlike, say, Madonna's provocations, which were designed to accentuate her sexuality, Lennox's cropped tangerine hair and men's suits were aimed squarely at subverting the lazy signifiers of pop. 'It's about how malleable the whole idea of self really is, that if I put on a wig and a bit of stubble and a suit, I'm perceived as a man,' she says. 'The playing with gender was all about that: 'You cannot define me through my sex -- I'm more malleable than that.' But when you spell it out, people think you're barking mad.'

At the same time, you wonder if the multiple personalities and lavish costumes evolved as a coping mechanism for Lennox's crippling insecurities and loneliness, an elaborate variation of dress-up to mask her sense of alienation. 'I was always trying to escape from restraint,' she tells me at one point, a theme she frequently cycles back to. 'I think that's why I've taken on these characters. I know I am one person -- this is my body, and it's the one that will take me right to the end -- but we're all very typecast in our particular personas, and it's quite limiting.'

This might sound familiar, since it mirrors the experience of many gay men who, like Lennox, learn to neutralize their sense of exclusion by reinventing themselves -- a subtle kind of role-play that compensates for insecurity. 'Although I'm heterosexual, I've always identified with that story of coming out, because part of my process was coming out to myself,' Lennox says. 'It's hard to explain, but it was about learning that I was an artist and that it was fine to be creative. I'd always been threatened, like 'If you don't stick at school, you'll end up in factory,' and it was very fear-based -- a feeling that maybe there was something untoward about you, something not quite right. So I never felt I fitted in anywhere, and I still don't. There's no complaint, but it's part of the story -- always looking for the tribe, never finding it.'

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