On the morning of Jan. 4, pop star Annie Lennox flipped open her laptop and was completely taken aback. The previous day she had attended a peace rally that urged an end to the Israeli offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza. The U.K.-based march, at which Lennox gave a passionate anti-war speech, was attended by more than 10,000 people and covered by hundreds of media outlets. As the most successful British female recording artist in history—a title earned partly from her tenure as the front woman for the Grammy-winning duo known as Eurythmics—Lennox’s participation in the protest was written about extensively—and positively—by the international press. However, when Lennox logged on to her MySpace account to post a blog about the event, she realized her own 50,000-plus fan count was down significantly.
“I lost 4,000 people,” Lennox admits over the phone from her home in London. “They dropped right off my page after I took part in that demonstration! Even though I very clearly said, ‘This is not an issue of which side you’re on, this is about civilians and innocent people and a need for a peaceful solution’—they still left me.”
That same day, Lennox’s Wikipedia entry was vandalized, with the lyrics of Eurythmics’ biggest hit, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), used to mock her. “No sweet dreams for the children of Sderot for the last eight years!” read the entry, referring to an Israeli town that was bombed by Hamas rockets (the message has since been removed). Adding insult to injury, Lennox was then attacked by the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper that published an open letter to the 54-year-old singer-songwriter, implying Lennox was both anti-Semitic and unknowledgeable about Israeli issues. She quickly sent a reply to the paper—which was condensed and published in the Post: “I am not opposed to Israel and I do not support Palestinians. I support an end to the war on Gaza.” (The full response can be found on annielennox.com.)
Then, without legally clearing the song with Lennox or her record company, supporters of Israeli Foreign Minister and Kadima party Leader Tzipi Livni used a Eurythmics track called I Saved the World Today (ironically off the group’s last studio album, 1999’s Peace) in a YouTube film endorsing Livni’s election campaign. “It’s nonsense and twisted,” Lennox says. “The [Jerusalem Post] writer wanted to say I was slandering Israel when all I was talking about was basic human rights for everyone involved. If I see children are suffering from man-made reasons, I will say, this is wrong. A future generation of suicide bombers has been created by this conflict and it’s a tragedy.”
Lennox’s 13-album career with Eurythmics prepared her for outrage. The duo’s trademark for creating envelope-pushing songs (think 1982’s ode to S&M, Love Is A Stranger or 1984’s Orwell-inspired Sex Crime) and avant-garde concept albums (1987’s Savage explores themes of schizophrenia and female identity) turned the status quo on its head in the ’80s and ’90s.
Lennox first felt the fervour of puritan piping with Eurythmics’ massive ’83 chart topper, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). The video—which had her sporting a boy-short, flaming-red hairdo, banker’s suit and a rather sinister riding crop—was banned by MTV until, as writer Tony Jasper wrote in his Eurythmics biography of ’85, “Lennox kindly produced a copy of her birth certificate to the U.S. government to confirm that she was not a he.” Lennox fought back against what she now calls “the ridiculous pandemonium” her androgynous appearance caused when she attended the 1984 Grammy Awards in full-on Elvis Presley man-drag, declaring she used her “mannish wardrobe like armour to defend against being seen as just another sexual object.”
A year later, Lennox wrote one of pop’s only hit feminist anthems, Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves (a duet that features Aretha Franklin), and in 1989, Lennox penned and released King And Queen of America—a song unabashedly mocking the country’s most ridiculous—and violent—moments in popular culture.
Post-Eurythmics, Lennox’s intensity hasn’t decreased any. One need only look at her new disc, The Annie Lennox Collection (to be released Feb. 17), which anthologizes the most celebrated songs from her last 17 years as a solo artist. Mixing snappy hits such as Walking On Broken Glass (off her 1992 debut disc, Diva) alongside heart-rending radio favourites such as Pavement Cracks (from 2003’s Bare), this “best of” CD showcases Lennox’s ability to write thought-provoking songs that fit genres of soul, electronica and rock with ease.
“I feel this collection embodies my full journey without [Eurythmics co-creator] Dave [Stewart],” she says. “Although I am proud of the work, I do feel a sense of ‘Bring on what’s next!’ because I have so many other plates that I’m spinning in the air, so I am writing less songs.” Her current state of mind is reflected in the two latest recordings featured on the collection, a pair of cover versions from U.K. bands Ash (Shining Light) and Keane (Pattern of My Life). “I haven’t finished with songwriting,” she clarifies, “I’m just switching gears for a while.” With Lennox scheduling public interviews in various cities this week (the first of which will be held in New York, the second in Los Angeles) rather than concerts to promote the album, it’s safe to say Lennox is opting to choose politics over pop for the time being.
And who are we to disagree? After winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar in 2004 for her soundtrack work on the film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and finishing up a world tour with Sting, Lennox was at the highest point of her career with record execs begging her to hit the studio. Instead, she became a global ambassador for Oxfam and took a trip to some of the most distressed areas of South Africa.
When she returned, she connected with Glen Ballard (producer of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill) and began making her fourth solo album—arguably one of the most politically charged and commercially challenged works of her career—2007’s Songs of Mass Destruction. The disc, which sounds like a sonic string of apocalyptic revelations, tackles a plethora of social issues in its lyrics. The disc’s centrepiece is a charity record called Sing, a track featuring a chorus of 23 female vocalists (including the likes of Madonna and Shakira alongside Canadians Sarah McLachlan and Martha Wainwright). Aimed at raising money and awareness for Lennox’s charity of choice, the HIV/AIDS group called Treatment Action Campaign, the song was connected to a full-blown campaign that Lennox tirelessly worked into record interviews, YouTube videos, blogs and onstage monologues during her tour dates (which resulted in nearly a million euros raised for the charity). This was in addition to work for organizations such as Amnesty International, Comic Relief, and Greenpeace.
The reaction that Lennox’s record company, Sony BMG, has had to her recent move to consciousness-raising has reportedly been mixed. During a return visit to South Africa after Songs of Mass Destruction was released, Lennox blogged about how the label’s South African branch neglected to return phone calls or emails. “I’m now out of contract with Sony BMG . . . so maybe they are trying to tell me something,” she wrote. “For the first time in over 30 years I’m not obliged to do anything for anyone . . . I’m going to take my time over the coming months to figure out . . . [what] to do with this freedom.” Soon after, Sony BMG clarified that the slight from the South Africa branch had nothing to do with any negotiations for a new recording deal. A formal press release from the label’s Entertainment U.K. chairman Ged Doherty was issued, stating “[Annie Lennox] now has a choice as to whether she wants to continue to work with us in the future. We very much hope that she will.”
Lennox sees her current situation as liberating. “I’ve always tried to put my dark side, or my deep emotions, into a song structure that is palatable and very pop. I could go a lot darker musically and I definitely think that I will. I’ve got carte blanche now.”
Yet the question remains, is Lennox worried that her fan base will dwindle if she continues to strongly advocate for her causes and place her opinions front and centre? “No. If [fans] want to drop off, they can drop off. The majority of them are intelligent, sophisticated, sensitive and concerned about life in a broad-based way,” she says. “If you do anything in the public eye where you are going to try to communicate with people, you are going to have a whole spectrum of responses. You’ll always have a side of people saying ‘That old has-been, she’s so desperate for publicity that she’d even go this far!’ ”
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Lennox is prepared to go as far as she sees fit. On the matter of civil rights, Lennox says she is puzzled by California’s Proposition 8, which legally restricts the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. “Marriage never worked for me,” she says, alluding to her two past marriages with German Hare Krishna devotee Radha Raman and Israeli film producer Uri Fruchtmann (the father of Lennox’s two daughters), “but I do think it’s important that gay couples that have shared lives together and shared property must have documentation that gives them rights like every other citizen. Logistically, all people need protection.”
On lighter subjects such as fashion, Lennox is equally articulate. Asked about singers lending their names and faces to luxury brands (like Madonna’s recent ad campaign with Louis Vuitton), she says, “I think it does dilute their art. They’re in it for the bucks and it’s a corporate world they’re buying into. Through the years I have been invited to represent several fashion establishments and I always said no—I have personally never wanted to be guided or led by any stylist or fashion house or anything corporate for that matter,” she says. “As an artist, I want to remain autonomous.”