Annie Lennox talks Rock Hall honor, global feminism, and why she always found the 'gender-bender' term 'insulting'
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2022 was announced this week, and among the inductees were Eurythmics, getting in on their second nomination. Shortly after hearing the exciting and long-overdue news, the always expectations-confounding duo’s frontwoman, Annie Lennox, spoke with Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. Four decades after she appeared on MTV wearing her iconic neon orange buzz-cut and man’s business suit in the “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” video, and then performed that song at the Grammy Awards in a pompadour and Elvis sideburns, Lennox, now age 67, looked back on why her persona so was so “challenging” for U.S. viewers — and how she’s still challenging norms and blazing trails as a proud, self-described global feminist.
Yahoo Entertainment: Congratulations on Eurythmics getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022! Obviously this is a very worthy class – one could make a strong case for all 17 nominees — but I wonder if there's anyone in that you're really excited to be inducted alongside. There’s a couple of your peers from the early MTV days, for instance, like Duran Duran and Pat Benatar…
Annie Lennox: It's a really mixed bag, really eclectic, different groups of people coming from different genres of music. So, that's really interesting. You know, if you talk about diversity, there is quite a diverse group of music in there, which is wonderful, because I've always appreciated different types of music and different kinds of music-makers. I especially love the fact that Carly Simon is there, because the music and the voice of Carly Simon was really beautiful for me when I was much, much younger. I sort of grew up with Carly, and I think it's really appropriate that she's there. ... And I was really touched by Dolly Parton saying that she didn't feel she should be there. Why shouldn't she be? Clearly she's so significant and she's her music has touched people — and not only people who love country music. In a time when people are very focused on the differences, I love the fact that we can build bridges through music.
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What's also significant is this is the most women inducted in a single class: six! You're being inducted along with Carly, Pat, Dolly, Elizabeth Cotten, and Sylvia Robinson. There was a time when the Hall was thought of as a boys' club, but I believe that is changing.
I do see it changing. It's changed enormously. I mean, when I first had the notion that actually at my core I was a singer-songwriter, there were so very few women that I could refer to. Obviously there was the one-and-only Joni Mitchell, who was a huge influence on me, just in the terms that I thought, “Oh, she's singing and she's writing!” The lyrical poetry of this music and this incredibly unique tuning of these string instruments that she played so proficiently and so brilliantly… it was phenomenal. It was the inspiration. I carried that inside me. I never wanted to sound like anyone else — and I really didn't want to be compared to other singers, because I felt you really need to craft your own sound, your own voice, your own style — but every other singer around me definitely informed me of something. And it was just the fact that they existed, predominantly, that was most influential.
You mentioned diversity. and not wanting to sound like anyone else. When you and Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart perform at the Hall of Fame ceremony, I'm wondering what songs you might do, because within your own body of work there is so much diversity. Some people might call you guys a synthpop duo, but then you did soul, rock, baroque pop. Have you started to think about what sort of set will represent Eurythmics’ different eras?
.No, we'll figure it out – but you're so right, because the pointfor us was once we'd made an album, we felt that was our statement. We never wanted to repeat that. For us it was like, “What can we do next?” That was the thrill of the freedom that we felt we could have. And of course we would confound audiences, because they perhaps would want to hear the same thing that they'd heard already. And that just wasn't going happen! I think that we were in some ways ahead of our time, because I think now people could understand it better. But when “Sweet Dreams" came out, people didn't know what to make of it. We had to break down a lot of resistance, certainly in the United States.
Also, people felt that I was challenging for them, definitely because of the way I projected my persona onstage — wearing a man's suit, cutting my hair. It was definitely quite threatening at that point in time. And now I love this new arrival of language. We have “genderfluid”; it's not “gender-bender,” which was so insulting, in a way. It was insulting because it was a bit like, “Oh this is a bit of a joke.” And when people are feeling threatened, they turn it into a joke. I mean, certainly in the media, with the headlines of “gender-bender,” I felt there was a kind of reductive quality in it.
That's interesting. The media was always lumping you into the “gender-bender” category with Boy George, Marilyn, Pete Burns…
Yes, Boy George and I were partners in crime, apparently. [laughs] And that was just purely kind of symbiotic, just something that happened at that moment. Often I've observed in cultural evolution, people come out with something that is quite similar because it reflects that moment in time. And George, he was very challenging visually. I mean, his presence — he was a really tall guy. And to see this really tall guy who was completely confounding with the way he presented himself, it was fascinating at the time. So, that was one of the reasons why when we were nominated for a Grammy back in the day and we gave a live performance. I thought it would be interesting to actually come onstage as a man. Like, “Hey, you think I'm a man? Then I'll be a man. If you want to feel ‘comfortable,’ here I'll be. I'll be a man for you.” That was kind of my thinking.
Yes, Eurythmics and Culture Club were both up for Best New Artist that year. And you came on looking like Elvis Presley.
Well, people can say “Elvis,” but it was whatever it looked like. It was a dark-haired man that had a certain hardcore, cool stance. I felt like, “I'm gonna be a man today.” And it was great feeling. It was very empowering to be that man. I'd never known what it felt like to be a man. Of course, I'm not a man, but it's so interesting, all the labels that you get. They’re never quite accurate, because we're far greater than labels. People automatically assumed that I was a lesbian, which was fantastic in a way. … I was like, “Well, if you want to think that I'm lesbian, that's fine. I don't mind.” I really don't mind because for me, honestly, we have to get beyond labels at the end of the day. What we need in the world is equality and opportunity for all, right across the board, because these so-called minorities of people have been living invisible lives and have been stigmatized against forever. I love to see that now trans women and men have a voice, because they exist. … We have to want to respect all of humanity, every single one of us.
Do you have any stories about anyone telling you that seeing you on MTV or at the Grammys, dressed as you were, had a profound effect on them?
Yes, it happens a lot. … People have come to me, and people have even cried with me, because that aspect of performing in Eurythmics was so significant to them. So, that's very meaningful.
You are always championing humanitarian causes. While we’re chatting, is there anything that you want to use this platform to mention?
Absolutely. I recognize that I have been feminist in my thinking for decades, and at a point not that long ago, we couldn't even get the word “feminist” comfortably used by many, many women. It was a big, big struggle even to own that. I mean, we were talking about labels earlier: This label is terribly important, because we need to exist. Women need to exist. I define myself as a “global feminist” because I would like to see feminism understood on a global scale. The places where feminism is needed most are the countries around the world where women are the least empowered, countries where the lack of resources is almost like living in the medieval times. If you think about a country like Afghanistan, where women and girls now have been suppressed in the regime to the point where they actually have to become invisible, it is horrendous. So, I am a passionate global feminist.
Back in 2008, I founded an organization called the Circle, and we work to advocate and shed light on projects around the world — when it comes to gender-based violence, equal rights, equal pay. These issues are huge in countries where women are really under-valued and de-valued. We have to keep the light burning. We have to keep the awareness going on. And that is a big, big challenge, because there is so much going on right now. We have millions of refugees everywhere — not only in Ukraine, obviously, which is a catastrophe for that country and mainly women and girls and elder people, the most vulnerable having to escape or having to remain in the country. It's just incredible, one issue upon the other. But you know, at the end of the day, I am a humanitarian-based activist. And that's the little part that I take in my life. And that's my deep, deep, profound commitment.
You mentioned there was a time when “feminism” was a dirty word. Even recently, there were famous pop stars who shied away from the term. I feel that has changed, but why do you feel that word was such a roadblock for so long?
I think that people are only genuinely interested in mainly what's going on in their own backyard. The challenge is to see it from a global perspective, so that we're not only just looking towards what is happening in Western countries. Now women are so empowered and there's so much that we can do, but we're still not doing enough. We have huge responsibilities as women. We are the ones who conceive babies, and now with the Roe v. Wade issue, it's incredibly concerning. Even discussions about taking contraception away — our rights to our bodies, to our sexual wellbeing, to our mental health, to our physical health, these rights are being eroded in this country. That will be a huge fight. Now that has to be the main fight for the United States. And at the same time, that reflects for every single woman girl around the globe. So, we must think of feminism as a global need and requirement.
I want to thank you for everything you do. It's an honor to speak with you, and I'm so thrilled that you’re getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Do you have any idea what might happen at the ceremony, or if you and Dave Stewart, who reunite from time to time, might work on some new Eurythmics music?
Dave and I, we always like to be inventive with what we do. We like to take every opportunity, whenever we get together, to make the most of it. So, I'm thinking and I have a few ideas up my sleeve, but I never like giving anything away, because it's like opening up the present before Christmas! … I just take one day at a time. I have that privilege, because before I was always on a wheel of creating for so long. I love to be able to step back; to step back is the biggest privilege for me as a creative person, to not always be running and running and running, just to be able to live life in the way I want to live it. Being able to be a creative artist was always my dream, and it happened. I mean, the song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” somehow reflects that. Certain dreams come true, and it's always very surreal when they do. To step through that imaginary door and be inducted into this imaginary space of a [Rock & Roll Hall of Fame] museum that reflects the power of music. … Music is a bridge, music is a connector of souls while we are on this planet, and we must celebrate. And music has given me this opportunity.
The above interview is taken from Annie Lennox’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on the SiriusXM app.
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