“My Life with Annie Lennox” is a series of essays about a young woman navigating through life with Annie Lennox as her guide. This is the first installment.
Honestly, my thirteen-year-old worldview was not profoundly telescopic. Somehow, though, I knew that I was going to struggle with puberty for the rest of my life; that the awkwardness I was just beginning to experience—so fresh that it didn’t yet leave me uncomfortable, just shocked—wasn’t going to be “just a phase” for me; it would be a personality trait.
It didn’t help that I had the body of a deflating blow-up doll—a lopsided chest, flat ass, and skinny arms that qualified as “gangly.” This state of adolescent asymmetry would have depressed me more were I the only person in my household experiencing it. Thankfully, my younger brother Zach was falling prey to the onslaught of puberty as well; he seemed to be morphing into one of those thirty-foot inflatable arm-flailing tube men at car dealerships and tradeshows. A gust of wind could blow him over.
No, even back then I knew full-well that the awkwardness from which I expected to suffer for decades was not just physical in nature. Whereas Zach’s would go away, mine would not. In time, I would learn how to carve the attribute into a finely-chiseled self-deprecating sense of humor. But before I had the wherewithal to do so, I despaired, convinced I’d forever trip over my words, or miscalculate the volume of my voice, or drop food from my mouth while eating, following the crumb’s trajectory down to my lap where it would leave an awkward Australia-shaped stain. In order to ward off potential critics of these ungainly tendencies of mine, which included almost every adult in my life, I cordoned myself off in my room and listened to the radio.
This was how I discovered Annie Lennox.
I was sitting in my bedroom, cross-legged on the floor, leafing through the latest issue of Seventeen when “Walking on Broken Glass” burst forth in its Baroque-ish pop fanfare from the speakers of my clock radio. The intro’s jaunty piano chords. The staccato barrage of pumping violins that followed. I blinked. Had my radio somehow tuned itself on to that NPR crap?
But then Annie’s voice emerged.
It is not a simple task, accurately describing the impact Annie’s voice had on me on that otherwise mundane afternoon. But it was instant. Since I was at an age in which cliches were as abundant in my daily life as the school melodramas that inspired them, I will say that, during the weeks that followed that afternoon, I wrote about Annie’s voice in my journal constantly, summarily proclaiming it to be “like nothing else I’ve ever heard.”
“Surely,” I wrote, “it is the voice of an angel.”
Eventually, I acquired the entire Diva album for Christmas. I no longer had to wait for the songs “Walking on Broken Glass” and “Why” to come on the radio, at which time I’d hush everyone in my immediate presence so that I could close my eyes, sway, and mouth along with the words.
Whereas my life as at home was uncomfortable—with all the daily extra attention centered on my emotional and physical development in front of the curious eyes of my younger siblings, my life at school was remarkably peaceful. At least for a little while. I was not the most popular kid, but I wasn’t the most unpopular kid either. It was more like I went to a school entirely for unpopular kids and fit right in. I attended a middle school for “the gifted and talented.” How I got accepted was beyond me, but there I was: a mouthy, rat-haired seventh-grader obsessed with Annie Lennox and trying to pass myself off as a member of the local scholarly elite.
But then eighth grade happened. One minute I was an awkward but content little teenager listening to Diva on the school bus ride home, the next minute I was dabbling in pyromania and setting strands of my own hair on fire.
I’m not sure where I was the first time I saw the music video for “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” but there might have been fire involved. What was it about adolescence that made tiny acts of arson so damn fulfilling? Fire or no, I do know that the music video left me feeling both angry and aroused. I suppose this had to do with the two separate but equally personal transformations I was enduring—metamorphoses that would concurrently propel me into an eighth-grade experience I’d later come to regret. But not in a dramatic “and-that’s-when-everything-changed” sort of way—there was no death or trauma. Just more awkwardness. With a lot of sexual confusion and a little bit of fire added to the mix.
The first transformation I endured was an aesthetic one. Now that I was in the eighth grade, I wanted desperately for my disproportionate body to do something—anything—sexy. But the standards for sexy at the time, much like the decades beforehand and the decades to follow, involved tight clothing and obedient hair, neither of which I had. My long blonde hair waved in the air as limp and weak as the insubordinate strands that spring loose from a middle-aged man’s comb-over. I never wore ponytails or braids. As listless as it was, my hair was my shield.
When I first saw Annie Lennox’s hair in the “Sweet Dreams” video, I hated it out of sheer jealousy. My hair could never be like that: a crew cut the color of traffic cones. Even if I tried my damnedest to mimic every other element of Annie’s ’80s androgynous style, I knew better than to give myself that haircut. I had neither the requisite cheekbones, nor the appropriate facial length.
The music video itself was eleven years old at the time. What was stylish in the early ’80s was now irrelevant—at least in terms of mainstream fashion. The looks of Siouxsie Sioux, Annie Lennox, and Cyndi Lauper had long been assigned to the ranks of “Halloween costumes.” And they stayed there until the band Orgy came along.
In spite of my limitations, my own aesthetic transformation seemed to carry on of its own accord. As my body morphed, my style morphed. And through all of this morphing, I prayed that I’d look like Annie Lennox in the end. Even if I did though (and I had a strong suspicion that I would not), I still understood and learned to accept that I’d never develop Annie’s andro-dominatrix-ness. I would never find myself slapping a whip against the palm of my hand, singing in a contralto at times so deep that you were left wondering if perhaps the singer was, in fact, a man.
So I resigned myself to oversized hoodies and pants built for two.
The second transformation I endured involved two realizations that slowly surfaced like twin periscopes from an otherwise peaceful body of water:
I had a crush on a girl at school.
I could tell no one I had a crush on a girl at school.
Her name was Georgia and she was a year older than me, with long brown hair, braces, and had this peppy way of walking that sometimes made her ponytail bounce as if it were its own sentient being and was really happy to be attached to her head. At first, I didn’t understand that I had a crush on her. I’d buy her small presents, write her notes, sit next to her in every class, and try to make her laugh as often as possible. I just figured that this was what it was like to have a best friend as a teenager. And I liked it a lot. In fact, I wanted ten more best friends.
But then one cold morning in the middle of winter, as I walked up the steps to school, I saw Georgia getting off her bus. Little tufts of steam emanated from her lips as she talked to a nearby friend. When she looked over and saw me, she smiled. And it finally occurred to me: I wanted to kiss her.
I panicked and ran into school.
From there on out, I opted to try and date every boy that I could, impulsively asking them out via slipped notes before lunch, after recess, in the hallway between English and science class. And, indeed, I asked them out—sometimes two in a day. There was, however, little if any confidence in my passive-aggressive dating proposals. As much as I would’ve liked to have approached each boy with the mien and dignity of Annie Lennox a la “Sweet Dreams,” pointing a whip directly into their faces and declaring them “mine,” I actually went about it quite the opposite: with my hooded sweatshirt pulled tight around my face, exposing little more than the tip of my nose and my two protruding lips. “Hey,” I’d say to the nearest seventh-grade boy, “this is for you.” I’d shove the folded note into his hand and briskly walk away.
Sometimes this strategy landed me with a boyfriend for a month or two. Most of the time, however, the results were firm “no thank yous,” which didn’t bother me too terribly much. At least no one seemed to notice I had a crush on a girl.