I can’t do this, I said to myself, just before I sat down a moment ago to do this. I don’t know how to properly end the Annie Lennox series. In fact, I never considered its ending even when I pitched its concept to The Rumpus way back in August 2015. At the time, my thirty-four-year-old worldview was not profoundly telescopic.
And it still isn’t, here at the early sunrise of 2017.
I will say that I’m glad last year is over, and it didn’t take Annie Lennox down with it. I will also say that I’m hopeful my electro-pop gender-bending lifelong hero still has several more years ahead of her. But as far as “time ahead” is concerned, predicting and hoping for the best for others’ is as far as my own prognosticating can go these days.
To be quite honest, I’m not sure how much “time” I have left. But let me back up to 2014 real quick…
That was arguably Annie Lennox’s “dumpster-fire” year. It was the year that she chose to focus more on philanthropy and political activism, which, in turn, overshadowed her more widely known musical persona.
From interviews in the press about the oversexualization of female performers, to social media statements on her personal views of feminism and Scottish independence, Lennox courted controversy in 2014. Her opinions were often misquoted, sometimes distorted, and, on rare occasions, taken completely out of context, prompting her to publicly declare that her upcoming Nostalgia album very well might be her last.
Now in January 2017, those public political statements of Annie’s nearly three years ago hardly seem contentious or inappropriate given the amount of judgmental online detritus to which we, the human population (including the readers of this essay), have been subjected over the past several months. Still, we haven’t heard so much as a musical peep out of Lennox since Nostalgia’s much-heralded release. I fear she may have been serious with her threat then.
But maybe that’s not a bad thing…
If Nostalgia, which featured songs made popular by the likes of Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, and Jo Stafford, was truly Annie’s last album, it was definitely a good way to bid her fanbase adieu.
That’s because the album, in its entirety, offers nothing for which Annie Lennox is typically known; it’s a collection of classic jazz standards, after all.
“It’s funny,” Lennox said to BBC’s Kevin Geoghegan two years ago, “when you are an artist, you tend to get labeled, you tend to get categorized and put in a little box and people think ‘This is who you are, this is who you always have to be.’ But from my perspective, I always like to push my own boundaries, and I think if I repeat what I’ve done over the years and just come out with ‘the second model’ of the same thing, then [my music won’t be] very interesting.”
Lennox’s decision to “tackle jazz”—as NPR put it—left some critics and fans both dumbfounded and impressed, many of whom wondered afterward, “Is there anything Annie can’t do?”: To that, I would have quickly replied,“She can’t rap worth a damn,” using the song “Money Can’t Buy It” from her Diva album as my case in point. But I digress.
To others, Annie’s decision to make a jazz album felt more like a cavalier choice—one made in order to display her remarkable, seemingly infinite abilities that, ultimately, failed to faze. As Rolling Stone put it, “‘Summertime,’ ‘Strange Fruit,’ and ‘God Bless the Child’ show reverence and impeccable technique yet not quite enough signature to transcend mere impressiveness.” The reviewer then gave the album an arbitrary three out of five stars.
Regardless of the personal taste of those who have both the access and ability to share their thoughts worldwide, Lennox’s own affection for each number on Nostalgia is definitely apparent on each track. In fact, the raw emotion she delivers in each song is really the only hint of “classic Annie” perceptible throughout the album—a compilation that could, by the way, easily be perceived as an all-out jazz primer in and of itself.
But that’s just my opinion, of course. And I’ve been writing about Annie Lennox for The Rumpus for over a year now.
When I think back on writing each of these essays about “my life with Annie Lennox,” I, too, consider the effort in its entirety to be a sort of primer: one, to my life’s most poignant moments—those that might be worthy of others’ consideration, that is—and two, to the songs that made Annie’s musical career worthy of the conclusory term “legendary,” from “Walking on Broken Glass” to “Sweet Dreams,” from “No More ‘I Love You’s’” to “I Put a Spell On You.” How else could I accomplish this juxtaposition, I wondered, without lengthily chronicling the impact Annie’s music has had on my life throughout the two-plus decades following my initial discovery of her music that fateful but random afternoon long ago?
There was no other way for me but to write.
Annie Lennox was present in my life amid its most mundane and most traumatic moments: when I “came out” to my conservative family, when I bound my breasts, when I “lost” my friend Thao to crack, when I flipped my 1985 Mustang into a ditch and pulled myself out only after having saved a copy of Medusa from the car’s overheating tape deck; when I found Thao again online (just last summer, in fact); when I confronted my own addiction to booze and amphetamines in 2012. Annie may not have been at the very forefront of my mind in each of these circumstances, but our lifelong heroes rarely are; rather, they’re just “with us”—as reliable and as inspirational as our favorite memories. In fact, they are our favorite memories.
I don’t use the term “lifelong hero” frivolously. There are a lot of people I respect and wish to emulate; Annie Lennox, however, is the only “lifelong hero” I’ll ever have. I need her.
Writer Wendell Jamieson wrote about having a pop star as his “lifelong hero” for the New York Times last September. Unable to put his finger on the exact moment in his life that Elvis Costello became, to him, an artist worthy of such protracted personal reverence, he wrote:
Did Mr. Costello’s youthful irritation at authority, his simultaneous affection for and fear of girls and women, his obvious fascination with history and politics, make me feel a certain kinship with him? Did his wordplay tickle my brain and make me want to untangle more riddles? Did his harassed characters and dark narratives make me want to listen in the way that one glances, guiltily, at a couple arguing on the sidewalk? Did his melodies and band’s playing send my spirit soaring? Who knows? I heard his music and I was gone.
I feel similarly about Annie’s impact on my life and I’ve since accepted the ultimate futility in trying to pinpoint the precise moment in which she officially became my “lifelong hero.” Had it been that very first time I’d heard her deep, contralto voice lamenting a lost love over the staccato, baroque-pop orchestral motifs of “Walking on Broken Glass”? Had it been the first time I saw Annie dressed as a man and decided that I, too, could and would coordinate my own outfits similarly? Had it been the moment I found myself staring at the cover of her Bare album thirteen years ago, comparing the prominence of the labionasal folds on my my face to those on hers?
I don’t know, I don’t know.
Earlier this year, I was hospitalized in a psych ward for a week for depression and suicidal ideation. That’s what the psychologists wrote in my charts, at least. And who am I to argue? Yes, I wanted to die.
I was suffering from an interminable battle of self, oppressed by arduous memories that had once been, when I was drinking and using drugs, nicely repressed. On top of that, I was in love with a woman who was also my best friend. Certain that I shouldn’t be suffering from such self-induced (and self-indulgent) “melodrama” at this stage in my life, I seriously debated taking my own life—a debate I entertain daily, though this instance felt closer than usual and actually scared me. I eventually talked myself into trudging to the bus stop to await the Number 3 line—the route that would take me to Sheppard Pratt Hospital just outside Baltimore’s city limits.
On my way there, I thought,“I can’t kill myself. I’ve still got to finish the Annie Lennox series for The Rumpus.”
This made me chuckle through my tears.
I don’t mean to minimize, belittle, or make light of a disorder from which I, alongside hundreds of millions of others worldwide, suffer; rather, I’m trying to explain that, even in that deeply cynical, dispirited moment, Annie Lennox was there.
This entire series has made her blessedly crucial to my life again.
Now I just have to maintain that connection on my own.
When I say I don’t know how much time I have “left,” I mean that I’m uncertain about how long I’ll be able to share the planet with Annie Lennox at the same time. Not that she’s on the brink of death. Not that I’m still wishing I were.
It’s just something I think about, probably too often: that I, as of right now, exist concurrently with someone whose creations have basically fueled the establishment and production of my own.
After Nostaglia’s release, Lennox told NPR that turning to the past helped her comment indirectly on the events of the present:
I was born in 1954. I’ve lived through all these decades and seen all the changes, been witness to the collective thing that’s gone on on the planet,” Annie said. “And… a part of me—kind of, sometimes—wants to slow it down and go back. And the one thing you cannot do—and this is inherent, the sort of irony of the title—you cannot go back. There’s no turning back of the clock. You’ll never do that. So Nostalgia is a dip into an imaginary space, really.
This series has allowed me to examine my own past in a process made more comfortable by Annie’s music, knowing full-well that I cannot go back there; I cannot alter things. I can only acknowledge two factors—the events that have occurred in my life up to this point and Annie’s massive personal impact on me throughout. And I do this in an effort to make sense of where I am today.
And where am I precisely? I’m still at work at 5 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, looking forward to a bath later and, hopefully, a homemade muffin.