Source: City Life
Visual statements don’t come much more bold than pictures of Annie Lennox in her prime – as the suited and booted female half of 1980s superstar pop band The Eurythmics.
That cropped red hair, those sharp suits, that ruby pout: they separated her from the traditional female stereotypes of the era, but they also confrontationally spelled out that a new type of woman was emerging.
More than 30 years on, we’d hardly bat an eyelid at the sight of a woman in a man’s suit. But Annie really took some stick for it; headlines debated her sexuality, others even questioned her gender. But on the flip side, it also made her an icon – her voice and her image came to define the decade.
“Back then, people were really closeted,” Annie recalls when we meet to discuss The House Of Annie Lennox, her new exhibition opening at The Lowry this weekend which looks at her career and her impact as a musician.
“When I think about it, me wearing a man’s suit in a duo with a man had a very different meaning for me to how it was interpreted by others. It was interpreted via these strange headlines, like ‘Gender bender’, and I was left thinking, ‘****, I didn’t know I was a gender bender, I’m not gay’.
“I thought that was interesting. I became the poster girl for the gay and lesbian community and I didn’t mind that because it was serving a purpose, but really what I was saying was, ‘I’m powerful, not powerless’. I was wearing a uniform that gave me power, that androgyny was ambiguous and it was not about my own sexual orientation, it was really about saying, ‘I want to be as strong as a man, you cannot define me just because I’m a woman, you must look at me again – I am not a cliché’.
“Now people look at young women and it’s normal for them to want to become a singer-songwriter and a recording artist, but when I was starting out I only had Joni Mitchell as my blueprint.”
In part, The House Of Annie Lennox seeks to contextualise why Annie chose that image – and how it has evolved during her three or more decades in music. In her two bands with Dave Stewart, The Tourists and Eurythmics, and as a solo artist.
But the show, which debuted last year at London’s V&A Museum, is also an exploration of Lennox as a woman, as a political and social campaigner and as a role model.
The V&A show forms the core of the installation, but Annie has also worked with The Lowry to significantly extend the collection, adding additional exclusive content including a cabinet full of curiosities and personal treasures, an immersive lyrics space, a display of international music awards, and iconic photographs and costumes never before exhibited.
“I’ve been going to museums and art galleries since I was a kid up in Aberdeen and I’ve always found them to be places of magic, places where I could be transported,” Annie enthuses.
“Through all these years I’ve held onto things that felt very special to me – I just couldn’t let them go. And I didn’t have a purpose in it, it wasn’t like I thought, ‘One day, I’m going to have an exhibition at the V&A or at The Lowry’.
“But when people see a live performance or a video performance, they’re just seeing the result of a lot of preparation that goes into that, and there’s a lot of creativity and imagination and hard work that is behind everything. So I think it’ll be interesting on different levels when people see the exhibition, because if they’re my generation they’ll have a chance to reflect on things that they saw when they were younger and they’ll see them from a different perspective.
“It’s almost like reassessing the value of a life’s work because it covers a period of over 30 years… I evolve as a human being.”
When it first showed in London, critics were surprised to see Annie’s life laid bare. Despite her flamboyant persona on stage, Annie has a reputation as an intensely private individual. It’s a view she hopes the show will dispel; putting ‘The House’ together has been an interesting and enlightening experience, she says. “You say that I’m a very private individual – I don’t think I am!” she laughs. “People say these things about you and you think, ‘I am?’.
“I think I’m a very public person – I communicate with people about all sorts of things I think and feel. The thing I don’t do is sell my private life. I don’t invite magazines and papers into my house – for me, there needs to be a certain boundary.
“When I think about people that have no boundary with that, I’m amazed.
When I go out into the street by myself, I walk outside freely, people recognise me and smile and say hello, I talk to people who are total strangers to me but they feel they know me – and that’s through my work, not through this thing called celebrity which I find an anathema.
“If I’m well known, it’s because of the work I do; it’s not because of my dog, my jacuzzi and my big fat car.”
She’s right, of course, and she’s been able to avoid the cult of celebrity exactly because her achievements as a musician (recalled in the show through costumes, awards and the music itself) are plentiful: a dozen chart-topping platinum albums, movie soundtracks, four Grammy Awards, four Ivor Novellos, even a Golden Globe.
And that’s before you even touch on the humanitarian work she’s been recognised for by everyone from the British Red Cross to the United Nations and the Queen, who awarded her the OBE for her work with AIDS charities and her efforts to raise awareness about poverty in Africa.
In many ways, she says, this is the most important aspect of ‘The House’ for her. “I realised a few years ago, whether it be homelessness or the ecological situation or poverty or women’s rights, that music is a phenomenal platform to raise awareness, to gain focus,” she explains.
“Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s campaign with Band Aid at the time was hugely innovative and I was inspired by the Amnesty International Human Rights tour that took place with Peter Gabriel and Sting and Youssou N’Dour and Tracy Chapman in the 1980s.
“There’s a nobility to music when it really has something of value that is over and beyond the interests of the artist’s own personal expression and becomes a collective pursuit. To be honest, that’s the ultimate value for me, it’s almost like I’ve been evolving for all these years and I’ve stepped through from behind my singing voice to become an advocate and campaigner.
“I don’t do this lightly and it’s not for an ego boast; I’m just in a position where I can bring attention to certain injustices or issues I feel passionately about. I feel the onus is on, you know? I cannot just sit back and do my nails. I see so many problems, it is overwhelming; human behaviour is so mad and the western world is so resourced in comparison to those who have so little.
“And I’m particularly resourced, there’s no question about that – I live a very comfortable existence and I’m not guilty about that. But I don’t need more and what I’m doing now with my foundation and the activities I have is putting my time, my commitment and sometimes my money that I’ve earned into trying to support people that deserve to be supported.
“It’s a drop in the ocean really, but it makes me feel less impotent and that’s a good feeling for me because it stops me feeling despairing.”
The House Of Annie Lennox opens at The Lowry tomorrow until June 17. Free.