September 23rd, 2014
In her book She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll Gillian Gaar discusses how some artists utilized MTV subvert “traditional images of femininity” and notes that Annie Lennox of Eurythmics was one of the first women to take advantage of the new medium. I recall the videos for “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, “Here Comes the Rain Again”, and “Who’s That Girl?” getting plenty of air time on MTV in 1983/84. I was never a fan of their synth-pop and so it was surprising to find out that Lennox was a big R&B fan, especially Motown. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised but when I think of Eurythmics, I think of drum machines and squeaky early 80s synth sounds.
Despite having no love for the band’s music, there was no doubt that Lennox herself had a great set of pipes and was a very charismatic figure. Instead of traditionally long hair, she kept hers cropped. The story related by Gaar is that in the early days of Eurythmics Lennox had been keeping her hair short and wearing wigs on stage but had one pulled off at a gig. Her true look garnered cheers and she decided to stop keeping it under wraps. It being the 80s, I found it refreshing to see someone who didn’t regularly apply multiple cans of hair spray to achieve a ridiculous, gaudy coiffure. I think her hair style plus her chiseled features gave her slightly masculine cast which definitely helped set her apart.
Her gender bending was taken to a new level, to my memory, in the video for “Who’s that Girl?” in which Lennox dons a blond wig to be a night club chanteuse but also another hair style and make-up to play a man showing interest from afar. The two Lennoxes nearly kiss at the end of the video – presumably a lesbian kiss would have been too much for MTV in 1984. In She’s a Rebel Gaar notes that when the video for “Love Is a Stranger” was shown on MTV the station “blacked out the shots of Lennox ‘changing’ from a woman to a man (she pulls off her wig), assuming the singer was a male transvestite; Lennox was forced to submit legal documentation proving that she portrayed the character.” Exactly why legal proof would be needed here is beyond me as I don’t recall it ever having been illegal for male transvestites to appear on television.
At the time when Eurythmics were at the height of their popularity, Lennox’s gender bending was a bit over my head. I saw her appearance and the band’s videos as basically being novelty. The youthful me never thought of the singer as making a feminist statement or twisting traditional gender imagery askew. In Lennox’s words: “One of the main reasons I wear the clothes I do and have an androgynous image, is because I didn’t want to be seen as a ‘girlie singer’ wearing pretty dresses. I don’t want to change sexual labels – I want to sidestep them, and to confound people a little bit with something fresher and less cliched.”
Are there any female singers that site Lennox and her androgynous look as an influence?
This show was recorded at the Palais des Sports in Lyon, France on 17 March 1983. It was broadcast on French radio and, unfortunately, the DJ here talks over some of the music. The recording is from what I take to be a fairly common bootleg called I Only Want to Be With You.
This Is the House
Never Gonna Cry Again
Love Is a Stranger
I’ve Got an Angel
This City Never Sleeps
Satellite of Love
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
I Could Give You (a Mirror)
Somebody Told Me
Here they are doing “Never Gonna Cry Again” from 1983(?). I never knew that Lennox was a flautist. And check out Dave Stewart’s hair. That is why I cringe whenever I hear about 80s pop culture making a comeback. Aquanet must be stopped!