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Annie Lennox Speaks Out

Gay icon releases new Christmas album, and opens up about the AIDS pandemic, Perez Hilton’s ‘vicious diatribes’ and her own sweet dreams for the world.

Legendary status, earned over three decades in the music business, hasn’t changed Annie Lennox.

Despite being a global superstar, first making an impression in the ’80s as part of the Eurythmics before going solo, she’s genuinely concerned about the human condition, as her tireless work toward promoting HIV/AIDS awareness — with her SING campaign, established in 2007 — demonstrates. She’s inspired the world through dialogue and travel and music, a platform Lennox uses to fervently convey her feelings on society with her sterling voice.

“Universal Child,” which Lennox originally performed on Idol Gives Back earlier this year wearing a shirt that said “HIV-Positive” (even though she isn’t), is yet another passionate plea — this time, to help heal the world. It takes on new life as it rounds out Lennox’s new, first-ever holiday album, A Christmas Cornucopia, which also includes traditional songs and unconventional carols. Its heart, however, is still intact.

On the phone, as Lennox speaks to us from her Scotland home about the long-gestating collection, she’s completely grounded, initiating the conversation by mocking how much time her people have given us: “This is your 15 minutes with Annie Lennox,” she opens with a laugh.

And so it is, as Lennox gets heated over issues dear to her heart: her opinion on the current state of HIV/AIDS, feelings about the bullying-prompted suicides, and why sexuality labels shouldn’t exist.

Why release a Christmas album now, after all this time in the business? It was just the optimum moment. It’s something I’ve been longing to do for many years, and when you do anything in music it takes time. So every album that I’ve ever made has taken up most of the year that I’ve made it in. Then, finally, it came to the point when I was out of contract and I was like, “What’s my next step?” And then it occurred to me very obviously, “Ah, this is when I do what I’ve wanted to do for years.” (Laughs) So it’s just perfect. It’s a labor of love, this whole thing.

It sounds like it too, and it has some extra significance: Your 56th birthday is on Christmas Day. Did you ever get gypped on gifts? When I was a kid, it was fine, I used to get double, and I felt very good about that. But I’m at a point where receiving presents is not really the most important thing to me. (Laughs)

Well, of course: You’re more about giving, right? I prefer to. It’s very nice to get a present, but I like to give. I do.

I’m not surprised. How does “Universal Child” fit on A Christmas Cornucopia? You know, it was a very interesting thing. Basically, Island Records, or Universal, whom I’m signed to, just loved the song so much; they just kind of said, “You have got to put it on the album. We really, really want you to put it on the album.” So it was almost like their insistence, because I wasn’t sure; I’d been doing traditional Christmas carols, (and thought), “I wonder if this fits.” But actually now, on reflection, I think it really does fit.

It really belongs because the focus of all of the songs goes to the nativity. It goes to the birth of a child into the world — even if you’re not Christian, which I’m not a Christian — in a way that I was able to identify with in a metaphorical way, because I was thinking, “Well, this is a symbol. This is a child. It’s all of us. It’s about humanity.” So there was a thread of connection that ran through all the songs, you see.

How did the song come about? I hadn’t intended to write a song for the album, but one day I had this idea for “Universal Child” and I just started playing around with it while we were recording something. And basically, I was like, “Ohhh, wow, there’s a really interesting thing happening here.” So we stopped recording what we were recording and we carried on with “Universal Child” and finished it in the same evening. Sometimes it’s so strange like that: You write a song and it all comes at once. So that was one of those.

You merge a lot of your passion for activism into your music, particularly as it pertains to children and AIDS. Why do you think music is such a good platform for these issues? Music is a great vehicle of communication; everybody loves music. I never really met anybody who didn’t like music. And music tells stories and communicates ideas, and people are interested in music and musicians.

Sadly, in our culture we’re obsessed with celebrity — celebrity is the thing — and we spend so much money on magazines; we’re so interested in other people’s lives, so-called celebrities, and it’s a bit disheartening because we’re a big world and there’s so many things we could change and put right. But we’re so consumed by our own consumerist culture that very often we don’t see it.

I had a bit of a turning point when I had an opportunity to go to places that I wouldn’t have had a chance to visit before, and it blew my mind. I thought I knew what poverty was about. I thought I knew, and actually I didn’t know until I saw it for myself.

Right, back in 2003 when you participated in the launch of Nelson Mandela’s HIV/AIDS foundation. How has seeing the devastation caused by poverty and AIDS affected you as a person? I don’t think anybody could grasp the scale of the HIV/AIDS pandemic as it is played out, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where you have 22 million who are infected with the virus. Twenty-two million! And when you have so many deaths … I think it’s 27 million, it’s a figure that you cannot get your head around.

Recently, I was in Berlin and I went to visit the Jewish Holocaust memorial in the center of former East Berlin, and it’s very, very powerful — all kinds of people who perished in this Holocaust. The figures are staggering. And then you look at the HIV issue and it’s even more.

We were all celebrating the Chilean miners, including myself, and I was so happy to see these men emerge one by one – 33 men, out of the earth – and yet I know the price of human life in many places is worthless.

What does being a gay icon mean to you? (Laughs) It means a lot of gay men and women like me! It’s a funny thing: I don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Oh my goodness, I’m a gay icon!” Not at all. But you see, I’m not part of the gay community myself, so it’s not part of my direct experience. But I’m certainly a liberal-minded person, and I actually really almost resent all these labels.

I was watching on YouTube the other day a man … or a woman, I should say, who was saying, “Please don’t label me as transgender. I don’t want to be labeled. I’m sick of all these labels.” And I’m thinking, “I’m with you.” I mean, OK, you’re sexually oriented one way, this way or that way or another way, but I want to get rid of labels. I think we want to get to the point of evolution, where it makes no difference if you’re straight, gay, transgender, whatever — just be inclusive. We need to see ourselves as absolute human beings, first and foremost.

In the ’70s, when I was a teenager, it was the first time I discovered that anybody was gay. I had never met a gay person before I came from Scotland, and the changes that have happened so far are huge. I think there have just been huge steps. Gay people have come out, and they’re powerful and working in banks, in clinics, as doctors, teachers — everywhere. It’s just a natural evolution, in a way.

It does worry me very much when I hear about very extreme homophobia arising in places. I think of my friends who, if they went to certain countries, would be ostracized or … it’s unbelievable to think that these extremes do exist, but this is the world we live in. We’re living in a time where you have fundamentalists who are so extreme — either the Catholic Church or in the Muslim areas — and I just think, “Where’s the tolerance?”

How do you feel about the recent string of gay youth suicides, then? In this day and age, how come a young teenage boy or girl is feeling so conflicted about their sexual orientation that they feel suicidal? This bullying on cyberspace, uncontrolled, and this horrible result of nasty, vicious celebrity bullshit that you get on the Internet – an individual like Perez Hilton coming out on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve seen the light,” let’s make sure that he walks his talk and now that he apparently has seen the light, stop all this bullying. Stop it!

It’s disgraceful. It always was disgraceful. It should never be, and he of all people who has benefited so much from his vicious diatribes and his vicious putting down of so many individuals, he now needs to take responsibility and go forward and say, “I will now take responsibility and work for the other side.”

You’ve said that wanting to resist being perceived as a girly-girl prompted your androgynous phase in the ’80s. Why didn’t you want to be seen as ultra-feminine? I wanted to be perceived as a person with my own rights who is not going to be simply understood through my gender, through a certain limitation. Nowadays, women are so sexually explicit and they use this as a tool to get popular, and I find it very one-dimensional. When I see, like, with the rap music, hip-hop girls just being overtly sexual, it bores me. I just think, “Oh, the same old gag.” Surely we could’ve evolved further than that.

I’m all for sexuality being free and liberal, but I feel so sad that it’s like a one-trick pony. That’s all I see are ass and tits, and it’s sad. It’s a sad thing because people fought so hard to liberate us and to give us the vote and to give us more equal opportunities, and it looks sometimes to me like we’re really going backward.

So you’re still very much a feminist. I am feminist. I’m utterly feminist, and I’m very disappointed when people are afraid of the word and step away from the word. I told you I don’t like labels, but this is an important label. This is very important, and the fact that people are stepping away from it is a travesty. What we need to do is take ownership of the word “feminist” and we need to reinvent it so that people embrace it again. It’s a travesty that feminism is looked on as something that they should recoil from.

If you had a genie in a bottle, what would be your three wishes for the world? Healing. The genie would have to take all the extremists in the world that leaped immediately to arms and to warfare and get the opposing forces to get their mindset changed so that their priority should be only about finding solutions, only peaceful solutions. Unfortunately, we’re stuck in places like the Middle East, into the perpetual catch-22 of someone being killed, someone killing someone else — and then it goes on and on and on, and the bloodletting goes on and on and on, and there seems to be no solution.

I don’t ever know if it’s going to be possible because we’re human beings and we’re incredibly odd, but it would be wonderful to see peace. All these divisions that occur ironically between religious beliefs — Christians, Muslims, whomever — are the biggest tragedies on the planet. And then, of course, the sustainability of the planet, who knows where we’re at; we talk about global warming, about pollution, and we do a lot of talking. But I’d like to see the government really taking more responsibility on a global scale.

And then I’d like to see a real sort of development in preventable disease: Access to medicine that can prevent the deaths of millions of people, I’d like to see that. I’d like to see health care systems fully staffed. I’d like to see access to treatment. I’d like to see health care systems that are on their knees, in some way becoming effective. I’d like to see the end of corrupt governments. I’d like to see transparency of governments. I’d like to see all of these corrupt systems that are functioning, and all of these people who have scooped up so much money, taking accountability. It’s things like this that I think a lot about.

Chris Azzopardi

As editor of Q Syndicate, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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