IS IT daft to describe Annie Lennox as Scotland’s David Bowie? Possibly, but let’s give it a go. On the same day next week, two V&A exhibitions about pop singers will open for business. In London, at the V&A itself, there’s David Bowie Is, assembled from more than 300 objects – handwritten lyrics, costumes, photos, music videos, set designs, etc. In Edinburgh, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, there’s The House Of Annie Lennox, first staged at the V&A in 2011 and now on its second stop north of the Border, having spent last summer in Aberdeen, where Lennox grew up.
If Bowie himself is conspicuous by his absence from the new V&A show – he was not involved in putting it together and will not be helping to promote it – The House Of Annie Lennox has been a very personal project, rooted in Lennox’s own collection of photos, memorabilia and awards and, in Aberdeen in particular, memories of her childhood and family. When the show opened in London, visitors were sometimes surprised to discover Lennox using her “house” as an office space, as a kind of living exhibit. The contrast reflects the different personalities of the shows’ subjects. If Lennox is very much a heart-on-sleeve performer, at her best when at her most direct and revealing, Bowie’s most resonant music also tends to be his most enigmatic, as on Low, where the austere instrumentals seemed to take the rock star Bowie out of the picture completely.
In other respects, though, the shows have much in common. Lennox and Bowie are both famous shape-shifters, and both have challenged fixed ideas about what men and women are supposed to look like – Bowie, most obviously, with his early adoption of glam rock and the androgynous alien that was Ziggy Stardust. He’s spent quite a lot of time in feminine clothing over the years, from the ethereal and beautiful cover of The Man Who Sold The World to his dandyish Goblin King in the film Labyrinth. Lennox has spent a roughly equal amount of time in men and women’s clothing, from a series of suits and ties (an image with which she is so strongly associated that it appeared on the Eurythmics 2005 Ultimate Collection compilation album) to the bright pink feather boa on the cover of her first solo album, Diva.
If Bowie has sometimes seemed like he’s dressing up for laughs (see the gum-chewing beehived girl in his Boys Keep Swinging video), the famously earnest Lennox was always trying to make a point. The Diva artwork is classic Lennox – feminine glamour taken to such an extreme, garish level that it is clearly a parody. Lennox is looking disdainfully away from the camera rather than towards the male sexual gaze (as glamour models are generally obliged to do). Something similar is happening on the Eurythmics’ artistic high point, their 1987 album Savage. Reluctant to tour, the band created a video album to accompany the record with director Sophie Muller, and it’s one of the best, most ambitious things they ever made.
Lennox begins the film as a bored, dowdy housewife, knitting resentfully on a plain sofa, but within minutes she’s transformed herself into a gloriously OTT vamp, looking like Satan dressed as Marilyn Monroe in an enormous dirty blonde wig, black false eyelashes and a figure-hugging, cleavage-flaunting shiny white dress. The song (I Love To Listen To Beethoven) ends with her smashing up her home and careering wildly out into the sunshine. She’s next seen uninhibitedly belting out I Need A Man, a raw rock song about female sexual desire, but by the time the sombre title track comes around, she seems imprisoned again – holed up in an oppressive photographer’s studio, joylessly posing for a series of portraits, her eyes as dead as those of the bored housewife she started out as. It’s brilliantly damning about the roles women find themselves forced into, and the traps set by them. It’s no surprise, a quarter of a century on, to find this same woman campaigning against gender-based violence in South Africa, and the two acts are very much connected. As she told a magazine recently, “Women have been wearing men’s clothes for centuries. It’s a powerful thing when a woman wears something less feminine. It’s saying: you must look at me slightly differently, I’m not just going to be a sexual object for you.”
It’s a bit of a shame that, as Lennox has become more overtly political over the years, her music has become more conservative. It’s difficult to imagine the older Lennox making anything as musically daring as the Eurythmics’ soundtrack to the film 1984 (For The Love Of Big Brother). This, certainly, is a trap Bowie has never fallen into, continuing to push himself musically well into his 50s and 60s (releasing a drum and bass album, of all things, on the year of his 50th birthday). In more recent years he has reverted to a “classic Bowie” sound rather than throwing curveballs like his science-fiction concept album 1. Outside, but the results have never been bland – unlike the Eurythmics’ last album, the underpowered Peace, or Lennox’s overproduced, middle of the road Songs Of Mass Destruction.
If Bowie has chosen to keep his distance from the V&A show, it’s presumably because he’s never been one for nostalgia – if anything, the cover of his new album, The Next Day, is implicitly anti-nostalgia, dismissively concealing the artwork from a much-loved old Bowie classic, Heroes. Where Are We Now, the first track released from The Next Day, seemed ambivalent about looking back on 1970s Berlin – its image of “a man lost of time” suggesting nostalgia is a sort of living death.
Lennox appears much more willing to embrace her past, but perhaps, actually, for the same reason that Bowie shuns it – because she’s comfortable about having left it behind. She tends to dress down these days – you’re as likely to see her in a T-shirt with an Aids awareness slogan than in couture. In a 2011 interview to promote the V&A show, she sidestepped a question about what she thought of Lady Gaga copying her look by complementing Adele on her lack of “fripperies and excesses”. “The problem with Gaga is, the burnout possibilities are very high. How hard is it to be different every day? I wouldn’t want that sort of burden.”
Still, there’s a part of me that wishes it was Lennox playing Bowie’s glacial wife in the video for his new single The Stars (Are Out Tonight), instead of Tilda Swinton. It would make sense – Swinton, another androgynous shape-shifter, was always the obvious person to play Lennox on film (although in this case, Lennox could easily have played the role herself). Lennox and Bowie have teamed up already to winning effect, performing Queen’s Under Pressure together at a 1992 tribute to Freddie Mercury at Wembley Stadium. That night, Lennox looked far more alien-like than the famously alien-like Bowie, almost unrecognisable in white face paint and black eye make-up, her hair scraped back across her scalp, part clown, part witch. Another collaboration is probably unlikely at this stage, but it would be fascinating to see. «
• The House Of Annie Lennox, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 23 March until 30 June; David Bowie Is, V&A, London, 23 March until 11 August