Annie Lennox and the 1920s: Adventures in Cultural History

If you’ve talked to me in the last couple of months, you’re aware that researching for a new project is basically an experience of dazzling joy bordering on highs of illegal proportions, and researching the 1920s is—if possible—even more fun than usual.

No surprises there.

Was happily burying myself in WWI material, Bright Young Things, flappers, blunt cut bobs, the Ballets Russes, American jazz, insanely elaborate parties, excess, homosexuality, dying empires, National Socialism…

Somewhere in the mix two of my brothers stopped by Plyms to spend the weekend lolling on my couch and talking about books (two of my favorite activities in the world). “Oh,” said Wol. “BTDubs, you HAVE to see this music video. Do you like Annie Lennox?”

To be honest, all I really knew about Annie Lennox is that she did a song for Lord of the Rings and reminds me vaguely of the 80s. My brothers, however, had fallen in love with her because she is completely insane, and her music videos are consequently bizarre, over-the-top theatricality wrapped in hard-core irony.

What’s not to love?

So, we started watching and laughing and then suddenly it wasn’t funny so much as astonishing. I’m not much for conspiracy theories, but I imagine my excitement was probably along the lines of folks who think the Bible spells out secret numerical messages or a dedicated UFO watcher who sees a glowing saucer. Because Annie Lennox may be crazy, but she’s crazy in a way that had become incredibly familiar. She’s using all the same motifs, themes, and symbols of the 1920s aesthetes.

This is what I’ve learned about 1920 dandyism: they were obsessed with frivolity, the ballet, theatricality as a way of understanding life. They loved dressing in costume, especially if they could emulate periods of excess. They were into gender blurring, ironic cross-dressing, and lipstick for all. They adopted the figure of Pierrot—the French version of an Italian Commedia del’arte stock character, most famous for the naivete that is also his downfall (that’s what Wikipedia says, anyway). Pierrot as a essentially a clown, but a frequently heartbroken one, as his stock character lover, Columbine, is forever leaving him to be with the more alpha male Harlequin. Pierrot came to stand for the artist, a clown (entertainer) who is simultaneously a figure of comedy/frivolity and suffering/tragedy.

Ok, now watch this (I don’t recommend it, but you can skip ahead a minute if you’re very pressed for time and want the full picture fast):

Lucky coincidence? Lots of people use circus symbolism, it’s true. I love the mixture of insanity and yet… it works for me. I get the emptiness, the sense of loss, the imagery of circus clowns in an empty tent.

Oh, but it gets crazier. Check out these little gems (ok, these are admittedly long and weird, but watch the first minute or so and you get the picture).

Taken together, Lennox has played with just about every major issue for the 1920s dandies. Does that mean she’s a secret history buff? Eh, I have zero insight into that, but at the very least it shows that the dandy aestheticism is alive and well. Of course, none of the stuff originated exactly with the cool kids of the 1920s—they were consciously adopting from Oscar Wilde, who was borrowing from the fops and dandies of a previous generation, who were doubtless doing the same—modifying as they went along to suit their particular generational tastes. I just find the whole, half-hidden tradition kind of fascinating.

Makes me wonder: are there really only a handful of different ways of understanding and concerning oneself with life—and are the traditions of each passed down pretty much intact? How aware are we really of the cultural heritage of our symbols and ideas? Wouldn’t it be good to know?

Questions like that sent me on a mad scavenger hunt for 1920s symbolism in our art and music of today, which has been incredible fun, but this already getting long and ratty, so I’ll leave you with the suggestion that, if you really want to see more, you should probably check out UK band Placebo’s song “Pierrot the Clown” (it’s a rough topic, which is why I didn’t want to end on it here). Maybe will settle for this bizarrely lovely trailer for a 1960s French film called (naturally) “Pierrot le fou.”



2 thoughts on “Annie Lennox and the 1920s: Adventures in Cultural History

  1. Interesting stuff. I had a jazz teacher for many years with a thing for Annie Lennox, so I’ve danced to several of her songs, including No More “I Love You” and Walking on Broken Glass. Pierrot, Harlequin, and Columbine are also frequent characters in ballets, and I never really knew their history. It’s fun to have some dots connect. I wouldn’t be too surprised if there really are only a few ways of understanding and concerning ourselves with life. I think, despite all the apparent differences across culture and time, that underneath it all, human beings are pretty much the same, “discovering” the same epiphanies and fascinations over and over. There is nothing new under the sun.

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