After spending the 1980s enjoying enormous success as one half of the synthpop duo the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox began a new phase of her career in 1992 with the release of her solo debut, Diva, and proved that she could do just fine on her own.
During her Eurythmics days, Lennox had become known for her powerful voice and her edgy, androgynous image. But with Diva, we get to hear — and see — the softer, more vulnerable, more feminine side of the singer. That doesn’t mean the edginess is gone, it’s just packaged a little differently. She’s still exploring themes like love, heartbreak, and sexual politics as she did with the Eurythmics, but in a way I don’t think she fully could working with Dave Stewart; Diva‘s sound is warmer and its lyrics are more personal. As much as I loved Eurythmics Lennox, I was totally captivated by Diva Lennox.
Produced by Stephen Lipson, who is probably best known for his work with Trevor Horn, Diva was a commercial and critical success, topping the charts in the U.K. and reaching number 23 on the Billboard album chart in the United States. Since its release, it has been certified double-platinum in the U.S. and quadruple-platinum in the U.K. It also scored Lennox multiple award nominations, including three Grammys and four Brits.
The first single released from the album, the gorgeous, devastating ballad “Why,” was an immediate hit in the U.K., reaching #5 on the singles chart, though it wasn’t as big of a hit in the States, topping out at #34 on the Billboard Hot 100. Regardless of its chart position, “Why” made a bold statement to Lennox’s fans from her Eurythmics days: this album was very different than anything she’d done before. The moment I heard it, I was completly transfixed — I still get a little choked up when I hear its lush, opening notes. And the Sophie Muller-directed video, which won an MTV Video Music Award? Completely mesmerizing.
The second single, the soulful “Precious” (not based on the novel Push by Sapphire) did not do as well, only making it to #23 in the U.K. and not even charting in the U.S. It’s a great song, but I don’t think it was a strong choice for the follow-up to a single like “Why.” In my opinion, the smarter move would’ve been to release what wound up being the third single, “Walking On Broken Glass,” instead. That song, which is far more radio-friendly (remember when that mattered?), reached #8 in the U.K. and #14 in the States and was backed by another brilliant Sophie Muller video, inspired by 18th century period films like Dangerous Liaisons and Amadeus, and featuring actors John Malkovich and Hugh Laurie. Interestingly, the B-side of “Precious” was a song called “Step By Step” that later went on to become a hit for Lennox’s Arista label mate Whitney Houston when she covered it for the soundtrack to The Preacher’s Wife (1996).
After the success of the upbeat, orchestral “Broken Glass,” a ballad was released as the fourth single, the blues-y “Cold.” It reached #26 in the U.K. (like “Precious,” “Cold” didn’t chart at all in the States) and was the first top 40 hit in that country not to be released on 7″ vinyl. It was instead released as a 3-part CD single, “Cold,” “Colder,” and “Coldest.” As B-Sides, each CD featured three songs from Lennox’s MTV Unplugged live performance: “Cold” featured Lennox’s solo songs, “Colder” featured Eurythmics tracks, and “Coldest” featured covers of songs by the Beatles, Ike & Tina Turner, and the Detroit Emeralds.
The fifth, and final, single released is probably my second favorite song on the album, after “Why,” the dance-pop gem “Little Bird.” It did quite well in the U.K., reaching #3, and though in the States it topped out at #49 on the Billboard Hot 100, it did hit #1 on the Hot Dance Club Play chart. “Little Bird” was released as a double A-side with “Love Song for a Vampire” from the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was the first Diva single to get the remix treatment — five different remixes were released of the song, all of which appeared on the 12″ vinyl single. Though most of the other songs on the record had been a part of the Grammy-winning Sophie Muller-directed video album, Totally Diva, the “Little Bird” video was made after the video album’s release, which is a shame because I think it’s the best video of them all. It stars a very pregnant Lennox (her second daughter was born not long after the video was filmed) as the host of a cabaret act starring look-alikes representing the singer in various stages of her career.
Every song on the album is incredible, but one non-single track that I’ve always gravitated towards is the haunting, spare, closing track, “The Gift.” It and “Why” are perfect bookends to the album: “Why” starts the record with a protagonist lamenting all the things she did wrong to bring about the demise of a relationship and by the time we get to “The Gift,” she has accepted that things are over, is glad to have had the time she had with her lover, and is ready to move on with her life. The video for “The Gift” even features Lennox’s showgirl character from “Why.”
Every once in a while, someone will ask me to name my top 10 favorite albums of all time and I usually refuse because that is just too daunting a task, especially for an over-thinker like me. Should my list consist of the 10 albums I have listened to the most in my (almost) 34 years on this planet? Should it consist of the albums that I’m most emotionally connected with? Should it be made up of albums that I think will make me look good when I rattle the list off? I get paralyzed with indecision about how to make such a list, so I never have. But if I were to eventually do so, Diva would definitely be in the top five.
I can hardly believe this album, which was a huge influence on me during my formative years, is already 20 years old. No matter how many times I’ve listened to it, it still holds the same power for me as it did when I was 14 and I think it always will. I have never met Ms. Lennox, but if I ever got the chance, the first words out of my mouth would be “Thank you for Diva.” I wouldn’t say that just because it’s such a brilliant album, but because it got me through a very tough time in my life: my teen years. And any album that can do that deserves all the accolades it gets.
P.S. I’ve chosen to actively ignore the fact that Demi Moore’s character in the cinematic atrocity Striptease dances to several tracks from this album. But thanks for bringing it up in the comments, Dude.