Sheryl Crow calls me from Nashville at 8:30 on a Wednesday morning. By the time we talk, she has already gotten her boys—10 and 13—ready for school, completed drop off, and done a TV interview about her new music.
“That is the reality of my life,” she says. “I can make a record between school drop off and school pickup.”
The singer-songwriter has ten studio albums and nine Grammys. She’s very publicly survived cancer and lived out love stories—and their conclusions—under the paparazzi’s relentless focus. She’s sold over 50 million records worldwide with songs that sound like a sun-drenched road trip with your best friend. She’s written a Bond song, performed with the Rolling Stones and Stevie Nicks, and had her songs covered by artists as vast as Johnny Cash to Haim. Her lyrics cut effortlessly, the way an ex can devastate you with a single observation. In August, country star Tim McGraw released “Sheryl Crow,” a ballad that likens life-changing love to the feeling of hearing a Sheryl Crow song.
But in her own mind, she’s “an older person—a single working mom.” Nothing fancy. The 58-year-old is not “an older person” at all, of course, but carving out a place as a woman determined to have a long career in an industry that treats humans like they come with sell-by-dates is a unique path without many role models. Despite all her hits and accolades, Crow has been excluded from the mostly boys’ club of Great Artists. (She has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) And when she hears herself on the radio now, she says, it’s on the classic rock channel.
“By the time you’re 40, you’re not getting played on pop radio anymore because you’re too old,” she says. And that’s okay. “I would be happy for a 13-year-old to enjoy my music, but I’m not writing for 13-year-olds.”
Crow, whose style has always been a kind of sly, independent swagger, isn’t in the habit of changing herself to please. “I had to decide early on if I was going to alienate myself early on by speaking my truth and not be invited to the party,” she says. It was worth it, of course. But no one likes to miss a party.
But this is a woman who has worked in the entertainment industry for over 30 years. Her first job in the arts was as a public school music teacher in Missouri. She doesn’t give up easily. Crow spent this summer re-reworking her song “Woman in the White House.” Released in 2012, the lyrics, “After 230-something years of waiting / It’s way past overdue” are depressingly just as relevant as they were almost a decade ago. Not deterred, she remade the song for 2020 with a thrumming electric guitar and a driving, decisive beat.
And she added a new song: a pop-rock, anti-fascist banger called “In The End.” It begins with a classic Sheryl Crow takedown: “His words are a trap while his loyal band of thugs/Cover up all his many transgressions,” she sings, her voice sounding, always, like tires on a classic convertible making skid marks on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Then the song—which begins like a high-class diss track—turns towards hope. “Is it so hard to love?” she sings. “You get back what you give, in the end.” In the next verse she switches her focus away from Trump, to Christ. She’s a badass, asking for a better world.
“I’m trying to model to my sons what being a good person looks like, about how you can look at other people with compassion and empathy,” she says. It’s a problem many parents are facing, even the ones who don’t head to TV interviews after morning drop off. “Everything in the world right now, particularly in the United States, and particularly being wielded by this administration, is the opposite of that.”
Crow grew up in Missouri, with a Democrat mom and a Republican dad. They argued about the issues all the time, she says. “But at the core you had people who could disagree but could raise kids. They could be empathetic.”
Crow released a music video for “In The End”—and pulled it almost instantly, feeling that, “It played in to the kind of hate that has been disseminated so efficiently for the last four years.” She released a new video, with pop-art influenced animation, instead. “I don’t want amplify that toxicity in any way,” she captioned the video.
The song—her latest after her 2019 album of collaborations, Threads—lays out a very Sheryl Crow philosophy: What do you do if you’re a happy optimist who is also blind with fury over injustice?
Crow has found ways to slide sunny critiques of capitalism into number one billboard hits before. Just last month, Barack Obama included her 2002 single, “Soak Up the Sun,” on his Summer 2020 playlist. On it she sings, “My friend the communist holds meetings in his RV / I can’t afford his gas so I’m stuck here watching TV.” (“This is a surprisingly sophisticated point,” notes an annotation on the song on Genius, sounding amazingly condescending.) Activism is part of her lifestyle, not a trend. She opposed the Iraq war, toured the U.S. talking to college students about global warming, and has worked for years with organizations that fight food insecurity. Her conviction has only sharpened to a point with motherhood.
“My kids ask hard questions, like, ‘If all the trees die because of climate change, are we going to see the world end while we’re alive?’” she says, clearly pained. “I can’t imagine asking questions about the mortality of civilization when you’re 10 years old. How do they not suffer anxiety and depression?”
But—in the end, as she sings—she can’t help but hear the marching beat of good change. Listening to her 2020 version of “Woman in the White House” you can hear the determined optimism of a woman who survived a male-dominated industry—and the frustration of a woman who’s still in it. “Men ran everything,” she says, flatly, of coming up in the music world. “When I was signed for my first record deal [in the early 90s], I was signed by a man. I was produced by men. All of the radio stations were run by men. I wasn’t allowed to produce my first record.”
Around 30 years ago, as a backup singer, she was sexually harassed at work—the experience made it into her first album, long before she spoke about it during the early breakthrough of #MeToo. “When I hired the lawyer to help protect me, even the lawyer was like, ‘Look, there are a lot of people who would die to be in your position,’” she says. She told him she was willing to get the story out, even if it meant never working again.
“He said, ‘You will never work again,’” she remembers. While his grim prediction thankfully did not come to pass for Crow, it came at the cost of her chance to seek justice. “It had a moment, and it died,” she says. She’s glad that now women are more likely to be believed.
And after all that, the issues she and other women deal with all their lives—harassment, unequal pay, a lack of representation at the highest levels of leadership—persist. “Why are we still having these same conversations?” she says. “I hope in my lifetime we see monumental change.”
She adds, “I’ve seen how some women are changing the way they look, doing all kinds of things to their faces to try to stay young.” She’s not knocking it—she just sees it as part of a larger system. One that’s not for her. “I feel if I would go and try to make my face look youthful, I would look like a duck,” she says, with a laugh.
True to form, she holds feminist ideas accountable, as well as patriarchal ones. She’s carefully critical of the way the male gaze has blended with a kind of feminism that also places huge focus on women’s appearances. It’s a tricky issue—when young female performers say that being publicly sexual is empowering, and that kind of sexuality happens to look exactly like what men demand of women, what are we supposed to make of that? As a parent, she says, “My role at this point is to make sure that we have an open conversation about what real love is and what real beauty is, and that it’s not physical, that it doesn’t look like every girl that you see in the media.”
She’s skeptical, but she’s not at all in the business of shaming or judging women. “We as women artists have struggled to be the navigators of our own careers,” she says. “It’s hard to find female managers and producers! Now, I think women are celebrating the ability to be the architects of our own brands, our own images. And I think at some point this new feminism doesn’t have to be based on owning our own images.”
Okay, okay, but Sheryl Crow—hard core feminist, rock star, agitator—has some beauty secrets, right?
“My beauty tip is peace and joy first and foremost,” she says immediately, and then laughs. She uses a rowing machine, she adds. And Estée Lauder. And La Mer.
But mostly, it’s joy.
Joy, she says, that comes from knowing what you can fix and what you have to let go. “My kids used to say, ‘We love that you’re older but we’re also worried that you won’t be here for a long time.’ And I’m like, ‘Look at me! I’m so healthy and happy. I feel like I’ll be here for a really long time!”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
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