It was long before the widespread modern magic of Bluetooth but after my father’s fleeting interest in CD making. This was the pinnacle of father-daughter bonding: windows down in my dad’s dilapidated Toyota, Timbits and ’70s classics blaring from the radio. I couldn’t tell you where, what event or whose music it was, but I don’t think I was ever as content as I was in these moments as a six-year-old. I look back and think about how there are faces to the singers now, but that’s not the point. The point is there was this one song. It had these guitar licks and a melody that could stir up the same emotions as a starry Halloween night. But what carried it on was the voice. It was a feathery, raspy alto — a woman’s, too. And for years, I spent my life wondering about this song, who this spooky singer was and what she was even saying.
“Coven” was the only season of “American Horror Story” I ever watched. Lily Rabe spun like a pinwheel of black gossamer, lace and fringe. And there was a song her character Misty would dance to, it was the song: “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac. She idolized its singer Stevie Nicks, and the first time I saw Stevie, she was everything I would have imagined: a pretty, mystic woman in a top hat and shawl, cloaked in pounds of black chiffon, velvet and crochet. And when she sang, it was just as mystically stunning; she wouldn’t just sing, she’d cling to and swing around fixtures meditatively, walk into lights like a silhouette and croon “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You” with wistful eyes.
It took me years and multiple listens of Nicks’s discography to understand the sheer charm of her depiction in “AHS.” The tropey reduction of her to the success of 1977’s Rumours was avoided, as was her connection to Fleetwood Mac. The focus was a rumor Nicks had been refuting since introducing “Rhiannon” as a song “about an old Welsh witch” in 1975. It wasn’t so much that the description fit the song, but the song was indicative of Nicks’s tumultuous relationship with Mac’s guitarist Lindsey Buckingham — could Nicks herself have been the witch she was referring to?
Nicks ardently sought to rid herself of this depiction, amid severe backlash and death threats; she just couldn’t adopt coral the way she could black, nor could she elude her music’s enigmatic energies. “Rhiannon”’s imagery of a woman who “takes to night like a bird in flight” is eerily brought to life by a Nicks on stage twirling with the wings of a shawl. She shrouds herself in a mysterious image that, paired with her come-hither energy, keeps you guessing. “I’ll be very, very sexy under 18 pounds of chiffon and lace and velvet,” she once said. “And nobody will know who I really am.”
Despite Nicks’s massive contributions to rock ‘n’ roll, it wasn’t until recently that the genre recognized her kindly. It’s a bit of a shock that the gold dust woman has rarely justified herself to the public; the criticism against Nicks isn’t light. Beyond the witch conspiracy, she’s been publically lambasted for her struggles with weight, drug addiction and relationships both romantic and within her band. Music criticism at the start of her career did not favor a woman who was confidently sexy and ambitious. In 1977, famed rock critic Lester Bangs wrote that “Stevie is a California girl prone to writing songs about witches, mysticism and all the other shit one would conjure while sautéing in a Jacuzzi.” He referred to her 1981 solo album Bella Donna as “emetic narcissism” — an album that, interestingly enough, kick-started the only successful solo venture for a member from Fleetwood Mac. Lindsey Buckingham’s songs for the band about Nicks are also aggressive. In “Go Your Own Way,” he essentially tells Nicks that he doesn’t care about the life she leads and whomever her next lover may be. A memorable Mac performance also depicts him as furious, shouting the lyrics of “The Chain” into the microphone with his eyes fixated on Nicks.
Perhaps Nicks doesn’t need an explanation. In the face of criticism, she married an image true and dear to her, maintaining the distinctly feminine and mysterious aura she feels most safe in. Her strides both in and out of Fleetwood Mac find a success her critics were certain would flop. She has become the face of Fleetwood Mac to a public that acknowledges them as one of the most defining acts over the last 50 years. And while Buckingham may purport he simply doesn’t care about her, Nicks reminds him that he will forever regret his breaking her heart and suffer just as she did. And perhaps that’s what makes Stevie Nicks so dynamic; she’s unapologetically herself and doesn’t need to try to push the envelope.