It’s easy to take a calming presence for granted. Steady doesn’t work as a brand and doesn’t force hot takes. Instead of announcing himself to the world, Steady quietly gets the job done without expecting fanfare.
Steady was Christine McVie’s way. Her death on Wednesday at the age of 79 leaves a number of open wounds, but the lack of her stabilizing presence is perhaps the most visible and painful. Fleetwood Mac bandmate Stevie Nicks dubbed her “Mother Earth” for her unwavering grace amidst intra-band troubles, and it’s hard to believe that someone who’s weathered such legendary turmoil wouldn’t live offstage behind her keyboards forever would stand. That the earthbound counterpoint to Nick’s crystal visions might ever go away.
Female-born Christine Perfect unceremoniously joined Fleetwood Mac in 1970 after playing sessions with her then-husband John McVie, the band’s bassist. She soon became known as the band’s secret weapon for her legacy of hits and her allergy to the limelight.
In reality, her gifts were no secret at all. Their track record is surpassed by few in rock music; She wrote or co-wrote half of the songs that appear in Fleetwood Mac’s 1988 anthology Greatest Hits, although she was only one of five members. Her song “Hold Me” from 1982’s “Mirage” stayed at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.
The band’s pop references and messy biography have long garnered attention. But its sustained success, how it’s navigated the spaces before and after the internet with aplomb — Bill Clinton’s television gala, the cranberry juice guy, the omnipresence of “Everywhere” in recent Chevy commercials — suggests it’s more robust and more reliable elements are what keep listeners coming back for more. McVie’s vitality and upbeat streak amid the ongoing bitterness between Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham was the band’s glue, key to the theory that drama might be the least interesting thing about them. Only Nicks’ “Dreams” and “Landslide” can match the power and longevity of McVie compositions like “Don’t Stop”, “Say You Love Me” and “You Make Loving Fun”.
She’s always been the most lovable and compassionate character of the group, someone who was introverted, practical, and a fall guy for the most painful and extreme love cycles. Her contralto voice – creamy and full-bodied like a spoonful of gelato – evokes the intense feelings of adolescence through her calm but exhilarating presence. She was the epitome of shy girl power.
Her ease and relaxed English restraint also embodied the gold-dusted hues of California, perhaps better than locals Nicks and Buckingham, who were notoriously jumpy and the opposite of cold. Their amorous and ecstatic songs conveyed the unique blues of June Gloom, the hiss of the August sun and a special breeze, kissed by sea salt, sand and an obvious sense of possibility. If Nicks was so often sunk in the pain of love and establishing a witch kingdom to escape to, McVie was a voice for the healing powers of love and living in the natural world.
She translated pathos and joy into no-frills prose set to rousing melodies, bringing a gentle sophistication to the male-dominated world of rock music. But she was easily overlooked because — at the risk of using a sports metaphor — she was a team player, highly skilled but unremarkable, a Tim Duncan and not a LeBron James.
“If I took more solos, stuck knives between the keys or something, I’d get more credit, but I’m just not that kind of player,” she told a reporter for BAM in 1984. She wasn’t that kind of person either. McVie was reserved and at one point was notoriously afraid of flying. She wore sensible clothes and never wanted to be the center of attention. Her self-mockery was that she was “boring,” but the truth was she was someone who didn’t need a role, sheer clothes, or high-profile affairs (Dennis Wilson notwithstanding). Her power was deceptively simple.
She told the same reporter that she had recently gone to Tower Records in San Francisco to buy cassettes and was quickly recognized. “I just wanted to cover my face and have a fit,” she said. “I want people to just walk away.” Instead, she communicated with fans through stirring confessions and smooth grooves drawn from her days in English blues-rock bands and as a childhood fan of Fats Domino. “I’m over my head / But it sure feels good,” listeners felt through her while waiting to experience it in real life. She offered enduring emotional immediacy through statements like “I want to be with you everywhere,” an embarrassing thing to admit in conversation but a liberating force when sung.
Her grounding presence was a welcome contrast to Nick’s nymph-like persona, not because it pitted the two against each other, but because it provided two very strong frameworks for womanhood and woman-friendship within the same chart-topping band. The idea that women have to choose – that you’re either a Christine or a Stevie – is an outdated and reductive binary in 2022. Instead, the fruitful pairing of McVie and Nicks, how their lyrics and personalities elegantly blend and throw at one another, offers an antidote to the notion that women can only be one thing.
McVie hasn’t had the solo success that Nicks and Buckingham have, and has told several reporters that she’s not the type to pin down material for solo work, or even plan that far in advance. But the popularity of 1984’s “Got a Hold on Me” hinted at what would have happened if she had sworn the will and corporate infrastructures. Instead, she remains a vital and selfless contributor, a genuine bandmate, someone who helped carry her friends but never asked for their flowers.
She sent her shy girly songs out into the world as a blessing, and they—along with her maiden name—were perfect.
Osmon is a music journalist, critic and author of three books. She teaches at USC’s Annenberg School.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2022-12-01/fleetwood-mac-christine-mcvie-stevie-nicks Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie: Pinnacle of shy girl power