Christine McVie's greatness proved that shy girl power had a place in rock 'n' roll

Fleetwood Mac pose for a portrait in circa 1977.
Fleetwood Mac in 1977, from left, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks and John McVie. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

It’s easy to take a steadying presence for granted. Steady doesn’t work as a brand, and it doesn’t compel hot takes. Instead of announcing itself to the world, steady quietly gets the job done without expecting fanfare.

Steady was the way of Christine McVie. Her death on Wednesday, at age 79, leaves behind an assortment of open wounds, but the absence of her stabilizing presence may be the most visible and acutely painful. Fleetwood Mac bandmate Stevie Nicks called her “Mother Earth” for her unflappable grace amid intraband problems, and it’s difficult to believe that someone who weathered such legendary turmoil wouldn’t stand side stage behind her keyboards forever. That the earthbound counterpoint to Nicks’ crystal visions could ever disappear.

The woman born Christine Perfect joined Fleetwood Mac unceremoniously in 1970 after playing in sessions alongside her then-husband, John McVie, the band’s bassist. Soon, she was known as the band's secret weapon for her legacy of hitmaking and allergy to the spotlight.

In reality, her gifts were no secret at all. Her track record is rivaled by few in rock music; she wrote or co-wrote half of the songs that appear on Fleetwood Mac’s 1988 "Greatest Hits" anthology, though she was just one of five members. Her song “Hold Me,” from 1982’s "Mirage," spent seven weeks at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

The band’s pop credentials and messy biography have long solicited intrigue. But its longer tail of success, how they’ve navigated pre- and post-internet spaces with aplomb — Bill Clinton’s televised gala, the cranberry juice guy, the omnipresence of “Everywhere” in current Chevy commercials — suggests that its sturdier and more reliable elements are what keep listeners coming back. McVie’s vitality, and her optimistic throughline amid the ongoing bitterness between Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, was the band’s binding agent, key to the theory that drama may be the least interesting thing about them. Only Nicks’ “Dreams” and "Landslide" rival the potency and longevity of McVie compositions like “Don’t Stop,” “Say You Love Me” and “You Make Loving Fun.”

She’s always been the group’s most lovely and merciful figure, someone who was introverted, practical and a fall guy for the most painful and extreme cycles of love. Her contralto voice — creamy and rich like a spoonful of gelato — summons the intense feelings of adolescence through its calm yet fomenting presence. She was a pinnacle of shy girl power.

Her effortlessness and laid-back English reserve also personified the gold-dusted hues of California, perhaps better than locals Nicks and Buckingham, who were notoriously mercurial and the opposite of chill. Her lovelorn and ecstatic songs transmitted the singular blue of June Gloom, the sizzle of August sun and a particular breeziness kissed by sea salt, sand and an evident sense of possibility. If Nicks was so often subsumed in the pain of love, and constructing a witchy realm in which to escape, McVie was a voice for the healing powers of love and life in the natural world.

She translated pathos and joy into unfussy prose set to stirring melodies, and brought a gentle sophistication to the male-dominated world of rock music. But she was easy to overlook because — at the risk of using a sports metaphor — she was a team player, highly skilled but unshowy, a Tim Duncan and not a LeBron James.

A woman sings and plays piano onstage
Christine McVie performs with Fleetwood Mac in 2017. (Los Angeles Times)

“If I was to take more solos, stick knives between the keys or something, I'd get more credit, but I'm just not that type of player,” she told a reporter for BAM in 1984. She also wasn’t that type of person. McVie was reserved and at one point famously afraid of flying. She wore sensible clothing, and never wanted to stand center stage. Her go-to self-deprecation was that she was “boring,” but in reality she was someone who didn’t need a persona, gauzy accouterments or high-profile affairs (Dennis Wilson notwithstanding). Her force 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 seizure,” she said. “I want people to just go away.” Instead, she communicated with fans through stirring confessions and soft grooves held over from her days in English blues-rock bands and as a childhood devotee of Fats Domino. “I’m over my head / But it sure feels nice” is what listeners felt through her as they waited to experience it in real life. She offered up lasting emotional immediacy through declarations 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 Nicks' nymph-like persona, not because it positioned the two against each other, but because it offered two very powerful frameworks for womanhood and female friendship within the same chart-topping band. The idea that women must choose — that one is either a Christine or a Stevie — is an outmoded and reductive binary in the year 2022. Instead, the fruitful pairing of McVie and Nicks, how their writing and personalities elegantly commingle and reflect back on one another, offers an antidote to the notion that women can be only one thing.

Two female singers perform onstage together
Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks perform in 1977. (Rick Diamond)

McVie didn’t have the solo success that Nicks and Buckingham did, and told several reporters that she wasn’t the type to hold on to material for solo works, or even plan that far ahead. But the popularity of 1984’s “Got a Hold on Me” hinted at what may have happened had she summoned the will and corporate infrastructures. Instead, she endures as a vital and unselfish contributor, a true-blue bandmate, someone who helped carry her friends but never demanded their flowers.

She sent her shy girl songs 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.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.