The powerful Irish singer passed away at 56
Sinéad O’Connor has died.
It feels so wrong to type those words. Just in the last month, she’d posted that she’d moved back to London after 23 years and was working on a new album for next year with tour dates to follow.
Last year’s amazing documentary, Nothing Compares, ended on a defiant note that’s unbearably heartbreaking now. Offscreen, O’Connor’s voice says, “They broke my heart and killed me, but I didn’t die. They tried to bury me, but they didn’t realize I was a seed.”.
But this afternoon Eastern time, the news broke in the Irish Times, soon sadly confirmed with a statement from O’Connor’s family: “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad. Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time.”
O’Connor, 56, leaves behind an amazing legacy as an artist and a person, one colored by trouble and pain.
VIDEO: Sinéad O’Connor “Nothing Compares 2 U”
The most reductive obits will refer to her as the “‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ Singer”, which, well, it was a massive hit. The song was written by Prince in his most creative period, when he was giving songs to other artists — The Time, The Bangles and an adjacent group called The Family.
The latter recorded the song on their lone album, which flopped in 1985. There’s a Prince version out there as well. But O’Connor took the song and ran with it, channeling the pain in her life and making it feel for all the world like it came from her mind and soul.
Years later, Prince’s estate denied use of the song in the documentary, partly because they wanted to flog his lesser version on a compilation album, but mostly because she once again spoke her truth.
In her 2021 memoir, Rememberings, she recounted not meeting Prince until some years after the song became a hit. She wrote that Prince, the same man who wrote “Head” and sang about a “sexy motherfucker” admonished her over swearing in interviews, then challenged her to a pillow fight. It went downhill from there.
The other thing sure to come up is “singer who tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live”, which is absolutely true. She did that.
And here’s the thing, Sinéad O’Connor was absolutely right.
Some context here. First off, she’d drawn negative attention for sticking to her guns. In 1990, she was scheduled to play a concert at the Garden State Performing Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey where the “Star Spangled Banner” was scheduled to be played as it was before every show at the venue. She refused to have it played before her performance, immediately drawing the ire of those who fetishize an anthem while showing utter contempt for the values it allegedly stands for.
She said in a statement the next day, “I sincerely harbor no disrespect for America or Americans, but I have a policy of not having any national anthems played before my concerts in any country, including my own, because they have nothing to do with music in general.”
Frank Sinatra, a 74-year-old adult man, pandered to a live audience after, claiming that he wished he could “kick the ass” of the 23-year-old O’Connor, getting applause for his threat, “For her sake, we’d better never meet.”
That same year, she’d walked away from a scheduled 1990 SNL appearance to protest host Andrew “Dice” Clay, whose shtick was basically being a rude misogynist (cast member Nora Dunn also walked off). She was booked again in September, 1992, this time when Tim Robbins hosted.
In dress rehearsal, when she sang an a capella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” she held up a photo of a starving child at the end. But on air, she changed the word “racism” to “child abuse” and held up a picture of Pope John Paul II. Saying “Fight the real enemy,” she ripped the photo, which had been in her deceased, abusive mother’s room, in half.
Audience silence. Angry viewers calling NBC and affiliates. Lorne Michaels banned her from the show for life. The next week’s host, Joe Pesci, a 49-year-old adult man apparently mistaking himself for his Goodfellas character, ripped up her photo and said he would have hit her if she’d done it when he was hosting. He also drew laughs for claiming he’d grab her by her hair if she had any (“comedy gold” on 1992 SNL, apparently). He’d have been better served sticking to his shine box instead of carrying water for a religious institution covering up child abuse.
All these years later, his pro-violence, sex abuse-ignoring monologue is available to watch on SNL’s official YouTube channel. O’Connor’s performance is not.
Even worse, there was “Feminist” Camille Paglia telling a TV interviewer, voice dripping with utter lack of empathy, “In the case of Sinéad O’Connor, child abuse was justified.”
Two weeks later, at a tribute show to Bob Dylan, she was almost booed off stage because, apparently Madison Square Garden was full of ugly American stereotypes who thought Dylan was a pop star who never protested anything, as if he’d written “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and not “Masters of War.”
Ever defiant, after getting consoled by Kris Kristofferson (himself decidedly not a jingoistic right-wing musician), she went back out there. Scheduled to do a cover of Dylan’s “I Believe In You,” from her personal favorite album of his (Slow Train Coming), she scrapped that. She did “War” a capella as boos rained down from people oblivious to the fact that they’d become the Mr. Jones that he’d sang about years before.
VIDEO: Kris Kristofferson talks about his friendship with Sinéad O’Connor on Irish TV
This was personal for O’Connor. She’d been abused in all ways by her mother, leaving home as a result. She spent 18 months at a Magdalene Laundry for truancy and shoplifting. She experienced and witnessed first-hand the abuse that went on there, abuse which would later be exposed.
Years later, after the publication of the McAleese Report in 2013 (17 years after the last laundry closed), there were still nuns unapologetic about what happened.
And that’s not even getting into the broader scandal of child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church, with many predatory priests being hidden from accountability a lot of them simply moved to other parishes free to harm other children. O’Connor ripped that photo almost ten years before the Boston Globe ripped the lid off the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sexual abuse scandal, much of which occurred while that same John Paul II was Pope.
It would be a long time before John Paul II admitted the problem of priests abusing children. But even years later, stories have come out that seem to show he was part of the very problem O’Connor was protesting against.
Nor was it getting into the genocide that was still going on in residential schools for Indigenous children in the 1990s.
Point being, more people were upset about an Irish singer ripping up a church leader’s photo than they were about the very real harm being done to children under the watch of him and his predecessors.
It’s become more and more clear as time has gone on, Sinéad O’Connor was right. She remained unapologetic about it to the end, even though the backlash hurt, telling the New York Times in 2021, “I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant. But it was very traumatizing. It was open season on treating me like a crazy bitch.”
O’Connor wouldn’t have had the opportunity to show that courage were it not for her obvious musical gifts.
There was always a degree of tension. She had something to say and a great instrument with which to say it, but coming from her childhood, there was also a shyness.
Deborah Sprague, whose work you’ve seen here at Rock and Roll Globe, interviewed her for a long-gone Canadian music magazine during the press cycle for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. She related that O’Connor was full of brilliant insight, but very quiet and painfully shy, speaking almost inaudibly. It was as if she wanted to be anywhere, but there, not just that interview, but any interview, any place with that level of attention.
The music business then, as it was before and still is, one where there is a ton of focus on image, magnified for women. You get told to “smile more,” the obsession with physical appearance, getting told “women don’t do that,” being told that “audiences don’t like” back-to-back songs by women being played on the radio.
O’Connor had zero interest in playing that game. Looking at photos of her younger days with hair, it’s clear that the label would have tried to market her in a different way. She shaved it all off to maintain some autonomy, to have a line in the sand that said, “If you’re going to deal with me, this is me.”
She arrived in late 1987 with The Lion and the Cobra, a stunningly good debut. Right from the opening punch of “Jackie,” it was clear that this was a singular force of nature at the controls. She held your attention whether on a rocker like “Mandinka”, the almost playful sultriness of “I Want Your (Hands on Me)” or singing over strings and synths on the devastatingly soul-baring “Troy,” written about her mother.
VIDEO: Sinéad O’Connor feat. MC Lyte “I Want Your (Hands On Me)”
Years later, O’Connor’s live shows were not studded with oldies. Self-care was a big reason. In a 2005 MOJO interview, she said of The Lion and the Cobra’s songs, “I’m really proud of them. For a little girl to have written some of those songs… I wrote my songs as therapy, if you like. I don’t go back to it. I don’t want to go there emotionally. I haven’t paid all this money for therapy for fucking nothing.”
The album produced a couple of hit singles (“Troy” and “Mandinka”) in parts of Europe and the U.K. and reached No. 6 on the charts here.
Her debut was written while she was pregnant with her first child. The second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which came after the end of a relationship, became an even bigger success. “Nothing Compares 2 U” was a No. 1 hit around the world. The album topped the charts and went double-platinum here and in the U.K.
The album was more accessible, but no less uncompromising or stunning. The other singles were strong. “Emperor’s New Clothes” is tuneful and defiant (probably both post-breakup and in the face of the misguided backlash she’d already received). “Jump in the River” is a rocker both sexy and tinged with anxiety while the dark sarcasm of the chorus (“And if you said jump in a river I would/Because it would probably be a good idea”) would play much differently with her public struggles 20-plus years later. “Three Babies” is comforting at first, but then more harrowing as you realize it’s a searing personal portrait of grief for O’Connor, who’d had three miscarriages before her first child was born.
It wasn’t just the singles. The simply strummed “Black Boys on Mopeds” was inspired by the 1983 death of Colin Roach, a 21-year-old Black man at a police station in Hackney (an area with a history of racist policing). Roach’s death was later ruled a suicide, despite contradictions in the inquest.
O’Connor was ready to move back to Ireland, away from Thatcherite England, making her point as she sang (with cooing backing harmonies), “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses/It’s the home of police who kill blacks boys on mopeds/And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving/I don’t want him to be aware that there’s/Any such thing as grieving”.
“I Am Stretched On Your Grave,” as the title implies, also doesn’t shy away from grief. It began as a 17th century poem, translated into English by Frank O’Connor in 1967 and turned into a song by traditional Irish musician Patrick King in 1979. O’Connor put it over a looped sample from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”.
VIDEO: Sinéad O’Connor “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
Two albums in and O’Connor was becoming more popular, with artists she was influencing (like Tori Amos and Fiona Apple) not far away. The joy at creating music she felt good about and having it heard was getting weighed down by the attendant pressures. The expectations that would have been unwelcome when no one knew who she was hurt all the more.
It was all getting to be too much, so O’Connor took a missile to the runaway train and a flamethrower to the rubble. Her third album, 1992’s Am I Not Your Girl? contained standards, performed with a big band. Stronger in purpose than musical execution (some exceptions aside), it was the sound of O’Connor wresting control of herself away from others again.
“I regret that I was treated like shit and I regret that I was so wounded already that that really really killed me and hurt me. You know?, ” she said in Nothing Compares. “They all that I should be made a mockery of for throwing my career down the drain. I never set out to be a pop star. It didn’t suit me being a pop star. So I didn’t throw away any fucking career that I wanted.”
O’Connor never made any attempt to recapture where she was, determined to put out music she wanted to on her terms.
1994’s Universal Mother and 2000’s Faith and Courage, weren’t as consistent as the first two, but their best moments were a reminder of why she mattered in the first place. Through both, she remained as honest as ever.
Over the almost 25 years since I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, O’Connor released material that leaves one hoping for a truly comprehensive compilation, one that shows how much her early work holds up, but shows that she could still make strong music in the decades after.
Sean-Nós Nua, released in 2002, was a much better exercise in old standards. She tackled 13 traditional Irish songs, inhabiting them fully. It was clearly the work of a woman at ease with being off the “Must have another Number 1” treadmill.
O’Connor wasn’t sticking to a new album every year or two cycle, but she wasn’t limiting herself musically. 2005’s Throw Down Your Arms was nothing but reggae. 2007’s Theology was a “double” album that was two versions of the same songs, one with much more spare instrumentation.
Her most overt turns towards the sounds that made her a star came in the last two albums released in her lifetime — 2012’s How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? and 2014’s I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss. They clearly were part of the same DNA as her first two, but also made by a woman who was older, wiser and even more willing to say what she thought needed to be said. She could be heartbreakingly poignant and yet even hopeful, ever unafraid of social justice issues. In effect, she’d waited long enough that the pop marketplace had no use for the type of music. The top 10 singles the week of I’m Not Bossy’s release now had names like Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande, Sam Smith, Sia and Calvin Harris. Pharrell’s “Happy” had just spent 10 weeks at the top.
As revitalized as she sounded on record, it was a different story away from the spotlight. Her rough childhood did her no favors and her battles with mental illness were ongoing.
She was a human being who had to deal with things no one should, but yet too many have. Her particular battles with mental illness included suicidal ideations and attempts, then last year, her son Shane, only 17, took his life. It’s a grief so many can’t imagine, especially with the added layer of having been in that same headspace.
As of now, there’s no cause of death, so I can’t speculate. But regardless, there’s no denying that what she went through, from the abuse at the hands of her mother and religious authority figures as a child to the abandonment from those who’d refused to stand by her when she needed it, it all took a toll.
And now, she’s gone, at a point where she was ready to bring more music back to the world. It all seems so cruel, so wrong. And yet, here we are.
Her fellow musicians and others in the entertainment field have already weighed in. The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess said, “Sinéad was the true embodiment of a punk spirit. She did not compromise and that made her life more of a struggle. Hoping that she has found peace”
Ice-T said, “Respect to Sinéad….. She stood for something… Unlike most people.” Patton Oswalt wrote, “Burned her career and life to the ground with one of the most Christian, punk, AND moral actions all in the same, blazing moment. Nothing compares.”
And it’s not just the more well-known. On my own Facebook, as I write this, an Irish friend remembered her as being absolutely lovely when they crossed paths in town, and a champion for local businesses. Another recalled seeing her at a CMJ New Music Conference where she questioned long-time New York talk show host Joe Franklin why he didn’t have more black artists on his show and his nonsensical response was that he’d helped break the J. Geils Band.
Sinéad O’Connor was a major talent with the proof in the music she left behind.
She was a woman with a passion for issues that had fuck all to do with her career. The fact that more people weren’t in her corner is on them.
Right-wingers love to whine about “cancel culture”. Louis CK wasn’t “canceled” for his predatory acts, he was handed a Grammy. Jason Aldean had CMT pull one of his videos and he whined as if he’d been sentenced to life in prison without parole. They weren’t canceled. Sinéad O’Connor, a woman with more courage in one finger for a minute than Aldean could accumulate in a lifetime, was actually canceled.
There’s a saying that I’d give credit to someone for, but I’m not sure who said it or if it popped into my head at some point in my life — “Courage is action in the absence of any other options.”
For Sinéad O’Connor, there were no other options. She was unapologetically honest, true to herself and her art, with absolutely no fucks given. Through the undeserved grief, she was always searching, an inspiration to artists who followed and non-musicians who just loved her music, a seed that’s continued to bear new growth.
And after all these years, it’s unequivocal. She was absolutely fucking right.
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