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In Memory

Sinéad O’Connor Remained True to Herself at All Costs

From the beginning of her career to the end, she refused to cave in to the machinery of fame.

Paul Bergen/Redferns
Sinéad O’Connor performing in Amsterdam, March 1988

I first became aware of the Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor, who died in the last week of July at the age of 56, as an unsettling fawn-like creature—one with a swan neck, a shaved head, wide apart and oval-shaped eyes, and the sort of crystalline voice that could cut your heart into pieces. What I knew from the start, as did most people who responded to her, was that she was unlike anyone else whose creative gifts blazed across the sky. There was something about her—some fragile yet resolute core—that suggested she would remain true, at whatever cost, to her wounded, trailblazing self. 

Unlike Madonna or even her beloved Bob Dylan and John Lennon, who knew how to take care of themselves and wear dark glasses to keep the glare of inquiry into their demons at bay, O’Connor never really became cynical about the media or its effects on her career. She flailed, sometimes wildly, in a constant search for an authentic self, from announcing that she was a lesbian and just as quickly withdrawing it to embracing the teachings of Rastafari and later Islam. “I find it hard to be myself,” she says, in an interview in Nothing Compares, Kathryn Ferguson’s excellent 2022 documentary about O’Connor. “I’ve got to release the pain that’s blocking me. If I do not do this, I will not survive.” Her statements about the malignant effects of the Roman Catholic Church, about the music industry, and racism—as when she had Public Enemy’s logo painted on the side of her head—made her a ready target for journalists and other Zeitgeist-watchers, especially men. (Although women, including Madonna and, God help us, Camille Paglia—who jauntily opined to an interviewer that O’Connor had a “robot brain” and that in her case “child abuse was justified”—weren’t above mocking her.)

And, indeed, from the beginning of O’Connor’s career to the end, she refused to be branded in terms of cultural norms regarding gender and celebrity—when it would have been easy for her to go along with the machinery of fame and cave in to the demands that she prettify her image, exchanging her Doc Marten boots, leather jackets, and sheared-off hair for high heels, short skirts, and long locks. What she managed to preserve, I’d suggest, was a quality of vulnerability and openness to the world’s sorrows that often, in performers who reach her level of success, does not withstand the exposure of the spotlight or the scrutiny of the public. One thinks of Amy Winehouse in a similar way, although her career was cut too short for us to know whether she would have developed more of a skin as time went on.  

But O’Connor was not merely someone whose music seemed to emerge directly out of her turbulent experience, unmediated by gimmicks or the urge to play to her audience. Her 1990 rendition of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the lead single on her second studio album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Gotcatapulted her to fame at the tender age of 23 and became the number one single worldwide. The five minutes and 10 seconds of an unexceptional song that O’Connor transformed into an indelible ballad was accompanied by an MTV video shot in a park in Paris, and featured an extreme close-up of her quite astonishingly beautiful face, framed by a black turtleneck.

The video highlighted the technical skills she had at her command well beyond the emotional resonance of her voice. There was the matter of her pacing, for instance—the way she landed, suddenly and briefly, on the word “to” in the line “nothing compares to you,” rather than drawing it out. There was the range, the effortless jumping around octaves, and the subtle but discernible Gallic lilt, lending centuries of yearning to her bell-like clarity. She seemed to have a visceral understanding of when to push her voice to something close to a yell or scream and when to pull it back into a more intimate, whispery timbre. Her performance seemed both effortless and ardent, imbuing the song with wistfulness at one moment and anger the next. Two tears trailed down her cheeks near the end; in another singer, they might have struck one as calculated, but in O’Connor’s case they seemed all too real. (In an extraordinarily candid interview she did with Dr. Phil in 2017, she said that the tears were for the mother who abused her.) Still, try as one might to parse the impact of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” its power has much to do with O’Connor’s ability to make the pain in the song stand for more than itself, to render it an elegy for all our losses.

O’Connor, whose full name was Sinéad Marie (her mother’s first name) Bernadette (in honor of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes) O’Connor, was born in 1966 in the affluent Dublin suburb of Glenageary, the third of five children. Her father was a structural engineer who later became a barrister, and her mother was a chef and dressmaker. After a troubled marriage, her parents separated in 1975—divorce was illegal in Ireland until 1995—when she was 8. (In the prologue to her elliptical, moving, and wry 2021 memoir, Rememberings, O’Connor writes that her father “sensibly left my mother for reasons this book will help you glean.”) Despite the fact that her father won custody of the children, she and her two younger siblings chose to live with their mother. It was a fateful decision, given that O’Connor described her childhood in the interview with Dr. Phil as “a torture chamber” and went on to recall in harrowing detail “daily beatings” of her naked, outstretched body. She diagnosed her mother as a “sadist” and “pedophile,” someone who “took delight in hurting you.” (Her brother Joseph backed his sister’s claims in a newspaper interview, attesting to their mother’s “extreme and violent abuse, both emotional and physical.”)

In Rememberings she further elaborated on the soul-murder, the horrific mistreatment and neglect that instilled in her both a chronic sadness and the spirit of defiant protest she came to embody:  

She makes me say “I am nothing,” over and over and if I don’t, she won’t stop stomping on me. She wants to burst my womb. She makes me beg for “mercy.” I won the prize in kindergarten for being able to curl up into the smallest ball, but my teacher never knew why I could do it so well.

O’Connor told Dr. Phil that there was a “smell of evil” about her mother and then explained that her mother finally stopped hitting her when she was 14 and “I became the same size as her.” Notwithstanding the abuse, she also told Dr. Phil—paradoxically, or perhaps not, given the long shadow of sadomasochistic enmeshment—that she yearned to join her mother in heaven (Marie O’Connor died in a car crash when Sinéad was 18) and attributed her suicide attempts to “wanting my mother.”

When she was 13, O’Connor went to live with her father, whom she praises for his “impressive and inspiring humility,” although she is never comfortable being around him and writes that his voice “sounds sad … when he sings in the bathroom in the mornings”; she describes her stepmother, Viola, as “the sweetest person on earth.” This living arrangement lasted less than a year because of O’Connor’s shoplifting (which she learned from her mother, who would take money from the collection plate when it was passed around in church) and generally truant behavior, such as skipping school. She was sent for 18 months to An Grianàn, a sort of rehab-cum-training center run by nuns that had once housed one of Dublin’s infamous Magdalene laundries, where unwed pregnant girls, who had often been raped by pillars of society, including priests, were sent for life. “I think all the girls are here,” she observed in Rememberings, “because their families don’t want them.” The girls included a 12-year-old with a crooked hip and a 22-year-old who shuffled about in slippers and “slightly talks to herself, like old women do.” Along with lessons in English and math, they were taught typing in preparation for office jobs.

O’Connor escaped several times from An Grianàn, and started singing at talent shows in Dublin hotels. Music was her haven in her childhood, ever since her father sang “Scarlet Ribbons” to her as a very young girl; her mother had a huge, genre-spanning collection of records, and O’Connor fell in love with Bob Dylan. The last time she escaped she was sent to sleep in the institution’s hospice, where bedbound patients called out futilely for help. A compassionate nun, Sister Margaret, bought O’Connor an acoustic steel-ring guitar and hired a teacher to show her how to play, thereby paving the road to her future. This same nun also tried to help her get over her traumatic experience with her mother by holding her and singing to her. “I’d never say a word,” O’Connor writes, “just cry totally silent and red-faced, big buckets.”

O’Connor’s rise from there on in was, as they say, meteoric. She co-wrote her first song with a band called Tua Nua that combined traditional Irish music with rock and modern folk, and she went on to join another band called Ton Ton Macoute. Her singing and stage presence were noticed, and on the basis of four demos, three of which were eventually included on her first studio album, The Lion and the Cobra—the title was taken from Psalm 91:13—she was signed by Ensign in 1985. In between, she co-wrote the lyrics of “Heroine” with U2’s guitarist for the soundtrack of the film Captive, but in her characteristic outspoken fashion declared that U2’s music was “bombastic.” Her album was released a mere two years later, in 1987, and earned her a Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammy nomination. 

Along the way, she had fired the producer, scrapped their sessions, and put herself in £100,000 of debt to make the record according to her singular vision. The music, recorded when O’Connor was pregnant with her first child, was often grating, and the lyrics were frequently if opaquely autobiographical. The single “Mandinka,” which was more accessible and dance-ready than some of the other tracks, with guitar riffs and drum rolls, was a college radio favorite in the United States, and in 1988 she made her first U.S. television appearance, singing it on Late Night With David Letterman. All and all, it was a debut that set out to provoke rather than to please, down to the cover, which featured O’Connor with a shaved head, her arms folded across her chest, her hands making fists, and her face in a rictus of rage. She was 21 years old, and it was a harbinger of things to come. 

In March 1990, her second studio album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, was released to critical acclaim. It showed O’Connor as a woman of all trades, demonstrating an impressive span of musical talent: As well as playing acoustic and electric guitar and keyboards, she oversaw the string and other arrangements and produced most of the album. Along with the breakout number “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the disc included ethereal songs like the title one, “I Feel So Different.” O’Connor’s delicate delivery, which is set against a lush background of strings that sounds like the kind of arrangement George Martin did for the Beatles, is reminiscent of Bjork and Enya. The song opens with O’Connor reciting the serenity prayer (written by Reinhold Niebuhr, though best known for its use in AA), which seems to hearken back to her abiding religious faith—an aspect of her complex personality that never left her, through thick and thin, despite the name changes (she took the name Magda Davitt in 2017 and, after she converted to Islam in 2018, Shuhada Sadaqat).

There were some hard-rock, beat-heavy tracks like “Jump in the River,” the political statement of “Black Boys on Mopeds,” and the gentle “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,” which included one of O’Connor’s signature from-the-heart lines: “I’ll talk but you won’t listen.” Lastly, there was the haunting title track, “I Don’t Want What I Can’t Have,” in which O’Connor, relying only on her voice, sings about her mother. The album was nominated for four Grammy awards and won the award for “Best Alternative Music Performance,” but the singer refused to accept them, writing a letter to the Recording Academy that the awards “acknowledge mostly the commercial side of art” and “respect mostly material gain.”  

In the ensuing decades, O’Connor continued to produce albums, calling on many different styles, including punk, rap, rasta, hip-hop, torch songs, Tin Pan Alley standards, and Disney showtunes. Her range and prolific output, however, would be increasingly upstaged by her raw, intensely personal outpourings first to interviewers and then on her website and Twitter, and her rebellious, anti-mainstream positions, which included her purported objection to the national anthem being played before a performance in 1990 at New Jersey’s Garden State Arts Center. In any event, the song was played, but when Frank Sinatra performed at the Center the following night, he told the audience, with his usual thuggish aplomb, that he would have liked to meet O’Connor so he could “kick her ass.”

It was the first volley in what would become open season on O’Connor’s so-called “shock tactics”—her activist gestures and uncensored comments. Although such positions have become almost de rigueur in the contemporary music industry (which she described in her articulate and discerning fashion as a “vampiric arena”), and many fans now expect artists to use their platforms to speak out about causes, this wasn’t the case 30 years ago. O’Connor’s mixture of almost propulsive daring and abject confessionalism played out in full view of the public, eventually leading to demotion from the status of a pop superstar, whose image graced the cover of Rolling Stone as Artist of the Year, to a gifted loose cannon (with the “gifted” aspect up for dispute). She was demonized as crazy and out of control where she had once been admired, even idolized, for her nonconformist views. Robert Christgau, in a review of her third album, Am I Not Your Girl?, patronizingly suggested that the album stiffed because no one understood it, “including O’Connor.” Despite her insisting in Nothing Compares that “it didn’t suit me being a pop star … I just wanted to scream,” I don’t think O’Connor was fully prepared for the antagonism and withdrawal of affirmation that she was met with. Her determined rejection of a facile celebrity persona and the feel-good bromides of the music establishment confused and then alienated many of her followers, and, in turn, furthered the sense of isolation and self-hatred she had suffered from since childhood.

There were some who were sufficiently savvy about the fickle and punitive aspects of popular culture to fear for her early on. In her recent book Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters, Allyson McCabe observes that the New York Times music critic Jon Pareles was full of praise for O’Connor in the wake of her first album in 1987, commending her for defying “rock’s usual roles for women, including flirt, sensitive soul, tough gal, and one of the boys, by claiming and transforming them.” McCabe then goes on to write: “But Pareles also saw something else in O’Connor’s music: the threat she represented to the industry and society. He was the first to anticipate the coming backlash, predicting that she may well go on to become a “rock-‘n’-roll Cassandra.”

The most infamous of her épater les bourgeois gestures, one that created waves of shock and outrage that kept coming, occurred during her October 3, 1992, appearance on Saturday Night Live. O’Connor sang an a cappella cover of Bob Marley’s “War” for the night’s closing performance. But she suddenly made a detour at the end of the song, replacing some lyrics with the words “child abuse.” Then, looking directly into the camera, she held up a photo of the much-loved Pope John Paul II, and tore it into pieces, declaring, “Fight the real enemy.”

The reaction was swift and forceful, beginning with SNL producer Lorne Michaels reportedly ordering that the “Applause” sign in the studio be turned off, leading to silence in the room. NBC permanently banned O’Connor, and SNL made her the butt of jokes for weeks to come, beginning with Joe Pesci, who appeared as host the following Saturday and said, “If it was my show, I would have gave her such a smack.” Some weeks later, she was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden, where she was scheduled to perform “I Believe in You” but once again performed “War.” Her bond with her audience, which had helped sustain her and prop up her always shaky self-confidence (“I couldn’t understand why anyone liked my records,” she tells Ferguson in the documentary), was fast fraying. And yet, despite the emotional pain this overwhelmingly negative response induced—“I regret,” she said, “that people treat me like shit”—she bravely stuck to her guns, observing in Rememberings that her protest against the Catholic Church served her larger intentions: “I feel that having a No 1 record derailed my career,” she wrote. “And my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.”

In the wake of her death, the tributes and memorial gatherings have been pouring in. The president of Ireland attended her funeral on Tuesday, along with Bono. The disdain is all gone, and in its place is a kind of honoring that verges on reverence. One wonders what O’Connor, who was apparently shy and demure in person, flashing her abashed smile at interviewers, would have made of all this—whether it would have brought her solace or struck her as hypocritical. There is no doubt that she was a buffeted and tormented soul who had a need to tell her traumatic story over and over again: “I’m a battered child,” she declared in Ferguson’s documentary, “and the whole bloody world is going to know about it.”

But she was also a survivor, infused with a kind of daring that required resilience as well as guts. One might say, as Auden did of Yeats, that mad Ireland hurt her into song, not to overlook her mother. She believed that “an artist’s job is sometimes to create difficult conversations that need to be had.” Perhaps we weren’t ready for her kind of truth-telling. Perhaps we never will be.