The Unapologetic Brilliance of Sinéad O’Connor

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On Wednesday, the Irish singer and songwriter Sinéad O’Connor was found dead in a private home in London. She was fifty-six. O’Connor’s discography—she released ten studio albums, beginning in 1987—is so broad and dynamic that it’s difficult to efficiently characterize her sound, from the buoyant, whooping new wave of “Mandinka,” a single from her début LP, to her voluptuous, breathy take on Cole Porter’s “You Do Something to Me,” to her haunted rendition of the traditional Scottish tune “The Skye Boat Song,” which she recently recorded for the title sequence of the television show “Outlander.” Throughout her career, the richness of O’Connor’s music was often surpassed by the vehemence and scorch of her politics. Perhaps most notably, she once ripped up an eight-by-ten photograph of Pope John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live” while singing the word “evil”—an act of righteous dissent against the Catholic Church’s ghastly mishandling of sexual abuse by clergy.

O’Connor had her biggest hit in 1990, with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song originally written by Prince for the Family, a side project that he was producing. It feels ludicrous to suggest that anyone has ever sung anything better than Prince—let alone sung one of Prince’s own songs better than Prince (!)—but, whatever, let’s say it: O’Connor embodied that track in an unusually profound and singular way. She understood its rage. Prince played it live sometimes; his version was always a little jazzier, funkier, sexier, airier. O’Connor sounds only furious. It’s tempting to read the song as an account of romantic collapse, but it applies to any sort of loss: a breakup, a death, the end of some love. (There’s a line in the final verse that alludes to O’Connor’s mother, who died when O’Connor was eighteen, and whom O’Connor would later characterize as a physically abusive alcoholic.) When something disappears before we want it to, we are left powerless, incomplete, yearning. There is simply no antidote to that kind of humiliation:

Since you been gone, I can do whatever I want
I can see whomever I choose
I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant
But nothing
I said nothing can take away these blues
’Cause nothing compares
Nothing compares to you

For years, O’Connor remained adamant that her performance on “S.N.L.” did not “derail” her career, as many critics claimed—she continued making the exact sort of music that she wanted to make, and if it did not reach the same commercial heights, so what? That had never been the goal. O’Connor had been thrashing against the dumb, stultifying demands of capitalism and pop stardom even before she was famous. In her 2021 memoir “Rememberings,” she tells a story about Nigel Grainge, the British record executive who signed her, suggesting that she “wear short skirts with boots and perhaps some feminine accessories such as earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and other noisy items one couldn’t possibly wear close to a microphone.” She walked out of the lunch. The next day, she went to a barbershop—a “Greek place by a bathhouse”—and had her head shaved by a reluctant employee. “I loved it. I looked like an alien. Looked like Star Trek. Didn’t matter what I wore now,” she wrote.

When “Rememberings” was first published, someone from O’Connor’s team reached out to me to see if I might be interested in joining her for a conversation at Greenlight Bookstore, in Brooklyn. (In 2016, after O’Connor had briefly gone missing from a Chicago suburb, I’d written a piece about what her music had meant to me.) I was due to give birth the same week of the event, but I said yes, of course, absolutely, yes. Selfishly, I was eager to talk to O’Connor about motherhood. In the final days of my pregnancy, I’d been waddling around the neighborhood, ordering increasingly larger sizes of lemon Italian ice, feeling moony with love yet utterly terrified. O’Connor had given birth to four children—Jake, Roisin, Shane, and Yeshua, each by a different father—between 1987, when she was twenty, and 2006, when she was forty. She had written so vividly about the supposedly incompatible experience of being a single parent and an artist, and of finding deep satisfaction in both pursuits. She portrayed parenthood as noble and gratifying. “If I have no other purpose in this life other than to put these four children on the earth, well, that’s enough for me to feel like I did something useful in this world,” she wrote. Of course, she had done so much more.

O’Connor cancelled the event the afternoon before it. Her publicist said it was due to illness, though the next day O’Connor tweeted that she was retiring: “I’ve gotten older and I’m tired… there’ll be no more touring or promo.” I gave birth to my daughter shortly thereafter. In January of 2022, O’Connor’s second son, Shane, died by suicide after disappearing from a hospital; he was seventeen. Though O’Connor and I had never met, I was gutted when I heard the news. It was plain from her writing that she had been a fierce and steadfast parent. Later that year, while navigating my own seismic loss, I felt that perhaps I understood some of her grief. On a Twitter account that’s since been deleted, she described the vastness of her suffering: “Been living as undead night creature since. He was the love of my life, the lamp of my soul. We were one soul in two halves. He was the only person who ever loved me unconditionally. I am lost in the bardo without him.” O’Connor was never quiet about her pain, even when it would have been easier to swallow or evade it—in fact, being unapologetic about the crippling weight of certain sorrows was the defining characteristic of her work. It feels dangerous to say that it is possible to die of a broken heart, but anyone who has gone through it knows how grief can feel insurmountable sometimes. It is a violent rupture. You prepare the tourniquets, you apply pressure, you pray that you will stop bleeding before it’s too late.

My copy of “Rememberings” is still filled with Post-it notes and highlighted passages, preparations for an evening that never happened. I circled one section from the foreword twice: “I never made sense to anyone, even myself, unless I was singing. But I hope this book makes sense. If not, maybe try singing it and see if that helps.” O’Connor could be cheeky; the line feels sly. Yet it reminds me that any true attempt to understand her life requires a return to her singing. In 2010, she performed a duet, with her friend Kris Kristofferson, of “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” a ballad about the kind of loneliness that can only be abated by sustained human contact. Kristofferson wrote the song in 1970; it has been recorded various times, by various artists, over the last fifty years. The duet with O’Connor is my favorite rendition: raw, quivering, a little off-kilter, unbearably intimate. It’s only two minutes long. O’Connor could be a belter—her voice was resolute, bold, loud—but here, she is quiet, almost reverent, almost timid. The footage is grainy, but at the end you can see them smile widely at each other. This, I think, is what O’Connor always wanted: anguish, laid bare. And then a gorgeous moment of communion, a weight lifted, a reminder that we do not have to be alone in our despair. With that smile, she is free. ♦


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