Sinéad O’Connor Was Always Herself

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The Irish musician Sinéad O’Connor died, on Wednesday, at the age of fifty-six, without having received adequate apologies from this society we inhabit, which is often fuelled by an obsession with doling out gleeful, prolonged punishment. Even before O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live,” in 1992, to protest sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, which prompted a group to run over her CDs with steamrollers, she’d received criticism for boycotting the Grammys, in 1991, after earning four nominations. (She won one award, for Best Alternative Music Performance, for her album “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” which contained her smash-hit Prince cover “Nothing Compares 2 U.”) A year prior to that, as O’Connor explains in her 2021 memoir, “Rememberings,” before a concert in New Jersey, O’Connor was asked if she wanted the U.S. national anthem played before she took the stage, and she said no: “Anthems just have petrifyingly contagious associations with squareness unless they’re being played by Jimi Hendrix.” But the narrative became that O’Connor had refused to take the stage if the anthem was played. When word of that incident got out, Frank Sinatra threatened her with violence. Later, MC Hammer offered to buy her a plane ticket back to her native Ireland. Her greatest crime, underlying all of these defiant actions, was that she didn’t seem to be a gracious pop star, grateful for the sales that pushed her single to No. 1 and her album to platinum status in the United States, where such levels of success are expected to be met with dutiful compliance, especially if the pop star in question is a young woman. The week after O’Connor’s “S.N.L.” appearance, Joe Pesci went on the show and fantasized about slapping her. The crowd cheered.

In the years that followed, O’Connor was sometimes treated more as a spectacle than as an artist. She continued to release albums spanning genres—from pop to folk rock, from roots-reggae covers to traditional Irish tunes—and they were largely acclaimed, even as her commercial success dwindled. An album was delayed amid a suicide attempt and a high-profile custody battle with the Irish journalist John Waters, with whom she shared a daughter. When that album, “Faith and Courage,” was finally released, in 2000, it earned strong reviews and modest sales. In her memoir, and in related interviews, O’Connor expressed some satisfaction with this outcome, stating that having a No. 1 hit had been more damaging to her career than any of the backlash. She spoke of the “S.N.L.” aftermath as a sort of corrective that put her career back on its intended path.

What Sinéad O’Connor Sought in Her Music

Amanda Petrusich on the singer’s unapologetic brilliance.

My favorite O’Connor project is her ninth studio album, “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?,” from 2012. In the years before its release, O’Connor had married twice (the second time she and her husband, Barry Herridge, separated after only a couple of weeks) and her life had become, yet again, the subject of a joyful type of scrutiny. There was speculation about the severity of her avowed drug use, the severity of her relationships, the severity of her mental-health struggles. “How About I Be Me” is my favorite of O’Connor’s works because it might have been easy for her to spend all of her creative energies confronting the cruelties affixed to her name. But her project instead turns away from the masses and looks inward, sweetly, sincerely, only occasionally scathingly, and never scathingly toward O’Connor herself. The album’s sharpest edges serve as warnings to a ravenous audience; in the chorus of the John Grant cover “Queen of Denmark,” she sings, “I don’t know what it is you wanna want from me / you really have no right to want anything from me at all, ” a sentiment that, in this version, has a renewed heft. But “How About I Be Me” is mostly an album of love and of longing. If there is an outward-facing theme, it is the one that runs through much of O’Connor’s career from the early nineties onward: the joke is on you; I never wanted your fame in the first place.

The album opens with the jaunty song “4th and Vine.” In the black-and-white music video, as an acoustic guitar plays among chugging beats of light percussion, O’Connor smiles while sitting at a pub table with other musicians. Children gather on the steps of a church for a wedding. A pastor smokes. O’Connor sings, “I’m gonna marry my love / And we’ll be happy for all time / We’re gonna have six children / And enough love for them / That they’ll be happy all the time.” One might arrive at the album seeking an archive of devastation: Tell us about the worst parts of your living since you were last with us; confirm or deny the worst parts of all that has been said. But there is no subsequent turn in the song’s contented register. As the music winds down, O’Connor is still grinning, fantasizing about her love taking her on a “buggy ride.” She was in love once, and who cares if it didn’t work out. She was in love once, and, oh, how lucky that was. In the next song on the album, a piano ballad called “Reason with Me,” O’Connor sings, “Cause if I love someone, I might lose someone,” twice, but I don’t even find the tune particularly sad. It is a tender examination of the heart, the flawed self, and how desire emanates from those two entities even when a person knows how damaging desire can be. The song ends with O’Connor’s yelping, “I don’t think that it’s too late to save me.” The closest O’Connor gets to a harsh internal monologue is on the track “I Had a Baby,” in which she wrestles with having to tell her son Shane that his father was married to another woman. At the end of the chorus, O’Connor sings, “I was crazy, I was always crazy,” which sounds less like a lament than like a prideful reclamation of the language that had already been tied to her by others.

O’Connor suffered, but she did not live a life only of suffering, despite what some of her detractors might have wished for. The culture in some ways has caught up to her—about the hyper-commercialization of the Grammy Awards, the role of the national anthem before concerts or sporting events, and, most notably, the epidemic of abuse within the Catholic Church. O’Connor lived a life of seeking. In the late nineties, a Catholic group unaffiliated with the Church ordained her as a priest. In 2018, she converted to Islam and changed her name to Shuhada’ Sadaqat (though she still performed and released work under the name Sinéad O’Connor).

Still, there was suffering. In 1993, in an ad she took out in the Irish Times, O’Connor detailed her troubled childhood. “If only I can fight off the voices of my parents and gather a sense of self-esteem. Then I’ll be able to REALLY sing,” she wrote. She seemingly struggled with those internal demons for the rest of her life. In 2017, she posted a video from a New Jersey motel, saying that there was very little keeping her alive but that she was fighting to stay alive. She said she’d been living alone for two years as “punishment” for being mentally ill, that she was angry that no one, except her psychiatrist, was taking care of her. Last year, she lost Shane to suicide. She wrote on Twitter, in July, “Been living as undead night creature since.” In an interview in 2021, O’Connor said that she liked solitude. But the world owed her more than it gave, and so maybe she withdrew from it. Withdrawing is one way of managing expectations.

One of my favorite O’Connor performances is a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” from her 1994 album “Universal Mother.” In one TV appearance, she stands at the front of a stage in a white top with a large red heart at its center. The stage is dipped in crimson. A single acoustic-guitar player sits at her back. She sings most of the song in a restrained whisper, with her eyes cast down, which I don’t read as a manifestation of shame itself but as an attempt to divorce herself from the cameras, to erect a boundary between herself and the world. She looks up when she gets to the line “Easily amused / Find my nest of salt / Everything’s my fault / I’ll take all the blame / Aqua sea-foam shame,” and when she arrives at the song’s closing repetition—“All in all is all we are”—her voice grows increasingly quiet, until she is swaying back and forth in silence, mouthing the words but not speaking them, looking up as if she knows the answer to something you never will. Then she puts the mike by her side and steps back into the reddened dark. ♦


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