There is so much more to Sinéad O’Connor, who passed away July 26, than a shaved head and a torn picture of the Pope.
The Irish songwriter, vocalist, producer, and activist was undoubtedly one of the most influential alternative artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Her voice howled like a wind across a haunted mountain range as she channeled the passions of a discontented folk singer through the aesthetic tools of the post-punk era. In many ways, O'Connor helped thoughtful, imaginative rock music go mainstream at the end of the last century. She delivered important music with a prophet’s admonition to a pop audience who was more interested in her haircut than the issues she aimed to address.
While commercial music can be constructed in a studio by professionals, great art is often formed in a crucible at great cost. O’Connor’s crucible began in a suburb of Dublin with an intensely abusive mother who traumatized her from a young age. As a teen, she found herself in a home for troubled kids after getting arrested for petty crimes. A nun gave her a guitar, encouraging her to find an outlet for her thoughts and emotions in music.
O’Connor eventually connected with the band In Tua Nua, while U2’s The Edge became an early advocate. Then it was only a matter of time. When she emerged in 1987 with her debut album, The Lion and The Cobra, the world heard the sound of an artist willing to hold complicated things in paradox. The album's title refers to Psalm 91, in which the Lord promises to protect whoever dwells in his shadow from predators of all types. Biblical imagery abounds throughout the set, but to call it a “Christian album” would miss the point. O’Connor allowed sacred ideas to mingle fluidly with literary, historical, and physiological references. A poem by Yeats, Alex Haley’s Roots, Ireland’s “Troubles," and even the holy city of Jerusalem all make appearances as this young songwriter tries to make sense of the world. The one outlier, "I Want Your (Hands On Me)," was a simple club song about sex. The artist was pregnant with her first child at the time. (She would go on to have three more children in the ensuing years.)
O’Connor’s 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was a big part of the mainstreaming of alternative music. "Nothing Compares 2 U," a relatively obscure Prince song before she covered it, introduced the wider world to her singular voice. With double-platinum sales, multiple hit singles in different formats, four Grammy nominations (and one win), and the biggest song of the year, this was O’Connor’s commercial breakthrough. Celebrity, fame, and awards all followed, none interesting or important to O'Connor. She refused the Grammy nominations and the win (with some harsh words for the music industry in the process) and tried to keep people focused on the music and the ideas behind it. When male artists did that, they were considered serious. People used other words to describe Sinéad.
The album’s title, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, may seem, at first blush, smug or boastful. Had this troubled young woman really found the kind of enlightenment that allowed her to transcend discontent? It’s actually more like a hopeful prayer. The title track, which starts with what must be a sideways reference to how “happy” her mother had made her, goes on to say, “I have water for my journey, I have bread and I have wine / No longer will I be hungry, for the Bread of Life is mine.” O’Connor paints a word picture of a person walking through a desert, obviously in desperate need, but praying that the Eucharistic miracle will be enough. With this mystery at the heart of the album—and maybe the heart of her entire career—Sinéad O’Connor comes into sharp relief.
As a victim of sexualized violence and as a woman in a male-dominated industry, O'Connor had a specific and vital perspective to share. She wrote and sang about the sexual abuse of children and the cover-ups happening in the Roman Catholic Church she still called home. When she felt that no one was paying attention, she forced the issue. In 1992, at the height of her fame, she consciously chose to risk her platform— and no doubt millions of dollars—to provoke a conversation that needed to happen. She tore that picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. I remember watching in confusion that night. She had just performed a stylized version of Bob Marley's "War." What did that have to do with the Pope? I remember thinking—maybe even saying out loud—that she had probably cost herself her career that night. But my respect for her grew when I later learned what she was trying to spark.
It's one thing, and not very respectable, for an artist to use shock or controversy to build a platform. It's quite another for an artist who has a platform to surrender it to force a meaningful conversation. In the years after that Saturday Night Live performance, we all came to know that it wasn't only the Catholic Church with a sex-abuse cover-up problem. Scandals had reached into public schools, evangelical churches, the Olympics, police departments, and sometimes even our own homes. The veil was lifted even further with the #MeToo moviement. In 1992 Sinéad O’Connor was an outlier, so much so that Bob Dylan’s fans booed her a few weeks after her SNL performance when she appeared at a Dylan tribute concert.
O'Connor's voice howled like a wind across a haunted mountain range
O’Connor careened through the 1990s and beyond, causing trouble both good and painful. She wrestled with her mental health, often in the public eye. She claimed to be battling bipolar disorder and then took it back. She became an ordained priest in an obscure Catholic sect and then converted to Islam. She kept seeking, kept provoking, and seemed to toggle between fiery agitator and wizened comforter. She wrestled. She continued to release provocative, reflective, and deeply spiritual music, including her 2020 version of the traditional spiritual “Trouble Of The World,” made famous by Mahalia Jackson during the Civil Rights movement.
Soon I will be done
With the trouble of the world
Trouble of the world
Trouble of the world
Soon I will be done
Trouble of the world
I'm going home to live with God
Of the song, O’Connor said, "It's written that the world will become the Garden of Eden which it was intended to be, and that to me is what the song is saying."
In Matthew 6, as part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus ended his message with a simple promise. He challenged his audience to seek first the Kingdom of God—and then God would add everything else in time. Although I am blessed never to have wrestled with profound depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, I have walked alongside many friends and family members who have. I am not about to guess what O'Connor was going through. She was a seeker, though, and I am just mystical enough to hold out hope that Jesus meant it when he said that seekers would find.
Sinéad O’Connor was an artist of fierce conviction, sublime grace, and profound contradiction. She contained multitudes. She dared to speak of the abuse she suffered at the hand of her troubled mother and then dared to forgive her. She spoke truth to power, even when it cost her dearly. She wore her woundedness on the outside for all to see. She sang like an angel who had been to hell and part of the way back. She began her career with an album inspired by a psalm of protection and ended it with a gospel song of deliverance.
The lions and the cobras of this world never had their way with Sinéad. She trampled their heads with her voice. The enemies within her mind may have been another story, for now, but in the end, even those snakes don't get the last word.
Fágann an bás pian nach féidir le haon duine leigheas, fágann grá cuimhne nach féidir a ghabháil. (Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.)