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.
There's something deeply undignified about seeing someone's death reduced to two lines, be it a statement or an insertion. The finality of death condensed for human consumption.
And when the person was someone in the public eye for years, it becomes even more disconcerting. For Sinéad O’Connor, also known as Shuhada' Sadaqat, Magda Davitt and Mother Bernadette Mary, had not only been famous, but she also helped to usher in a new Ireland. A more secular and cosmopolitan one.
One of five children, her childhood has been well documented as has the death of her mother, an “extreme and violent” woman according to her brother, Joseph. Unsurprisingly, one song that stuck with her in this period was This Mortal Coil's rendition of 'Song to the Siren'. Talking about its impact on her, O’Connor said that:
It was the record that got me through her death. In a country like Ireland where there was no such thing as therapy, self-expression or emotion, music was the only place you had to put anything. I played "Song to the Siren" nearly all day, every day, lying on the floor curled up in a ball, just bawling. I couldn't understand the words much, but (Elizabeth Fraser's) way of singing was the feeling I didn't know how to make. I still can't move a muscle when I hear her sing it.
With that anecdote in mind, it's not that difficult to see how the record influenced her own work. Its etherealness emphasised by Frasier’s dreamy, yet restrained vocals that hint at unbearable sadness and steely determination to confront the past.
The Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got remain striking statements of intent. Ones that have been informed by classic songwriters like Dylan and Marley, but with a more eclectic sensibility, hence why MC Lyte would appear on a remix and Nellee Hooper (Massive Attack, Soul II Soul) would be a collaborator. Who else would have written a hip hop influenced number about how the famine was genocide or dared to cover songs like ‘Marcus Garvey’ with Sly and Robbie backing her?
Always underlining the work was a voice that could be angelic, defiant, soulful and ethereal.
We all know about the Saturday Night Live incident so no need to delve into it here.
However, it is important to remember that afterwards, she was treated like a pariah. Everyone from Madonna to Joe Pesci vilified her. She was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden (by middle aged Dylan fans who presumably still saw themselves as anti-establishment).
However, time and the various revelations about the Catholic Church have vindicated her actions in the eyes of the world. Released the same year, Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy would, through Francie Brady, give a voice to those who were brutalised by the Catholic Church’s system of oppression. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that these two cultural events helped (in their own way) usher in a kind of Perestroika in Ireland, where the Catholic Church’s grip on society was greatly weakened. And, when it was adapted for the novel to be filmed by Neil Jordan, it was no coincidence that the Virgin Mary was played by O’Connor.
There's also no denying that the SNL incident was an excellent piece of theatre. One that, as many commentators have pointed out, completely wiped the floor with Madonna (who, at the time, was promoting her coffee table book 'Sex' and 'Erotica' album).
As Jon Pareles wrote in November 1992:
Anti-authority sentiments raise hackles highest when the challenge comes from insubordinate blacks (like Ice-T with "Cop Killer") or women, like O'Connor. If a heavy-metal band took a picture of the Pope, hung it on an upside-down cross and burned it, the act would likely be greeted with yawns -- that old bit again? But waifish female 25-year-olds like O'Connor don't have the same prerogative. While bullies like Axl Rose are lionized as rock-and-roll rebels simply for lashing out at the press -- like so many losing political candidates -- O'Connor draws real outrage because she doesn't know her place. She baffles the likes of Madonna by making her gestures without game plans or tie-ins. "War" doesn't appear on her new album, "Am I Not Your Girl?" -- a collection of standards accompanied by orchestra and sung in the voice of a terrified child who believes every unhappy word.
As peerless and iconoclastic an act it was, it also became a milestone. One that would be referred to either as a joke or as a reference point when discussing her later work or personal life.
And what a life it was.
From being ordained by Michael Cox, to announcing that she was a lesbian, then retiring, then converting to Islam. There were various breakdowns, takes that could be charitably described as bad and lashing out at the likes of Miley Cyrus under the guise of concern. All while being the mother (and grandmother) of several children.
Within the tapestry of life, it was probably a continuing search for peace and meaning. Within the context of a famous singer in the public eye, it could be interpreted as a series of publicity stunts. No wonder she was parodied on Father Ted.
To the average person, it was exhausting. Sure, they had sympathy as they were all too aware that there is no such thing as a perfect victim, but there were limits. Then again, depression and mental illness plays on the more maudlin, narcissistic elements of the human psyche. As Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote in Prozac Nation:
I know how taxing it is to do something even as small and brief as having a meal with a depressive. We are such irritating people, can see the dark side of everything...
Maybe this voyeuristic approach leaves us open to culpability, as Morrissey has suggested:
She had only so much ‘self’ to give. She was dropped by her label after selling 7 million albums for them. She became crazed, yes, but uninteresting, never. She had done nothing wrong. She had proud vulnerability…there is a certain music industry hatred for singers who don’t ‘fit in’ (this I know only too well), and they are never praised until death - when, finally, they can’t answer back. The cruel playpen of fame gushes with praise for Sinéad today…with the usual moronic labels of “icon” and “legend”. You praise her now ONLY because it is too late. You hadn’t the guts to support her when she was alive and she was looking for you. The press will label artists as pests because of what they withhold … and they would call Sinéad sad, fat, shocking, insane … oh but not today! Music CEOs who had put on their most charming smile as they refused her for their roster are queuing-up to call her a “feminist icon”, and 15 minute celebrities and goblins from hell and record labels of artificially aroused diversity are squeezing onto Twitter to twitter their jibber-jabber … when it was YOU who talked Sinéad into giving up … because she refused to be labelled, and she was degraded, as those few who move the world are always degraded...As always, the lamestreamers miss the ringing point, and with locked jaws they return to the insultingly stupid “icon” and “legend” when last week words far more cruel and dismissive would have done. Tomorrow the fawning fops flip back to their online shitposts and their cosy Cancer Culture and their moral superiority and their obituaries of parroted vomit … all of which will catch you lying on days like today … when Sinéad doesn’t need your sterile slop.
And there is truth to this.
In the mid 00’s, there was a perception among some music journalists that she was “one of the great unfulfilled talents of rock...”, which is not only a deeply patronising statement (suggesting that her catalogue was merely a series of sketches) but also implies a kind of failure on her part to translate her gifts into commercial success (let’s face it, that’s what the statement means). This simplistic interpretation of what it means to be fulfilled undoubtedly helped to derail interest in her various records around this time, which saw her cover traditional folk songs as well as reggae numbers.
Her death is not only a tragedy for her family and a notice that we were dealing with someone who battled severe mental health issues, but it is also a reminder of a different time in music. One where artists had the backing of their label and could be controversial, affecting change in the wider world.
Once again, referring to Jon Parales’ 1992 piece:
...it's clear that she has the attitude that afflicts all post-Romantic artists: the conviction that her private problems are the world's concern. From the unwillingness or inability to distinguish between private torments and public affairs come great statements and petty ones, raw nuttiness and carefully honed masterpieces. It's easy to disagree with O'Connor's latest outbursts. But better the occasional passionate, off-the-wall eruption -- taking the chance that might stir up outrage -- than a culture of safety and calculation.
And, in this day and age, that's a revolutionary act in itself.
Lest we forget.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.