Saturday, November 25, 2017

Solitary Woman: Listening to Sinéad O’Connor

(Photo: Donal Moloney/Courtesy of the artist, via NPR)

These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to lay your own grave
— Sinéad O’Connor,
“Black Boys on Mopeds”

I’ve seldom experienced so profound a silence as the one heard on the night of October 3, 1992, just after Sinéad O’Connor, appearing as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II. It was her second spot of the show; there was no band around her, only candles burning on a stool. She began a song which many recognized and many didn’t as Bob Marley’s “War,” itself a Haile Selassie speech set to music. The performance, while gripping, was also strident and dull. The song went on, first crawling then flying then crawling, as fiery and ponderous as a dragon. The drama, if it was that, lay in the way the singer’s eyes seemed to both ice over and flare up as she neared the climax. She knew what she was going to do.

The song ended, and O’Connor held up the photograph: John Paul on a balcony, familiar pained smile and sleepy eyes, arms lifted to bless invisible multitudes. She made sure the camera saw him. Then she tore the picture in quarters, shouted, “Fight the real enemy!” and flung away the pieces. In the seconds before she walked off, the silence was, as they say, deafening. It filled the room I was sitting in, it filled the NBC studio. It seemed for a few seconds to fill the world. This was more than a gesture, it was an act of violence, and, except for a reference to “child abuse” (not in the Selassie-Marley original) which many of us missed, the preceding song hadn’t seemed to prepare for it. O’Connor was known to wear a T-shirt labeled “Recovering Catholic,” but most people didn’t suspect her of having any particular vendetta against the Vatican or its reigning ecclesiastical. And so something not just violent but also incomprehensible hung in the atmosphere.

O’Connor had dealt millions of people a hard knock, and she took many of her own in return. She was condemned by all but a few of the more than 4,000 callers who flooded the NBC switchboard. Two weeks later, at Bob Dylan’s thirtieth-anniversary concert, she was booed off the stage of Madison Square Garden. Celebrity papists Frank Sinatra, Joe Pesci, and Madonna attacked her in various ways, Pesci even claiming, as guest host of SNL, that, had he been present on the night in question, he’d have given O’Connor “such a smack”—his bantam cock’s boast cheered enthusiastically by a presumably sophisticated, liberal studio audience. (Was that audience openly relishing the fantasy of a real man hitting a real woman with a real hand, as it seemed to be, or was it simply high on memories of Pesci’s sociopathic imp from GoodFellas? Either way, it was revolting.)

Unless blinded by Catholic fury, you had to credit O’Connor for her courage. By this time she’d become a star, perhaps even a household name. That was in no small part because of her butch haircut, which demonstrated how easy it remained to offend the gender conservatism of the American pop audience. But it was mostly because of her talent as a singer and performer. An arresting debut (1987’s The Lion and the Cobra) was the set-up for her multiplatinum masterpiece, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990), which hit with a commercial and artistic force comparable to Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), Carole King’s Tapestry (1971), Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders (1980), and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer (1984). Like those women, O’Connor was a moment-to-moment singer: if not as commanding as Franklin, as comfortable as King, as perverse as Hynde, or as flamboyant as Turner, she was in her way every bit as raw and intimate. Her hard edge and exposed nerve mesmerized people. The video for her big hit, a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” showed almost nothing but her face, and when she cried near the end, many others cried too; those who didn’t were simply silent.

She was in a position to clean up. She had musical sense, stage presence, and the right millennial politics. Like Peter Gabriel or Sting or Natalie Merchant, she could have had a long, lucrative career full of good works, humanitarian awards, world-music festivals and Lilith Fairs, and, following the pattern, ever more irritating, self-consuming music. Instead she ripped up the Pope and pissed off the entire world.

That was 25 years ago. Since then, the truth of what the Catholic Church has inflicted on untold numbers of its children—with the at least passive complicity of every pope in history, including John Paul II—has been well established, even if it can never be fully documented. O’Connor’s career didn’t end that Saturday night: she went on to record several albums, mount several tours, achieve ordination as a priest, and inspire further controversy (an open letter to Miley Cyrus; a brief disappearance in Chicago; an apparent suicide threat). Asked to comment on the unfurling revelations of child abuse in the church, she let it be known that as a teenager in Ireland she’d been confined to a Mary Magdalene asylum, where—as well as being encouraged musically by a sympathetic nun—she was subjected to the same workhouse conditions and mechanisms of shame that were meted out by the Irish church to many generations of pregnant or recalcitrant girls. In her commentator role O’Connor was never smug, never said I told you so, but she doubted that the Vatican would ever be anything other than a hierarchy of ambitious, grasping, and decidedly earthly male supremacists (which seems a fair skepticism). She also went public as a person with depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. She’d been through her own Hell, most of it hidden; but coming into the 2000s O’Connor looked wiser as well as older. All the baptismal burns were visible in her face, yet one assumed that she would go on and be all right from there.

Sinéad O’Connor's motel video.

Well, that may be the biggest and worst lie we tell ourselves about mental illness: the lie—reinforced by movies, TV, and the pop literature of recovery and self-help—that a person’s demons, once subdued, are beaten for all time. Mental illness, like cancer, has periods of remission, but it never goes away; and recently, in her most alarming public act yet, O’Connor tried to tell us exactly that. On August 3, she posted to her Facebook page a 13-minute video in which, sitting on a motel bed in New Jersey, she spoke to her fans and her family, imploring those claiming to be her loved ones to take an interest in her continued existence. Through sobs and occasional bitter laughter, she tried to say what it was like to live with mental illness—the stigma and isolation; the feeling of battling oneself every day just to stay alive; the people who, often with the best intentions, use the illness to (in her words) “invalidate every fucking thing you do, feel, think, or say.” O'Connor had said at the beginning that she was revealing herself this way because “I wanted you to see what it’s fucking like,” in hopes that it might help others in her situation. Already, it has: numerous people with similar experiences have expressed their thanks, and the video has well over a million views.

A few weeks ago, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was close at hand, and I put it on. It had been years, but like a ghost released from an untended mausoleum, the music flew straight at me, dark, lovely, troubled and troubling. It begins with O’Connor intoning the serenity prayer, as if girding herself for some heroic test; when she begins to sing, the voice is grave, contained, a quiet creep upon slumbering monsters: “I’m not like I was before.” And as I listened it became clear, where it never quite had been, that the album’s overriding existential and musical fact is isolation. I thought of O’Connor’s SNL appearance, her motel-room video, and the full tortured span of her visible career—all of which now situated the album I thought I knew in a larger, sadder setting, a house of pain that in 1990 didn’t exist. Not for me, anyway. “I’m not like I was before.” No, you’re not, I thought; and as your listener, neither am I.

From the beginning, O’Connor’s voice was a great one, both technically and emotionally mature, its every curl an expression of an individual’s energy and temperament. Its power on I Do Not Want is mostly a function of physical sound rather than purveyed meaning: as ever in great pop music, the lyrics matter chiefly as reflective flashes, well-chosen shots or shards of image (“I was not ready for the fall”; “They will be exposed”) that clarify the melody, illuminate the chord change, or accelerate the urgency. The voice is explosive yet controlled; sexy and insinuating when it feels that way, other times practical and pitiless, even analytical. “Nothing Compares” is a voice on the bleeding edge, while “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” is a voice empty of love, heated only by a residue of resentment.

As O’Connor sings the album, a persona builds. Not a fictional character developed through beginnings, middles, and ends, but a set of floating expressions, perceptions, traits—something akin to the “worried man” that Greil Marcus, in Mystery Train (1975), heard coalescing across The Band’s Music from Big Pink. Call her the “solitary woman”: fierce, intelligent, frightened but resolute, and always wanting, despite her claim, what she hasn’t got. Song after song comes through the mouth, mind, and eyes of this woman, through her need to declaim truths that she knows may never be heard or understood, because emotions are too intricate and the truth too painful; or because, as large as she knows her spirit to be, half the time she feels too small to speak above a whisper. In the motel video, O’Connor repeatedly contrasts her enormous will against her “tiny little fucking body”; and as if to dramatize that split—between spiritual and physical, guts and fear—her voice moves in the maternal love song “Three Babies” from a honeyed sweetness to a punkish bray and back, sometimes in a single line. “Black Boys on Mopeds,” apparently inspired by the suspicious gunshot death, in 1983, of Colin Roach in an English police station, is voiced by a woman leaving her country in bitterness, hoping to spare her son the awareness that weighs on her like a stone. Implicitly, she is alone but for her child, fending for both of them, and the sadness of her leaving is in O’Connor’s decision to sing not in righteousness or resolve but in a tired, heartbroken daze.

There’s immense beauty and deep grain in the album’s pervasively acoustic sound. There’s also a deliberate and unbridgeable distance between artist and listener. The sporadic backing vocals sound less like independent human presences than like echoes rebounding on the singer; even the fast beats and chunky backings of the rock numbers (“Jump in the River,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes”) don’t close that gap. The sense is of the solitary woman reaching across from some middle space, not quite here and not quite there; of her need to reach, and in reaching to make herself real; and finally of her aloneness in that distance. The aloneness resonates within the integral confines of the album, and it vibrates outward to implicate later events. O’Connor was conspicuously alone on that Saturday Night Live stage; so was she alone in the motel room. And so on the last song of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, the title song, is O’Connor alone: a cappella all the way, just her and her shadow. When it ends, the silence is a darkness swallowing the solitary woman as the distance overtakes her; the distance, with whatever demons live there.

And where is the uplift in this? What is the resolution to be taken from triangulating these very different and very similar public acts—the lonesome beauty of a great rock album; the categorical imperative of a papal desecration; and the desperation of a motel video? No resolution at all, really, beyond realizing anew the bravery of O’Connor’s 1992 heresy, her willingness to say what she had to say and to face a brutal aftermath, shielded with nothing but a truth whose exposure would be long, too long in coming; appreciating that, as O’Connor was fully alive in every moment that went into I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, we are fully alive in hearing it; and knowing that, in that shared aliveness, an emotional circuit is closed between us, an act of feeling accomplished, a recognition made across distance. That’s all Sinéad O’Connor has ever really seemed to be asking for, from any of us.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Largeand the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is


  1. Authentic,brave,and beautiful,she is amazing. Thank you for sharing your newer understanding of her strength.

  2. Well done. Sinead is brilliant, I'm praying for peace, peace where there is no peace.... In the hearts of everyone because, there's only ♡ in this world... ALL babies are born singing God's name...
    Sing it Sinead you are the righteous one in Christ trust in the truth God (♡) will fight this battle for U and She will set U free fly closer to the sea pale blue bird Amen!

  3. And fascinatingly, as you reveal, by connecting so deeply emotionally, even spiritually with us as listeners, Sinead O’Conner will never truly be alone

    Brilliant article❤️😌