Sinéad O'Connor Has Never Been Timid
After she uploaded a distressing video this week, it's worth remembering that bravery and vulnerability have always been central to O'Connor's music, just as they have been to her interactions with the public.
Foto vía Noisey Us
Sinéad O'Connor, to use her own verb, has been "crazied." We've seen it before, with Lauryn Hill, Michael Jackson, Kanye West. The press turns on an outspoken artist and is joined by millions of willing minions on social media. The artist—sensitive, vulnerable, human, and, like most people on the planet, susceptible to mental illness—suffers, and suffers publicly. The bullying intensifies, the suffering deepens, and eventually, as Sinéad O'Connor did last week, the artist reaches their nadir. "I'm now living in a Travelodge Motel in the arse end of New Jersey," she told us on a video uploaded to Facebook. "I've got a fucking kidney stone, I'm all by myself, and there's absolutely nobody in my life except my doctor."
Having followed her career since her rearrangement of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" in 1990, I found the video distressing but not surprising. Sinéad O'Connor has always been intelligent, sensitive, and, in contrast to many of her peers, non-strategic in her approach, refusing to self-censor either her views or her feelings. Prior to the eighties, when corporate control over artists became near absolute, it was permissible for an artist to be fucked up and outspoken. Today, vulnerability, honesty, and unpredictability are qualities that labels would prefer artists to simulate rather than genuinely embody, and even though most of us will suffer from mental illness at some stage in our lives, such problems are presented as abnormal, deviations to be punished. As O'Connor said in 2012 on the Graham Norton Show, "We live in a world where crazy is a term of abuse." Instead, it is flawlessness and perfection that are rewarded, if not required.
In 2013 O'Connor took this argument further. "The media are the people defining what's crazy and what's not," she said on Irish TV. "Around the time I started making records… bands began to be censored and artists began to be silenced in all kinds of clever ways, and if you couldn't silence certain artists... what you had to do was crazy them… In that age a lot of the musicians that were around were protest singers… and when rap came that's when everybody began to get silenced."
For an example of the sort of music she is referring to, we can look back to O'Connor's second album, 1990's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, and the track "Black Boys on Mopeds" written in response to the death of Colin Roach, a 21-year-old black British man whose murder, pressure groups believed, was covered up by the police. "Margaret Thatcher's on TV / Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing / It seems strange that she should be offended / The same orders are given by her," she sings. "England's not the mythical land of Madame George and roses / It's the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds."
As in later songs, she does not separate her opinions from her own emotions, relating her own situation, as a young, Irish single mother, to the mother of the murdered man: "And I love my boy and that's why I'm leaving / I don't want him to be aware that there's / Any such thing as grieving." But even then, she seemed to know it was risky to voice her opinions: "Remember what I told you / If they hated me they will hate you," she sings. "These are dangerous days / To say what you feel is to dig your own grave."
It was in October, 1992, however, after her performance on Saturday Night Live, that O'Connor became truly vilified. She sang an a cappella rendition of "War", a Bob Marley song with lyrics taken from a Haile Selassie speech about racism, but removed the now anachronistic lines about Angola and Mozambique, substituting the words "child abuse, yeah," delivered with cold, wide-eyed rage. At the song's finale, while singing the word "evil" in a prolonged flatline, she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II. "Fight the real enemy," she said. With this effectively ended her stellar career. The following day, protestors crushed hundreds of her CD's outside the Rockefeller Center, and days later thousands booed her off stage at a Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden.
Later that year, O'Connor clarified her position in an interview for TIME (who described her as "unrepentant"). "It's not the man, obviously—it's the office," she said. "In Ireland… the priests have been beating the shit out of the children for years and sexually abusing them." On Kenny Live, a month later, she explained that this was a part of the colonial process: "The English came into this country and stopped us from educating ourselves… and then the church came in and set up all the educational systems… and that made us manifest in our houses domestic abuse from "boys don't cry" to rape..." As they shook hands at the end she told her host, "Thank you for being nice to me," as for the preceding for two months O'Connor had experienced near constant bullying and hatred, her punishment for speaking out about the factors that caused her own childhood trauma (the photograph she tore up belonged to her abusive mother). This waifish yet surprisingly loud-voiced woman, it seemed, was refusing to learn her place.
In effect, O'Connor is still being punished for protesting against paedophilia in the Catholic Church, something that feels hackneyed and obvious today. For 25 years the press have continued to run articles like 9 Crazy Sinead O'Connor Moments: Tell Me Baby Where Did I Go Wrong, focusing on controversy and not her music, a relentless media and later social media campaign of bullying which, if not the cause of many her mental health problems, will certainly have worsened them, probably severely. It is a danger Monica Lewinski, who tweeted her support, knows only too well, describing public shaming as "a blood sport" and stating that, "There were moments for me when it seemed like suicide was the only way to end the ridicule."
A tragic effect of the "crazying" of O'Connor is that her music has effectively been sidelined. She has released seven more albums since the Saturday Night Live incident 25 years ago, including her latest in 2014, I'm Not Bossy I'm the Boss, and the extraordinary Theology in 2007, a double album of lush, love-enriched hymns with which she set out to "rescue God from religion." Throughout her work, we witness her pain, her vulnerability, her joy, and her longings—in short, her humanity.
O'Connor has written songs that border on the suicidal, such as "The State I'm In": "It's a long long way to come / Out of this one / And now it seems so fatal," she sang. "Cause I may not come / Out of this one." Yet on that same album, 2007's Faith and Courage, we also find tracks like "The Healing Room" on which she sings, "I have a healing room inside me / The loving healers there they feed me / They make me happy with their laughter / They kiss and tell me I'm their daughter." On her video last week Sinéad O'Connor said, "Strength is fucking in my spirit but not in my fucking body." If ever she needs proof of that strength, it's there in her music, and today there are millions praying that she takes refuge in those two qualities so in abundance across her thirty year career: faith and courage.
Rajeev Balasubramanyam is the author of three novels: Starstruck, In Beautiful Disguises, and The Dreamer. His work has appeared at The New Statesman, Washington Post, and The London Review of Books, among others. Follow him on Twitter.