Sinéad O’Connor’s magnificent voice could shiver from between almost-closed lips like a tendril emerging through soft earth—tiny raptures or tiny requiems that could stop the breaths of an entire stadium audience while her own body barely moved. That same voice could suddenly rush from a wide-open mouth and blast ululations heavenward, calling down wrath upon injustices both intimate and global. At such moments, lightning bolts would seem to issue from the bristles on her head, and her limbs and torso could twist with the anguish of a Grünewald Jesus.
Her voice was an instrument of not just staggering technical range but also staggering emotional and ethical capacity. O’Connor cherished a longtime engagement with the ancient music and stories of her own Irish tradition, thereby creating what author Emer Nolan has described as “a solo voice [that] becomes, by sleight of genius, a collective voice.” This rendered her explorations of other cultures’ music and spirituality as dialogue and communion rather than appropriation and domination.
Throughout her life, O’Connor expressed gratitude to the artists from elsewhere who’d brought her their own traditions’ gifts. She pointed out the humane terms upon which these artistic epiphanies happened; for example, the kindness of the Rastafari singers in London who fed the newly arrived adolescent O’Connor with nourishing meals as well as musical ideas.
O’Connor also shared publicly the facts of her own mental health odyssey, and the calamities of that journey—facile misdiagnoses, overly aggressive prescription therapies, ambushes by a hoodwinking Dr. Phil. She issued these revelations as warnings for people who, without her affluence and high profile, were likely to fare even worse in navigations of mental distress.
Throughout her career, however, O’Connor had to reckon with talk show hosts in the US—and one or two clowns in the UK—whose obsession was not with her artistic audacity but with their most coveted Sinéad trope: the so-called “battle with her inner demons.” Imagine applying the same life/work standards to other artists with mental-health issues: Robert Lowell, Keith Richards, Pablo Picasso. In fact, the demons against which O’Connor most consistently rode into battle were outer ones: racism, gender bigotry, the sexual exploitation of children, the profit-addicted music industry.
From an early age she tried to live her one precious life with an honesty to which she believed everyone was entitled. When a record-company honcho decreed that the 20-year-old O’Connor’s look would be short skirts, push-up bras, and long hair, she strode to the barber across the street and told him to shave her head. Naysayers pronounced the act a neurotic stunt, an intentional despoiling of marketable good looks. Her frank act of defiance made a place in the world where the scalps of Doja Cat, Ayanna Pressley, Michaela Coel, and X. González can gleam with impunity. O’Connor completed her look with razor-slashed Doc Martens and a wardrobe that was resolutely gender-fluid years before that term was in circulation. Later, she’d sometimes add a nun’s veil or a roman collar or a hijab—as if to say, “Who cares?” She helped create an inclusionary aesthetic in the spirit of what art critic Antwaun Sargent has called “beauty as an act of social justice.”
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O’Connor felt an especial urgency to speak out on behalf of people trapped within systems that controlled them utterly—whether that policing was done by the state, the church, or the family. O’Connor was born in a genteel suburb of Dublin, but under the regime of a violently psychotic mother; following this terror, O’Connor endured a spell in a juvenile detention center that once had been a Magdalen laundry in which families incarcerated their pregnant unmarried daughters. She wrote “Black Boys on Mopeds” out of alarm at the racist law enforcement she saw when she first moved to the UK; the song concerns Nicholas Bramble, a Black teenager chased to death on his motorbike by London cops who’d assumed he’d stolen it. She dedicated the album to the Caribbean-immigrant parents of Colin Roach, a young man shot to death in the doorway of her neighborhood police station: the official report exonerated law enforcement and claimed Roach had shot himself. The album’s inner sleeve was emblazoned with a photo of Colin’s parents, gravely standing in the rain in front of the police station, holding up a poster of their son.
O’Connor did not allow any of her early successes—a gold record for her first album, the 1990 Billboard Award for number-one world single, her selection as Rolling Stone’s 1991 Artist of the Year, and many more—to distract her from the task of calling attention to injustices in the music industry. When she stepped onstage to receive her Grammy Awards—at a ceremony that had eliminated rappers from the program—she made a deft turn sideways toward the camera to display her buzz-cut head emblazoned with the multicolored logo of Public Enemy, one of the excluded groups.
As with her response to her record label’s attempted style curation, O’Connor’s most famous public acts were unfussy and straightforward. When a New Jersey events organizer asked if she’d mind having the national anthem played before a concert, she answered that she’d prefer to skip it—a reply that got reported as if she’d made a flaming operatic declaration, or had desecrated a monument. Furious patriots across the country demanded O’Connor’s deportation and hired steamrollers to crush her CDs. Frank Sinatra threatened to kick her ass.
For years, O’Connor had been raising an alarm about pedophile priests exploiting children with impunity while an enabling Vatican hierarchy looked the other way. Then in 1992, O’Connor wrapped up her Saturday Night Live a cappella performance of Bob Marley’s “War” by solemnly tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II and speaking plainly into the camera: “Fight the real enemy.” The audience responded with dead silence.
Two weeks later, when she attempted to sing “War” at a huge celebration of Bob Dylan’s 30 years in show business, fully half the arena booed her. What mass psychosis gripped the audiences at both the NBC studio and at Madison Square Garden—thousands of urbane comedy-and music-loving hipsters, either multi-credal or non-credal, nonetheless reacted with a fundamentalist fury Ayatollah Khomeini would have loved. The primitive gratification derived from gagging a mouthy woman was clearly irresistible. After the photo shredding, O’Connor declared, “It was open season on treating me like a crazy bitch.” Less than a decade later, the whole world learned that she was right.
In announcing O’Connor’s death, Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins praised “the way her voice went around the world and how it was received.” Examples of this worldwide embrace can be relished in YouTube videos of O’Connor’s mostly non-US talk-show appearances, in which you can watch hosts on a number of continents engaging the bawdy, funny, and insightful singer on subjects ranging far from personal-struggle stories. Apart from Rosie O’Donnell, most US hosts preferred to deal with O’Connor at a smirking middle-school level: Check out Jay Leno’s cringy baldness-mocking sequence entitled “Pin the Hair on the Sinéad.”
Last year, a devastated O’Connor had to reckon with the suicide of her 17-year-old son, Shane. While she was in mourning, she was harassed repeatedly by Piers Morgan, the woman-denigrating UK television news reader and Rupert Murdoch lapdog. Morgan was determined to conduct an in-depth interview with O’Connor about Shane’s death. In spite of her massive grief, O’Connor managed to decline the invitation with lacerating wit. She had to say no, she claimed, out of fear of speaking her mind—in this case, about one of the high-profile women the host regularly denigrated. Several weeks before her death, O’Connor shared with the world the note she’d sent to Morgan in 2022. Here’s a piece of it:
I think it’s best I don’t do your show because of the irresistible temptation I would have to point out that you’re dying to be balls deep in Meghan Markle so bad it’s driven you crazy, and that your dislike for Prince Harry is down to his being balls deep in her ten times a day.
Throughout her too-short life, Citizen Sinéad risked the skin of her soul as well as her body in order to speak inconvenient truths. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie’s eulogy for Franklin Roosevelt:
“This world was lucky
To see her born.”