What are we to make of Sinead O’Connor? The Irish singer who rose to fame at age 21 with her 1987 release, “The Lion and the Cobra,” has in ensuing years acquired a reputation that seems to obligate journalists to affix some pointed adjective before every mention of her name.
Thus, we have the “troubled” and “controversial” Sinead, music’s “mad woman” whose recent frank Twitter comments of her sexual desires, reports of online dating, and brief marriage to an Irish drug counselor have been fodder for the tabloid press.
Indeed, following reports this past winter of her days-long-and-done Las Vegas marriage, readers of Britain’s The Sun were incredulous, deriding O’Connor as a “wackjob,” “nuts,” “slowly disintegrating,” “a woman who needs professional help,” and more.
The measure of such reactions can perhaps be taken in the notion that suggesting medical or mental health assistance is something to be thrown at someone like an insult. Certainly the modern world of online media discussion sites often become the equivalent of an ugly lynch mob, a release valve for a subterranean world of online trolls indignant with petty thoughts about whatever. In O’Connor’s case, such criticism easily becomes reminiscent of a frightened 19th Century village mob, clamoring for the strange, mad woman with the shaved head and possessed ways to be locked away in the proverbial dank asylum somewhere.
Not Just Another “Celebrity” Story
O’Connor herself doesn’t shy away from discussing her personal struggles. She recently told The Guardian (March 1, 2012) she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the horrific childhood she lived. Elsewhere she’s acknowledged treatment for bi-polar disorder, a condition that at its worst has led to suicidal moments and hospitalization. In fact, her story is just another very human story, one that deserves empathy and understanding, not scorn.
Of course, most of us wouldn’t know anything about O’Connor if not for the music. This is where the remarkable Sinead (no quotation marks needed) takes the stage, the singer-songwriter with a voice at once tender and formidable. She is a unique performer whose songs can simultaneously move listeners to tears, or if she chooses leave hypocrisy and propriety bleeding all over the floor.
These days O’Connor is back with a new album, “Why Don’t I Be Me (And You Be You)?” It’s an album that explores a gamut of stories and emotions, from the joys of romance to an addict’s troubles to her long-standing anger over the Catholic Church’s cover-up of priest sexual abuse. It is among the finest music of her career.
In interviews, O’Connor has said she would have preferred to call the album, “Why Don’t I Be Me (And You F. . k Off)? Listen to the sonic boom of volume and vitriol on the album’s one cover, John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark,” and you’ll know what she means. The new album is O’Connor doing what she does best, and reminding us perhaps what all the fuss was about 25 years ago when she first burst on the scene as a challenger to Madonna and the pop stars of that era. But perhaps this is why the album is so artistically strong. Defiance is O’Connor in her native element.
One of the more notable tracks is “V.I.P.,” a “finger-pointing song” as she described it on Tavis Smiley’s PBS show (borrowing a phrase from Bob Dylan). Sung with sparse accompaniment, O’Connor blasts the materialism, narrow self-importance, and lack of social conscience of the celebrity music culture. But not all the songs are necessarily weighty. One of the album’s best tracks, “Old Lady,” tells the story of a secret crush on a boyfriend’s buddy. And there’s “4th and Vine,” a spry skip down the lane for a woman contemplating her wedding day.
It has been two decades now since the Irish singer’s infamous performance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, where she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II. Yet the incident remains a vivid part of the O’Connor folklore. Her intent at the time was to protest the Catholic Church’s cover-up in Ireland of priest sexual abuse of minors, which was then breaking news in her native land.
As an artistic statement, O’Connor’s action was not exactly well received by her American audience. From far and wide, threats and outrage were directed against her. The following week’s Saturday Night Live host, comedian Joe Pesci, declared he would have “smacked” the young singer if he had been there. She was even booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert (irony of ironies) held at Madison Square Garden a few weeks after her television appearance.
Incredibly, this wasn’t even the first threat of violence directed at the young singer. In 1990, O’Connor had told management of a New Jersey venue she wouldn’t take the stage if the National Anthem was played (as was their policy) before her show. This was at the outset of the first U.S. Gulf War against Iraq, which O’Connor opposed. Playing the same venue the next evening, Frank Sinatra called O’Connor a “stupid broad,” adding “I’d kick her ass if she were a guy.”
Years later, O’Connor’s criticism of the Catholic Church hierarchy has not softened. In an April 23, 2010 appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, she said it was now apparent the Vatican had coordinated an international cover-up of sexual abuse by priests.
“As it happens, they all behaved without exception in exactly the same way when dealing with complaints,” O’Connor told Maddow, referring to investigative reports documenting cover-ups by dioceses in Boston, Philadelphia, and in Ireland. “If that hadn’t been orchestrated by central command [the Vatican], there would be differences in how each diocese had handled the matter. The conclusion of all of those reports is that the church‘s concern was for the preservation of its assets and its reputation above the caring of the children.”
O’Connor has called for a criminal investigation of the Vatican and of Pope Benedict XVI, with appropriate consequences. “Whoever was involved in the cover-up of child abuse and therefore endangering children should be fired.” She includes the pope in that assessment.
Being Real in an Unreal World
O’Connor’s deep-felt ire over child abuse is hardly out of place, considering the reports she’s given over the years of her own brutal mistreatment growing up. This included physical violence and starvation at the hands of her mother. Encouraged as an adolescent to shoplift by her mother, she ended up ordered to a year and a half in a juvenile facility, one of the dreaded “Magdalene laundries” run by the church for Ireland’s “fallen” and “uncooperative” young women.
I suspect many fans of O’Connor are especially drawn to her music because they identify with and share her sensitivity to the plight of oppressed people, including abused children. Listen to older songs like “This is to Mother You” or “Famine.” This is the voice of a woman who has thought and felt deeply about love and suffering in this troubled world. To those inclined to mock Sinead O’Connor for her alleged “eccentricities,” perhaps only those who have never been, or known someone, who suffers from clinical depression, sought therapy, gotten divorced, or advertised online for a date should cast the first stone.
“A lot of people say, ‘You destroyed your career by tearing up a picture of the pope,'” O’Connor told The Guardian in her March interview. “But I define success differently in this spiritually bereft business. To me, it’s ‘Can I be myself?’”
That she is. And we are glad for it.