R.I.P. Sinéad O’Connor, who passed today at 56. In her memory we are republishing this piece from January 2022, focused on the Sundance premiere of the documentary Nothing Compares, about her astonishing life and art.
Sinéad O’Connor’s first record label wanted her to grow her hair long and wear heels. She shaved it and wore combat boots. When she got pregnant recording her first album, the suits told her to get an abortion. She had the baby. Everyone told her to shut up about politics, not to gripe about the Grammys, and that she was completely out of bounds to tear up that picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live.
These are just a few of the accounts we hear in the new documentary Nothing Compares, which just premiered at Sundance and makes a powerful case that maybe, after three decades, we should finally recognize all the ways Sinéad O’Connor was right.
The film opens with her facing down a wall of noise at a 1992 Bob Dylan tribute concert, a stomach-churning mix of cheers and boos in protest of her ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on SNL. She tore the photo to make a lonely protest of what she said was widespread child abuse in the Catholic Church, a contention that was mocked, ignored — and soon proven completely accurate.
We soon skip through other, lesser controversies — singing at the Grammys with a Public Enemy logo painted above her ear to protest the ceremony’s pathetic underestimation of hip-hop. (She was right.) Objecting to censorship of Black artists. (Right again). Refusing to play at arenas that played the National Anthem. (Her prerogative.)
We see footage of her being constantly asked the same question over the short span of her superstardom: Isn’t she worried what the controversies will do to her career? And she explains, again and again, that she doesn’t care. In voiceover, the modern-day O’Connor tells us that she got into music as a form of therapy, not for money.
What Nothing Compares does best is give context to the biggest Sinéad O’Connor controversy, the one that doomed her once-thriving career as a pop star. The documentary, directed by Kathryn Ferguson, attempts to link O’Connor’s SNL protest to her grim upbringing in a patriarchal Irish society that forced women to enforce the same rules that hurt them. She talks about childhood abuse by her mother, and then by nuns at the Magdalene Laundries, a grim workhouse for supposed fallen women. O’Connor explains that in reality, many of them were banished there after being raped by powerful men.
Whether or not you approve of her ripping up that photo of the pope — which she had recovered from her dead mother’s wall — you will understand, by the end of Nothing Compares, exactly why she did it. You may also note, whether watching her SNL performance for the first time or the first time in a long time, that it is incredible.
The documentary is least effective, unfortunately, when it tries to connect O’Connor’s bravery with the artists of today, who, for all their talent, would never dare risk their careers to take wildly unpopular positions, as O’Connor so casually and bravely did in the early ’90s, before so many people stupidly demanded she go away. The cowards have won, and now conformity is the order of the day.
O’Connor is now known as Shuhada Sadaqat after converting to Islam, but still uses the name Sinéad O’Connor professionally. She may be best known in recent years not for her still-formidable talent, but for her sometimes contradictory, sometimes soon-retracted, public remarks. She has discussed battling mental illness and trying to figure things out as she goes.
In recent days, tragically, she has drawn attention for the unfathomable tragedy of her 17-year-old son’s death, and her own hospitalization after she tweeted that there is no point in living without him. Now, more than ever, is the time for more compassion and understanding for Sinéad O’Connor, who was wrong when it was right to be wrong.
This piece was originally published on January 21, 2022. The text has not been changed.