In a world afraid of music, Sinead O'Connor didn't flinch



Published Jul 30, 2023


By Chris Richards

Sinéad O'Connor sang in a voice big enough to accommodate her courage.

It was broad and strong, imposing and exposed, like a fortress wall facing unknowable hostilities - a sound that affirmed she was always trying to protect more than just herself.

Her songs often came from a place of interior anguish, but whenever her words rose in volume or pitch, her voice quite literally seemed to be standing up for the vulnerable and the oppressed.

What is courage if not a sustained effort to make yourself bigger than the cruelty of the world?

This bigness brought out a smallness in people. Despite her music's majesty and righteousness, O'Connor - whose death at 56 was announced on Wednesday - remains most widely remembered for appearing on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992, singing Bob Marley's "War," then ripping a photograph of Pope John Paul II into eight little pieces.

"Fight the real enemy," O'Connor said into the camera, urging others to join her protest of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Then she tossed the photo scraps into the void.

Her prolonged public punishment began immediately.

Frank Sinatra famously responded by calling O'Connor "one stupid broad."

At a tribute concert in his honour, Bob Dylan watched with indifference while O'Connor sang through jeers.

The rest of the music business - along with its most unthinking listenership - showed how vindictive it could become when someone speaks truth to power on live television.

Like that, O'Connor's mainstream pop career was over.

And the punk within sighed with relief. "The people who run the music industry aren't punk at all. They're a bunch of frightened people," O'Connor wrote in "Rememberings," her wounded 2021 memoir. "But frightened of the wrong thing - namely, music."

How do you change a world that's afraid of music? Maybe by trying to stop it from spinning.

From the start, O'Connor seemed to gravitate toward ballads that skewed slow and drumless, as if trying to halt time and be heard.

On "Troy," a stand-out from her 1987 debut album, "The Lion and the Cobra," she's in complete command of her vocal extremes, evoking wailing ghosts and falling bombs - all while conjuring the phantom connective tissue between Björk, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette and Thom Yorke.

Obstinate and unflinching, the song seems to hover in place, like a painful memory.

There's a similar suspension to be felt in her biggest hit, "Nothing Compares 2 U," a Prince cover that made O'Connor a household name.

But on her breakout album - 1990's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" - it's preceded by the staggering "Black Boys on Mopeds," a song that condemns lethal police violence in the most direct language available.

"Margaret Thatcher on TV, shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing," O'Connor sings.

"It seems strange that she should be offended. The same orders are given by her."

The song's refrain describes England as "the home of police who kill Black boys on mopeds," later warning, "These are dangerous days. To say what you feel is to make your own grave."

O'Connor never stopped saying what she felt, even as her personal life grew exponentially more difficult.

She was open about the severity of her struggles with mental health in recent years, and the suicide of her son Shane in 2022 probably made her existence feel more fragile than ever.

Still, a year earlier, she seemed to be in touch with her vitality and virtue, writing in the comments section of her own New York Times profile, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

It's easy to imagine those exact words swirling around one of her songs, blunt and beautiful, volcanic and airborne.

As for the words themselves, there's nothing to imagine.

Our society remains profoundly sick, and the most wealthy and powerful among us seem fine with everything staying that way.

But don't mistake a Sinéad O'Connor song for some kind of palliative. Her music is an ultimatum. Will you be big? Or will you be small?