A hauntingly poignant singer
MUSIC | Sinéad O’Connor’s private life overshadowed her music
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Few superstars were easier to like, dislike, and pity simultaneously than Sinéad O’Connor, the Irish singer-songwriter who died in July at the age of 56.
To like her was easy—she had a great voice and an uncanny ability to use it powerfully in a wide range of dramatic contexts. To dislike her was easy because she thrived on confrontation and on sabotaging her career and peace of mind. To pity her was easiest of all: She was, by her own account, crazy.
“Please know,” she wrote to her father in her 2021 autobiography Rememberings, “that your daughter would have been as nutty as a [obscenity] fruitcake and as crazy as a loon even if she’d had Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary for parents and grown up in the Little House on the Prairie.” She was being charitable in letting both of her parents off the hook: Her mother had abused her with an imaginative ferocity for years.
Instead, O’Connor blamed her instability on a childhood head injury, on her DNA, on marijuana—and on Allah, the name by which she began referring to God when she converted to Islam in 2018. “All individuals upon whom Allah has chosen to breathe even the teensiest whisper of His musical fire,” she wrote, “are also by necessity endowed with insanity.”
As a recording artist, she peaked early. Her compilations lean heavily on her first two albums, recorded before she turned 24. Her debut (The Lion and the Cobra) took its title from Psalm 91:13. The follow-up (I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got) contained her ethereal cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which made her a chart topper the world over.
She hated the acclaim and all that went with it. So she resolved never to be mistaken for a pop star again, releasing carefully wrought but stylistically incongruous albums (jazz standards, Irish folk songs) that knocked her fans’ expectations back to square one. In 1992, at the conclusion of a performance of Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live, she called Pope John Paul II the “real enemy” and tore up his photo to the dismay of millions.
From that point on, her hot mess of a “private life”—institutionalization, serial out-of-wedlock motherhood, her teenage son’s suicide, marriages and divorces—overshadowed her music. (Rememberings, which often makes depressing reading, contains the details.) But some of that music was compelling, in part because O’Connor, reared Catholic, never quit trying to establish a relationship with God. Her 2007 album Theology is the sound of a moth inexorably drawn to a flame.
Her spirit was willing, her flesh unusually weak. She leaves behind a lot of unanswered questions—and a hauntingly poignant soundtrack to ponder them to.
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