Heath Harrison: O’Connor took heat for being ahead her time

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 29, 2023

This week brought the sad news of the death of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor at the age of 56, a headline that was not unexpected, given the troubled life she led and her battles over the years with mental health issues.

My first exposure to O’Connor came in fall of 1990, when she was booked as the musical guest for the season premiere of Saturday Night Live.

Like most, I had heard her worldwide and inescapable hit, a cover of the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but knew little else about her work, other than seeing her name constantly in news reports about how “controversial” she was, and comedians constantly poking fun at her shaved head and political outspokenness.

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Typical of her unwillingness to conform to commercial expectations, O’Connor opted on that night’s show not to perform her massive hit, and instead opened with the somber “Three Babies,” before returning later in the show for a powerful rendition of her anthemic “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance.”

Howling and pounding with that energy, that performance was the epitome of what she would be known for — defiant, wearing her emotions on her sleeve and not being shy about showing her vulnerabilities.

For an eighth grader who, until this point, had a limited exposure to music, basically knowing top 40 pop songs, her appearance on the show was a revelation. This was art in its purest form.

Needless to say, I was hooked as a fan of her work for life and must have checked out the cassette of her album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” from the Sissonville public library dozens of times, before finally acquiring my own copy. I eventually got to see her perform live as part of the Lollapalooza tour in Columbus in 1995.

From her haunting vocals, to her expert songcraft, to the topical stances of songs like “Black Boys on Mopeds” (still extremely relevant to this day), her work was unlike anything in the charts at the time.

It was two years after her SNL debut that she returned to the show and concluded her second song with an incident that would forever lead off summaries of her career.

After singing an a capella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War,” she held up a photo of Pope John Paul II, ripped it to pieces and shouted “Fight the real enemy!”

The reaction was swift and immediate. SNL refused to turn on the applause sign at the conclusion of her performance, ending it in awkward silence. NBC was besieged with phone calls of protest, while host Tim Robbins refused to acknowledge her in the show’s closing.

In the coming days, O’Connor was vilified in the press, with boycotts, public album smashings and mockery from other entertainers, such as Madonna (whose manufactured controversy over her book, “Sex,” coincidentally, had been shoved out of the headlines by the incident) and Joe Pesci (who, the following week as SNL host, spoke of how he would have physically assaulted her had he been hosting the show that night).

This all culminated at a Madison Square Garden tribute concert to Bob Dylan, where O’Connor was booed loudly by the crowd and kept from performing. She responded by singing “War” again, consoled only by singer Kris Kristofferson, who famously told the tearful 25-year-old, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Lost in all the controversy was the reason O’Connor ripped up the photo in the first place, whether due to sloppy reporting or deliberate efforts by groups to misconstrue her words.

Had anyone bothered to read or listen to interviews with the singer at the time, she made the reason abundantly clear. O’Connor, herself a survivor of sex abuse, said she was moved to protest after reading reports of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

In subsequent years, these reports would continue to grow, as well as the revelation of efforts to cover up such abuse, to the point that the Catholic Church would eventually acknowledge and apologize to victims.

Her career never recovered commercially, though she likely preferred it that way, never one to pursue chart success. 

She remained a cult favorite and would collaborate with artists such as Willie Nelson and U2, before receiving acclaim for a creative comeback with her 2012 release “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?” as well as a well-received autobiography and documentary on her life.

In recent years, much has been made about so-called “cancel culture,” as many public figures are held to account for misdeeds of both past and present.

But little is said of those who were “canceled” for taking unpopular stances that eventually became the accepted view of the public, whether it was the Dixie Chicks for their early opposition to the Iraq war or O’Connor, for whom it seems her biggest crime was speaking out on a topic before it was considered safe and fashionable to do so.

Throughout the ups and downs of her career, O’Connor never backed down and stood by her actions. And, in the days since her death, the press has finally done an about-face, acknowledging the cost she paid.

Of those who stood by her at the time, Kristofferson summed it up best, in his 2009 tribute song, “Sister Sinead”:

“But some candles flicker and some candles fade/ And some burn as true as my sister Sinead. 

And maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t/ But so was Picasso and so were the saints.

And she’s never been partial to shackles or chains/She’s too old for breaking and too young to tame.”

Heath Harrison is the community editor of The Ironton Tribune.