Back in 1987, I was living the dream as an employed medical technologist working in the hematology lab at a huge hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, while commuting an hour, one-way, from Oxford, Ohio, home of Miami University. My young family and I moved to Oxford upon my second graduation from Ball State University, thinking we could hide our beat up mid-Seventies cars among the cars of the college students going to Miami. Little did we realize that our cars had more in common with the adults of Oxford than the students. But, that’s another story altogether.
To me, 1987 represents one of the last great years for the music of my youth. During that year, U2 blew up due to The Joshua Tree, Prince released his second double album masterpiece (Sign ‘o’ the Times) and John Mellencamp released what I considered to be his finest album ever, The Lonesome Jubilee. There were many other great albums by the likes of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, INXS, New Order, The Cure and so many others. However, there was a new artist who was getting huge airplay on the local alternative radio station, and her name was Sinead O’Connor.
This Irish woman burst on the scene with the wail of a banshee and a lyrical maturity not seen coming out of Ireland since U2, maybe even Van Morrison. At the time, O’Connor’s debut album The Lion and the Cobra had two singles that were getting run on the airwaves of WOXY-FM, the rocking “Mandinka” and the sublime “I Want Your (Hands on Me)”. I remember being so excited by the sound of that album that I thought Sinead would become a major star by the beginning of the Nineties. Then, I saw her performance during the Grammy Awards show in early 1988, with her wearing a Public Enemy logo “tattoo” on the side of her shaved head, and it was transfixing, solidifying my notion about her impending superstar status. And, remember, this was a moment in time when many strong female artists were taking their places amongst the rock royalty. We had the Bangles, Janet Jackson and Tracey Chapman to lesser known, and probably forgotten artists such as Suzanne Vega and Toni Childs. Yet, Sinead O’Connor overshadowed all of them in my book.
Fast forward to 1990 when O’Connor released what is now considered to be her masterpiece, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. The album was huge in the States behind the success of her lead single and emotional video for her cover of the Prince song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” That song had original been released on the only album by a Prince-masterminded band called The Family. In its original form, the song was an overblown art-funk-rock mess of a song. But, O’Connor stripped the song to its brilliant essence and sang the hell out of it, discovering all the pain wrapped up in the lyrics, immortalized in that stark video as Sinead cried at the end of the song. Upon the first time I heard the song, I knew that it had to be a hit. But, I was actually worried that it would face the same stupid ignorance that radio had shown alternative artists in the past. But, I should not have worried since the song connected with the masses, as did the album. Both the song and album hit number one here in the States that year, as it did pretty much every where else in the world.
Follow-up single, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” followed “Nothing Compares 2 U” to number one on the US Alternative Rock Singles chart. The other singles, “I Am Stretch on Your Grave” and “Three Babies,” both critical emotional high-points of the album, failed to garner much of any success on the singles chart. Yet, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got made Sinead O’Connor a major superstar. Now, what the mainstream public never realized was how outspoken Miss O’Connor was. This woman was a survivor of abuse, both sexually and as a child. If she were just arriving on the scene in today’s #MeToo movement, O’Connor would be considered an advocate. However, in the early 1990s, what she had to say was controversial. No longer was the public interested in her musical ability. Unfortunately, the machine was ready to tear her apart. She was the first celebrity to speak of child sexual abuse that was occurring in the Catholic Church, something that the general public was not prepared to accept as truth. In retrospect, we should have been listening to her, as this subject could have been dealt with a whole ten to fifteen years earlier. Instead, the public vilified O’Connor, a broken individual who was ready to fight back.
And fight she did. First, she received four Grammy nominations in 1991. In protest, O’Connor withdrew her name from the competition. Then, in 1991, O’Connor refused to perform during a concert in New Jersey after the US National Anthem was played, causing Frank Sinatra to cock-off that he was going to kick her ass. Of course, Saturday Night Live parodied both incidences. Then, in her most infamous move, O’Connor was the musical guest on the 3 October 1992 episode of SNL. While singing an a cappella version of “War” by Bob Marley, she got to the word “evil” in the song, picked up a photograph of Pope John Paul II. At the end of the song, O’Connor tore the photograph into pieces and said, “Fight the real enemy!” Then, Sinead threw the pieces at the camera. Lorne Michaels, the creator of SNL, banned O’Connor permanently from ever coming back to the show and has never allowed the song to be seen again on television here in the States.
Afterwards, the backlash was quick and loud. Later, O’Connor was scheduled to perform at Bob Dylan’s huge birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, during which she was booed off the stage by the crowd. There are photographs of a crying O’Connor in the arms of former military veteran and country icon Kris Kristofferson consoling her. To me, it showed both how fragile this woman was and how understanding this army vet could be in a moment of American jingoism. After those moments, essentially the musical career of Sinead O’Connor was over.
Now, nearly thirty years later, we can all see, in hindsight, just how correct Sinead O’Connor was with her stances. First, do we really need award shows to validate artists? Okay, maybe. But, do we really need the National Anthem played before concerts and sporting events here in the States? I really don’t think so. The original intent of that was to unify people during World War II, not some jingoistic gesture to appease people who like to sexually assault our flag. Hell, I back the athletes who protest during the National Anthem, as that is what the USA is about. The flag represents the country, not the military. My brother and his wife are retired military people, and they understand the whole thing! And, like I wrote earlier, Sinead was correct about the priests, cardinals and others within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church covering up the sexual abuse of children being committed by other priests.
Unfortunately, controversial circumstances ended Sinead O’Connor’s musical career right in its prime. Honestly, who knows if she would have survived the whole grunge era? But, she should have had the chance. This woman made the ultimate sacrifice of her career to express her beliefs. For her music AND her stances, Sinead O’Connor should be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, ending her exile and her current use as a footnote in rock history. Sinead O’Connor was a pioneer!