From the moment she flared onto the scene in 1987, it was easy to tell that Sinead O'Connor was not your garden variety pop star. At a time when bombshell women like Madonna and Janet Jackson sultrily dominated the airwaves, this bald waif from Dublin was utterly arresting. I happened to be watching The David Letterman Show when she made her American debut—performing her now classic Mandinka. I had never seen anything like it. She was so slight. She almost looked unwell and gyrated oddly while she sang, but when she pounded the chorus:
I don’t know no shame; I feel no pain. I can’t see the flame!
I was captivated.
My next memory was the music video of her most successful song, the Prince composed Nothing Compares 2 U. It was rare that a video could make me emotionally uncomfortable, but the five-minute performance, just a close-up of her sad, intense face singing directly at us was as beautiful as it was unnerving. She appeared to shed actual tears at the end.
Sinead was a disruptor. She had no intention or desire to be anything other than herself, and she did not seem the slightest bit interested in compartmentalizing her personal and professional lives. As such, in the most famous moment of her career (and some would describe it as a career-ending moment), she ripped up a photo of then Pope John Paul II on national television.
This gesture led me (and many others) to view it as a pointy thumb in the eye of religion. It turns out it was more complicated than that. It wasn’t so much a protest against Catholicism as it was about the negative impact she felt Rome (through England) had had on Ireland.
Sinead was actually a quite religious person, as can be seen in many interviews, including this one:
George (Stroumboulopoulos): Would you say that you have a complicated relationship with God?
Sinead: No, I’d say it was a pretty simple one.
George: A complicated relationship with religion?
Sinead: No. Perhaps a misunderstood one. I guess if someone didn’t know me, they might surmise that I didn’t like religion, but actually, I do.
And though she felt her spiritual relationships were simple, it was a religiously motivated sense of regret that was the impetus for one of my favorite songs of hers. One night she found herself in a bookstore hoping to purchase a Bible. Eying the long line at the checkout, she decided that God would want anyone who needed one to have a free Bible and so nicked it from the store. She justified it by suggesting that the store made plenty of money off of the other books. Realizing that she was wading in murky ethical waters, she made a deal with The Almighty to channel the experience towards the good, which (true to form) she did through song.
This is from her 2013 album Theology:
To me, this is indeed something beautiful—musically and spiritually. It’s simple yet profound. It teaches anew that pure maxim we all learned in kindergarten, “If you make a mess, clean it up.” There is no greater sign of character than owning up to a mistake and looking for ways to grow through it. It impresses me, and I think she should be celebrated for it.
I wish that things had gone easier for Sinead. I feel that vicarious closeness to her as we all do with well-known people who were somehow a part of our lives, especially while growing up. She was a special person and, like many great talents, had to endure a good deal of inner turmoil that was not always appreciated or understood by the world at large.
Perhaps we too can make something beautiful from the difficult life she lived.