From this vantage point, here in The Too Much Information Age, it feels almost quaint to imagine a time when artists were judged primarily upon their art. Recognition now depends more on a gift for manipulating media publicity than it does on actual artistic talent. By now, not only does your face have to fit the fleeting contemporary moment, but so do your morals and your lifestyle.
Sinead O’Connor was never likely to fit into such a cultural climate. Throughout her career she displayed a willful perversity for going against the grain, situating herself as a one-woman public relations wrecking crew. Often it seemed she need only open her mouth for some foolish utterance to emerge and crash the next day’s papers, belying the old maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Doubtless she regrets the majority of her headlines more than anyone now, but bless her for her honesty—at least no one ever accused her of playing the game.
If on the surface O’Connor displayed a penchant for public dysfunction, it’s also possible she did no more than reflect our age. Besides, we are all implicated, thick and in the midst of it—though fortunately no one sticks a microphone under my nose twenty-four/seven, and the majority of you don’t have agents constantly demanding type to feed the hungry machine. And while other performers may deal with an intrusive media more successfully, and just about anyone might claim to handle the nuts and bolts of everyday life more judiciously, so what? No study I’m aware of has ever equated creative vitality with magazine cover appearances, and a harmonious personal existence was long ago recognized as anathema to the creative spirit.
As an artist, O’Connor peaked quickly. Her 1988 debut, The Lion and the Cobra was a fierce coming-of-age, filled with spite and venom that only the wildest, most disenchanted of youths could have conjured. Though less well known than its successor (at least here in the States), it remains her most powerful album. The follow-up, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990) was more subtly nuanced, more layered, and its rage tended to smolder rather than confront. Its renowned leadoff single, Prince-penned and a huge international hit, brought a level of fame and attention that the singer, still only twenty-three, was unable to cope with. Her fragile psyche may be a matter for God and herself to understand, but O’Connor’s immense talent, blighted by public and private meltdown, sparked with only sporadic brilliance thereafter.
Two concerts from these early years have now been released together on DVD. The first of them, filmed at London’s Dominion Theatre in June 1988, documents the arrival of a raw, creative energy, and a performance that almost resembles punk in its purity. The Value of Ignorance could not be more presciently titled, for it shows a young woman blissfully ignorant of pre-conception, and completely disregarding of consequence. Her appearance—the famously cropped pate, and a lean, sinewy figure that embraces contradiction beneath a ballerina’s tutu and heavy black boots—manages to startle once again, after all this time. There is in the stark grey of her eyes, something like fear slaughtered by defiance, and you get to hear the triumph of it in the glorious howling wail of her voice.
Unfortunately, you have to wait almost to the end of the film to properly get it. Produced in England during the emergence of rave culture, the film barely escapes post-production ruin, with some hack evidently seeing fit to bury entire songs (originally filmed in grainy black and white) beneath dreadful psychedelic swirls and graphic effects. The very power of the footage lies in its unrefined edge, and hopefully Nigel Hadley, wherever you are, you’re off the pills now and pursuing a career outside of film graphics.
Still. The last two songs, free of interference, are staggering. The music maintains a high standard throughout ( it features Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce of the Smiths), but the power of Sinead O’Connor’s art is distilled to its essence in the version of “Troy” preserved here. It’s a magnificent song to begin with (rare too—an original treatment of failed love, vengeance and deceit), and for all the beauty of “Nothing Compares 2 U”, this song is braver, for it offers no hope of redemption. Here, O’Connor sings for nothing and no one but herself, sings because she has to. It’s a ferocious performance, one I’ve watched half a dozen times now, and still it raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
The last song is “I Am Stretched on Your Grave”, performed a cappella and filmed beautifully, using a single, long tracking shot. How the film’s producers managed so well at show’s end but so poorly for the rest is a mystery which only they might solve.
In the wake of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the global fame it inspired (also possibly to make up for the previous post-production debacle, though I doubt it), two shows filmed in Belgium and Holland a couple of years later were granted the slick, big budget treatment from Capitol Records and found release as The Year of the Horse.
There are fine moments here, too, though it’s never quite as compelling as those glimpses allowed at the end of the previous show. Two years of touring and performing have smoothed some of the rough edges, so that by now the singer is more aware of herself as a performer, both in terms of her responsibility as an entertainer and in her self-awareness. There’s a greater sense of comfort here, but also on occasion a sense of restlessness, an impatience that reveals itself in fraught gestures as she tries to find new ways into the material. Again, it’s the artist at work as well as the neurosis, and occasionally she succeeds—once again, a wonderful version of “Stretched on Your Grave”, this time backed by heavy beats.
The sound recording on the second show is rich and full (upmixed to 5.1 surround sound), and besides a new-toy penchant for sweeping a camera across stage, the direction is tight. The musicians backing O’Connor here are obviously accomplished, but one occasionally senses the work of hired session guns filling in space. Still, in tandem with material from the earlier show, the DVD provides a good look at what made O’Connor so bold and exciting, back when promise still lay before her.
Few artists have provoked such openly hostile reactions as this woman, yet for all her extremism, Sinead O’Connor at least provoked discussion of genuine issues. It’s hard to defend her actions on Saturday Night Live unreservedly, but how many recall that in destroying a picture of the Pope, she was actually protesting child abuse within the Catholic church? It doesn’t seem quite so reckless in view of widespread revelations these past couple of years, and as a publicity stunt, it almost makes me misty-eyed with nostalgia.
Today we find ourselves living in an era when a single bare-breast exposed on national television occupies news headlines for a week, shunting aside such issues as government admissions of zero WMD’s found in Iraq.