In 1988, Sinead O’Connor released The Lion and the Cobra, her critically-acclaimed debut album. Rolling Stone called her one of the women “shattering the boundaries of pop music”, but the album peaked at #36 on the Billboard 200 and none of her singles charted in the United States.
Then she recorded “Nothing Compares 2 U”, a cover of a Prince song originally released on The Family’s self-titled album, and everything changed. The video was mesmerizing, combining gothic imagery with a tight close-up on her face that gave the song a transcendent power. “Nothing” eventually spent four weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and propelled the I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got album to become a double platinum, number one bestseller.
For a moment in time, Sinead was a superstar.
But the follow-up single, the autobiographical “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, peaked at #60 on the Hot 100 (although it was a number one hit on the modern rock chart). She chose to release an album of standards as her follow-up project. And on October 3, 1992, she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II during a performance on Saturday Night Live.
That night, she sang a cover of Bob Marley’s “War” as a demonstration against child abuse. At the end of the song, she said “fight the real enemy” and shredded a picture of the Pope to protest the Catholic Church’s complicity in protecting abusive priests. But the message was lost in the uproar. Sinead O’Connor had declared war on religion, and thousands of people called NBC to complain about the incident. Two weeks later, she was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert, causing her to leave the stage halfway through her performance.
Sinead O’Connor never came close to regaining her popularity in the United States after that incident. In some ways, she is one of the more tragic one-hit wonders. She stood up for what she believed in, but her protest was misunderstood and it ended up costing her dearly.