Sinéad O’Connor: A Mea Culpa

Sinéad O’Connor
How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?
One Little Indian

It’s time to apologize to Sinéad O’Connor. Remember her? Ripped up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live before adding, “Fight the real enemy” to protest child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the complicity of the church hierarchy? Already a platinum record and a number one single to her name, Sinéad’s career was never the same again. Here is the clip…

That indelible moment now seems prophetic as revelations of paedophilia in the Catholic Church by priests in Sinéad’s Irish homeland, across Europe and here in the US came to light.

Sinéad knew very well that she would be eviscerated for taking such a stand, but she did it anyway because it was that important to her. “I knew my action would cause trouble,” she said, “but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist. All I regretted was that people assumed I didn’t believe in God. That’s not the case at all. I’m Catholic by birth and culture and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation.”

Sinéad had always said, “I never wanted to be a pop singer, I wanted to be a protest singer.”

With the release of her first record of original material in five years, the extraordinary How About I Be Me (and you be you)?, it may be time to recast Sinéad through the veneer of protest singer and give her her proper due as one of the most influential artists of the past 25 years — something that’s been easy to overlook amidst a litany of controversies that have dogged her career. But let’s try.

Sinéad reconfigured the image of women in rock by refusing to be seen as a sex object but as a serious artist. While Madonna was lauded for breaking down sexual boundaries and making eroticism a crucial pop element, Sinéad challenged the accepted preconceptions of femininity and sexuality by wearing the mask of androgyny: shaved head, shapeless wardrobe, Doc Marten boots. Fiercely independent and unapologetically outspoken, Sinéad was the catalyst for strong, willful, independent female domination on the airwaves in the ’90s. She inspired a new breed of female artist that did not rely on sexuality. Artists as diverse as Alanis Morissette, Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries, Sarah McLaughlin, Sheryl Crowe, Liz Phair, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and Courtney Love all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sinéad.

The first time I saw Sinéad was in 1988 at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles on her first tour. I didn’t know what to expect. A couple years before, I’d heard her haunting voice on a song called “Heroine” off the soundtrack to Captive by U2’s The Edge. I’d heard the single “Mandika” from her debut record, The Lion and the Cobra, but what really caught my attention was the fact that she’d sacked her producer, scrapped months of recording, and fought her record company until they let her produce her debut herself.

Sinéad walked out on the Wiltern stage, just 21, shaven head, combat boots, and it was jarring to witness the kind of cult-like adulation she had already inspired. Being from L.A. and seeing lots of “next big things” come through town, you kind of instinctively brace yourself to be underwhelmed. But when she began to sing she exuded an uncanny ability to blend strength and vulnerability by mixing tales of love and longing with yarns of lust, hate and rage. Her voice was at turns angelic, raw, sonorous. All within the confines of a single verse.

Fifteen minutes into the show, it was abundantly clear why she had struck a nerve with her audience in a way that transcends the typical fan-performer emotional connection. It was like Sinéad was giving some vicarious retribution to the legions of young disaffected girls leaning against the stage who, too, were called freaks and outcasts.

Listening to her, your body tightened up. You gasped. You winced. You blushed. You sure weren’t in the same place before the showed started. You knew something special was happening and found yourself looking around to get some corroboration. It was like she was singing for her life — or at least for her sanity. This wasn’t a concert. It was an exorcism. Her very own. It still ranks among the five greatest shows I’ve ever seen.

She would go on to achieve worldwide success with her second record I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got which spawned the number one Prince-penned single “Nothing Compares 2 U.” But Sinéad’s unfiltered impulsiveness has defined her career, and she has paid dearly. Her remarkably diverse and moving work has been tragically overshadowed by her unfiltered outspokenness.

Frank Sinatra famously threatened to “kick her ass” after she refused to perform in a New Jersey auditorium because of its antiquated policy of playing the National Anthem before every performance. She initially refused to appear on Saturday Night Live because notorious misogynist Andrew Dice Clay was the host. She was the first artist to ever turn down a Grammy. She was ordained a priest by an independent Catholic church. She protested about anti-legalising Irish abortion. She candidly spoke out about the physical abuse inflicted by her mother, about battling bipolar disorder, and her suicidal inclinations.

But all that was nothing compared to the furor caused from the aforementioned SNL appearance. Less than two weeks later came her showdown, with a hostile crowd at a Bob Dylan tribute concert. As it’s routinely told, Sinéad was “booed off the stage,” but watch the clip. It’s a stunning testimony to her unflinching artistic convictions.

Watch her move away from the microphone and step forward and willingly absorb the hate of 18,000 strong with prideful defiance before finally waving off her band and delivering a fiery a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War”, a song about ending all hate. She then turns and leaves the stage on her own terms. I’ve always found it ironic and beyond hypocritical that the crowd who spewed all this hostility was there to pay tribute to the mind expanding songs of liberation and free thinking of Bob Dylan.

Although Sinéad has reason now to feel vindicated, if anything, she’s an even more vigilant activist routinely going toe-to-toe with Catholic Church leaders on television and even demanding accountability directly from the Pope himself. Her heartfelt open letter to the Pope in the Washington Post and her numerous national television appearances have just started to bring her some much deserved praise in her native Ireland. (“To Sinéad O’Connor, the pope’s apology for sex abuse in Ireland seems hollow”, 28 March 2010). Leading Irish rock critic Tony Clayton-Lea says, “I can’t think of anyone who has addressed these socio-religious issues in such a justifiably abrasive way. Neither of the obvious people have — Bob Geldof or U2.”

She’s still virtually a lone voice of protest amongst her artistic peers, something that is particularly galling to her. Her new record concludes with the haunting “V.I.P.” which contains the lines: “To whom exactly are we giving hope / When we stand behind the velvet rope / Or get our pictures taken with the Pope / Like some sick April Fool kind of joke,” a pretty obvious reference to her fellow countryman, Bono, who Sinéad says she admires for his work in Africa and the fight against AIDS, but is heartbroken for his and compatriot Bob Geldof’s refusal to speak out against the abuses and cover ups by Catholic Church that has rocked their country.

But Sinéad continues to be a confounding and polarizing figure, both artistically and in her private life. While her activism has helped her regain a measure of respect in her own country, it took a hit late last year when she put an advert out in search of a male companion and her graphic Tweets took on an increasingly unstable tone. She quickly married one of the suitors and then just as abruptly announced it was over only to reconcile again. Comparisons of Brittany Spears’s meltdowns and other vicious attacks piled on her before it was revealed she was hospitalized in January after a suicide attempt.

However, Sinéad has since emerged lucid and assured with How About I Be Me (and you be you)?, a return to form that harkens back to the classic sonic terrain that made her the most compelling new artist of the late ’80s. During her spellbinding tour opener at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles last month, even her most jaded and hardened critics could not deny that Sinéad still possesses one of rock’s most disarming and gripping voices ever.

I brought my 17-year-old daughter to the show because I wanted her to see what a real artist looks and sounds like. Someone who spurns image and relies entirely on her own evocative voice and ability to express herself in the moment of performance. Someone who is challenging and hard to love in any classic way. Like a lot of 17-year-old girls, my daughter likes Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. All fine performers. But while too many of today’s artists are reticent to be outspoken and have become conditioned not to rock the boat for fear of jeopardizing their chances to get their song placed in corporate commercials or movies, Sinéad remains committed to laying herself on the line and chasing her muse even if it leaves her vulnerable to criticism.

“I suppose the thing that inspires all of these songs is the need for soothing,” she offers. “In the first place to soothe myself, in the second place because of my own experience and the awareness outside me that the world needs soothing and mothering as much as I do.”

Sinéad is still singing for her life. For her sanity. And she’s still here. She’s used music to evoke the troubled mind and an artist’s impulse to redeem disaster by making sense and beauty out of it. Her time on stage is a reprieve from life’s madness, a private stairway to the stars in a pursuit for deliverance, redemption and transcendence. Like Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Patti Smith, Sinéad’s core impetus has always been to reach God through the portal of music.

Throughout all the controversies, her sometimes confounding twists and turns creatively, what is plainly clear is Sinéad is a bona fide artist, steadfast, resolute and uncompromising. Sinéad’s never going to play the game or mellow out or be someone who has finally “learned her lesson”, so forget it. Here’s someone whose career was derailed for being blasphemous. Well, as it turns out, she was right. It’s time to offer our apologies and acknowledge her as one of the most important artists, male or female, of our time and one of the greatest protest singers ever.