On the final of Nothing Compares, the documentary about the rise and fall of Sinéad O’Connor, director Kathryn Ferguson has inserted a montage of images showing the influence exerted by the tormented Irish singer, songwriter and provocateur. In the clips we see several pop activists of the last decade (Pussy Riot, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion), but also images of demonstrations for abortion rights and the #MeToo movement and footage of recent episodes that have discredited the Catholic Church. Exaggerated as it may seem, it is easy to see why such a summary was needed.
It seems like yesterday that O’Connor, at the height of his success, tore a photo of Pope John Paul II from the Saturday Night Live, managing to put his career in smoke. An entire generation has grown up not having a clue or knowing very little about who O’Connor is, why she (and her shaved head with those political views proudly and straightforwardly displayed) mattered, and what musical patterns and cultural broke. In any case, now there is Nothing Compares to remind us what it meant to give a fuck about pop culture and what a price one person paid for doing so.
The film, which lasts 100 minutes, does not have the typical characteristics of traditional documentaries: there is no witness, nor a narrator who tells the story. O’Connor is only heard reflecting on his own career, and apart from a video of a recent performance inserted at the end of the film, he is only seen in old footage. As happens in documentaries of this genre, everything has its origins in a difficult or traumatic childhood. O’Connor received a “stupidly religious” upbringing, in her own words, in an environment pervaded by a rigid and sexist Irish culture and with an abusive mother. She says she was sent away to study at the age of 14 because she was “unmanageable and they didn’t want me at home”.
In music she has found an outlet and an escape from reality, as often happens to certain restless people, even if sometimes it means singing at a friend’s wedding pieces like Evergreens by Barbra Streisand, from the movie A Star Is Born (in the documentary there is the recording, with a young O’Connor singing in a shy but powerful voice). Her determination to make her way in the music business is already very evident in the videos in which she, as a young girl, sings with a semi-unknown band from London; even at that age she, with dark hair, she attracted her attention by performing in small bars with a voice that, without the slightest effort and depending on the song, could glide gracefully or pierce the air.
Soon enough, however, one begins to perceive what a friend, in the film, calls O’Connor’s “fascinating contradictions.” On the one hand she was a traditionalist who cited Dylan, Springsteen and Van Morrison as her influences, as evidenced by an advertisement published in the Irish music magazine Hot Presses. On the other hand, she was also a fundamentalist who (as seen in one of the many reconstructions included in the film) shaved her hair when a music industry executive told her that she should dress more traditionally. and feminine. She got pregnant while making her first album The Lion and the Cobra and she carried on with the pregnancy despite tremendous pressure from some music industry executives who advised her to have an abortion.
As the film makes clear, O’Connor has fought patriarchy from the very beginning. Her angry voice and look that led some to mistakenly think she was a skinhead makes her sound now like the last real gasp of punk that rocked the masses the way Green Day and their peers never have. managed to do. With a lot of contradictions: that voice of hers is in stark contrast to the shy and charming attitude that she shows in the interviews of that period, as if she perpetually alternates between primal anger and deference.
The Lion and the Cobra brought her out, but that was later I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got of 1990 which made her a 360° star. We are told that Nigel Grainge, head of the record label he recorded for, had misgivings about the album’s release, deeming it too personal for the mass market. O’Connor ignored him too and did very well. Thanks to the instant success of her cover of Nothing Compares 2 U of Prince and her tearful close-up in the video, O’Connor has become ubiquitous (she also confesses that she smoked a few joints during filming). The documentary chronicles the period of excitement that came soon after, complete with appearances on talk shows, performances at awards, won awards and a music industry happy to flatter her. Peaches said O’Connor may have been a pioneer of the non-binary genre. Whether that’s true or not, audiences seemed to have no problem appreciating her vocal, sexual, and visual contradictions—this was another major accomplishment of hers.
But all that love turned out to be ephemeral. Within months of the album’s release, O’Connor demanded that the American anthem not be played before his concert in New Jersey, in protest of the music censorship movement that was then taking hold. And from there, initially through a radio boycott, a terrible wave of chauvinism exploded. In 1991 he declined to participate in the Grammys as a gesture to oppose what he perceived as a purely commercial aspect related to the nominations. And then, the following year, there was the episode of the photo of the Pope torn up on live television. Suddenly O’Connor, as one newspaper headline proclaimed, was the devil.
Watching today’s clip from SNLaware of what has emerged regarding the abuses perpetrated for decades within the Catholic Church, one thinks: yes, that Pope was very popular, but he was not God. In his autobiography last year, Rememberings, O’Connor wrote that that gesture was a stance against pedophilia (the photo of the pontiff was in his mother’s bedroom when she died) and also had to do with the disappearance of a friend who hired kids like drug couriers. His comment, “fight the real enemy,” was aimed at the people who killed his friend. But the message did not pass, to put it mildly, and Nothing Compares recounts the wave of hatred that ensued: death threats, records destroyed with bulldozers, tabloid headlines on the front page, attacks by Madonna and Camille Paglia and two teases during SNL. The joke of the host Joe Pesci (“If she had done it on my show, I would have slapped her”), greeted by disturbing laughter and applause from the audience, is actually more annoying than the provocative gesture of the singer.
Things got worse when O’Connor attended Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary show at Madison Square Garden in 1992. Hosted by Kris Kristofferson, she entered the scene wearing an elegant outfit (blue jacket, skirt and high heels ), which was her way of honoring that special occasion. How can we review in Nothing Compares, was greeted by unison boos from the nearly 20,000 present, which lasted for several minutes. Uncertain what to do, she tried to wait for her tempers to calm down, but then her rebellious soul took over: she didn’t sing the Dylan song that she was supposed to sing and she launched again in War by Bob Marley, the same piece proposed at SNL when he tore up the photo of the Pope. He sold his life dearly. The video of that performance is one of the most emotional clips ever taken from a pop concert, on the same level as Mick Jagger begging the crowd to calm down in Gimme Shelter.
Nothing Compares it closes in 1993, when O’Connor is effectively banned from the mainstream. And, given that the absence of her music still continues today, one wonders if that diktat is not still valid, even if unofficially. The documentary is engaging, but it’s a pity that her life after the ban is not talked about. There is no mention of her recent nervous breakdowns, overdose announcements, suicide threats, and all publicly known mental issues. In her autobiography, O’Connor wrote that ultimately her exile was good because it freed her from the constraints of mainstream culture. But how much did the dissolution of her career aggravate her childhood issues of bipolarity and PTSD? How did she feel when some good records like Universal Mother Were they ignored? Being booed by a stadium full of fans of her hero, Dylan, can hardly be interpreted as a good thing.
The documentary focuses mainly on the victimization process, highlighting how O’Connor never backed down and the fact that this public crucifixion was greatly exaggerated. Jesus died for our sins, O’Connor’s career too.
From Rolling Stone US.