Sinéad O’Connor died July 26, 2023, at fifty-six. Her death might have been predicted but it struck like a blow. We will be updating this story as more information becomes available.
I learned the term icon when I was young, and I was at first a bit put off when I saw it applied to popular artists, or not-so-popular artists for that matter. Especially living ones. But it isn’t an entirely unreasonable stretch to see how the word underwent transformation to become ascribed to somebody like Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe, who became hallowed for the magic and sense of doom, even sacrifice, that the world came to ascribe to luminaries who burned bright before falling into a doom that also brought with it an imprimatur of redemption.
Though some might take objection to how a once sacred term has been bastardized to signify celebrityhood, it’s simply the way language changes. If it didn’t, icon would have remained a description of a certain kind of art, instead of being bandied as a means to confer the role of the sacred upon modern celebrity. Of course, this transformed usage just keeps on spreading and changing, and gets too easily applied to living stars, even though it should probably belong only to the dead. But then, who wants to be dead to see if they end up exalted to iconhood?
The trick—and for me the difficulty—about the recent biographical film Elvis (and I suspect I might feel the same about Blonde) is that this means the fantasia becomes a work of iconography: something that was once a branch of art history that studied not just the identity of religious symbols but also their cultural history and meanings.
That means that, in the case of Presley and Monroe, their lives become something other than their lives in these films: They become symbols of both personal struggle and cultural meaning. That isn’t necessarily a wrongheaded way of looking at these lives nor a misspent method of interpretation, but it does mean that the real lives might end up misconstrued into unreal events, even unreal history. Elvis is so fraught with this liability when it comes to particulars in the lives and personalities of Presley and Colonel Tom Parker that the film too often reduces these portrayals to caricature, but worse, also bends some terribly serious events to fit dramatic ones. If Elvis—the film—is supposed to be verisimilitude, it is instead nonetheless a filmic fantasia. In music, a fantasia is an invention that breaks conventional form. In biography, fantasia can prove a device that is also a conceit. Not every imaginative work of modern iconography gets to the truth of the icon, or rather to the person behind the icon.
Sinéad O’Connor is another person who has been described at times as an icon—or perhaps more accurately as iconic. That is, somebody with the quality of representing a time or an idea, though in Sinéad’s case, iconic refers as much to her singular persona: her image as somebody doe-eyed but fierce, a beautiful, bantam woman with a shaved head and a voice in turns soaring, lulling, ululating, frightening, embattled, freeing. Yet though it might be said that O’Connor had an iconic look, iconic nonetheless isn’t what she was about. That is, she wasn’t an icon—for one thing, she is, importantly, still alive. Rather, she was an iconoclasm.
An iconoclast, in ancient times and now, is a disruptor who destroys icons and monuments, generally for religious or political reasons. History’s iconoclasts challenged venerated conventions, beliefs, institutions, on the principle that these venerated conventions, beliefs, and institutions are untrue or at least mistaken, or at worst, injurious or malevolent. Nothing Compares to You, director Kathryn Ferguson’s film about Sinéad O’Connor—which debuted on Showtime this past Monday—is not a fiction. It is the story of the arc of an iconoclast, not the rise of an icon.
Some people start out as iconoclasts and later become icons, such as Elvis Presley; the transformation is really an inversion of their original worth. That is, they might be at first valued for their iconoclasm, but iconoclasm sometimes just works as a passage before the iconoclast becomes subsumed into a respected status in the cultural mainstream. (Think Muhammad Ali.)
But an iconoclast who doesn’t yield to the allures and assurances of status and celebrity, such as Sinéad (or Ali), might eventually come up against resentment, fear, even a political will to undo the iconoclast. Sinéad wouldn’t accept the allures of fame over her impulsion to speak truth to power. Nothing Compares to You presents the account of O’Connor hitting one peak of greatness after another until, when she hit her greatest peak, her bravest one, one that truly transcended even her own art, the world saw that peak as unforgivable, and the world pulled itself out from under her feet. There was nothing there to catch Sinéad but Sinéad herself.
As I said a moment ago, Blonde has been described as a story of the exploitation of a woman but it’s also been described itself as a work that exploits the woman’s life. By contrast, Nothing Compares to You is the real-life representation of a woman who was abused when she was quite young, in her native Ireland, at the hands of her mother and parochial Catholicism and narrow thinking, a young woman who conjured an amazing talent that lifted her above that abuse, yet had to assert her determination time and again in a music industry that sometimes saw both her (and her image) as more of a commodity than a self-willed mind, set on her own autonomous creation and expression. She persisted and her art persisted, as she pushed back against dictates and limitations. Nothing Compares to You is a testament to the nerve and conviction it took to be an iconoclast rather than an icon. The costs, it turned out, lasted a lifetime.
The film opens in the moment in which these oppositions collided with a head-on force, in a crucible that O’Connor would not be allowed to overcome. It happened on the night of a 1992 Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden, an event replete with numerous of Dylan’s colleagues as well as the artists he’d influenced. After a commendatory introduction by the event’s host, Kris Kristofferson, Sinéad walked on stage, wearing a sharp, baby blue suit jacket, a long split black skirt and a demure expression.
She looked at the audience, smiled, prepared to sing Dylan’s lovely “I Believe in You,” from his Christian album, Slow Train Coming, but was met with a roar that was, in part, an argument between those in the audience that welcomed Sinéad and those—many more—who now hated her, who didn’t intend to let her sing on that stage. The look on her face in those moments, and what that look turns into later when the scene is rejoined in the film, is an instant that tells us an essential truth about Sinéad O’Connor’s place in our history, about her mettle, her suffering, her indomitability and how it all came to grief. This is to say, the look is a telling moment, and it tells volumes: an exposition of everything that had brought her to that stage in that moment—a moment that found her in a baleful place, facing an unforgiving future.
From there, Nothing Compares reaches back years and tells the story of the life that led up to this point of no return. The details are told in the voices of those who witnessed key times in her development and in her crises, including the voice of my wife Elaine Schock, who was Sinéad’s publicist and friend for many years. These witnesses attest to the fear and loneliness that formed her childhood; the advent of the voice that helped her endure those hard years with tones full of both beauty and rage, the voice that brought her out of the dark, repressive ways of Dublin, Ireland, to London, a place of comparative promise and freedom, where her gifts and determination landed her in bands, then into a recording studio, where she made an extraordinary first album, The Lion and the Cobra.
The arc was a good one for a time, as Sinéad enjoyed new confidence (there is a torch performance of her singing Cole Porter’s “You Do Something to Me,” before a largely gay audience, while carrying a can of beer and cigarette with an incongruous elegance, that is one of the most arresting musical displays in the film), and then gained recognition not just for her startling looks, but also for that even more startling vocal brilliance with which she might whisper a heartbroken confidence then roar a forbidden revelation, sometimes in the same verse, sometimes in the same measure, and it made for an unfamiliar complexity. John Maybury, a filmmaker who directed Sinead in the video of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” observes in the film: “People found it problematic just because they read the language of the skinhead into the shaved head. It suggested some kind of aggression, but actually the beauty of her features, the quality of her eyes, it created a fantastic contradiction.”
But despite her newfound recognition, despite the affirmation that came from making formidable music and the reward of giving birth to her first child, Jake, when she was barely in her twenties, Sinéad O’Connor brought her hard past with her. For one thing, it gave her material to write about. But also, it wasn’t simply enough for Sinéad to have escaped a life of cloistered repression: She remembered that that world still existed back home, that countless other young women were stuck in an Ireland that continued to deny them their dreams and their rights in a religiously and culturally patriarchal culture. She also recognized that repressed people had brothers and sisters across all borders, and she would unnerve some in the music industry—particularly the American music industry—with her unwillingness to defer to conventions of caution or to conservative discomforts. When the Grammys refused to recognize hip-hop music in 1989, because the music and its culture were seen as disruptive and disreputable, Sinéad went on stage at the awards show to sing “Mandinka” wearing the symbol of Public Enemy dyed boldly into her closely cropped hair. One of the first things she said to me when I met her in London in February of 1990, was, “Do you like Public Enemy? They have a new album coming out.” Hip-hop, she told me, represented to her the closest spiritual kinship to her own music.
I’d gone to London to write a cover feature about her for Rolling Stone. As her publicist, Elaine was convinced that the singer was fast headed for a formidable breakthrough in America with her upcoming second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. She convinced the magazine of that likelihood as well and suggested I might be a good person to write the story. There was nothing romantic between Elaine and me at that point. We’d simply become good friends when I first moved to Los Angeles in 1977, after I’d met her at Casablanca Records’ offices as I was beginning work on a Donna Summer feature. Later, she moved to New York, and we stayed close friends.
In 1990, she was living in Pelham and ran her own publicity firm, Shock Ink. For some reason, she liked my writing. I never asked her why—I think she perhaps liked it better than I did—but I was grateful. She sent me an advance copy of the album and a video of its first single, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (a song written by Prince but that Sinéad, as one writer noted, fully inhabited and forever made her own). I was rapt by the video. A camera slowly tightened on Sinéad’s face as she sang about having to live through every minute of every day in the presence of the haunted absence of the person she loved most, the person who left her, the person who broke her. There was nothing clever in the video, nothing histrionic in the voice. The camera simply tightened in on a face full of loss, and it seemed to me it was a real face, not a portrayal, not a mask.
Sinéad and I got along well from our first meeting, at the offices of the label she was signed to, and we talked for hours every day, through visits at her home where she lived with her then-husband John Reynolds and their son Jake, and we talked at dinners, in the back seats of taxis and at photo shoots. For Sinéad, much of the talk was the baring of memories that she would never let go of because they were memories that would never let go of her. She opened up to me about the torments of her life—among them the harrowing abuses she had experienced from her disturbed mother and the hard treatment she faced from schools and laws and the church in Dublin. I could see how those mistreatments could still invert her. I witnessed one day how an unfair use of power delivered her to a deep well of depression, after U2 had been unnecessarily unkind and lorded their rank over her. I continued to catch some flicker of a lingering darkness, that pain in her, at other moments when I saw her over the years. For a time, she lived in Los Angeles, and we would regularly get together for dinner or drinks or I’d visit at her home. When certain events or remembrances came up, it was as if she turned her gaze inward, and would cast those remarkable eyes of hers downward in silence until I could move our conversation to a different direction.
I never told O’Connor—I don’t know that I ever told anybody—but that first visit with her in London illuminated something for me. When I made that trip, I was at the end of a long season that had broken me. Talking with Sinéad, I came to better see that the ways in which we learn to hurt and to love—they are often the same thing—come to us in childhood, among our families, and may inform how we love and hurt forever after, and how we love and hurt others. Hurt isn't something that easily or certainly ends. There was a lot of hurt in Sinéad’s eyes. That’s because there was a lot of hurt in her life. If ever I thought that her hurt was something that might be past her, I was wrong.
Back during my original trip to London, she took me one night to a BBC studio, where she was to record a song for later broadcast. The producers were surprised by what she asked them before starting the song. This is I wrote about that occasion in late 1990:
“Can we shut out the lights?” asks Sinéad O’Connor, in a soft voice.
It is a cold and blustery late February 1990 night in the center of London, and O’Connor—a twenty-three-year-old, bantam-sized Irish-born woman, with round, doleful eyes and a quarter-inch crewcut—is perched on a stool in a BBC Radio sound studio, holding an acoustic guitar, and looking a little uneasy. She has come here to perform some songs from her newly released second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. And for reasons of her own, she feels like singing these songs in the dark tonight. After the lights dim, the room falls quiet, and O’Connor begins strumming the hushed opening chords to “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance”—the account of a young woman who has been brought to the edge of her deepest-held hopes and dreams, and then deserted by the one person she needed and trusted most. It is one of O’Connor’s most powerful and affecting songs, and for good reason: Not so long ago, she more or less endured the experience that she is singing about, and it transformed her life.
Tonight, she seems to be singing the song as if she were composing its painful recollections and caustic indictments on the spot. In a voice that veers between hesitation and accusation, O’Connor sings with a biting precision about the moment she realized that the man she loved and trusted no longer cared for her need or faith in him—it was in the instant that she recognized he would no longer hold on to her hand as a plane would lift off—and she rues all the abandonment and betrayal that her expectation has left her with. And then, just when the music should surge into the crashing chords and snarling yowls that frame the song’s bitter kiss-off, O’Connor halts the performance abruptly, and for several long seconds, there is only silence from the dark booth. “I need to practice that one a bit,” she says finally, in a shaky tone. “I need to calm down.”
A minute later O’Connor resumes the song, and this time she leans harder into the performance. It is an exceptional thing to witness. Somewhere in that darkened booth, a young woman with an almost supernatural voice—a voice that can convey rage, longing, shock, and sorrow, all in the same breath—is both chasing down, and being chased by, some difficult private memories, and it seems less like a pop performance than an act of necessary release. It is also a timeless ritual: Pop and jazz and blues singers have been sitting in darkened recording booths turning private pains into public divulgence for generations now. But many of the best of those singers—from Billie Holiday to John Lennon—were, in one way or another, ravaged by that darkness. If Sinéad O’Connor has her way, she is going to howl at that darkness until there are no more bitter truths that it can hold.
That was back in 1990. That darkness never gave up its bitter truths.
Two years later, October 3rd, 1992, Sinéad appeared on Saturday Night Live, and at the end of her performance, held up a picture of Pope John Paul II to the camera. She’d kept the photo since her mother had died. She now thought that the church she had been brought up in covered up for sexual abuses of children while also insisting that women of the faith give birth to children, no matter the circumstances. That night, in a statement meant to shred that hypocrisy, at the end of delivering a stately and commanding acapella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” (based on a United Nations speech by Haile Selassie), O’Connor tore the picture in half, and said “Fight the real enemy.”
It hadn’t seemed outrageous, or even offensive, to me. I just thought, “That’s Sinéad.” She could be vulnerable and scared, but she could also be fiercely bold and daring. I admired her for that, and I recognized the powerful effect of what she had done. She later said: “My intention had always been to destroy my mother’s photo of the pope. It represented lies and liars and abuse.” In the film she says, “I had a right to fight that evil because I loved the church.”
In her autobiography, she wrote about the reaction to that moment: “Total stunned silence in the audience. And when I walk backstage, literally not a human being is in sight. All doors have closed. Everyone has vanished. Including my own manager, who locks himself in his room for three days and unplugs his phone.” In the film, Elaine addresses the incident and the exchange she immediately had with Sinéad backstage. Elaine was on the frontlines during this crucial time. I won’t quote what she discloses here because it would be revealing a moment too essential and powerful. That same night Elaine learned that NBC decided to ban Sinéad for life. When the singer left the studio, two young men chased her, throwing eggs at her. The incident roiled not just New York, and not just Catholics, but people all over.
It was the moment that transformed Sinéad O’Connor’s career and effectively ended her rise.
Several celebrities jumped all over Sinéad. Joe Pesci, in a monologue on a subsequent SNL, said: “If it was my show, I would’ve gave her such a smack,” to the audience’s—and probably NBC’s—delight. You can tell from his barely-under-control manner that he, a fit middle-aged man, would still like to smack the elfin O’Connor. Camille Paglia, who was always genuinely eager to cause offense and controversy herself, in reply to a TV interviewer reminding her that O’Connor’s concern had been child abuse, said, with ugly contempt, “In the case of Sinéad O’Connor, child abuse was justified.”
Radio stations pronounced they would no longer be playing Sinéad’s music, and a steamroller, mounted by smug moral guardians, loaded the intersection of Manhattan's 61st Street and 6th Avenue with O’Connor’s LPs and cassettes and gleefully ran them over, and promised to deliver the debris to her home. It seemed they wished they had the singer laid out in that street alongside her music. On top of that, she and her management team regularly received death threats.
One particularly regrettable reaction came from Madonna, who, mocking Sinéad, stood onstage and ripped up a photo of Joey Buttafuoco, saying as she did so, “Fight the real enemy.” For me, that was one of the most misplaced of all the responses by celebrities. Madonna should have been smart enough to know that she and Sinéad shared a common interest: speaking out against a patriarchal system—and its ongoing, real-life practices—that continued to relegate women to quiet, dutiful roles, with little power or autonomy in the face of an arrogant and unyielding ideology.
All of those reactions—and there were many more—were shameful and cowardly, and some implied violence. They were unfitting and should have been assailed by those who knew better. Instead, there was precious little outspoken sympathy or support for O’Connor. It was dismaying, even enraging, to witness one reprehensible assault after another. This was a time of loud guardians but no heroes.
Two weeks later, as Kris Kristofferson introduced Sinéad at the Dylan event at Madison Square Garden—we’re now back to that arc where the film No One Compares to You started—he said, “I’m real proud to introduce this next artist whose name became synonymous with courage and integrity. Ladies and gentlemen, Sinéad O’Connor.”
The audience—most of it—reacted with hatred. People booed her and hurled invectives. She had come on stage to whisper-sing “I Believe in You,” but that wouldn’t work. She couldn’t have been heard above the din. She stood with dignity and calm before that enormous wave of animosity for several long moments. She signaled her band to stop, told the sound technicians to turn up her microphone, and instead launched into another acapella delivery of Marley’s “War,” but brought her own words to the closing of it:
“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior
And another inferior
Is finally and permanently
Discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war
“Until there’s no longer first class or second class citizens of any nation
Until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes
I’ve got to say WAR
“Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all
Without regard to race
I say war
“And until the ignoble and unhappy regime
That holds all of us through child abuse
Has been toppled
Everywhere is war”
She had recited the words in a stentorian voice, and as she made it through those words, the audience largely backed down. Sinéad was better than angry: She was calmly fierce. Then, fixing the crowd with a piercing glare, she stood there for more long moments with the self-respect she deserved, then turned and abandoned the stage to her left.
Musician Kathleen Hanna notes in the film, “Someone who grew up in a household of abuse and rejection, then being rejected by what probably felt like the whole entire world, re-traumatizing her in front of the world, it made me feel demoralized as a woman.”
I wasn’t at this event either—I watched it on a pay-per-view broadcast—but I didn’t have to be there. The hatred thrown Sinéad’s way that night was palpable. I watched the remainder of the tribute performances feeling sickened. Nobody who came onstage after O’Connor spoke out in support of her. For some time after, I couldn’t listen to rock music. I had to wonder: What did I any longer share with this audience that I had, for so long, felt at one with? I doubted I shared their ideology, and I doubted they shared smarts with those who had recognized in Dylan, 30 years before, a willingness to say things that might make some uncomfortable. For a long time, it was that spirit that turned everything around, that raised the stakes. But the truth was that by 1992, much of rock—its music, its culture, its audiences—had ceded its former will to challenge ideological mores or ruthless power structures, particularly in America. People used to care, but things had changed.
I’d been working on Shot in the Heart, and for the duration I played only opera, Mahler, Delta and Chicago blues, hip-hop—the latter a form that now often spoke out against injustice and acquiescence, a form that upset many. Rock made me think of what had been done to Sinéad by those who now constituted its audience. For a time, I decided to stay on the other side of the street from them. Even when I did cross back over, it was with disabused ideals.
What happened to Sinéad in the aftermath of her protest of the pope and the Catholic church’s concealment of abuses and its ongoing and effective restraint of women’s rights to physical autonomy?
O'Connor as an older woman, and a convert to Islam in 2018.
Nothing Compares to You shows us that—the hell and hurt that came, the ongoing, easy contempt O'Connor was subject to. The urge to insult her some more even crept into the making of this film, when Prince’s estate refused the use of the song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Prince’s sibling, Sharon Nelson, said, “I didn’t feel [Sinéad] deserved to use the song my brother wrote in her documentary, so we declined. His version is the best.”
It was an ungenerous refusal on the estate’s part, and an unworthy statement. Prince’s version was not the best. He didn’t even originally stake out the song for himself, but instead assigned it to a side project of his, the Family, and it sat merely as filler on the band’s sole album from 1985. Though Prince had recorded his own version in 1984, he never released it. That version didn’t appear until 2018 as a posthumous single, though Prince had taken to performing the song live years after O’Connor had her hit with it.
Sinéad apotheosized “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and in doing so won her place on the international popular music stage with her mesmeric rendition. She is the whole—and sole—reason people know the song, the sole reason why, thirty-two years later, it still speaks to a hurt memory that can still speak to our hurt hearts. Sinéad O’Connor is why “Nothing Compares 2 U” is indelible. It stands as one the greatest singles of all time.
Watch the film, though, and you will see how O’Connor ended up having a nevertheless ongoing positive effect for women in music, and you’ll see how the inequities and corruption that led her to tear up that photo got challenged, got changed, in Ireland and elsewhere. Of course, the bitter reality is that much of America now strives to be similar to the dark place Ireland once was: a place that tells women that if they become pregnant they have to bring that pregnancy to term, no matter the consequences, even if it results in their deaths. Watch the film and you will also see a rapturous grace note at the end, a self-made kindness that is also a kindness to all the rest of us. It’s a kindness some won’t deserve.
Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.