Nothing compares to Sinéad O’Connor
O’Connor has been a dissenting voice in a country that favours consensus
Unfortunately, the Sinéad O’Connor-Miley Cyrus communication descended into a tit-for-tat argument. Photograph: PA Wire
Here she goes again. That’s generally the reaction to Sinéad O’Connor “going off on one”. Writing an open letter to the singer Miley Cyrus – whose appropriation of pornography as her pop aesthetic is neither radical nor cool – O’Connor warned the young star: “They [the music industry] will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think it’s what you wanted and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.”
O’Connor had every right to communicate with Cyrus, since the latter’s video for Wrecking Ball (in which she swings naked on a wrecking ball and licks a sledgehammer) was influenced by one of the most iconic images from O’Connor’s career, the music video for Nothing Compares 2 U. Unfortunately, their communication descended into a tit-for-tat argument. But O’Connor has once again started an interesting conversation, and in a career where she is constantly shouted down and slagged off, she continues to be brave.
Watching the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer over the weekend, which charts the actions of the Russian feminist punk band up until their arrest and trial for an impromptu performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, one is reminded of how contentious radical women’s voices and actions can be. The lyrics of the song they shouted on the altar on February 21st last year spoke out against the links between church and State and the repression Vladimir Putin presides over, “Mother of God, rid us of Putin. Liberty is dead and gone. Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains, the head of the KGB is their saint. A convoy leads protesters to prison so as not to offend his holiness. Women must give birth and love. S**t! S**t! It’s God s**t! Mother of God, become a feminist. The church praises rotten rulers, another crusade of black limousines.” Two members of Pussy Riot are still in jail, and the hunger strike of one, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, has brought attention to the dismal conditions of Russian prison colonies.
People don’t want to hear women mouthing off. That’s why opinionated women’s voices are marginalised on radio. It’s why female politicians attract more personal insults, and why ambitious women are viewed as full of themselves or bitchy or ice queens or all three. It’s also why O’Connor sparks controversy. She expresses opinions bluntly. The world wasn’t ready for Sinéad O’Connor, just like Russia wasn’t ready for Pussy Riot.
Pussy Riot are following O’Connor’s lineage of punk protest, most specifically her actions on Saturday Night Live in 1992, when she declared, “Fight the real enemy,” after ripping up a photograph of Pope John Paul II in a bold and brave act of subversion and shock. O’Connor talked about the ills of the Catholic Church years before it became a mainstream point of view. She highlighted abuse and moral corruption within the organisation while the population of Ireland and elsewhere put their fingers in their ears. She was right, of course.
That was a powerful moment, as was the stark music video which Miley Cyrus copied. But perhaps the most powerful image of all was four years before the pope picture incident, O’Connor singing Mandinka on Letterman, aged just 21, shaved head, tattered jacket. The image of that beautiful punk is seared in the memory of anyone who in conservative Ireland in 1988 dreamed of doing things differently.
O’Connor has been a dissenting voice in a country that favours consensus. In an industry that delights in fakery and firmly plants musical artists within the PR Green Zone with no way out, she smashes through that cosy buffer by speaking her mind. She knows all about making an impact, but does so naturally. Making an impact is her default setting. And she doesn’t possess the cynicism of that other great mouthy pop star, Madonna, who criticised O’Connor for the pope incident, probably jilted that O’Connor stole her thunder, more than anything else.
The most spellbinding musical moment I’ve ever witnessed was O’Connor soundchecking in the empty courtyard of Dublin Castle, her phenomenal voice reverberating against the walls. I mention that because sometimes amid the noise, we forget what a brilliant musician and singer O’Connor is. She is one of the greats. It’s also worth noting that creatively, O’Connor continues to excel. Her ninth album, How About I Be Me (And You Be You), released last year, is among her finest. At Glastonbury this summer, she delivered perhaps the most stunning performance of the festival, a cover of John Grant’s Queen Of Denmark, a triumph of bitterness, pain, humour and strength.
Outsiders are the ones who make a difference. Maybe O’Connor will never be a national treasure because she’s much too raw for that. Or maybe some day she’ll be truly appreciated. Whatever your opinion, however, nobody and nothing compares