I cannot say I was overly surprised to hear that Sinéad O’Connor died. It’s hard to think of a public figure who has endured more struggles, nightmares and tragedies.
And no one was more devoted to being ruthlessly honest about those struggles than O’Connor. She constantly interrogated herself in interviews, but also in her wonderful book, Rememberings, which I highly recommend.
I can’t think of a single Irish person who would endorse turning someone as fiery and complicated as Sinéad into a plastic saint after that person passed. She was flawed. And she was honest about that. Throughout her career, she was searching about her mistakes, and funny as hell about the weird shit that happened to her. A lot of weird, memorable shit happened to her.
Her one major encounter with Prince — that incident lives rent-free in my mind, and always will, in large part because her telling of the story in Rememberings is so mordantly observant and witty and ominous. Sinéad O’Connor did not have time for bullshit, and I love her for that. Present tense — love. Because what I love about her remains.
She paid an incredibly high price for being who she was, and I won’t forget that either.
About three years ago, I was exploring (with a great producer) the idea of doing a big documentary about toxicity in the music industry. Having started out as a music critic (and a ‘90s music zine person), and having been in bands and known musicians my whole life, I thought, yeah, let’s do this! Until, pretty quickly, I thought, “Oh God, I really don’t want to do this.”
I was relieved when the project died — in part because there are not enough connected music industry people willing to go on camera to tell the truth. About the rot embedded within so much of the biggest and most high-profile sections of the commercial industry. All in all, after doing a lot of research and having observed the industry for a long time, if you’d told me that the commercial North American music industry is a mechanism for serving up the powerless to those with power and connections so that the powerful can exploit those individuals in any number of ways — with the creation of music as a mere side hustle — I’d believe you.
However bad it is in Hollywood or comedy or any other creative spheres, it’s worse in the commercial music industry. (Of course, there are some great people involved in commercial music, producing and touring, etc. I wish they were the ones with the most meaningful power and access. I wish the good and gifted folks could make a decent living from what they do. They often cannot. SIGH.)
Anyway, at one point, I made a list of rock stars who’d “dated” girls who were 13, 14, 15 or so — and this was publicly known and talked about calmly, and one band even made a reference this on a T-shirt the band sold. In the '90s. Because it’s funny! Hahahahaha, grown people exploiting young people—just cool rock star stuff, you know.
Yeah, the baselines of the commercial music industry (in many/most music genres, frankly), even now, are often hostile to anyone who’s not a certain gender, body type, sexuality, class, race, etc. Back in the ‘90s? A woman who didn’t conform to certain ideas about conduct, feminity and docility?? I mean, the music industry as constituted then may as well have been purpose-built to destroy Sinéad O’Connor. I wrote in my book about how much power Saturday Night Live had not only then, but has almost always had. The fact that she took on the music industry, the Catholic Church, and SNL? More or less all in one go? With a shaved head?
That took courage. And it cost her.
It kept costing her, during every change and metamorphosis she went through. As she explained in her book, as a child she went through majorly abusive episodes at the hands of adults in her life, and then she was thrust on a public stage at a very young age. “Child abuse is an identity crisis and fame is an identity crisis, so I went straight from one identity crisis into another,” she said when her book came out. I can only assume it took many, many enormous acts of will and endurance for her to survive to age 56.
And so I was sad, I am sad, to know that she has left this physical plane. But now I understand why, when I heard the news, some part of me ... I won't say I was relieved, that's not the right word. Certainly those who knew her are hurting right now. As are her fans. But there was a part of me that hoped she'd found yet more grace. Lasting mercy. Because she’d had such a hard path on so many fronts for so long. After reading about her challenging life in Rememberings, then last year, seeing news reports that her son Shane had died by suicide, I wondered… I wondered about her. I worried about her.
I never met Sinéad. I never personally knew her. But I know what it’s like to have a childhood that includes major trauma and I knew that you are not supposed to talk about that. I know what it’s like to put on a brave face and do the things you were meant to do, no matter the cost, because fuck them, they don’t get to tell you who to be and what you are.
I know what it’s like to come to terms — later in life, sometimes feeling maybe it’s too late — with the bad things that have happened, and to wonder if you will be able to pull out of the spirals that have ensnared you and then keep coming. I know, all too well, what it's like to feel as though your greatest "crime," the one you may never outrun, is simply telling the truth. I know what it's like to find a new place, sometimes, that brings some grace (there's a passage in Rememberings in which she publicly and lovingly consoles and forgives her father, and it's... it's something.) I can't sing to save my life, but I know what it’s like to find solace in music, in its secrets and mysteries. It’s saved me so many times.
I grew up going to Irish pubs and hearing the old songs and the ballads, and my grandmother and my mother sang Danny Boy to us to get us to go to sleep. Iconic way to raise kids: Just before bed, sing them a song about deep grief and nightmarish loss — sweet dreams, kids! Intergenerational trauma, but make it music. You do have to laugh. Within a few pages of Rememberings, it's clear Sinéad loved to laugh.
I look at clips of Sinéad doing chat show appearances in Ireland and I understand why so many people kept forgiving her, or kept believing there was nothing to forgive, kept caring about her, kept worrying about her, kept going back to her and her work.
My siblings and I have a text thread going of Sinéad appearances on Youtube. I see in the faces of the audiences the same faces I have seen at Irish pubs.
People are not there for the drink, for the company, for the craic (though those things matter). They’re there because a good singer connects you to loss, mortality, joy, God, the gods, the past, this moment — and nothing else really matters. Not really.
When the song and the singer merge… that’s the truth. The rest is noise.
Sinéad had a deep, whole, fractured, heavy, incredible, yearning, caustic, kind, angry soul inside her, and the voice was the way she let it out. The way she gave it to us, so we could hold it for a few minutes, with her.
Sinéad O’Connor, you were always more than many people wanted you to be. You were always true to who you were in each moment, and that changed a lot, and you didn’t fit the pop-star mold. You made mistakes, and so often you talked about those mistakes and tried to make up for them. You sent emails full of cherry blossom emojis and you could be relied on as a friend (or a foil). You were so far ahead of your time that people didn't know what box to stick you in, but they kept trying to put you in boxes and make you conform to the labels they stuck on you. You peeled off the labels and blew up the boxes and told the boxmakers to go fuck themselves. And in so many overt and covert ways, people tried to destroy you for all of it. Even for the good you did. I’m sorry for that. I wish I could have given you something back for all the times you let me hold the heavy, silvery, featherlight infinity of your soul.
I hope you have relief. Few have ever deserved it more.
I’ll let you have the last word:
“I don’t do anything in order to cause trouble. It just so happens that what I do naturally causes trouble. And that’s fine with me. I’m proud to be a troublemaker.”