They laugh ‘cause they know they’re untouchable
Not because what I said was wrong.
Whatever it may bring,
I will live by my own policies,
I will sleep with a clear conscience,
I will sleep in peace.
—Sinead O’Connor, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, 1990
Sinead O’Connor—now only the stage name of the Irish musician who converted (or, by her read, reverted) to Islam in 2018—died today at the age of 56, apparently still in anguish over the suicide of her third child in January 2022.
I remember sitting on the couch in the house of the parents of my last great high school girlfriend one cold winter Friday night. O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” came on, and my girlfriend was captivated by the intense authenticity of the face on the screen. We’d been going out for about a year; we were a year away from our final breakup. We never listened to “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” together, though she might have enjoyed and been justified in singing it at me toward the end, and I can at least appreciate the importance of the song’s anthemic declaration that sometimes we just have to move on.
”The Emperor’s New Clothes” played on the radio that summer. I don’t recall any specific instance of listening to it over the air that golden summer or watching the video. Somehow the lyrics didn’t stick with me, not consciously (though I suspect O’Connor stuck that passage above deep in my unconscious); I just liked the sound.
I never bought Sinead O’Connor’s 1990 album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, or any of O’Connor’s other albums. I never listened to entire album until this year, when I noodled around on Apple Music trying to recover from a brief mental lapse that prevented me from remembering the title of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I told Siri to “Play Sinead O’Connor, upbeat song.” Siri stopped at Sinead, played an inscrutable sequence of two or three songs before queuing the album and allowing me to recall the title of the song that was only playing its introductory bars in my head. I listened to that song three times through—the title will not escape me again—then listened to the entire album on a long drive home. I’ve played it a couple more times, including one long trip down some country gravel just a couple weeks ago. I’ll be listening to that album more now, along with other Sinead albums that I would have enjoyed hearing long ago.
O’Connor had before her another generation to create and perform, as we are reminded by the still exuberant Mick Jagger’s turning 80 today. We have lost that creative and performative potential.
A lot of people would have denied the world of Sinead O’Connor’s creativity and performances three decades ago, when NBC and concertgoers tried to cancel O‘Connor for her entirely correct critique of the Catholic Church’s long history of sheltering sexual predators. Ten days after ripping up the Pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live, she stepped onstage at Madison Square Garden at a Bob Dylan tribute concert. The crowd started booing. Organizers sent country singer Kris Kristofferson to escort her offstage; instead, he stood center stage with her, put his arm around her, and waited until she was able to perform. Years later, Kristofferson wrote and released a song about her:
O’Connor slagged Kristofferson in a 2019 tweet, but his song about “Sister Sinead” remains an appropriate homage to the Irish singer… and now, alas, a eulogy.
It’s askin’ for trouble to stick out your neck
In terms of a target a big silhouette.
But some candles flicker and some candles fade
And some burn as true as my sister Sinead.
And maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t
But so was Picasso and so were the saints.
And she’s never been partial to shackles or chains.
She’s too old for breaking and too young to tame.
—Kris Kristofferson, “Sister Sinead,” Closer to the Bone, 2009