Sinéad O’Connor (1966-2023)

Posted on July 31, 2023

by Eric P

That loud gasp you heard on July 26 was the collective exhalation of shock emitted by much of Gen X upon learning that the singer and musician Sinéad O’Connor had died at the age of 56. Part heart-on-her sleeve chanteuse, part defiant banshee, O’Connor was a gifted hitmaker, a moral absolutist, and an unrepentant provocateur buffeted throughout her truncated life by rough treatment and bad breaks.

The Lion and the Cobra


People in the 1980s who lurked in the aisles of record stores (those were a thing, ask your grandparents) may first have noticed O’Connor’s name on a sticker on a movie soundtrack where she recorded a song with U2’s The Edge, because I guess all Irish musicians know each other. Nearly everyone else first noticed her when her alternately tremulous and declamatory earworm of a Prince cover, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” was suddenly playing literally everywhere.

But even though the album that came from, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, is a zero-skips classic, her first record The Lion and the Cobra is also a must-listen, eclectic and assured in a way you mightn’t expect from such a young first-timer. “Mandinka” is a banger, “I Want Your (Hands On Me)” is propulsive bedroom funk, and “Troy” is furiously ferocious in its hushed intensity, literate and precocious in its imagery while also dramatizing melodramatic feels with such incandescent earnestness that only a young artist could pull it off. (Paging Olivia Rodrigo.) “I’d kill a dragon for you,” O’Connor sings, and you don’t dare disbelieve her.


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Those records emerged from a young lifetime of pain, including her abusive mother who died young, but if anything, from there O’Connor’s path only got more fraught. Over the course of her career she beefed with U2, Prince, Madonna, Joe Pesci, Miley Cyrus and Frank Sinatra. She made a statement against child abuse in the Catholic church with a famously dramatic gesture on Saturday Night Live; public opinion turned so sharply and angrily against her that it must have been small consolation indeed when, about twenty years later, a lot of folks were like “Y’know, maybe she kind of had a point.”

There’s a regrettably robust tradition of famous women who get marginalized or publicly ridiculed for iconoclasm, outspokenness, mental health struggles, or some combination thereof, from Billie Holiday to Anne Heche, and in addition to that ostracism O’Connor also dealt with turbulent personal relationships and the death last year of her 17-year-old son.

But she never stopped making music. She never regretted expressing herself on SNL, and she never apologized for it. And she’s pretty much to only person ever to sing a Prince song and not have people think “I wish Prince were singing this instead.” She was an artist, and she was punk rock, and she deserved better than most of what this world gave her.

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