The Number Ones

April 21, 1990

The Number Ones: Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Fluttery, dreamlike images of Paris fade out, and then all we see is a young woman’s face. That face fills up the whole screen. Depending on the size of your TV, her face might be bigger than yours, bigger than life. For the next five minutes, that face is virtually all we see. The woman stares straight at us, and her green eyes are vivid and enormous. The image behind the young woman is an empty black void, and that, combined with her black turtleneck, makes those eyes jump out even more. From the first moment that she starts to sing, this woman is absolutely arresting.

The young woman’s haircut, a barely-there buzz, will become a topic of a whole lot of conversation in the weeks ahead. But in the five minutes that she’s onscreen, it just seems like one more way that this young woman is opening herself up to the world, leaving herself vulnerable. In her performance, she does a whole lot more of that. Sometimes, that young woman stares at us, fiercely and accusingly. Sometimes, she breaks that gaze and looks down, as if she can’t bear to keep looking at us. As the song continues, the young woman looks more and more upset until finally, climactically, two tears roll down her cheeks.

People like my parents thought of MTV as an unending barrage of mindless imagery, and at least some of the time, they were probably right. But whenever the face of Sinéad O’Connor appeared on MTV, something that happened fairly often in 1990, the world stopped. O’Connor’s video for “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a long and mysterious and sometimes uncomfortable study of this one young woman’s face, and this young woman is clearly going through some things.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” video director John Maybury, who would later make the movies The Jacket and The Edge Of Love, filmed a lot of footage of Sinéad O’Connor in Paris. You can see some of that footage in the video’s interstitial moments — O’Connor, monastic in black, trudging through stunning old architecture. But Maybury knew that he had something in that one tight close-up on O’Connor’s face, and he made that close-up practically the entire video. The video made Sinéad O’Connor hugely famous, which then turned out to be a tremendous problem for Sinéad O’Connor.

Sinéad O’Connor came from a well-off but abusive family in the Dublin suburb of Glenageary. (When O’Connor was born, the #1 song in America was the New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral.”) At 14, after O’Connor was caught shoplifting a pair of shoes, her parents sent her to a Magdalene asylum — a kind of Catholic bad-kid boarding school, run by nuns. A volunteer at the asylum was the drummer for a local band called In Tua Nua, and when he heard O’Connor singing, he invited her to work with them. O’Connor co-wrote and sang In Tua Nua’s debut single “Take My Hand,” which made the top 20 on the Irish charts, when she was 15.

While she was still at school, O’Connor formed her own band, Ton Ton Macoute, and she ran away from that school to Dublin to sing with them. Nigel Grainge, founder of the UK label Ensign Records, saw Ton Ton Macoute in 1985, and he hated them, but he loved O’Connor. Around the same time that O’Connor sang “Heroine,” one of the songs from the Edge’s soundtrack to the movie Captive, Grainge sent her into the studio with the Waterboys’ Karl Wallinger to record four songs. (Soon aftewards, Wallinger started the solo project World Party, and his highest-charting US single, 1987’s “Ship Of Fools,” peaked at #27.) On the strength of those four songs, Grainge signed O’Connor. O’Connor later said that Grainge also tried to get her to grow her hair long and to dress sexier. In response, O’Connor shaved her head, and she has mostly kept it shaved ever since.

After signing with Ensign, Sinéad O’Connor moved to London, and she released her debut album The Lion And The Cobra in 1987. O’Connor recorded the album while she was pregnant with her first kid, and she produced it herself. She was 20 when the album came out, and thanks in part to some of the intense statements that she made in the press — pro-IRA, anti-U2 — she captured a whole lot of imaginations. Her single “Mandinka” made the top 20 in the UK, and the album charted in both the UK and the US. O’Connor sang “Mandika” on Letterman, and the album went gold, but none of its singles charted on the Hot 100.

When she recorded her 1990 sophomore album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, Sinéad O’Connor was a critical and college-radio favorite in the US, but she was nobody’s idea of a pop star. It would take a perfect song to take O’Connor, however briefly, into that realm. O’Connor found that song. Her manager Fachtna O’Ceallaigh suggested that O’Connor record “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a relatively obscure track that Prince had written years earlier, one that he’d passed off to one of his many proteges.

Prince wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U” in 1984, the year that he conquered the world. Prince never said who, if anyone, inspired the song, but his recording engineer Susan Rogers later guessed that he was thinking about Sandy Scipioni, his former housekeeper, who stopped working for Prince after her father died. Prince’s demo version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a gorgeously stormy soul ballad, though it now sounds like a cover. Prince never released that version during his lifetime. Maybe the song’s raw-nerve vulnerability didn’t fit with what he was trying to project in the Purple Rain era. Or maybe Prince just had too many great songs. Maybe he didn’t recognize a masterpiece even after he’d written it.

Prince gave “Nothing Compares 2 U” to the Family, a new band that he’d put together and signed to his Paisley Park label. The Time, the great funk band who’d just played the villains in Prince’s Purple Rain movie, had broken up, and Prince put some members into this new act that he was assembling. At the time, Prince was dating Susannah Melvoin, the twin sister of the Revolution member Wendy, and he installed her as one of the Family’s two lead singers alongside Paul Peterson, who went by Saint Paul. Prince wrote almost every song on the Family’s self-titled 1985 debut, and he also co-produced the record.

Saint Paul sang lead on the Family’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but the song never came out as a single. Only one of the Family’s singles made the Hot 100. (“The Screams Of Passion” peaked at #63.) The album tanked, and Saint Paul left the band. Prince dissolved the Family, and most of the other members of the group joined the Revolution, which wouldn’t last too much longer. The Family are a mostly-forgotten footnote these days, but they’re the reason that Sinéad O’Connor got ahold of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

As with her debut, O’Connor produced I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. For a few songs, she had co-producers. On her version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” O’Connor worked with Nellee Hooper, a former member of the post-punk band Maximum Joy. At the time, Hooper was having huge success with the London group Soul II Soul. (Hooper co-wrote and co-produced Soul II Soul’s biggest hit, 1989’s “Back To Life,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 10.) In her version of the song, O’Connor worked with Hooper to completely switch up the arrangement.

There’s no R&B in O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” In her hands, the song becomes a desperate, heart-wrecked dirge. O’Connor surrounds her own voice with synth-strings and gauzy ahhh-ahhhs. I’m guessing Hooper had something to do with the drums, a towering in-the-pocket stomp that utterly transfixed me the other night when I was listening on headphones while high. I don’t think I’m stretching too much when I compare those drums to the shit that John Bonham did on the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks.”

On O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the voice is the key. It’s the focus of everything. The whole arrangement seems to swirl around that voice, offering uplift and comfort. And Sinéad O’Connor sounds like she really, really needs uplift and comfort. As written, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a simple and direct heartbreak song, a howl of frustration from someone who badly regrets ending things, or allowing things to end. O’Connor’s interpretation elevates the song and transforms it into a mythic hymn on the same level of “Purple Rain,” a song that Prince would’ve written around the same time. (“Purple Rain” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

The choices that Sinéad O’Connor makes on “Nothing Compares 2 U” don’t sound like choices. They sound like a born singer operating on pure instinct. O’Connor’s voice, at full power, is a piercing wail-yodel, an elemental thing. On “Nothing Compares,” though, we only hear tiny snatches of O’Connor at peak capacity. Instead, she seems to gasp out the song chaotically, haphazardly. She starts out solemnly plainspoken: “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days since you took your love away.” She doesn’t stay that way. Things happen.

As the song builds, we hear different stages of devastation. There’s defiant anger: “I can eat my dinner in a fancy rest-uh-rawwwwnt.” A line later, there’s wrenching, guttural agony: “But nothin, I said nothin’, can take away these bluuuuueees.” Every word of the chorus — an uncommonly catchy chorus, at that — comes out as a primal yelp. As the song builds, and as the music slowly circles O’Connor, she dips and whirls through feral need and desolate emptiness and flickering hope. When she mentions her doctor telling her to go have fun, she makes it clear that she and her doctor are speaking different languages. Her doctor couldn’t possibly understand what she’s going through. Nobody could. O’Connor’s voice, more than the words she’s singing, makes that clear. It’s an all-timer of a performance even before the moment that O’Connor sings about her mother.

Sinéad O’Connor’s abusive mother died in a car wreck in 1986, when O’Connor was 19. The song’s key line, as written by Prince, is this: “All the flowers that you planted in the backyard, mama, all died when you went away/ I know that living with you, baby, was sometimes hard, but I’m willing to give it another try.” That’s the moment where O’Connor cries those real, unplanned tears in the “Nothing Compares 2 U” video. As she filmed it, she thought about her mother. Whether or not you know that, “Nothing Compares 2 U” isn’t just a song about breaking up and wanting to make up. It’s about deep, annihilating loss, and about trying to scrape yourself together enough to live your life, not being sure whether you can. It’s an absolute emotional gut-ripper of a song, and it’s amazing, in retrospect, that it became a global smash.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” did become a global smash, topping the charts in the UK and Canada and Australia and all around Europe, as well as the US. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got knocked Bonnie Raitt’s Nick Of Time off the top of the Billboard album charts, and it stayed there for seven weeks and went double platinum. “Nothing Compares 2 U” won the award for Video Of The Year at the VMAs, beating out flashier clips from Madonna and Don Henley and Aerosmith. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is a very, very good album, but it’s not exactly packed with hits. O’Connor’s follow-up single “The Emperor’s New Clothes” peaked at #60, and then she never made the Hot 100 again after that.

Sinéad O’Connor had never met Prince when her version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” came out. When she did meet him, it was weird and bad. In her memoir Rememberings, published earlier this year, O’Connor wrote that Prince invited her to his Hollywood mansion. They got into an argument over cussing. Prince said that O’Connor should stop using foul language in interviews, and O’Connor told him to fuck off. She says that Prince suggested a pillowfight and then hit her with something hard that he’s slipped into a pillowcase. She also says he chased her out of his house, driving after her down a highway.

Talking to the Belfast Telegraph a couple of years ago, O’Connor said, “I thought Prince would fall in love with me and it would all be lovely, but he was the most frightening human being I ever met in my life, even more frightening than my mother.” Talking to People earlier this year, though, O’Connor said that she “sobbed” when Prince died: “The price you pay for being so successful is an awful, aching loneliness, and I think he was terribly lonely, terribly vulnerable. The loneliness of fame, I think, was his undoing.”

Sinéad O’Connor knows that loneliness more than most. In the years after “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the image of Sinéad O’Connor came to overwhelm the woman’s music. The first feeding frenzy came when O’Connor wouldn’t let a New Jersey venue play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a performance. Local politicians called for boycotts, and some radio stations banned her music. Playing the same venue soon afterwards, Frank Sinatra told the crowd, “She should leave the country. Her behavior is unforgivable. For her sake, we’d better never meet.” O’Connor stayed away from the Grammy Awards, and she cancelled Saturday Night Live booking after learning that Andrew “Dice” Clay was that week’s host. This probably goes without saying, but I think O’Connor was totally right about all of this.

In the shitstorm that followed a couple of years later, O’Connor was also totally right. In 1992, O’Connor finally did perform on Saturday Night Live. During the show, O’Connor sang a powerful a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War.” At the end of the song, after singing the word “evil,” she held a picture of Pope John Paul II up to the camera, and she tore it to shreds, saying, “Fight the real enemy.”

O’Connor’s performance was an explicit statement against the epidemic of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Nobody was trying to hear that. The photo that O’Connor tore up was the one that had hung on her mother’s wall before she died. Nobody was trying to hear that, either. It would be years before the church even acknowledged that this abuse was happening. SNL cut O’Connor’s act from the West Coast edition of the show that aired a couple of hours later, and they banned O’Connor from the show going forward. Hosting SNL a week later, Joe Pesci held up a photo of the Pope that had been taped back together. After the crowd applauded, Pesci said, “I mean, why should I let it bother me, right? It wasn’t my show; it was Tim Robbins’ show. But I’ll tell you one thing. She was very lucky it wasn’t my show. ‘Cause if it was my show, I woulda gave her such a smack.” Big laughs. Applause.

(Later on that year, Madonna was also on SNL, and she tore up a picture of Joey Buttafuoco while saying, “Fight the real enemy.” Madonna can be so aggravating.)

A couple of weeks after her SNL appearance, Sinéad O’Connor was one of the guests at an all-star Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden. O’Connor was supposed to sing Dylan’s “I Believe In You,” but the crowd at the Garden booed her loudly and mercilessly, and she responded by singing Marley’s “War” again in a moment of transcendent courage. As far as I can tell, Kris Kristofferson was the only person in the building that night who treated her like a human being. Watching Sinéad O’Connor sing that night, you have to ask yourself if you’d ever be brave enough to do anything like that if you were in her shoes.

Sinéad O’Connor was 23 when “Nothing Compares 2 U” reached #1, and she was 25 when she stepped out on that stage at Madison Square Garden. Her life was difficult before fame, and it was difficult after. There is no rational response to all of that, and it’s important to keep that in mind when looking at the rest of O’Connor’s career. “Nothing Compares 2 U” probably would’ve been a one-off even without that whole circus; Sinéad O’Connor was never meant to be a populist entertainer. But she continued to make a whole lot of very good music in the years that followed. She’s still got a solid career as a recording artist. Considering what happened in her first few years, that alone is pretty incredible.

O’Connor toured on the Lollapalooza mainstage in 1995, playing a mid-afternoon slot in between Beck and Pavement. (By the time I got to Lollapalooza in West Virginia that summer, O’Connor had dropped off the tour because of pregnancy, and Elastica had replaced her.) That same year, O’Connor also teamed up with the Chieftans for a fiery cinematic version of the Irish traditional “Foggy Dew.” These days, I feel like I hear “Foggy Dew” pretty often. Conor McGregor uses it as entrance music for his UFC fights, and O’Connor sang him to the ring in 2015. When I saw the Dropkick Murphys with Rancid last month, the Murphs’ entrance music was “Foggy Dew,” followed by Quint singing “Spanish Ladies” in Jaws. It’s wild to think that Sinéad O’Connor has now ascended into the realm of touristy Irish kitsch.

Sinéad O’Connor has kept working. She’s recorded with Massive Attack and Peter Gabriel and U2 and Mary J. Blige. She played the Virgin Mary in The Butcher Boy. O’Connor has also been extremely forthright about her struggles with mental health, and it’s clear that those years in the spotlight took a toll on her. She’s been married and divorced a bunch of times, and she’s also retired and unretired a few times. She’s also changed her name twice — first to Magda Davitt in 2017 and then to Shuhada Sadaqat after she converted to Islam a year later. (She still performs under the Sinéad O’Connor name.)

Sinéad O’Connor has endured levels of public hate generally reserved for mass murderers, and she has emerged out the other side. For that, she’s a hero. You don’t have to be a hero to make a great pop song. Most of the people who have made great pop songs are not heroes. But Sinéad O’Connor is a different kind of person, and “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a different kind of song.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the ska-punk version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that Me First And The Gimme Gimmes released in 2003:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2014, Aretha Franklin released a weird, jazzy take on “Nothing Compares 2 U” that was produced by OutKast’s André 3000. Here it is:

(Aretha Franklin has already appeared in this column a couple of years. As a member of OutKast, André 3000 will eventually be here, too.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Shortly after Prince’s death in 2016, a whole lot of people covered “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Here, for example, is the aforementioned Madonna opening that year’s Billboard Music Awards by performing the song:

Maxwell sang “Nothing Compares 2 U” at the BET Awards and on Jimmy Kimmel. Those videos aren’t up online anymore, but here’s a good video of him singing it at a New York show:

Coldplay covered “Nothing Compares 2 U” at a Los Angeles show, and for some reason, they invited James Corden up to sing it with them:

Chris Cornell sang an acoustic “Nothing Compares 2 U” in a SiriusXM session:

Liz Phair sang “Nothing Compares 2 U” at a New Orleans show:

(Liz Phair’s highest-charting single, 2003’s “Why Can’t I,” peaked at #32. Chris Cornell’s biggest hit as a solo artist, the 2006 Bond theme “You Know My Name,” peaked at #79. Mostly because of ’90s chart weirdness, Cornell only reached the Hot 100 once with Soundgarden, whose 2010 single “Black Rain” peaked at #96. As a member of Audioslave, though, Cornell got to #31 with 2003’s “Like A Stone.” Maxwell’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “Fortunate,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8. Coldplay will eventually appear in this column. Madonna has been in this column a bunch of times already, and she’ll be back very soon.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In a Google commercial that aired during the 2017 Grammys, people like Brandi Carlile, Sampha, and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner sang “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Here’s the ad:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2017 This Is Us episode where someone who isn’t Chrissy Metz sings “Nothing Compares 2 U”:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Calloway’s uncomfortably relatable dance-funk jam “I Wanna Be Rich” peaked at #2 behind “Nothing Compares 2 U.” It’s an 8.

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