Sinéad O’Connor Dead At 56
Sinéad O’Connor has died, as The Irish Times reports. No cause of death has been reported. O’Connor was 56.
Sinéad O’Connor was born in Dublin, and she grew up in an abusive upper-class family in the suburb of Glenageary. Her mother died in a car accident when O’Connor was 18. When she was a teenager, O’Connor’s parents sent her to live in a Catholic boarding school, known as a Magdalene asylum, after she was caught shoplifting. One of the volunteers at the school was Paul Byrne, drummer for the Dublin band In Tua Nua. Byrne heard O’Connor sing, and he invited O’Connor to work with the band, though she never joined because Byrne’s bandmates believed she was too young. At 17, O’Connor co-wrote and sang In Tua Nua’s 1984 single “Take My Hand,” which became a top-20 hit in Ireland.
In 1984, O’Connor placed an ad in the Dublin monthly Hot Press. Through the ad, she met the musician Colm Farrelly, and the two of them formed a band called Ton Ton Macoute. She also sang “Heroine,” a song from U2 guitarist the Edge’s soundtrack for the 1986 movie Captive. Nigel Grainge, the founder of the UK label Ensign Records, signed Ton Ton Macoute, and he sent O’Connor to record a demo with the Waterboys’ Karl Wallinger. Because of that demo, Grainge signed O’Connor as a solo artist, and Ton Ton Macoute broke up. Grainge wanted O’Connor to grow her hair out. In response, she shaved it off, and her buzzcut remained her signature look for the rest of her life.
When she became a solo artist, Sinéad O’Connor moved to London, and she released her debut album The Lion And The Cobra in 1987. When it came out, she was 20 years old, and she was pregnant with her first child. The album’s stark but omnivorous sound, its confrontational political lyrics, and O’Connor’s unearthly yelp of a voice made The Lion And The Cobra a critical favorite, and her single “Mandika” became a minor UK hit. In the US, the album went gold.
O’Connor’s second album, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, included her version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song that Prince wrote for his proteges the Family five years earlier. O’Connor’s cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” recorded with producer Nellee Hooper, became a gigantic, dominant hit across the world, reaching #1 in many countries, including the US and the UK. In her memoir, O’Connor later wrote that Prince was abusive to her the one time that they met. The song’s video — almost entirely an unbroken close-up of O’Connor’s striking face, with a single teardrop sliding down her cheek at a climactic moment — was instantly iconic. Pop songs simply don’t get much richer or more powerful than O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which was even more musically adventurous than The Lion And The Cobra, didn’t have any other hits on the level of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” though some of the other songs, including the single “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” are classics of the era. The album went double platinum, and O’Connor became massively famous. She caused a minor controversy when she refused to let a venue play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a show in New Jersey, but that was nothing compared to what happened when O’Connor appeared on Saturday Night Live.
In 1992, when she was the musical guest on SNL Sinéad O’Connor sang a stark a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” and then she held a photo of Pope John Paul II up to the camera, saying “fight the real enemy” while tearing it up. O’Connor did this as a statement against the Catholic church’s sexual abuses, but the media treated her act as if it was a pointless and disgusting outrage. SNL pulled O’Connor’s performance from its West Coast feed and then banned her from the show, attempting to bury the footage. The next week, guest host Joe Pesci held up that photo of the Pope, taped back together, and joked that he would’ve smacked O’Connor if she’d done that while he was hosting. The studio audience laughed and applauded.
A few weeks later, O’Connor was a guest at an all-star salute to Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden. The audience booed her mercilessly, making it impossible for her to sing the Dylan cover that she had planned. Instead, she stood defiant and sang “War” again as abuse rained down on her. The backlash against O’Connor came very close to destroying her career, and it left her visibly affected going forward. O’Connor’s 1992 album Am I Not Your Girl? flopped, and she essentially became a cult artist from then on.
O’Connor continued to work. She worked with Bono and Gavin Friday on “You Made Me The Thief Of Your Heart,” her song for the soundtrack of the 1993 movie In The Name Of The Father. She recorded a famous 1995 version of “The Foggy Dew,” the traditional Irish folk song, with the Chieftans. She joined the Lollapalooza tour in 1995, though she dropped out partway through after she became pregnant again. She played the Virgin Mary in Neil Jordan’s 1997 film The Butcher Boy.
In the ’00s, Sinéad O’Connor recorded with artists like Wyclef, Dave Stewart, and reggae greats Sly & Robbie. Later on, she also collaborated with people like Mary J. Blige and Massive Attack. A few times, she announced retirements, and then she walked those retirements back. When she converted to Islam in 2018, she took the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat, though she continued to perform and record as Sinéad O’Connor. In 2021, her album No Veteran Dies Alone, slated to be her final LP, had its release delayed because of the pandemic; it still hasn’t come out. That same year, she also published her memoir Rememberings. Last year, she was the subject of the documentary Nothing Compares, which debuted at Sundance, though Prince’s estate blocked the film from using “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Last year, Sinéad O’Connor cancelled her touring plans when her 17-year-old son Shane died by suicide. Her final recording, a version of the folk traditional “The Skye Boat Song,” came out in February as part of the soundtrack of the TV show Outlander.
Below, check out some of Sinéad O’Connor’s work.