Sinéad O'Connor was our freedom singer, our keener and our feminist killjoy
Many of the tributes to rock icon Sinéad O'Connor, who died last week at 56, revisit the greatest hits of her four decades of controversies and scandals. But in the past week, I've found myself returning to a less controversial (and lesser seen) performance: O'Connor's 1993 take on Sebastian Temple's "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace," otherwise known as the Prayer of Saint Francis, performed live on Ireland's The Late, Late Show.
Dressed uncharacteristically in long black wig, evening dress, purple feather cuffs and a full face of make-up (she'd just received a celebrity "makeover" to help promote a fundraiser for children and refugees who'd been victimized by the war in Yugoslavia), she impulsively pivots from the number she'd planned to perform to deliver the a cappella hymn instead. O'Connor's rendition, sung in a pure, lilting soprano, is both a personal and communal offering — a gift, a reconciliatory healing. She'd perform the same tune that week as a headliner at Peace '93, a Dublin rally to protest an IRA bombing in England that killed two children and wounded numerous others, and later for a 1997 Princess Diana memorial compilation album.
She was our freedom singer
"Make Me a Channel of Your Peace" serves as a reminder that Sinéad O'Connor was, at her core, what we might describe as a "freedom singer." I'm not suggesting that she had any direct connection to The Freedom Singers, the well-known Black civil rights musical group of the 1960s who were connected to SNCC and promoted by Pete Seeger. But in the spirit of '60s folk luminaries like Joan Baez and Odetta, and protest musicians she loved like Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley, O'Connor grew into her role as a healer whose greatest gift was to deliver mournful songs of lament and original tunes of personal and collective liberation. Many of her songs strove to soothe suffering and remedy trauma, to play as a moral soundtrack to human rights struggles, particularly those on 1994's Universal Mother and 1997's Gospel Oak EP. The great tragedy is that for much of her career, O'Connor suffered privately and publicly: Just like musicians ranging from Little Richard to Lil Peep, she was never fully able to unburden herself from trauma in the way her music may have helped others unburden themselves.
O'Connor's audacious 1987 debut The Lion and the Cobra rides on that uneasy tension between suffering and liberation. Always a figure representing difference, she appeared beguilingly on the cover with shaven hair, in an era still dominated by hair metal excess and over-teased Dynasty hairdos. The album itself is an ecstatic avalanche of lyrical ideas about grief, Catholicism, sex and infidelity, featuring a wild array of sounds — including baroque epic pop meets Yeats-inspired romanticism ("Troy"), peppy rock ("Mandinka"), Celtic folk-rock experimentalism ("Never Get Old"), funky hip-hop ["I Want Your (Hands on Me)"] and electronic post-punk ("Jerusalem").
Marketed by her label as "alternative" while racking up mainstream visibility and sales, O'Connor helped bring — following Bono and Bob Geldof's earlier examples — distinctly Irish fury and melancholy into late '80s MTV-era pop. She had lot to be pissed off about: She'd spent her childhood emotionally and physically abused by her mother; she turned to shoplifting; at 15, she was sent to a reform school in a Magdalene asylum for "fallen wayward women" where she was tormented and degraded; and her mother died in a car accident when O'Connor was 18. (In her 2021 biography Rememberings, she claims that many of her original songs were in some way about her mother, including songs from her 1994 Universal Mother album like "Fire on Babylon" and "Tiny Grief Song.") O'Connor's rage wasn't just limited to her personal circumstances. She also was consumed with disdain at Britain's mistreatment of Ireland, and outraged over the domination and exploitation that resulted from systems of oppression like imperialism and colonialism. She carried all that swirling vehemence in her body and exorcised it through her howling music.
"I am Ireland," she once told a journalist. "Everything that has happened to Ireland has happened to me." O'Connor's aching voice somehow managed to both evoke that collective Irish trauma and the trembling emotion of her individual defiance. Some mainstream musicians treat political activism as little more than fashion. But O'Connor committed to a lifetime program of dissent, discontent and refusal against establishment evils. On dramatic songs like "Drink Before the War" and "Just Like U Said it Would B," her ethereal soprano could sound fragile one moment and feral the next. She used her impressive range as a weapon, sustaining lyrical long lines that were ferocious, torrential and volcanic — and at times disturbing. She had full access to a toolbox of vocal colors and textures: playing with pitches and trills, she could by turns sound gnarly, scowling, chilling, warm, delicate, irreverent, angry, hushed, blunt, unfiltered, assertive, abrasive, lusty, flirty, sexy, romantic, lovelorn and bitter. There were so many Sinéads to listen to.
She later referred to her unrestrained singing on The Lion and the Cobra as "ranting and raving." But by 1990, a decidedly more serene and self-content O'Connor — married to drummer John Reynolds with a 2-year-old son, Jake, in tow — emerged, just on the heels of the fall of the Iron Curtain and as Irish peace talks ramped up. That year, O'Connor's sophomore follow up, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, soared on semi-autobiographical tunes about messy relationships and psychological damage, all presented as a kind of public therapy.
On "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,'' O'Connor bluntly mourns the terminal end of a broken relationship: ''I'll meet you later in somebody's office / I'll talk but you won't listen to me.'' On "Three Babies," she spins a heart-wrenching elegy about the three miscarriages she suffered. And hard-rocking "Jump in the River" traces a co-dependent partnership ("If you said jump in the river I would / Because it would probably be a good idea") replete with sex so passionate there was "blood on the wall." O'Connor drew on the "personal is political" maxim more than any of her other peer pop stars at the time (even Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega were more insightful observationalists than spill-your-guts confessional poets). I've written before that O'Connor was a pioneer in diarizing her life in mainstream pop, helping to open up space for future generations of my-life-is-my-art "dark pop" stars to come like Amy Winehouse, Frank Ocean, SZA and Olivia Rodrigo.
O'Connor paired I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got's intimate lyricism with minimalist, deeply considered production. Her only cover on the album, the Prince-composed "Nothing Compares 2 U," became the album's massive hit and her career signature: It arrives on a barren soundscape of restrained, reverberant strings, like she's singing it while emerging from a fine mist. In an era where women received few opportunities to produce, it's worth remarking that O'Connor produced or co-produced many of her own albums, while also demystifying the members' club ethos of male-dominated studio recording. "Anybody can produce a record," she informed a journalist with her typical bluntness. "You just have to know what you want. I think producers are awfully overrated and overpaid."
She was our keener
O'Connor's connection to freedom singing also had a racial dimension. She may have looked like a skinhead wearing Dr. Martens, but she was a committed antiracist harboring a lifelong engagement with Blackness and Black people. In her autobiography, she writes lovingly about her childhood reverence for Muhammad Ali and getting to meet him as an adult. She also recalls how watching Alex Haley's Roots as a young girl made her feel a kindred affinity for the suffering of Black people. In fact, she lifted the title of 1987's "Mandinka" from Roots, though she clumsily referred to the Mandinka people as a "tribe" rather than a linguistic ethnic group; and beyond the title, her lyrics have little to do, as far as I can tell, with Africa. In early interviews, O'Connor mused about riding the subway to Harlem to shave her head in Black barbershops, and harboring a plan B of running away to live on a farm in Africa if her music career didn't work out.
O'Connor was musically intrepid — throughout her career, she felt free enough to sing styles ranging from Tin Pan Alley standards to country to Disney showtunes to torch songs to punk. But she pushed the envelope in her gravitation to Black music styles like R&B, hip-hop and roots reggae — atypical at the time for most alternative white rockers in a still segregated music industry. In 1988, she commissioned a hip-hop remix of "I Want Your (Hands on Me)" featuring rapper MC Lyte as well as a sample-heavy dance mix by Audio Two. (The MC Lyte remix also features a musical quotation of the rhythm track from Gwen Guthrie's "Peanut Butter," a DJ Larry Levan favorite at the classic nightclub Paradise Garage.) Her 1990 "I Am Stretched on Your Grave" is a Gaelic folk hip-hop mash-up; strange as it sounds, it's a reworking of 17th century Irish poem "Táim Sínte Ar Do Thuama" set to the James Brown "Funky Drummer" loop (played by Clyde Stubblefield) by way of the Bomb Squad sample for Public Enemy's "Security of the First World." That same year, she sported the Public Enemy logo in her buzzcut at the Grammys, and she'd recruit Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee to remix "The Emperor's New Clothes."
A devotee of all things reggae and deeply fond of Jamaican people, O'Connor was a lifelong Bob Marley fan, singing his music at her most infamous performances, and giving her son Shane (who sadly took his own life at 17) Marley's middle name Nesta. She paid out of her own pocket to record her 2005 reggae covers album Throw Down Your Arms with legendary producers Sly & Robbie at Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica.
O'Connor connected her interest in Black liberation to her Irish aesthetic sensibilities. Given her penchant for singing songs to honor the dead, she was a kind of pop star as "keener" — an Irish woman traditionally hired to wail and cry songs of lament at wakes and funerals. Her approach to the practice of keening is at the root of a stark, devastating ballad from I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, "Black Boys on Mopeds." The title refers to a 1989 incident in which the police mistakenly chased a Black teenager on a moped, Nicholas Bramble, leading him into a fatal crash. The song and album are dedicated to Colin Roach, a 21-year-old Black British man who died in 1983 from an allegedly police-inflicted gunshot wound. In her finely wrought lyric, O'Connor oscillates between geopolitical criticism ("Margaret Thatcher on TV / Struck by the deaths that took place in Beijing / It seems strange that she should be offended / The same orders are given by her") to intimate, personal sentiment ("I love my boy and that's why I'm leaving / I don't want him to be aware that there's any such things as grieving"). She dedicated I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got to Colin Roach's memory and included a photo of his parents in the album's inside artwork. Much of O'Connor's best songwriting gave her the space to keen, in a way that was decidedly woman-centric and matrifocal — even her debut, The Lion and the Cobra,was recorded while she was pregnant.
O'Connor could sometimes be an awkward ally. Her ill-advised, rhythmically challenged rap on 1994's "Famine" is an example of an endearing overstep. In 2019, after converting to Islam, she had to walk back an off-the-cuff tweet in which she said she didn't want to spend any more time with white people. But unlike some white artists who purport to be allies by trying to mimic Blackness or pretend to be Black for commercial gain, O'Connor was unabashedly Irish and most definitely white — not trying to be something she was not. Instead, she saw parallels between the historical suffering and transatlantic dispossession of Black people and Irish people and she reflexively deployed her music in an attempt to lay down cultural bridges.
She not only took on racism and child abuse — she also railed against organized religion, patriarchy, misogyny, war, fascism, Thatcher conservatism and class elitism of all kinds. Early on, she performed at key LGBT pride events, used her platform responsibly to support HIV research and AIDS organizations, and publicly supported trans rights. She refused to play Saturday Night Live in 1990 when misogynist comic Andrew Dice Clay was hired to host; and in 1991, she rescinded her Grammy nominations, protesting the materialism of the awards gathering. O'Connor's steadfast refusal to accept the status quo likely made it possible for generations of outcasts and misfits who had been wounded, damaged, abused, discarded and demoralized to pursue their own paths to healing — even if O'Connor herself struggled with her own self-esteem and mental health.
She was our feminist killjoy
I'd like to think of O'Connor as not just a freedom singer — performing for her own liberation as well as that of others — but as pop music's most consistent killjoy. I mean that in the sense of feminist scholar Sara Ahmed's brilliant theorization of the "feminist killjoy" — how women are often labeled as "the problem" when they bring up the problem, whether that problem happens to be sexism, homophobia, racism, or climate change (to name a few). Male rockers like Bono can be self-serious and self-righteous activists and, with few exceptions, are generally rewarded for it; women like O'Connor and The Chicks have been canceled or marginalized when they elect to be politically outspoken. Still, in 1991, O'Connor told NME, "I'm proud to be a troublemaker." That sentiment echoes and extends a lyric from "The Emperor's New Clothes": "I will live by my own policies, I will live with a clear conscience, I will sleep in peace." O'Connor envisioned a better world that did not yet exist, and she fought hard for it, even when audiences did not have the willingness or temerity to fight back for her when she needed it most.
In these dangerous days, when to live what you feel is to dig your own grave, the killjoy — the woman who's courageous enough to become a broken record, drawing our attention to injustice when most opt for cruel indifference — may be one version of the freedom singer who promises to liberate us all. In her music, O'Connor was a channel of peace who transcended worldly concerns and chose to elevate spirituality as the highest form of freedom. She wailed for the ghost of her abusive mother, for the ghosts of characters she made up in songs like "Jackie," for ghosts of real-life, young Black men killed senselessly by state forces, for Irish famine victims, and for so many others with whom she felt an empathetic connection. Now that she is gone, who will sing for Sinéad?
Jason King is the Dean of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California and the former Chair and founding faculty member of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.
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