Sinéad O’Connor’s Radical Honesty

Photo for The Washington Post by Lindsey Best
O’Connor at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on in 2020. “I don’t do shame.

In 2010, much to my surprise, Sinéad O’Connor agreed to be interviewed for a book I was writing about the first decade of MTV.

She’d mostly avoided interviews for years, but her manager Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh told me he would arrange a time for us to talk, and he added in his email, “I felt from the beginning that MTV was a racist s—hole that warranted burning down rather than building up.” I hadn’t yet learned that O’Connor had an agenda in talking to me, but I was learning that in her orbit, opinions were pithy, piquant, merciless and full of merrily deployed expletives.

O’Connor and I talked over Skype about her approach to videos and how she’d wanted to present herself. She said that after she’d signed her record contract, “two guys from the record company basically described their mistresses and decided I should look like them. My way of answering was to get my head shaved. I didn’t want to be pushed or advertised as some kind of pretty girl. And I didn’t want to be governed by middle-aged blokes telling me what I should look like.”

From the start of her career, O’Connor, whose death at age 56 was announced Wednesday, drew a clear line not just in the sand but in concrete. She would do things only according to her own plan, and persuasion would be futile. Most of us, in our daily lives and especially our jobs, make so many compromises that agreeing to buckle feels inevitable. It becomes so common, it’s no longer visible.

O’Connor’s stands could feel heroic to those of us who didn’t have her tenacity, and she stood up for vulnerable people as well as herself. She boycotted the Grammy Awards in 1991, partly because the awards in rap categories were not broadcast. She advocated for Muslims and LGBTQ+ people and donated clothes and makeup to a trans youth charity, so young trans women could “enjoy being female.”

But the music business, and most of the media world, is run by middle-aged blokes, so O’Connor fought a lot of battles she was going to lose, which didn’t stop her from continuing to fight. That friction, in addition to the abuse she said she’d suffered as a child at the hands of her mother, seemed to wear her down over the years. She wasn’t less fierce, but she was less visible and productive. When I talked to her, she was about halfway through an almost five-year break from recording.

During an hour-long conversation, O’Connor shared some tart opinions about ’80s acts, especially one in particular:

“Madonna did an interview at the time saying I had as much sex appeal as Venetian blinds. She and [comedian] Sandra Bernhard had this thing going on, for about a year, of being really nasty about me in magazines. A lot of their insults were about how I looked, as if being blond and having big t–s and a big a– and being sexually attractive were more important.”

At MTV’s Video Music Awards in 1990, O’Connor won the video of the year award over Madonna’s “Vogue.” Though she didn’t derive self-worth from awards or sales, the memory of that victory still delighted her. “I was quite pleased to beat her. I was pissed off about the things she’d said. It was funny, when we won the award, she was raging about it, because we f—ed her.”

That wasn’t the main thing she wanted to say to me, though. “Part of my interest in doing this interview with you was that really, I think MTV has quite a lot to answer for. You don’t have young people now saying, ‘I really want to be a singer.’ They say, ‘I really want to be famous.’ They’re getting a signal that to be someone, you need material wealth.” MTV, she added, should answer for poisoning kids, artists, and the entire culture with an emphasis on materialism and good looks.

And by implication, I’d be magnifying that pernicious influence unless I included negative critiques as harsh as hers. If MTV was trash, then a book about MTV would also be trash, and I was trash for writing it. I wasn’t insulted; I was charmed by her candor, intelligence and vulnerability, not to mention her joyous use of expletives.

In subsequent years, O’Connor’s troubles, struggles and tragedies played out in public. In 2012, she tweeted about her need to see a psychiatrist urgently, adding that she was “unwell” and “in danger.” In 2022, her son Shane, who was 17, died by suicide. A week later, O’Connor was admitted to the hospital after a series of tweets in which she wrote, “I’ve decided to follow my son. There is no point living without him.”

It sometimes felt like her earliest battles – against her mother, against the Catholic Church, against the rule of middle-aged blokes – were never resolved, and the world was too much for her, with its materialism and deceit. In Joyce Maynard’s novel, “Labor Day,” a father is describing his ex-wife to their son. “She felt everything too deeply,” the man says. “It was like she was missing the outer layer of skin that allows people to get through the day without bleeding all the time.” Life requires armor, and being a musician requires sturdy armor, but O’Connor didn’t have any protection, apart from her singing voice.

She told me that the video for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the keening 1990 single that turned her into a star, was kind of an accident. The director John Maybury had planned several scenes and setups, but when he filmed her singing directly into the camera, O’Connor began thinking about her mother and started to cry. Maybury used that startling, unblinking close-up shot as about 90 percent of the video, which established O’Connor as someone fearless, bereaved and exposed.

Two years later, she proved her fearlessness again when, during a performance on “Saturday Night Live,” she held up a photo of Pope John Paul II that had hung on her mother’s bedroom wall, tore it up and exclaimed, “Fight the real enemy,” which she intended as a protest of child abuse by Catholic clergy. Two weeks later, she was booed loudly at Madison Square Garden during a Bob Dylan tribute concert. She stood at her mic and stared down the boos for more than two minutes before singing.

Courage and integrity are often punished more than rewarded, especially for women. “She should leave the country,” Frank Sinatra said, before implying that if they ever met, he would hurt her. Actor Joe Pesci, who hosted SNL the next week, also joked about smacking her. Rolling Stone denounced her for insulting people’s religious beliefs. Protesters steamrolled her CDs and tapes in Times Square, and radio stations stopped playing her music. Long before the word was widely used, O’Connor was canceled – punished for her beliefs in a way Jason Aldean could never comprehend.

In 2009, the Irish government’s investigation into the Catholic Church resulted in the Murphy Report, which described the coverup of sexual abuse by priests. The church had known of the abuses but ignored them to protect its reputation, influence and property. Other similar reports followed, both in Ireland and elsewhere, which vindicated O’Connor. “She was proved right,” Harvard Law School clinical instructor Alejandra Caraballo tweeted Wednesday.

Early in her career, O’Connor was in the vanguard of identifying social dynamics – objectification, the male gaze, intersectionality, trans rights, allyship – that were only just emerging in public consciousness. Since Wednesday, social media has been full of tributes from people who were inspired by her and felt she’d stood up for them. Author Glennon Doyle even called her an “inconvenient prophet.”

Whatever positive social impact she had grew out of her music, O’Connor understood. “My records go into some pretty personal subjects,” she told me. “I don’t do shame. I have no qualms about being entirely emotionally honest. Singers perhaps feel things more than other people do, because if we didn’t, we would never bother our arse getting up to sing it. With singers, you can tell who’s honest and who isn’t.”

She’d wanted to denounce MTV because she hated the way it had deracinated an art form she considered more sacred than any holy relic. “I always say, a person should never make a record for any other reason than they’ll go f—ing crazy if they don’t get it out.”

I told her I was glad she’d been able to get it out instead of going crazy.

“Yeah, well, I did both,” she said with a laugh.