‘Nothing compares’ makes a compelling argument for Sinead O’Connor’s canonization
According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, an “iconoclast” is one who (1) “attacks established beliefs or institutions” and (2) “destroys religious images or opposes their veneration”. It is derived from the Greek word eikonoklastēs, which translates to “image destroyer”. Few artists have embodied the word as fully as Irish singer and songwriter, Sinead O’Connor. Her shaved head and butch fashion sense redefined ideas of female beauty, her music exposed institutional injustices and, among other headline-grabbing incidents, she literally destroyed religious images, including tearing a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live to protest against the child sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church.
Showtime’s new documentary Nothing compares was directed by award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson, born in Belfast, and makes a compelling case for O’Connor’s canonization as one of the most important female artists of our time. Drawing primarily on archival footage and voice-over interviews, it focuses on his actions in relation to his music and examines the impact they had on his career. Mocked and vilified in her time, she was ahead of the curve on social issues and helped lay the foundations for today’s artists, women or not, for whom artistic autonomy and responsibility are self-evident.
For O’Connor, music was a form of therapy. “I just wanted to scream,” she tells us. Nothing compares doesn’t get lost in the weeds of every personal detail, but after her parents divorced, she suffered physical and mental abuse from her mother. Even now she calls her mother, who died in 1985, “a beast”, but also blames the Catholic Church in Ireland, which she prosaically calls “the coals of my abuse”.
After its hard-won independence from Britain, the Catholic Church wielded a powerful influence in the Republic of Ireland. His conservative attitudes toward women and their reproductive rights were increasingly out of step with a rapidly modernizing world. At the age of 15, O’Connor spent 18 months in one of the infamous Magdalene laundries run by the Church of Ireland, where so-called “fallen women”, including single mothers or rebellious teenage girls, were held in workhouses against their will. The last closed in 1996, according to Irish weather.
After taking her first musical steps in Dublin, O’Connor moved to London, where she was exposed to Rastafarianism and the LGBTQ community, both of which helped broaden her view of the political world. While working on her debut album, she shaved her head and became pregnant, much to the dismay of her record label and management. O’Connor explains that having previously fled a patriarchal society, she wasn’t going to let men dictate the terms of her appearance, lifestyle, or music.
O’Connor’s debut was a hit in the UK and a modest success in the US. Its sequel, 1990s I don’t want what I don’t have, made her an international superstar thanks to the Prince-penned single “Nothing Compares 2 U” and its iconic music video. While we learn at the end of the film that the estate of Prince denied its use in the film, it is not missed. It should be noted that O’Connor wrote the majority of the material on his ten albums.
As O’Connor’s profile grew, so did public scrutiny of him. 1992 Saturday Night Live The incident was not the first time she made a political statement for all to see, but it would change the trajectory of her career forever. As she was roasted by the media and mocked by her fellow artists (really Madonna?), history would prove that his anger was justified. Keep in mind, this was before widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests and attempts by the church to cover it up became public knowledge.
The backlash against O’Connor came to a head two weeks later at a Bob Dylan 30th birthday concert in Madison Square Garden. Staring at an arena full of angry baby boomers, nearly drowning in their boos, the slender 26-year-old delivers a hellish rendition of Bob Marley’s “War,” the same number she sang on SNL. The images are absolutely captivating, with O’Connor looking more like a modern-day Joan of Arc than the sanctimonious kid she painted back then.
O’Connor says she remembers little of the next ten years. Besides the fallout from her SNL appearance, she was still dealing with her past abuse. Although subsequent albums did quite well, she was never able to repeat her second hit but has no regrets. Considering herself part of a long line of Irish artist agitators, she is an equal opportunity agitator whether she speaks out against American racism, British imperialism or Irish sexism.
Avoiding the sensationalized details of Sinead O’Connor’s tumultuous personal life or examining his entire career, Nothing compares successfully brings its long-term influence into greater focus. The film ends with a montage, suggesting that her legacy can be found in the 2018 repeal of Ireland’s abortion ban, Russian feminist punks Pussy Riot and non-binary activist X González. As O’Connor says, “They tried to bury me. They didn’t realize I was a seed.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York-based writer, producer, and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.