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Sinead O'Connor

Sinead O'Connor

Her battle cry changed a generation
Sinead O’Connor / Photograph: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

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She represented for me a kind of ideal for what a person could be. She once said, “I’m not a woman or a man — I am Sinead O’Connor.”

And now she is gone. And I am heartbroken. Because she deserved so much better. Because this world was not good enough for her. And it goes without saying she was a Gen X icon. She gave us so much. It sort of feels like she gave everything for us.

Sinead was nothing if not a one-woman revolution who struck a devastating blow to one of the patriarchy’s most powerful institutions: the Catholic Church and its vile history of child abuse.

She was a towering artist who carried the Gen X torch for those of us who were survivors of child abuse. She suffered a brutal childhood of her own in Ireland, but then she miraculously rose from the ashes of all that horror. And transformed herself into this exquisite, sublime songstress. (And to honor Sinead and what she did for those of us who belonged to that tribe of survivors, let me be clear: as a child I was routinely subjected to violent physical abuse. If you know what I’m talking about, love and solidarity to you.)

She showed us how to draw potent art from our wound. And her songs connected us to our own power. She seemed to live from a place of shattering vulnerability. But then she was this ferocious warrior poet too. She was so far ahead of her time, I bet clocks were afraid of her.

When Sinead ripped up that picture of the Pope on SNL that may have been the most courageous gesture anyone in our generation has ever done. At the time, America was fresh off its “victory” in the first Gulf War. That’s why on SNL she sang Bob Marley’s song War.

So let's listen to Sinead that night on SNL. (If you haven’t already, click on the podcast episode above to follow along.) You can hear when she winds down singing her version of Bob Marley’s song War.

What did we just hear? We heard a battle cry. She sings Bob Marley’s War and then she holds up the picture of the Pope and what we found out many years later - because remember this was pre-Internet - her mother had that picture of the Pope hanging on her bedroom wall. The same bedroom where Sinead’s mother had physically and sexually abused her. And when her mother died, Sinead took that photo of the Pope off the wall and tore it up on national TV.

Sinead O’Connor on SNL/Photo: Yvonne Hemsey

And the outrage and hate and violence directed back at Sinead was swift. Lorne Michaels banned her from ever performing on SNL again. Then next week on SNL, Joe Pesci, as host, called her out and said if he’d been there he would’ve given “her a smack.” And Frank Sinatra said he wanted to “kick her ass.”

Kurt Vonnegut had a theory about artists and their role in society: “I have the canary bird in the coal mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down into the mines with them to detect gas before people got sick. The artists certainly did that in the case of Vietnam. They chirped and keeled over.”

I think Sinead was our canary in the coal mine. Remember there was no Internet back then. So it was shocking to see her do that on live TV, but it's not like we could go online and watch Sinead rip up the photo 300 more times. And it’s not like we could then comment about it and post about it. It just became something you thought about a lot, the memory of it.

Two weeks after the SNL thing she performed at Madison Square Garden for a Bob Dylan Benefit concert. She walked out to the microphone on the stage in front of a huge crowd that instantly started booing her.

So here’s what you are about to hear. Sinead is standing there on stage in a blue shirt, in front of this massive crowd that is booing her. Then Sinead steps up to the microphone and starts singing with righteous fury Bob Marley’s song War. Let’s listen:

And THEN Sinead deviates from Bob Marley's lyrics and inserts her own source of suffering into the song.

Because she sings, “Child abuse, yeah! Child abuse, yeah!”

Then she switches to Marley’s lyrics “Subhuman bondage has been toppled.”

Then she switches to her lyrics, her story: “A girl is destroyed.”

Then she switches to Marley’s last lyric: “Everywhere is war!”

What had we just heard? It was a battle cry. But also an art lesson.

She ripped the ceiling off of my imagination that night. About what a person could do.

She was the canary in the coal mine. Just like Kurt Vonnegut said.

Decades later, she explained to The Guardian how ripping up that picture of the Pope on SNL had impacted her musical career in a positive way:

So where do we go from here? I will continue to mourn but in the process, and for me this is key, I will rededicate myself to the truth-telling that she showed us how to do.

I think she would be glad to know that her legacy gives us strength in the struggle.

Thank you, Sinead. Thank you.


Sinead O’Connor / Photo: Linda Brownlee

Hi, I’m Gabe Hudson, and this is Kurt Vonnegut Radio, my Substack. It will always be free, but it’s also how I pay for groceries. So please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $5/month or $50/year. You can also receive my eternal love by becoming a Lifetime Member at $150.

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