Sinéad O’Connor has died. She was 56. I don’t usually get torn up about celebrity deaths — these people are complete strangers, after all — but I’ll admit this one makes me sad. You see, for 35 years I’ve considered Sinéad O’Connor my “soul artist”. Her music moves me.

I first heard Sinéad during my freshman year of college. As near as I can remember, it was Thanksgiving or Christmas break 1987. I know there weren’t many kids in the dorm. I was around, though, as was E. Alanna Malone, the funky chick who lived next door. Alanna and I hung out together one evening, and she played a new casette tape with a sound like nothing I’ve ever heard before. That tape was The Lion and the Cobra by Sinéad O’Connor.

I was taken aback by Sinéad’s music initially. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. I thought it was weird. But as a fan of Irish pop/rock — U2 was my favorite band at the time — I gave Sinéad a chance. Before long, I’d moved past the “weirdness” of The Lion and the Cobra and embraced it as something truly amazing.

To this day, the song “Jackie” — which opens the album — is one of my favorites to beller. (I have a playlist called “beller” and this was the first song I put on it.) When the mood strikes me, I crank up the music and wail this along with Sinéad. It’s a haunting song of love and loss that gains momentum over its short length (not even 2.5 minutes!). (Years later when I was taking Spanish lessons, I came to love the song “En el muelle de San Blas” by Mexican band Maná. It has a similar theme and feel. I almost think it’s intentional.)

As much as I love “Jackie”, though, the standout on The Lion and the Cobra is “Troy”, another song of love and loss. “Troy” starts soft and slow, like a distant memory. But during its 6.5-minute length, the song builds and it builds and it builds until it’s a bitter, ferocious anthem foreshadowing Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughtta Know”, which was still eight years off.

“I will rise. And I will return. THE PHOENIX FROM THE FLAME! I have learned. I will rise. And you’ll see me return. Being what I am, there is no other Troy for me to burn.”

Let me be clear: All of The Lion and the Cobra is good, but these two songs stand out.

Two years later, Sinéad released her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. I was a college junior when the record was released, and I was in a different place in life. Still, Sinéad spoke to me. Everyone else loved her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”, but I thought it was one of the weakest songs on the album. Me? I liked “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”, “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance”, and “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got”.

But of all the songs on the album — of all Sinéad’s songs across the years — the one that grabbed me most was “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is, was, and always be like a personal manifesto for me. Her worldview in this is my worldview. Sure, we have different life experiences, no doubt. But it’s like she is speaking directly to me with this song. Or directly for me.

Here are the lyrics (with bold emphasis for the bits that mean the most to me today.

Everyone can see what’s going on
They laugh ’cause they know they’re untouchable
Not because what I said was wrong
Whatever it may bring
I will live by my own policies
I will sleep with a clear conscience
I will sleep in peace

Sinéad O’Connor’s third album in 1992 got shitty reviews, but I never understood why. Am I Not Your Girl? is an album of pop standards, filled with songs made famous by Doris Day, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and more. I thought Sinéad’s voice and style were perfect for this material; others disagreed.

It was about this time that Sinéad famously tore up a photo of the Pope while performing on Saturday Night Live. Today, this would barely merit a mention. Thirty years ago, that act destroyed her career. (Never mind that history has vindicated her.)

Sinéad’s 1994 album, Universal Mother, was laser focused on her new role as a parent. Songs like “My Darling Child”, “All Babies”, and “John I Love You” showed a softer, maternal side of her. Still, Sinéad’s fire was never going to be quenched. Her passion blazed, burning up tracks like “Fire on Babylon”, a song about child abuse.

After this album, Sinéad was dormant for many years. I listened to her first four records again and again and again. Nowadays, I pretty much have Taylor Swift on repeat. I didn’t listen to Sinéad that much, but I listened to her a lot. And when she released Faith and Courage in 2000, I bought it right away.

Faith and Courage is a mixed bag for me — she was entering her deeply religious phase — but it did contain two standout songs: “No Man’s Woman” and “Daddy I’m Fine”. Both of these songs are classic passionate Sinéad. (“Daddy I’m Fine” was co-written with Dave Stewart, one half of the Eurythmics.)

“Daddy I’m Fine” is another Sinéad anthem about being STRONG. She was, as she says, a strong independent pagan woman singing. And when she sang, she helped me feel strong too.

I got myself a big fat plan
Gonna be a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band
And I’m gonna change everything I can
Sorry to be disappointing
Wasn’t born for no marrying
Wanna make my own living singing
Strong independent Pagan woman singing

For a long time, I felt like I was the only Sinéad fan left in the world. I’ve never met anyone in Real Life who liked her music as much as I do. But that’s the magic of the internet, right? Over the past ten years, I’ve learned there are plenty of us who appreciate what Sinéad O’Connor did.

Here’s a typical YouTube comment on one of her videos: “This song is so incredible. This woman is so incredible. This album is so incredible. Hands down one of the most overlooked artists in modern music. She is a hero. Maybe one day one people will see her as such.”


I think the reason Sinéad never found widespread success beyond “Nothing Compares 2 U” is simple. She was decades ahead of her time. If she were recording the same music today, if she were a star today, she’d fit in. She might be huge. (As much as I love TSwift, I often think that Sinéad did it first — and better.) But O’Connor was twenty to thirty years early with her music and message. The world wasn’t ready.

Well, that’s not quite true. I was ready. I loved her music. I heard her message. And judging from the eulogies I’m reading today, I’m not the only one. Sinéad O’Connor was singing to an almost-invisible group of folks. She gave us strength. She still gives us strength today.

See also: “Sinéad O’Connor remembers things differently” at The New York Times (gift article).

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