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The Emperor's New Clothes: Reflections on Sinead O'Connor

Sinead O'Connor
Photo Credit: Andrew Catlin

The Summer of 1990

Speeding down a rural highway from Seguine, Texas, back to Austin in my candyapple red pellet (brand new Geo Metro), a sound I had never heard before jolted me. It was the sound of righteous anger from a woman.

My introduction to Sinead O'Connor was a few months earlier, in the Spring of 1990, when Nothing Compares 2 U skyrocketed her to American pop music demigod status. I knew her album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got backward and forwards, having studied the liner notes meticulously. But I had not been exposed to her inaugural album The Lion and the Cobra until the day I was driving home from being a camp counselor at Texas Girls State.

As I shoveled gummy worms in my mouth and slurped a Slurpee while driving a stick shift car the size of a tic-tac, I hit the play button on my portable CD player. I wasn't prepared to hear what followed. The first song, Jackie, sent shivers down my spine. With each subsequent song, Sinead's voice ranged from haunting and aching to guttural and angry to soaring or sultry. Her fervor, temerity, and angst tore through me like a rip in the fabric of time.

I didn't understand all the lyrics and I didn't need to. I felt them. They were a range of feelings I hadn't been afforded the freedom to feel before. It was both disorienting and liberating at the same time.

A Prophet Isn't Known In Her Hometown

Earth was Sinead's hometown. The world wasn't ready for her. And most certainly, my childhood microcosm of the world couldn't handle her.

They laugh 'cause they know they're untouchable not because what I said was wrong.

I had been raised in a religious cult until I was 16, and listening to secular music was considered demonic. It wasn't until I left my childhood home in 1989 to live with my father that I could explore the sounds of my generation. Hence, her first album entirely bypassed me, not to mention it wasn't exactly a raging success in the United States.

I used to think about how extreme my childhood was compared to some others, but the truth of the matter is my formative years were but a weird refraction from the prevailing cultural ethos of the time. The recent documentary about Sinead's life, Nothing Compares, drives this home. Case in point...

Her choice of imagery for her debut album cover splayed open the fearless use of her greatest weapon: her voice. Naturally, it was rejected by American music moguls who deemed the public would reject it. So, a docile photo of her was used instead, exclusively in the American market. It's almost a wonder that it got produced at all with that thinking.

Swipe left to see the original European album cover.

The Lion and the Cobra was but a meek harbinger of the quake she would create that left a perpetual aftershock. By now, everyone knows the story. In 1992, she tore up the picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live in protest of the clerical sexual abuse of children. Thirteen days later, she was booed off stage at Madison Square Garden.

She continued to speak truth to power for the remainder of her career and life. But far too often, the world did not take kindly to her. Personal loss and tragedy took their toll as well. Whether by choice or destiny, she was a voice the world needed but didn't want. Throughout all of this, Sinead proved to be a spiritual sojourner grasping for ultimate peace and answers from somewhere other than the vacuum that can be this planet.

In my younger years, I remember being mildly judgmental of her experimenting with different faith systems– something I am remorseful about now. Today, I stand in awe of the courage and self-awareness she possessed from such a young age. Rather than slide into complacency or bitterness, Sinead O'Connor actively sought goodness and truth. Her life was a testament to Love.

She Was Right. Now What?

It's nearly impossible to pick a favorite song of hers– by the way, she wrote most of her own songs– but if I were, it would be The Emperor's New Clothes on her 1990 album. (Both quotes in this post are from that song.)

In this song, she calls out the ignorance and duplicity of those in power (subtext– the cover-up of child sex abuse within the Catholic church) while crafting a deeply personal narrative at the same time. Sheer brilliance. The song opens with the clack of drumsticks, followed by the vigorous strums on the electric guitar and the gravitational boom of the kick drum. And then a voice unique to her, simultaneously angelic and righteously indignant, glides right in. Its style is rocky-poppy perfection for this Gen X chick.

I mourn her passing with reverence. Her life was a perpetual yearning to reconcile a world that doesn't make sense. My heart hurts that darkness consumed her light. However, such an eclipse is only temporary. May her torch of truth, fearlessness, and Love be passed to the rest of us to carry with fortified conviction. The work of Love never ends.

I will sleep with a clear conscience. I will sleep in peace.

Rest in peace, beautiful soul, Sinead O'Connor.


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