“Remember what I told you, if they hated me they will hate you.” This line from the song Black Boys on Mopeds, which appears on Sinéad O’Connor’s second studio album, perhaps best describes the general public’s attitude towards the singer during the height of her career in the 1990s.
O’Connor, who died in late July, has always been defined by her willingness to speak out against political, religious and social injustices, both through her lyrics and through public protest. Though many of us weren’t alive when it happened, the first thing we think of when we hear O’Connor’s name is her tearing up a photograph of Pope John Paul II during a performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992.
The singer, who herself had experienced religious abuse in a Magdalene Asylum, was perhaps the first victim of “cancel culture” as a result of her actions. O’Connor stated herself that her 18-month-long experience in High Park, Drumcondra, which she described as a “prison”, was one of the driving forces behind the call for people to “fight the real enemy” on that infamous night in 1992. Following the incident, the singer’s CDs were publicly steamrolled in New York’s Time Square, Frank Sinatra claimed he would “kick her ass”, and she was booed by a crowd in Madison Square Garden before her performance at a Bob Dylan tribute concert.
A lot has changed since then, and floods of evidence to support O’Connor’s claims about the Catholic Church have come to light since her public outburst. While in recent years many quietly acknowledged that the singer was ahead of her time when it came to her beliefs and ideas, conversations around the dinner table continued to conclude that she was crazy, be that for her decision to speak out against the Catholic Church, her struggles with mental illness, or simply because of her shaved head.
While in recent years many quietly acknowledged that the singer was ahead of her time when it came to her beliefs and ideas, conversations around the dinner table continued to conclude that she was crazy
It was because of this that when I opened Instagram on the day of her death, I was surprised by the sudden outpour of tributes to the late Nothing Compares 2 U singer, with many sharing stunning black and white photographs of the singer, showcasing her iconic striking eyes and captivating stare. I joined the many people sharing such photos, posting a youthful photo of the singer, alongside my favourite song of hers, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
It got me thinking, though. Where was this love for Sinéad O’Connor the week before? The hatred for O’Connor ran so deep within the media that she published a full page advertisement in the Irish Times in 1993, asking people, “do you think you could stop hurting me? / It is suffocating me. / Please?” Within the page 9 advertisement, she told people that she represents a group of people who lost their childhood at the hands of the Catholic Church, and called on the general public to have more empathy for people like her.Illustration: Jessie Huang for Trinity News
Where was this love for Sinéad O’Connor the week before?
Immediately following her death, media outlets released articles upon articles praising O’Connor for her bravery, her lyrics and her ideas. The front page of The New York Times referred to her as a “pop singer who bared her soul”, while The Irish Independent dedicated six pages inside their newspaper to pay tribute to her. Perhaps if such reverence was present during her lifetime, the singer would not have to resort to publishing an advertisement in a national newspaper calling for people to treat her with respect.
Perhaps if such reverence was present during her lifetime, the singer would not have to resort to publishing an advertisement in a national newspaper calling for people to treat her with respect.
I think that it’s also important to note the choice in photographs used alongside the tributes paid to the singer. The covers of the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner and the Irish Daily Mail amongst others chose youthful photos of the singer for their front cover coverage of her death. Many of us, including myself, chose similar images for our social media tributes. It is difficult to find a tribute that shows a more recent image of the singer.
The images that we chose to represent O’Connor are indicative of a wider issue that needs to be addressed. It begs the question, is radicalism and protest only socially acceptable when it is packaged as something aesthetically pleasing? This is not a new phenomenon.
It begs the question, is radicalism and protest only socially acceptable when it is packaged as something aesthetically pleasing?
Many feminist issues have been diluted to pink notebooks that have words such as “girlboss” engraved on the cover, colourful posters with empowering quotes, and self-help books that encourage women to pursue commercial and professional interests.
It should also be noted, within the lack of recent images of O’Connor used in tributes, is a lack of images of her wearing the hijab. The singer converted to Islam in 2018 and regularly posted photos of herself wearing the hijab.
It’s no surprise that many of us chose such images to pay tribute to the singer. Many of the issues that O’Connor represented are uncomfortable for us to talk about. It’s easier, and more socially acceptable, to hide behind a photograph of a conventionally beautiful woman, rather than to actually talk about the issues that she advocated for throughout her career.
In this sense, we are letting O’Connor down. Just as she pointed out how the Catholic Church hides behind stunning iconography and sculptures, we too are hiding behind aesthetics. Like the Church, we too are sweeping serious issues under the rug, in order to protect our own reputation. Speaking of the SNL incident, O’Connor claimed that her goal was to “force a conversation where there was a need for one.” The sudden redemption of the late singer’s career following years and years of abuse by the media and the public is evidence that the types of conversations that O’Connor was encouraging still need to take place.
Just as she pointed out how the Catholic Church hides behind stunning iconography and sculptures, we too are hiding behind aesthetics.
The problems that have emerged from the tributes paid to O’Connor, and the evident disconnect between the discourse surrounding her career before and after her death, is proof that while Ireland has come so far since O’Connor’s 1992 controversy, we still have very far to go.
The singer’s words in her 1993 Irish Times advertisement still ring true today. “When we mock the expression of human feeling. / When we scoff at the sound of our children’s keening. / There is a mirror into which we are not looking.” All of us must look in the mirror and address our personal prejudices towards the way in which we discuss female artists, both during their life and after they pass.