Sinéad O’Connor, Irish singer of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ dies at 56


Sinéad O’Connor, an Irish singer-songwriter who sold millions of records in the 1990s with her ethereal ballads and rebellious anthems, all while defying expectations of how a female pop star should behave — shaving her head, speaking out about her mental health struggles, protesting the Catholic Church during a performance on live television — has died at 56.

Her family announced the death in a statement Wednesday, released to Irish media and viewed by The Washington Post. Additional details were not immediately available.

Declaring that she was “proud to be a troublemaker,” Ms. O’Connor made music that channeled and reflected her tumultuous personal life, with lyrics about sexism, religion, child abuse, famine and police brutality set against reggae beats, traditional Irish melodies and throbbing pop hooks. Beaten by her mother as a young girl, she was later diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, and acknowledged having suicidal thoughts in recent years, including after her son Shane’s death by suicide in January 2022.

Ms. O’Connor, who began using the name Shuhada Sadaqat offstage after converting to Islam in 2018, saw herself as a punk musician, not a pop star, and was credited with influencing singers as varied as Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.

“I’m just a troubled soul who needs to scream into mikes now and then,” she wrote in a 2021 memoir, “Rememberings.”

As she told it, she was dismayed and not delighted when her 1990 single “Nothing Compares 2 U” turned her into a global sensation. Originally written by Prince for one of his side projects, the Family, the ballad topped the Billboard pop chart for four weeks, with Ms. O’Connor backed by an understated string arrangement.

“It’s been seven hours and fifteen days since you took your love away,” she sang, evoking anger, anxiety and bitter heartache. The music video showed her in haunting close-up, turning her pale face and shaven head into one of the decade’s defining pop culture images.

Ms. O’Connor’s distinctive, close-cropped look dated to the release of her debut album, “The Lion and the Cobra” (1987). She later explained that her record label, Chrysalis, requested that she act more “girly” before the album’s release, prompting her to cut off her hair. “Hair’s a fashion statement,” she said, “and I don’t want to make one.”

But she seemed to have no qualms about making a political statement. For a performance at the Grammy Awards in 1989, she had Public Enemy’s target logo painted on her head, in solidarity with the hip-hop group and other Black acts that the Recording Academy tended to ignore. “I have refused to take part … I don’t know no shame, I feel no pain,” she sang, performing her single “Mandinka.”

The performance fueled album sales for “The Lion and the Cobra” — 1 million in the United States alone, an impressive number for a previously obscure Irish solo act — and set the stage for Ms. O’Connor’s chart-topping follow-up, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” (1990), which featured “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Another track, “I Am Stretched on Your Grave,” was drawn from a 17th-century Irish poem, set to the beat from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.”

“There is a searing frankness to Ms. O’Connor’s songs that, with other singers, could easily become self-indulgent ranting,” wrote New York Times music critic Jon Pareles. “But one of her gifts, as important as her voice and her power of observation, is an underlying calm that is anything but placid.”

The album was nominated for four Grammy Awards, winning for best alternative music performance. Ms. O’Connor boycotted the ceremony, saying that the awards were based on “false and destructive materialistic values.” She also made headlines for pulling out of a planned appearance on “Saturday Night Live” to protest guest host Andrew Dice Clay, a comedian who had been accused of sexism; and for refusing to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before concerts, saying that national anthems “have nothing to do with music in general.”

Those decisions reinforced her reputation as a brash, outspoken musician. But her image was utterly transformed by her appearance on SNL in October 1992, days after the release of her third album, “Am I Not Your Girl?” Singing an a cappella version of “War,” the Bob Marley protest song, she tweaked some of the lyrics to reference child abuse and then raised a photo of Pope John Paul II as she reached the final line: “We have confidence in the victory of good over evil.”

In silence, she tore the picture into pieces, then stared into the camera and urged listeners to “fight the real enemy” before tossing the scraps onto the stage.

Ms. O’Connor, who was raised Catholic, was protesting sexual abuse in the church, a decade before reporting by the Boston Globe and other newspapers drew widespread attention to the scandal. Her performance was widely criticized by groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, and led Frank Sinatra to call her “one stupid broad.” The New York Daily News labeled her a “Holy Terror,” and protesters ran over a pile of her records with a steamroller. Appearing at a Madison Square Garden tribute concert to Bob Dylan, Ms. O’Connor was greeted by a chorus of boos.

“I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant,” she told the New York Times in 2021, looking back on her SNL performance. “But it was very traumatizing. It was open season on treating me like a crazy” person.

“It seems to me that being a pop star is almost like being in a type of prison,” she added. “You have to be a good girl.”

Ms. O’Connor never released another Top 10 hit. But albums including “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?” (2012) and “I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss” (2014) were well-received by critics, enabling her to continue with the career she had originally envisioned for herself — one in which she focused on performing and writing songs rather than courting record labels and eyeing the pop charts.

“I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career,” she wrote in her memoir, “and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.”

The third of five children, Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor was born in Glenageary, a Dublin suburb, on Dec. 8, 1966. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother was a dressmaker. An older brother, Joseph, is the best-selling author of “Star of the Sea,” a historical novel set during the Irish famine.

Ms. O’Connor was 8 when her parents separated. For the next five years, she lived with her mother, whom she described as an alcoholic who regularly beat her. When her mother died in 1985, Ms. O’Connor took a photo of the pope off her wall, and carried it around until tearing it up on SNL.

“That kind of pain doesn’t go away,” she told The Washington Post in 2020, looking back on her childhood. “You only learn to live with it. Music is where I can manage it.”

After moving in with her father, Ms. O’Connor was caught stealing and sent to a correctional school run by Dominican nuns. At 14, she was invited to sing at a teacher’s wedding, where she met the drummer for the Irish folk-rock band In Tua Nua. Encouraged to pursue music, she co-wrote a song for the group, “Take My Hand,” which charted in Ireland.

Ms. O’Connor worked as a kiss-o-gram girl in Dublin, delivering musical messages in a French-maid outfit, before signing a record deal in 1985 and moving to London to record her first album. She also began collaborating with U2 guitarist the Edge, who was working on the soundtrack for the 1986 film “Captive.” In her first professional recording, Ms. O’Connor provided the vocals for the movie’s theme.

Just as her solo album was finished, Ms. O’Connor had a son, Jake, with drummer and producer John Reynolds. She said her record company pressured her to have an abortion, which she resisted. Ms. O’Connor and Reynolds later married and divorced but remained close, with her ex-husband producing several of her albums.

Her marriages to journalist Nick Sommerlad and musician Steve Cooney also ended in divorce, and she had an on-again, off-again relationship with her fourth husband, substance-abuse counselor Barry Herridge.

In addition to Jake Reynolds and her son Shane, from a relationship with folk musician Donal Lunny, Ms. O’Connor had a daughter, Roisin, with newspaper columnist John Waters; and a son, Yeshua, with businessman Frank Bonadio. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Ms. O’Connor continued to make news over the years for her stormy personal life and criticisms of the music industry, including in an open letter that she wrote to Miley Cyrus in 2013, urging the singer not to be “pimped” by the music business. She was ordained a priest by a breakaway Catholic bishop in 1999, two decades before converting to Islam.

In her memoir, she wrote that she had “a total breakdown” after having a radical hysterectomy in 2015, and spent six years in and out of mental facilities. The experience led her to work on one last album, “No Veteran Dies Alone,” which was postponed last year after her son Shane died at 17.

“The only reason to make an album is because you’ll go crazy if you don’t,” she explained in a Guardian interview. “If you make it because you want to be famous or impress the fella down the road or to make money, it’s not going to be a good record.”



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