Every song is a prayer pulled from her throat.
Sinéad O’Connor’s breakthrough record I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got opens with a recitation of the Serenity Prayer, and ends with the titular poem, performed like a chant:
"I'm walking through the desert / And I am not frightened although it's hot / I have all that I requested / And I do not want what I haven't got."
Released in 1990, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is a transformational record, meaning both that it charts how the artist survived a failed relationship, and its critical and commercial success made the Irish singer into an international star. The album spent six weeks atop U.S. charts and was nominated for four Grammy awards. O’Connor was invited to perform at the ceremony. Instead, she became the first musician to protest it.
The goal of the protest was to bring attention to the "false and destructive materialistic values" O’Connor saw in the music industry. In a letter to the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, she wrote, "As artists I believe our function is to express the feelings of the human race — to always speak the truth and never keep it hidden even though we are operating in a world which does not like the sound of the truth.”
A Rolling Stone critic prophetically observed that I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got “is less about O’Connor’s ambitions than the cost of those ambitions.”
Ironically, the biggest hit on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was a cover song. Written and originally recorded by Prince, O’Connor’s searing interpretation of “Nothing Compares 2 U” was bolstered by an innovative music video that relentlessly focused on O’Connor’s face as she lip-syncs the lyrics. She emotes into the camera until a single tear rolls down her cheek. “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a raw, feral cry, an anthem for the abandoned. It is the opposite of the title track, in which O’Connor expresses a commitment to remain brave within the solitude she sensed was her destiny.
As powerful as the record and video is, O’Connor has said she was born to perform live, a belief easy to understand when watching clips like O’Connor singing her hit in the fall of 1990 at the Amnesty International Concert in Santiago, Chile. The opening note of “Nothing Compares 2 U” rings out and O’Connor takes the stage, her head shaved and feet bare. A black motorcycle jacket hangs open over a lacy black bra and leggings.
At 23 years old, she steps to the microphone. “It’s been seven hours and 15 days since you took your love away.” The audience responds by singing the backup melody line, and she swans through the rest of the song with the devotion of an artist willing to molt right there in the light, writhe out of her own skin, explode into aura.
“Where did I go wrong?”
After the chorus, O’Connor tilts her face to the sky and wails for 12 seconds, an eternity, a thread of wet animal sounds escaping from her throat as she bends slightly backward, flailing her arms as if falling backward off a very high ledge.
Two years after the concert in Santiago, O’Connor was the musical guest on a now-notorious episode of Saturday Night Live. She sang an a capella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” updating lyrics referencing apartheid and colonialism in Africa to address child abuse, ye-AH. O’Connor ends the chant: “We know we will win. We have confidence in the victory of good over evil.”
While chanting the word “evil,” O’Connor holds up a photograph of Pope John Paul II and rips it in half, then into pieces, then tosses the pieces at the camera and says, “Fight the real enemy!”
The backlash was swift and brutal. Frank Sinatra called her a “stupid broad” said he’d kick her ass if she was a guy. Actor Joe Pesci, who hosted SNL the following week, made a joke about smacking O’Connor in the face, and the audience laughed and clapped. A Catholic cardinal was pretty sure it was “voodoo.” Even Madonna was aghast, or pretended to be.
In 1992, most Americans were not yet aware of the Roman Catholic church sex abuse scandal, but the story was already out in Ireland. Though scattershot reports of abusive priests surfaced in U.S. news during the mid-1980s, Americans didn’t begin to truly reckon with the depth and breadth of the church’s systemic, worldwide abuse and cover-up until the Boston Globe published a series of reports in 2002 — a full decade after O’Connor’s SNL stunt.
O’Connor, a victim of child abuse herself, knew. She has said she was violently beaten by her mother, locked in her room, deprived of food and clothes, verbally abused, thrown out of her home and sometimes forced to sleep outside in the garden. “What happened to me is a direct result of what happened to my mother and what happened to her in her house and in school,” she’s explained.
“I’m one of millions of people who grew up in the same situation,” she said. “Who grew up terrified constantly.”
O’Connor tried to quell the hysterical reaction to her stunt. She repeatedly explained that reports about the church’s scandal were already out in Ireland, and that her attack was on the institution, not one man. She wrote in an open letter: "The only reason I ever opened my mouth to sing was so that I tell my story and have it heard...My story is the story of countless millions of children whose families and nations were torn apart in the name of Jesus Christ."
Two weeks after the SNL incident, O’Connor was set to perform at Madison Square Garden during a concert celebrating Bob Dylan’s 30 years in music. While introducing her, Kris Kristofferson spit in the wind of the backlash by defiantly announcing he is proud to introduce an artist “whose name’s become synonymous with courage and integrity.”
O’Connor walks onstage to a chaotic mix of boos, cheers, and screams. The pianist attempts to start the performance by playing a few notes, but the audience refuses to settle down.
O’Connor scans the crowd like a sea captain searching for her coordinates. The band keeps trying to start the set but the crowd won’t stop screaming. Finally, O’Connor motions for the band to forget it. She stands alone in the spotlight, clasps her hands behind her back. Kristofferson walks over, wraps his arm around her and whispers, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
“I’m not down,” she responds.
The pianist tries once more but she waves him off, grabs the microphone, and launches into a repeat rendition of “War,” doubling down on her SNL performance. She finishes the song, calmly walks off-stage and curls into Kristofferson’s arms. She’s crying. Everywhere is war.
Almost three decades later, I still picture O’Connor standing there, immured in the crowd’s roar, the sound of a blood rushing, of 20,000 arrows in the air.
O’Connor has said she thought people, especially musicians, were enraged by her actions mostly “because I’m a girl, for a start.” As she put it, she is not, after all, Neil Young.
Now 51, O’Connor is no longer known mostly for her music or voice, despite releasing 10 studio albums, five compilations, and a live album over the course of more than three decades. While she hasn’t had another international hit like I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, O’Connor’s work still draws critical praise. A review of 2005’s Throw Down Your Arms notes, “There's no debating that Sinéad O'Connor is one of the great singers to come from the pop world in the late 20th century.” Pitchfork anointed O’Connor’s 2012 record, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? as “devastating.” A common theme in reviews of O’Connor’s records is that the quality could or should be enough to redeem her so that O’Connor may once again be primarily recognized, and celebrated, as an elite and uniquely talented artist.
Sinéad O’Connor has become our lady of perpetual redemption. She most often appears in headlines as a stock character in a well-worn media storyline, starring as (yet another) gifted female star unraveling in slow motion through a zoetrope of clickbait stories exploiting her personal struggles.
So far that hasn’t happened. Instead, Sinéad O’Connor has become our lady of perpetual redemption. She most often appears in headlines as a stock character in a well-worn media storyline, starring as (yet another) gifted female star unraveling in slow motion through a zoetrope of clickbait stories exploiting her personal struggles: O’Connor disappeared while out on a bike ride in Chicago and was found in a hospital. O’Connor is engaged in a custody battle with one of her children’s fathers. O’Connor attempted suicide, again.
In August 2017, a video appeared on the artist’s Facebook page that went viral. She recorded it amid an apparent breakdown while hiding out at a New Jersey motel. She is crying. A tattoo of Jesus Christ blooms from her chest. Once again, she describes herself as one of millions. Once again, she talks about suicide. Later, she’ll say she thought she had to be dead to be heard.
“I shouldn’t be here. And I know I’m just one of millions and that’s the only other thing that keeps me going, too. I am making this video because I am one of millions, and that should be my catchphrase now. One of millions! One of fucking millions!”
A few days later, someone posted a Facebook update on her behalf assuring fans that O’Connor was no longer suicidal and receiving care.
As for us, we never apologized for our grotesque overreaction to hearing what we now know to be true. In the years since SNL, archdioceses all over the world have been exposed for enabling horrific child abuse and the sexualized torture of children and protecting abusive priests from punishment.
The year of #MeToo has been in a tipping point for the Catholic church. In July, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick became the first cardinal to ever step down due to alleged sexual abuse. In August, the Pennsylvania attorney general released a massive grand jury report detailing seven decades of systemic child sex abuse and cover-up in six archdioceses. It lists more than 300 alleged predator priests accused of raping more than 1,000 identifiable children. New Jersey, New York, Missouri, Nebraska, and Illinois have all launched their own sweeping investigations, with more states to surely follow.
In Chile, where O’Connor performed for human rights decades ago, all 31 active Catholic bishops offered to resign after it was revealed that church officials destroyed evidence of sexual abuse of children.
“We showed no care for the little ones,” Pope Francis admitted. “We abandoned them.”
In 2016, Spotlight, a movie lionizing the Boston Globe reporters who investigated sex abuse and cover-up in the Boston archdiocese, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The reporters were portrayed as glorious hound dogs digging for hard truths that should be exposed at any cost — despite the script’s questionable blurring of characters and failure to properly credit reporter Kristen Lombardi, who broke the story at the Boston Phoenix in 2001.
O’Connor's full birth name is Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor, in honor of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. In 1858, when Marie Bernarde “Bernadette” Soubirous was 14 years old, she encountered a vision of the Virgin Mary. The vision asked Bernadette drink from the water beneath her feet, though it was just mud. Bernadette dug into the earth until water rose to the surface and became a stream. Five years after Bernadette’s visions, the church confirmed the apparition. Since then, at least 69 people have been miraculously, inexplicably cured after making a pilgrimage to a shrine built by the water. It’s been officially designated a miracle by the church.
But at the time, townsfolk didn’t believe her. They harassed and shunned Bernadette, who withstood repeated interrogations from town officials. Desperate for solace, she escaped to a convent for the rest of her life. When they exhumed her body 30 years after her death, it hadn’t decayed. Her pristine hands were clutching a rusted rosary. Bernadette’s corpse was transferred to a crystal coffin, where it remains on display as a tourist attraction in Nevers, France.
In September 2017, O’Connor announced she was changing her name to Magda Davitt.
“Sinéad is dead,” she wrote. “And a happier woman has been born. Free of the patriarchal slave names. Free of the parental curses.”
The first track released under the moniker Magda Davitt is called “Milestones.” Like “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” it is essentially a prayer. Magda chants through verses about being free of shame, starting with a new name.
"One day we’ll sit with our maker / Discuss over biscuits and soda / Which one of you and me was braver / Which one of us was a truth soldier"
A month after the hotel video, O’Connor went on the Dr. Phil show. He had reportedly helped her get into a treatment center. Now she was invited to share her most intimate pain and thoughts on camera for a segment teased as “Sinéad O’Connor Speaks Out After Hotel Breakdown.”
He asked her about her abuse, about her mother, her suicide attempts and of course, SNL.
“For about 10 years afterward that I don't remember because that's when it became acceptable, it became the norm, that I was treated by everyone I know from family to everyone like I was an absolutely insane crazy person,” she says. She sobs through much of the interview. When he asks her to recall the moment she ripped up the photo, she smiles.
“Silence,” she says.
O’Connor glides her arms out in front of her, palms up, gesturing toward Dr. Phil. She spreads them further to include the studio set, the camera people, the production people, the audience watching on television and YouTube, the millions of us. “Silence everywhere,” she says, beaming as if lit from within. “It was fantastic.”
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
What She Hasn’t Got is an excerpt from a forthcoming anthology 33 1/3: The B-Sides (Will Stockton & D. Gilson, editors) from Bloomsbury. Tara Murtha is also the author of Ode to Billie Joe for the 33 ⅓ series.