Friday, August 12, 2011

Nothing Compares: The Artist Formerly (and Currently) Known As Sinead O'Connor

Live, Manchester, 2011

We know what to expect from the vapid entertainment culture we cultivate, and there's no surprise to the rippling affect around the internet resulting from People magazine's notably unflattering picture of forty-four year old Sinead O'Connor, published recently. The picture was taken at a music festival in Ireland, where she performed backing vocals for reggae artist Nattie Wailer. Certainly you could make a case about the sartorial choices - it is, of course, unheard of for a musician to show a lapse in self-awareness when it comes to style. But most of the snickering has to do with the fact that O'Connor is decidedly more portly than she was in her infamous youth. You can just sense the glee in certain quarters that she is no longer beautiful and youthful, that the arrogant, uncontrollable mouth from Ireland has got hers. She's a middle-aged frump, no better than the rest of us, after all...

Well, actually, she is better than most. Still.

The idea that a woman (in particular) or an artist (in general) owes it to us (their public) to age better, more gracefully than the rest of us is plainly ludicrous. But of course, there is a certain (wrongful) expectation of that in our culture - and it only goes to reinforce Sinead O'Connor's oft-displayed courage, her indomitability as an artist, that she continues to run the gauntlet of ridiculous perceptions and expectations of a largely foolish public.

I've seen O'Connor perform live a number of times. I have no hesitation in saying that she has produced some of the most electric moments I've ever seen in performance by any artist in any medium. Her body of recorded work may not be what we hoped it might turn out to be be back in 1991, but it is not insignificant by any means (I've little interest in reggae, but her 2005 album 'Throw Down Your Arms' is wonderful. I saw her perform the album at Webster Hall in NYC, backed by a magnificent, primarily Jamaican band. Patti Smith was seated beside me, leaning across the balcony, eyes closed, utterly enraptured).

More than anything, O'Connor has survived. She has survived childhood abuse, her own demons, a fragile mental health, and often vicious treatment from a media whose vitriol is frequently written in piss and just as enduring. And still she creates. Still she performs.

War - SNL

Her fear is palpable in this, the infamous SNL clip went some significant way to ruining her career. Afterwards she was slaughtered for bringing to light allegations of rampant child abuse in the Irish Catholic Church. Shamefully, few of her artistic contemporaries came to her defense, championed her right to protest. Less surprising is how few people recalled her once her allegations proved utterly founded.
Soon after, the ignorant masses annihilated her again for her refusal to have the national anthem played before a show in New Jersey - ignoring the fact that her message wasn't 'anti-American' but anti-nationalism. Likely those who booed her were the same who revered John Lennon for singing 'Imagine there's no countries/ I wonder if you can.'  Less well reported was the fact that when she sold her Los Angeles home a year or two later, unable to take the strain of living in the US any more, she donated the proceeds of the sale to The Red Cross.

O'Connor is a mother to four children. She was also diagnosed as bi-polar seven years ago. Without question, part of her weight-gain is a result of anti-depressant medication. 'I actually kind of died and got born again as a result of taking the meds and having a chance to, you know, build a life,' she told Oprah Winfrey - outing herself as someone who suffered a debilitating form of mental illness, regardless of the unfortunate stigma that sometimes accompanies such revelations. Perhaps she should update the slogan on her t-shirt - 'This Weight May Have Saved My Life' - to address ugly commentators with a subtlety they'd understand?

O'Connor has surely said and done many foolish things. Unlike the rest of us, she's done it under great public scrutiny. I don't claim to be a fan of all her music, or much of her philosophy. But I can think of few artists who've refused to compromise as much as she has. She's paid for it at times with her career, and even with her very sanity. For her refusal to compromise, for her adherence to her own truth, for her perseverance and her strength in surviving, and most of all, for her stark, often beautiful art, I think she happens to be one of the more heroic figures in contemporary music and art. Long may she continue to perform, and more, find a peaceful life.

Troy - live 1988. Awesome - in the traditional sense, rather than then contemporary sense.

Further reading:
A piece I wrote on Sinead O'Connor in 2004


emc said...

Well said. Thank you for writing this.

Nisa Q. said...

Reading this post while listening to Sinead sing gave me goosebumps. Beautiful.

Bill said...

Very nicely written. I still like my rock stars to be autonomous, subversive rebels instead of docile, corporate weenies.

JD. said...

Nisa - thanks for checking in. Likewise you, Mr Bill. You and the Mrs look swell in your new FB pic...