“There was no therapy when I was growing up, so the reason I got into music group was therapy, which’s why it was such a shock for me to become a pop star, because that’s not what I wanted,” Sinead O’Connor says in the opening minutes of her 2021 Showtime documentary, Nothing Compares. “I just wanted to scream.”
Now, after 56 years of screaming, sometimes literally and sometimes silently, after a wild and controversial and fascinating life during which she was consistently willing to scream what nobody else was willing to even say — Sinead O’Connor has died. (She also has gone by the name Shuhada Sadaqat since her 2018 conversion to Islam.) Her family announced her death in an official statement, and the cause of death has not been disclosed.
Sinead O’Connor’s life is impossible to summarize or to even try and summarize. Every narrative thread doubles back on itself. Her journey through this dimension has been a journey — her romantic relationships, her spirituality, her mental health, her career, her political activism.
The most popular story of her life is one that begins with her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, which earned her first Grammy nomination, and ramps up with second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which contained her first big hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (written by Prince), and essentially ends in October of 1992, the night she ripped up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. The response to this political action was near-universal outrage, and it overshadowed the reason she’d done so in the first place: to protest the widespread sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church and the Church’s lack of action around it. Like so many progressive and valid points made by misunderstood women of the ’90s, it should hit different now.
To O’Connor, that was hardly the end of her story, that was a return to the one she’d wanted to tell all along. Because, again, being a pop star wasn’t her dream. In 2021 she told The New York Times: “I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant. But it was very traumatizing. It was open season on treating me like a crazy bitch.”
“But the overreaction to O’Connor was not just about whether she was right or wrong,” writes Amanda Hess in that same profile. “It was about the kinds of provocations we accept from women in music.”
Sinead O’Connor’s disinterest in mainstream popularity perhaps was part of what enabled her to come out as a lesbian in Curve Magazine in 2000, which was not a popular time to do so. She appeared on the magazine’s cover, next to the words “Sinead Comes Out,” telling readers:
“I’m a lesbian… although I haven’t been very open about that and throughout most of my life I’ve gone out with blokes because I haven’t necessarily been terribly comfortable about being a lesbian. But I actually am a lesbian… I don’t think I necessarily paved the way for anyone, but other people paved the way for me.”
By the time she spoke to Entertainment Weekly about her sexuality in 2005, she’d landed somewhere else: “I’m three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay. I lean a bit more towards the hairy blokes.”
In a 2014 interview with PrideSource, she said she believed that “if you fall in love with someone, you fall in love with someone, and I don’t think it would matter what they were… I don’t believe in labels of any kind, put it that way. If I fall in love with someone, I wouldn’t give a shit if they were a man or a woman.”
Sinead was married to four different men in her life and had four children. In her 2021 memoir, Rememberings, she describes herself as specifically not a lesbian or a heterosexual, but asexual.
In many ways, however, Sinead’s personal affiliation with a queer identify was only part of the reason she became a queer icon. Look at her! Her shaved head, her genderqueer presentation, her Doc Martens and her leather jackets and her ripped-up jeans. Listen: her unapologetic activism, her nerviness, her angst, her fight, her courage, her struggles with trauma and despair, her constant quest for self-discovery.
O’Connor eventually would release ten albums as well as participating in numerous collaborative recordings, tribute performances and tracks for charitable causes. Her favorite collaboration was “Dagger Through My Heart,” which she did for a Dolly Parton tribute record. She toured throughout the country and overseas. Her songs appeared in movies like Albert Nobbs and In the Name of the Father.
Ultimately, her last offering to the world was a new version of “The Skye Boat Song,” which debuted as the opening title sequence for the seventh season of “Outlander,” in February 2023.
In 2022, her 17-year-old son, Shane, died by suicide, after which time O’Connor, who had long struggled with her mental and physical health and had spent six years in and out of mental health facilities, hospitalized herself for suicidal ideations. She also cancelled the release of what would’ve been her final studio album and her final tour.
Her friends described her to The New York Times as “a naturally loving person” and a “generous soul” who “wears her heart on her sleeve.”
I saw her live only once, at Lilith Fair in suburban Detroit in 1998. She performed at dusk, as the side-stages were closing and everyone was settling in on the lawn for the night ahead, stoned or buzzed or high on life on our blankets. When she started playing Nothing Compares 2 U, the restless crowd’s attention was finally and absolutely focused. The way she sang was so raw, the song was so sad, and we all knew it, we’d all heard her sing it and we’d heard Prince sing it and that night we all sang it together. I said nothing can take away these blues. ‘Cause nothing compares, nothing compares to you.
“I’m not a pop star,” she wrote in Rememberings. “I’m just a troubled soul who needs to scream into mikes now and then.”