Music News

Happy Birthday, Sinead O'Connor!

Controversy creates headlines, and in the music world, it's often integral to the marketing machine. Artists who foster outrage find their names instilled in the public psyche, sometimes to the point that their music becomes secondary to their mayhem. Sinead O'Connor fits that category; despite some early critically acclaimed albums, it's her ongoing series of outrageous antics that have emblazoned her image as a most unpredictable personality.

Sinéad Marie Bernadette O'Connor, born December 8, 1966, courted controversy early on. Even during the recording her debut album, 1987's The Lion and the Cobra, she showed a tenacious streak that erupted almost instantly. Her manager at the time, Fachtna O'Ceallaigh, was a rebel of sorts himself (he had once been fired by U2 for publicly complaining about them to the media), and he all but encouraged her insurgent attitude. Despite the fact that she had worked with U2, she denounced their music as bombastic and also offered an emotional defense of the IRA. She frequently fought with her producer, Mick Glossop, and later lambasted his methods. Ultimately she was given the go-ahead to produce the album on her own, despite the fact that she was only 20 years old and seven months pregnant by her session drummer and future husband, John Reynolds.

Unfortunately, that vote of confidence soon backfired. On 24 August 1990, O'Connor was scheduled to perform at the then-Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey, but she refused to go on if the national anthem were played, as was the center's tradition. Officials acquiesced, but she was subsequently banned from ever performing there again. She labeled national anthems as nationalistic tirades written to glorify war and went on to criticize them as racist and hypocritical. Several radio stations responded by banning her music. 

Even so, that incident was nothing compared to the uproar she caused when she shocked a national audience during her October 3, 1992, appearance on Saturday Night Live. Without any warning, she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II, repeating the word "evil" and imploring viewers to "fight the real enemy." The audience didn't make a sound, and when producer Lorne Michaels ordered that the applause signs be turned off, her performance was greeted with stone silence. That didn't last long, however; NBC received more than 4,000 complaint calls, and the incident made headlines worldwide. Yet, when O'Connor was questioned about the episode ten years later, she insisted she would do it again. For its part, the TV Guide Network listed the incident at number 24 on its list of TV's biggest blunders. 

Among O'Connor's detractors was none other than Madonna, no stranger to controversy herself. She roundly criticized O'Connor for her affront, a tirade that the New York Times dismissed as merely a matter of professional jealousy. "After Madonna had herself gowned, harnessed, strapped down and fully stripped to promote her album Erotica and her book Sex, O'Connor stole the spotlight with one photograph of a fully clothed man." 

Still, O'Connor's act of defiance continued to haunt her. Set to participate in Bob Dylan's 30th-anniversary celebration concert at Madison Square Garden, she was greeted by a mix of cheers and jeers. It prevented her from performing the song she was scheduled to do, "I Believe in You," and instead she shouted out an impromptu a cappella version of Bob Marley's "War." When she finished, she stared at the audience and left the stage in tears, falling into the arms of Kris Kristofferson, who offered her his moral support. 

O'Connor's personal life has also raised eyebrows on more than one occasion. She famously shaved her head, first as a protest against the traditional perception of women and later as a matter of personal preference. Although she's been married three times, she also claimed to be a lesbian. "I'm a dyke," she said in an interview. "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 big lesbian mule." Later, she revoked that assertion, saying she was trying to overcompensate. "I am not in a box of any description," she insisted. In a May 2005 issue of Entertainment Weekly, she attempted to elaborate further. "I'm three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay," she suggested. "I lean a bit more towards the hairy blokes." 

At another juncture, she complicated matters even more, declaring that she had no romantic interests, at least at that moment. "I am in the peak of my sexual prime and way too lovely to be living like a nun," she blogged. Not surprisingly, then, a breakaway faction of the Catholic church ordained her as a priest, an act of faith she readily embraced. She claimed that if she hadn't become a singer, she would have chosen to be a Catholic priest instead and asked that she be addressed as "Mother Bernadette Mary." 

For a woman who had torn up the pope's picture, it was an unusual move, to say the least. Perhaps it can be explained by the fact that more recently she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Whatever the reason, O'Connor's penchant for stirring up dissent and discontent has never been in doubt.

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Lee Zimmerman