Sinead O'Connor & the Nothing Compares documentary

i am stretched on your grave.

Sinead O'Connor & the Nothing Compares documentary

I walked away from watching the new Sinead O’Connor documentary, Nothing Compares, upset and angry and furious, but mostly terrified, because it felt like the misogyny was so dense and all-encompassing I didn’t know how any woman got through life. I am an old woman, I have been through a few things, and yet it had this kind of impact on me. I believe the filmmakers accomplished what they wanted to achieve. This is praise. It is not wrong. It is exactly what happened here, 30 years ago this very week.

I was living abroad from 1988-1994 so my viewpoint on this era is filtered by not living in America. I only saw SNL if someone sent me a videotape. I watched the Bob Dylan tribute - somehow it was broadcast live in the middle of the night, maybe on MTV Europe? - but I don’t remember Sinead, it was the middle of the night after all. I heard about what happened on SNL but I didn’t absorb it because I was nowhere near it. I read about it later in the British music magazines and in Rolling Stone. But that still did not convey the enormity and deep blackness of the hatred.

I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was a record I played all the time when it came out. All the time. I loved her voice so much, I loved that it was out front, I loved that it sounded like no one else, I loved her eyes and her fashion sense and how she just looked how she looked and wore what she wore, like she was going into battle. I didn’t realize that she cut her hair off after her first record company told her to wear makeup and short skirts, or I would have liked her even more. I would listen to the album when I was getting ready to go out on Thursday or Friday nights and most of the time I would just skip to “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” and if my flatmate wasn’t home, I would just put it on repeat.

I knew that sample the first time I heard it, and living on the other side of the ocean made me appreciate American music even more than I did before I left. That is James Brown, motherfuckers. Get out of the way. I was the Warner Brothers label manager at the local affiliate; The record wasn’t on our label (we were WEA and BMG) but I remember arguing with someone at the label that it was James Brown and they were so sure I was wrong they called our counterpart at the local label who then sent a fax to ask the label in London and by the time this was all done and it was confirmed that I was right no one apologized for the entire scope of that particular ritual of humiliation.

The apartment I lived in was an old ancient building from the 20s or 30s, fading art deco meets brutalism, thick stone walls and tiled floors, and I loved being able to use the building acoustics to make the song larger and louder, so it would thump me right in the center of my chest, in the heart chakra. I was getting over my divorce from my first husband; I left, but it was awful. I would always skip “Nothing Compares 2U” because of the vibe and because it was on the radio and MTV all the time, and in Tel Aviv if a song was popular you heard it everywhere you went because everyone’s windows were open like 9 months in the year and I didn’t want someone nearby to hear that song blasting from my window and mistake me for what we’d now call “basic.” I KNEW THINGS ABOUT MUSIC. I worked for a record company, dammit.

That record had a lot of moments for me and there are few things that can catapult me back to that time more instantaneously, probably because at some point I stopped listening to it, because it was all tangled up in everything else. And then Sinead disappeared.

I wish the documentary spent more time on her process or her art but what it really focuses on is the answer to what happened to bring her to the moment she stood in front of America and tore up a photograph of the Pope. They don’t have to explain what happened afterwards because everyone knows that for all intents and purposes, she vanished off the face of the earth.

Sinead O’Connor’s childhood was garbage, her mother was not well, and she took it out on her daughter because of the messages she’d internalized from the Catholic Church. Sinead got sent to live in a “care home,” basically a boarding school run by the nuns that happened to be next door to the fucking Magdalene Laundries. The photograph that she tore up on SNL was the very photo of the Pope that her mother had on the wall in her house. You put all of that together and you have to admire the deliberation, the planning, the waiting, the decision-making, the bravery. She was an international star and she was going to use that platform to do something. The filmmakers make good use of archival interview and talk show footage and if people had been listening to absolutely anything she had said in public, they would have realized she did what she did out of what she believed was a duty to tell the truth and to speak out.

This is the part where I say, “If she was a man, none of this would have happened.” But she was a soft-spoken young woman who did not meet conventional beauty norms and she wasn’t American. She was insufficiently decorative and absolutely non-compliant. There was no way she was going to get away with just being herself, let alone taking any kind of public stance against the Catholic Church. There’s voiceover in the film from her publicist at the time, and she explains that she went into Sinead’s dressing room at SNL and said, “I can’t get you out of this” and Sinead responded that she understood and wasn’t asking to be rescued. She wanted to believe that her message would be clear and every person of good conscience would hear her and agree.

I paused the movie at this point and thought about the scenario and wished that she had told someone who could have advised her that it was a death wish and it wasn’t worth being forced to abandon her art by the audience she was aiming at. She was right then and she was proven right over and over again over the years but there was no way patriarchy was going to let a woman be that outspoken and noncompliant without consequence, because not striking her down would mean that there would be more.

This is an artist who, when she was pregnant with her first child, was pressured to terminate the pregnancy because the record company had invested all this money in her and now she was pregnant and could not be as easily and conveniently manipulated. But when you are young you can’t quite wrap your head around the depths of misogyny. You think it will change. You think it is only bad people. You also don’t see it as clearly. (I think the latter is a survival mechanism, if you saw it for what it was you would probably just give up.)

The movie opens with Kris Kristofferson introducing her at BobFest and then later the movie comes back to that moment, almost two weeks after SNL, and they just play the whole thing through, how Kristofferson comes back out and tries to encourage her to play through it, but somehow an audience full of people there to pay tribute to BOB FUCKING DYLAN booed her off the stage. How were so many people willing to boo her at that particular concert? There is part of it that is just collective behavior, people booing because other people were booing so they boo whether they believe it or not. But Madison Square Garden seats 20,000 people. This was a hard ticket to get. And there were definitely an abundance of music business bigwigs and guests (although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people would boo threats to their meal ticket). And she stood on that stage and she sang Bob Marley again and then walked off. There is not one person who booed her who has that kind of courage.

I haven’t listened to her music in a long time; that is sad. I think about what music history might have been had she been able to continue and add to it. I think about her growing old and inspiring more women, headlining Lilith Fair, continuing to make music. I think about how the records still sound timely and lyricalliy still resonate because nothing has changed, really. I don’t even want to talk about “cancel culture” when she did not actually do anything and we’re letting musicians and other artists who abused women come back at full force a year or so after their actual transgression that impacted actual human beings. Actual harm was done to someone. Sinead O’Connor just didn’t agree to keep quiet.

It wasn’t about what she said, it wasn’t about what she did. It was about maintaining hegemony and protecting the patriarchy. That’s all it is. That’s all it ever is. I wish her so much peace and so much respect.

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