These days, quite a lot compares: the challenge to gender conformity, the Repeal the 8th movement, the protest against Ireland’s Magdalene laundries and against the pope’s readiness to cover up child abuse by priests. It was singing legend Sinéad O’Connor’s fate to be ahead of her time with her style and her political views, but also to command the world in the late 80s and early 90s with her beautiful keening, yodelling voice, her amazing shaven-headed charisma and her stunning cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U. But she differed from the modern world in one crucial respect: her refusal to play nice, to read the room – that sin which terrifies the social media age most of all.
It’s a story recounted in this absorbing documentary by Kathryn Ferguson – incidentally revealing the media world’s hypocrisy. All the people who would solemnly agree now on the issues O’Connor popularised are those who would mock her at the time. And if O’Connor had suffered an actual Amy Winehouse death, as opposed to career death, she would have been canonised long ago. Above everything, O’Connor blasphemed against the ethos of success, a transgression which appalled the music world in 1992 as much as I suspect it would astonish the players of today. O’Connor had it all, she had stadium-level success within reach and threw it away by speaking out in ways that U2, say, would never dare. First: by effectively barring the American national anthem before a show in New Jersey because of her loathing of nationalism, and then by ripping up a photo of the pope on live TV, for reasons which, to be entirely fair to the hated mainstream media, might have been a little opaque.
Maybe this film could have sketched in the context of that moment a little more. O’Connor had been invited to perform on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, a booking clearly intended as an act of good-natured forgiveness and self-forgiveness on this programme’s part; SNL had mocked O’Connor’s national anthem controversy, for which Frank Sinatra had threatened to kick her ass and SNL had run a sketch which the film shows has aged badly. Obviously, O’Connor’s appearance would be redemption in the secular church of celebrity. But O’Connor simply performed an icily angry a cappella version of Bob Marley’s War and then ripped the pope a new one (of which she had given no hint in rehearsal) in protest against church-sanctioned abuse. The pure hatred that came her way might have destroyed anyone. It is sad now to see Joe Pesci join in with the vilification and the grotesque attacks by Camille Paglia. The Beatles survived their own blasphemy row with the carapace of formidable industry help and, perhaps, a more canny, emollient attitude.
In 2022, singers can control their own exposure and communicate with their fanbase through social media, Instagram and TikTok: O’Connor was more dependent on interviews with people such as Gay Byrne and Charlie Rose. That she continued making music is a testament to her courage and toughness. Perhaps this film could have interviewed her brother, the novelist Joseph O’Connor, who might have had some very interesting insights. And it might, in a slightly more interrogative vein, have wondered about O’Connor’s later conversion to Islam, a religion which is not notably more enlightened on her key subjects than the Catholic Church. But this is a bracing guide to a brilliant individual who declined to conform.
• Nothing Compares is released on 7 October in cinemas.