In October 1992 in New York’s Times Square, an industrial steamroller crunched over a pathway littered with Sinéad O’Connor CDs as onlookers cheered and journalists filmed the protest. Today, a building overlooking the square bears an enormous photo of the singer’s famous shaven head. Her Bambi eyes gaze out across the city – and a wider country which vilified, mocked and banned her.
When Kathryn Ferguson, director of a new documentary about the singer, came across the picture while walking through Manhattan, she stopped in her tracks. “There she is, this monolith!” she says. “I cried. Like a phoenix from the flames, she’s back.”
In an era when so many public figures are widely applauded activists, it is hard to overstate how alone, courageous, and yet how demonised O’Connor once was. Nor how huge the institutions she took on were: the Catholic church, the Irish constitution, the Grammys, the American national anthem.
“It wasn’t cool, on-trend activism,” says Ferguson, speaking on Zoom from a sunny, plant-filled room on the English south coast. “A lot of it was very unpalatable. The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church? Jeez Louise, it’s not something people wanted, or were ready, to hear.”
Nothing Compares is a beautifully constructed and impressionistic story of the rise and fall of O’Connor, from 1987 to 1993, told against the backdrop of the religious oppression that formed her, and through the lens of present-day feminism. It was an idea forming in Ferguson’s mind since the early 1990s, growing up in a divided, violent and religiously repressed Northern Ireland, where contraception was frowned upon and abortion illegal.
For Ferguson and her teenage friends growing up in Belfast, O’Connor in her Doc Martens declaring the Catholic church “evil” was the lone public voice they “absolutely needed at that time”. By 2019, the year Northern Ireland finally legalised abortion (four years on from Ireland legalising same-sex marriage), O’Connor’s legacy, to Ferguson, seemed all but forgotten, lost to marginal gossip over her mental health issues.
She saw a narrative which she felt needed correcting, for the uninitiated young, especially. “I’ve always been interested in revisionist female histories,” she says. “So many women are reduced to footnotes in history or seen through the ‘tragic heroine’ lens. I couldn’t bear that for Sinéad. In Ireland, the tide has been turning, but until the last maybe seven years, she was as ridiculed there as she was everywhere else.”
Nothing Compares resurrects Ferguson’s teenage hero, deftly weaving historical footage from key moments in culture and politics alongside personal home movies, dreamscape reconstructions, bewitching early band rehearsals and global TV interviews. No talking heads interrupt the narrative, which is led by O’Connor (from a two-day interview with Ferguson, in Dublin, in late 2019), with background and commentary from clergymen, PRs and musical associates such as Peaches and Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
Unflinching testimonies paint a pretty medieval picture of the Ireland O’Connor grew up in; the church controlling women’s lives financially and sexually; her mother meting out horrific abuse; the young O’Connor forced to live in the garden. Music saved her: “My therapy, I just wanted to scream” – her rage made manifest in the voice of a formidable warrior-siren. She found an alternative family in London, among musicians, Rastafarians and drag queens, singing on stage in Leigh Bowery’s club with a cigarette and a can of lager.
Nothing Compares 2 U changed everything. The song topped the charts worldwide in 1990; an achievement she celebrated by boycotting the next year’s Grammys, protesting the music industry’s “false and destructive materialistic values”. By 1992 she was ready to make her definitive statement, calling out the Catholic church for then-alleged cover-ups of paedophile priests, citing the Vatican as enabler.
“No one could do jack shit to me that hadn’t been done already,” she says, as the footage unfolds: her ferociously beautiful voice singing Bob Marley’s anti-racism landmark War; the thrusting into the camera of the photo of the pope she had taken from the home of her mother, by now deceased; its meticulous ripping-up; the command into the microphone, “Fight the real power!”; the serene blowing-out of church-like candles. It remains arguably the most punk-rock moment by a global No 1 pop artist in history. The backlash was instant: death threats, radio boycotts, Frank Sinatra wishing to “kick her ass”, the booing at the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert two weeks later.
One Saturday Night Live skit involved a comedian playing Sinatra alongside a woman with a fake shaved head: “What gives, cue ball?” smirked the alleged funnyman. “Come on, swing baby, you’re platinum, forget the head, put a bag over it and do your business …”
“The misogyny, oof!” says Ferguson. “And everyone thought it was hilarious. She was 23, 24, and people were threatened. The white man of America could not accept who she was.”
When Nothing Compares recently screened across the US, Ferguson was gratified – especially by the reactions of the young.
“These flashing-eyed 15-year-olds,” she says, “almost speechless: ‘How did we not know all this about her?’ It’s become an accidental call to arms, because of what’s happening in America [the return of banned abortion], women dealing with the horrors we faced as Irish people. But if you push hard enough, things can change. Ireland has changed and a lot of that’s from young, energised, collective activism.”
O’Connor was vindicated. In 2008 came the pope’s public apology over paedophile priests, the first of many. But Nothing Compares stays within its seven-year focus. Ferguson does not cover O’Connor’s ongoing psychological turmoil, nor the suicide this year of her son. Peaches, though, lifts O’Connor’s legacy into 2022, describing the singer in the 1990s as “non-binary, intersectional, beyond feminist” and as a mental health issues pioneer. “We’re not saying she’s directly influenced everything,” says Ferguson, “but certainly indirectly.”
The director recently attended a screening of Nothing Compares in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. “I was terrified,” she says. “The youngest there was 14, the oldest 98. It was tense, quiet. We get to the Saturday Night Live scene and the entire room stood up and started cheering Sinéad. I burst into tears. Wow.”
The last words must go to O’Connor herself. “They tried to bury me,” she says. “They didn’t realise I was a seed.”
• This article was amended on 30 September 2022. The Times Square steamroller protest was in October 1992, not September; and abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland in 2019, not 2018 as an earlier version said.
• Nothing Compares is released on 7 October.