Sinéad O'Connor's website crashed. The error message was Internet-lyrical: “Resource Limit Is Reached.” The musician's open letter to Miley Cyrus made O'Connor an Internet flavor of the moment, and with good reason. The letter was honestly written “in the spirit of motherliness and with love,” but its author is still a rock god, so the language veers from the epigrammatic and sorta profound “If you have an innocent heart you can't recognise those who do not,” to the nearly anarchofeminist “Kindly fire any motherfucker who hasn't expressed alarm, because they don't care about you.” It's a beautiful letter; flawed, but genuine.
What the Internet might not know is that O'Connor has been doing this all along. She's repeatedly anted up every last thing she owns and pawned her future in an attempt to protect children from exploitation, to use a polite word for it, at the very least since 1992.
That year, on Oct. 3, she showed the studio audience of Saturday Night Live a photograph of the pope and chanted “evil, evil.” She had just priestessed everyone into a half-unwilling trance with a hypnotic, sonically perfect cover of Bob Marley's “War,” a capella and with the word “racism” replaced by “child abuse.” Those watching, you can hear on the videotape, are deep under a Druidic fury-spell, and New Yorkers don't like that; maybe especially not a New York comedy audience. O'Connor wore white lace and tore the pope in half, in half again, and once more. Throwing eight papal scraps into the audience, she shouted, “Fight the real enemy!” Thundering silence followed, during which O'Connor calmly, or anyway without shaking, took off the ear-clip headphone monitor wire, collected her papers, and left. No one clapped, but not a single annoyed New Yorker booed, either.
She was young that night — did she know what damage she'd done to her professional life? After the pope thing, she “became a joke,” even getting booed offstage at Madison Square Garden at a Bob Dylan tribute concert. “It definitely dealt a near-lethal blow to her career,” according to Rolling Stone.
Why did anyone care if some girl did a blasphemy? Why, when Madonna was about to release a new record, was Sinéad O'Connor, the weird bald chick, all anyone wanted to talk about? The answer can only be talent. When a singer of this magnitude looked into the camera and blasphemed so well, all anyone could think to do was say ''bad crazy.” And of course that's what they're saying now, too. Funny thing, though: O'Connor was right.
When she first came to light, men often hated her, no reason given. I remember a punk house whose all-boy tenants were proud to have a life-size photo of her face on the underside of their toilet lid. They peed on her. The rest of us, however — women — fell into instant, sometimes even unwilling, addiction. We raced around country roads at night with the windows down and The Lion and the Cobra cassette up all the way, tears falling into our wide-open screaming mouths. And then, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” O'Connor took over the world with the single from her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. Of course it was softer and poppier than “Just Like You Said it Would Be.” But it was a perfect setting for the crystal of this voice, the only one of its kind with its jagged rocks and Irish hoodoo.
In the early 1990s, you could still go to pool halls. Every town had a big room full of tables and people standing around. Maybe they weren't the kind of people you wanted to be when you grew up, but they tended to be average. You could see old people, young people, college students, construction workers, and moms in there. It was cheap to spend time in pool halls, and you could get a small beer in a glass, or chips, or a soda. And there was always a jukebox. Usually it was playing Van Halen.
I was in one of these places in 1990, in Santa Rosa, on Mendocino Avenue. Mere months after the album's release, “Nothing Compares 2 U” was on heavy rotation everywhere. Men continued to pretend they hated it, I think, but it was in the air by that time. It was going to come on the jukebox after “Jump.” As it played that day in the pool hall, I mouthed the words, and laughed to myself, at myself. Such a silly song. But I looked over — my friend was mouthing the words, too. All of a sudden I was aware that the woman at the next table, a blond athletic type, was singing it too. I did a covert visual sweep of the whole place. Every single woman was singing “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Every last woman, and they were all doing it in a way that wouldn't attract attention. I couldn't believe my eyes. It was so beautiful.
The hideously widespread practice of Vatican-sanctioned child abuse in the Catholic Church is now well-documented. (O'Connor's own teenage incarceration as one of tens of thousands of girls in Ireland's “Magdalene Laundries” is still being investigated by various groups, including the U.N., without any cooperation from the church or from Ireland.) Somehow this connection to the truth has been swept under the rug. Now would be a fine time to dust it off and have a look at it, in light of this new weird thing she's done. We're suspicious of those who make a scene for their own profit, or we should be. By the same token, someone who kicks up a fuss that's definitely going to turn around and bite them in the ass might be telling the truth. Sinéad O'Connor has also been wrong, of course, even if that reggae album did get decent reviews. In The New York Times, on Nov. 1, 1992, Jon Pareles wrote: “It's easy to disagree with O'Connor's latest outbursts. But better the occasional passionate, off-the-wall eruption — taking the chance that might stir up outrage — than a culture of safety and calculation.”
So again, she was right. Whether she's right this time may take 20 years to figure out.