Sinéad O’Connor: “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
First things first: I’m concerned for Sinéad O’Connor. Oh, I know she’s practically made a career of being bizarre and unpredictable, but for much of that it seemed like she at least was in control of herself and doing things her way, however odd those things might sometimes have seemed. But with her recent disappearance and supposed suicide note (she was found alive, thankfully), it has begun to seem that she no longer really has a firm grasp on herself, and that her battle with mental illness is potentially one of life and death for her now. But obviously I don’t know her and won’t pretend that I can make any sort of meaningful statements about her state of mind from a few facts as reported in the media; all I know is that I am saddened that things seem to have taken a darker turn for the worse.
Because there was of course a time when Sinéad was one of the most potent singers and songwriters in music. Both her debut album, 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra, and the followup, the stunning 1990 album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, are riveting and powerful, easily melding aggressive (and catchy) rock with quieter, yet intense, folk-ish songs. At the time, it seemed that she was destined for legend status if things continued as they had been. But then the whole stupid Pope-photo-ripping thing happened on Saturday Night Live in 1992 — “stupid” not because I care about whatever her real intent was, but stupid because it almost immediately derailed her career and caused many to stop taking her seriously. The backlash seemed to leave a mark on her psyche — how could it not? Even the strongest of personalities couldn’t avoid being affected by the level of vitriol she had to have experienced in its wake.
Despite that, she has continued to show flashes of brilliance in her releases over the years since, and her last two releases in particular (in 2012 and 2014) have shown a solid return to her strengths. But for me, it will always come back to those first two albums, and one of the absolute highlights of those early years is “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Even though I Do Not Want… features the huge smash cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” this song still stands out as my favorite on the album. A song both defiant and conciliatory — to, respectively, the public and (at least in the song’s storyline) a former lover/father of her child — it almost seems to foretell the struggles she would have with public opinion after the photo ripping a couple of years later. Whether it’s autobiographical or not (although O’Connor has always struck me as more of an observer than a storyteller, so I lean toward the former), it showcases the strength of conviction that has always been her trademark:
Everyone can see what’s going on
They laugh ’cause they know they’re untouchable
Not because what I said was wrong
Whatever it may bring
I will live by my own policies
I will sleep with a clear conscience
I will sleep in peace
Maybe it sounds mean
But I really don’t think so
You asked for the truth and I told you
I’ve always respected that about her, whether I agree with (or understand) the stances she takes or not. I hope she’ll be able to overcome whatever is going on inside of her that has made her life chaotic of late, and at the very least find peace with herself. If she can focus herself to produce more great music, all the better . . . I for one will be eager to hear it.