From 9/27/07

For some reason, I'm listening to Sinead O'Connor's first two albums tonight, wondering (as one must when listening to them) "What the hell happened?!"

I can still recall quite well the night I first came across Sinead's work.  Kelly and I were still in Chapel Hill in those days, and one night over at our friend Ginny's place--more accurately, at her parents' house, since she had moved back in with them for a bit while she was looking for a new place, but I think her folks were out of town--we sat around watching music videos.  (I don't think we were actually watching MTV, which had stopped showing music sometime around 1985, but the channel was certainly showing something similar to the classic '82-era MTV, minus all the goddam REO Speedwagon vids.)

We heard a grinding guitar riff, followed by a peculiar vision appearing on the screen: a huge-eyed gamine with cropped hair and a voice alternately comforting, yearning, and berating.  The song was called "Mandinka," and we were instantly fascinated. 

A few weeks later, when her debut album (The Lion and the Cobra) turned up in both the playbox at WXYC and the New Releases section at Record Bar, I listened to a few more tracks--probably "Jerusalem" and "Jackie," though I no longer remember--and decided that this was an album we ought to have.  I don't recall whether it was Kelly or I who finally broke down and paid for it, but soon enough we had it at our house and I was able to say that this Sinead person was a major talent, as well as a highly attractive woman with a highly arresting hairstyle.  She joined the list of not-that-well-known artists we recommended to people, along with They Might Be Giants, Robyn Hitchcock, XTC, the Balancing Act, etc.  I certainly had no real inkling that she'd every be anything else.

But a couple of years later, a new album (I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got) popped up in the same two places, and this time people outside my circle of friends noticed.  I was transfixed by the almost painful openness of "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance" (still on my mix of the Saddest Songs in the World) and stuck like Velcro to the melody and pulsing rhythm of "The Emperor's New Clothes."  I also remember a couple of local DJs coming in hoping for a 12" single of "I Am Stretched On Your Grave," a brilliant bit of smashup from before the term existed: a Frank O'Connor poem set to a keening Irish melody, but sung almost without accompaniment over a sample of James Brown's "Funky Drummer."  (It was an album-only track, alas for them.)

The rest of the world, however, seemed unable to hear anything but "Nothing Compares 2 U."  (It's a cool song, yes, but it's never going to be my favorite Sinead tune.)  Suddenly Sinead was huge, appearing on MTV itself, selling oodles of records, and having her hairstyle and/or name's pronunciation debated by sorority girls.  It was a bizarre spectacle for those of us who'd been in her camp already.

But then came the commercial seppuku:  the appearance on Saturday Night Live, and the shredding of the pope's portrait in front of the camera, and the snide remarks from Sinatra, and the sudden feeling that Sinead's overtly confessional lyricism and confrontational style were not perhaps aesthetic statements, but signs of a deeply conflicted psyche.  As success reached for her, she withdrew, and to this day I've never heard a single note of any album she's released since 1990.  I think maybe she's happier that way.

I'm occasionally sad for the great artists who never got the mass audience they deserved--artists like TMBG, Hitchcock, XTC, and the Balancing Act, for example--but it's hard to be sad for those with both enormous talent and an unwillingness to share it with that mass audience.  I don't want to criticize Sinead for that unwillingness, however; I recognize the difference between talent and fame, and I appreciate that the latter makes demands that not everyone can handle.

I've still got the pulsing arpeggios of "Just Call Me Joe" and the sublime bass entrance of "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance."  It's enough for me.  I think it was enough for Sinead, too.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on October 8, 2007 3:50 PM.

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