They tried to bury me. They didn’t know I was a seed.SINÉAD O’CONNOR
Sinéad O’Connor’s Mom tried to plant her in the garden. She left her outside for multiple weeks at a time. She’d be out in long grass trying to get warm, screaming up to her Mom in the window, and the light would go out. As she details in her perfect song “Troy”: “I’ll remember it / Dublin in a rainstorm / Sitting in the long grass in summer / Keeping warm,” she intones, first demurely and poetically, building her soft whisper into a war cry eventually, “You should’ve left the light on / Then I wouldn’t have tried / And you’d never have known … I wouldn’t have screamed.”
In Nothing Compares, the new documentary by Kathryn Ferguson profiling the five year stretch of Sinéad O’Connor’s height of popularity (1987-1992), it’s clear that the controversial activist-singer loves all of her targets. She loves her mother. She has cried for 25 years for her mother, she says. She loves the Church, and she loves Ireland. To quote The Last Black Man in San Fransisco (2019), “you don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” When she covers Prince and takes ownership of his song (it’s hers now), and she can project onto his words (they’re hers now), an exacting sentiment of love-fueled grief:
All the flowers that you planted mama“NOTHING COMPARES 2 U”, SINÉAD O’CONNOR
In the back yard
All died when you went away
I know that living with you baby was sometimes hard
But I’m willing to give it another try
They are her words now because she gave them life through new meaning. The way she says these lines implies ownership. It implies that she has lived through this. That her mother planted her in the back yard and was hard to live with, but despite all that grief, she loves her so much, and is reflecting profoundly on generations of Irish women under the reigns of patriarchy, the monarchy, and the church. She can do that all at once, with the words formerly belonging to Prince, because that is the weight of her crushing specificity, and it was always her song, just waiting for her to sing it.
Prince does not come up in the new documentary. Not until the end. Not until one line in the end tells us that the Prince estate refused to let the project use any parts of the song. Sinéad O’Connor’s song. And yet, the documentary is called Nothing Compares, aptly named as yet another act of defiance. That’s all right. There’s no room for Prince here, there is only room for Sinéad O’Connor holding space for an entire generation.
The premise of the documentary highlights the non-binary and often racial intersectionality of Sinéad O’Connor’s advocacy. She rebels the way rock and roll stars wish they did. An actual affront to systems of power, causing meaningful reactions and conversations, because those systems are so dearly threatened by her enormous love. “Fight the real enemy,” she infamously provoked on Saturday Night Live, tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II after an a cappella performance of Bob Marley’s “War”. She could adopt the esoteric reggae practices of Rastafarian music. She came to America and found that people wanted to limit her freedom of speech in the land of the free and yet she was still going to target any system of oppression and represent everyone who is marginalized within that system. Sure, the documentary says she paved the way for an entire generation of women performers, but more astutely, she is in class and conversation with the great rebellious music of America; Public Enemy comes to mind, as Chuck D. is often featured, she is at home with such radically confrontational luminaries.
The documentary comes at a difficult time for Sinéad O’Connor. She lost one of her four children earlier this year. She’s since been hospitalized, as concerns for her mental health circulated around the internet. It’s a tragic time and sadly, her redemption arc has come at the hardest moment of any parent’s life. It’s incredibly touching and impossible to plan, that we get this documentary now, following the artist’s autobiography last year. It’s time to culturally reassess Sinéad O’Connor’s place in music history and protest culture. Nothing Compares provides few new answers. If you’ve read her book, you’ve already got the full story. If you were sentient in the ‘80s and ‘90s, none of this will be news to you. But for a new generation, who celebrate and uplift intersectional feminist icons and could use such a powerful figure of bravery in protest, Nothing Compares to Sinéad O’Connor. There are, however, thousands of comparable docs focusing only on the most populous phase of their subject’s career, and perhaps not asking the most important question of all: what happened between then and now? What did the seed become?