Nearly two decades ago, in the waning minutes of an otherwise unremarkable episode of Saturday Night Live, Sinead O’Connor set what to this day remains the high water mark for the self-immolation of a musical career. Standing alone in the middle of the stage, the bald-pated Irish siren belted out an a capella version of Bob Marley’s War. At the conclusion of the song, O’Connor unleashed a tsunami of controversy when she produced a photograph of Pope John Paul II in conjunction with the word “evil” and proceeded to rip it to shreds with an exhortation to “fight the real enemy.”
With that one gesture, O’Connor sabotaged her entire career, a not-so-insubstantial feat in a pre-Internet era where “going viral” was a term solely within the province of microbiologists. Two weeks later, at a concert to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary in the music business, a sold-out Madison Square Garden booed her off the stage. A fan base formed around a singer that voiced discontent with a whole generation would not condone a protest they did not support. They could forgive the perceived transgression of turning ones back upon the folk ideal but would not support the protest of a young Irish woman against the Catholic Church. Embodying Dylan’s convictions, O’Connor halted the band and returned the audience’s hostility with an angry a capella reprise of War before walking off stage and breaking down in tears into Kris Kristofferson’s arms. That one moment remains emblematic of O’Connor: she is a fierce warrior that will never back down from a challenge but underneath the brash, impervious exterior lies a heart that can easily be broken.
While she surely didn’t realize that career-wise, she was essentially a dead woman walking, O’Connor wasn’t entirely unprepared to be at the epicenter of this storm. The outspoken singer had already weathered the backlash of her refusal to perform at the Garden State Arts Center if the Jersey venue played the National Anthem before the show. Not only was O’Connor flogged publicly in every American news outlet, Frank Sinatra, O’Connor’s senior by more than 50 years, fueled the fire by stating he would like to kick her ass, a threat that helped inspire the classic SNL sketch The Sinatra Group. Offering up an explanation for her SNL stunt, O’Connor stated that she wanted to call attention to the systemic cover-up by the Catholic Church of widespread child abuse and molestation being committed within its institution. While history has not been kind to O’Connor’s actions, it has borne out the validity of her cause. In the summer of 2011, Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland (Prime Minister), seemed to channel O’Connor’s words on the floor of the Dail Eireann (the principal chamber of Irish parliament) when he vilified the Vatican and Roman Catholic Church for committing and condoning the abuse of generations of Irish children. That Sinead O’Connor tried saying the same thing nearly 20 years earlier was summarily and conveniently ignored.
O’Connor’s star has never shone as brightly as it did since she topped the charts with the Prince-penned Nothing Compares 2 U. In recent years, she has released, to little acclaim, albums containing her interpretation of traditional Irish songs as well as compendiums of reggae music. In 2005, she appeared at the Jammy Awards, only to apocryphally stop the band mid-song to remedy a perceived false start. For as much as O’Connor seemed out of touch with the musical world around her, with How About I Be Me (And You Be You), her strongest album since I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, she now seems acutely self-aware.
With the impending release of her new album, O’Connor returned to the United States for a pair of sold-out shows at New York City’s Highline Ballroom. Even though a bout of laryngitis postpones a meritorious discussion of whether her voice still possesses its majestic power, O’Connor exhibited a masterful control over her vocals, knowing exactly how restrain her delivery to get the maximum effect. What doesn’t need tabling is the realization that O’Connor has rediscovered her inner voice; V.I.P., I Had A Baby, 4th And Vine and the John Grant penned Queen Of Denmark from How About I Be Me standing as thinly veiled declarations of the angst, sadness and frustration bubbling within her soul. At a bare minimum, time surely hasn’t dulled O’Connor’s penchant for bluntly discoursing on things she thinks are fucked.
Still diminutive in stature and bearing a stubbled version of her signature hairless dome, O’Connor no longer presents as the Gaelic waif with the otherworldly voice. Rather, in the offerings of Three Babies and I Am Stretched On Your Grave from her 1990 release I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, it’s hard to escape the realization that two decades ago, O’Connor may simply have been an aged soul trapped inside a young body. Practically every song on Exile In Guyville, Liz Phair’s breakout feminist manifesto, has more of a connection to The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Last Days of Our Acquaintance than to anything on Exile On Main Street, the Stones album most-often linked to Phair’s debut effort.
Especially since she’s found Twitter, O’Connor remains viable tabloid fodder, receiving the publicity attendant with every comment that strays from the norm. Such is her cross to bear. For the first time in many years though, O’Connor’s giving people reason to talk about her music. Let’s enjoy this while it lasts.
With the Galactic horns serving as a substitute for his distinctive guitar at the New Orleans collective’s recent show with Corey Glover at Terminal 5 (covered on this very site), Living Colour’s Vernon Reid was free to join DJ Leon Lamont and Akim Funk Buddha at Dixon Place for a presentation of his multimedia creation, Artificial Afrika. Mixing elements of performance art, dance, ambient soundscapes, visual imagery, Gil Scott-Heron quality social commentary and Mystery Science Theater 3000, Artificial Afrika contemplates the connection between African-Americans and Africa. In exploring the semiotics of race and racism amidst the search for an understanding of one’s cultural identity, Reid returns to themes that have run through his work since well before his Living Colour days. Artificial Afrika chooses to raise questions rather than offer answers, providing food for thought rather than bromides and platitudes. It might be politically correct to claim that Reid’s performance piece transcends race. However, it wouldn’t be a wholly accurate statement. Notwithstanding that different cultural demographics will have different responses, Reid remains one of the more thought-provoking artists and Artificial Afrika is a worthy addition to his canon.
At last year’s South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, crowds descended upon free shows by The Strokes and Kanye West like the bugs from Starship Troopers. When Auditorium Shores reached its capacity, fans prevented from entering burst into The Star Spangled Banner in response to being denied entry to a public park . . . and then pretty much broke down the gates. Addressing the issue at this year’s SXSW, admission to an unannounced location for an intimate March 15 performance by keynote speaker Bruce Springsteen (and The E Street Band) will be parsed out in a random drawing to badge holders and certain wristband bearers. While this solution manages to be both elitist and egalitarian in one fell swoop, it also may be the first step towards assuring that a Who-like stampede never dominates a SXSW headline.