1990 had some of the worst Number One singles in rock. It wasn’t at all a bad year for pop music generally: as a high school sophomore I grooved to every hit on Rhythm Nation, thought it a minor triumph that a song as cool (in both senses of the word) as Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” cracked the Top Ten, and enjoyed great one-offs like “Groove is in the Heart” (my first concert alone with friends), Jane Child’s “Don’t Wanna Fall In Love,” and Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody.” I was just discovering “college rock”: Electronic’s “Getting Away With It,” Peter Murphy’s “Cuts You Up,” Michael Penn’s “This and That,” and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On.” Hip-hop, alas, meant “Bust a Move” and little else. Prince meant Graffiti Bridge (I also owned the “Thieves in the Temple” cassingle).
But the stately grace of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” stands out. Part of the reason it lodged four weeks at the chart (and, even more shockingly, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got topped the album chart) is that it was so obviously an anomaly. The arrangement remains mired in 1990, of course: the clattery drum machine, echo, the strings. But if it’s impossible to separate the experience of listening to the song from watching its dramatic video, it’s equally impossible to evaluate O’Connor’s rendition of the so-so Prince song without considering the effect her voice had on listeners. As the third ballad in a row to top the chart (Tommy Page’s “I’ll Be Your Everything” and Taylor Dayne’s “Love Will Lead You Back” preceded it), “Nothing Compares 2 U” was akin to dropping Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Valens from Blue Velvet into your high school prom (David Lynch cannily stages the shocking sight of a naked, cigarette-burned Rossellini after Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern come home from their woozy slow dance at a friend’s house). In its keening purity, the way it tosses around the line about going to the doctor as if it was a rowboat in a hurricane, the voice refuses to allay its intensity. Jane Dark hits it: “If there is a novelty to O’Connor’s reading of the song, it lies in its pointed monotony.”
This unnerving performance, plus her baldheaded-and-barefoot schtick, made her a huge MTV star and something of a hero to fans of Top 40 and college rock; she was so special we could all like her. She offered crumbs to everyone. Not that 1990′s other chartbound fare didn’t offer similar examples of sustained melodrama: a curly-haired Whitney Houston clone named Mariah Carey would dominate the summer and fall; and a Swedish duo wrote an unexpectedly restrained power ballad for Pretty Woman called “It Must Have Been Love” that became the year’s biggest soundtrack hit. And before you get too enamored with O’Connor’s novelty, remember: “I’ll Be Your Everything” and Taylor Dayne (a tough broad whose first hits consisted of post-Expose freestyle and who coulda been a contender had she ducked Diane Warren) stuck around to remind Sinead who she’d cut in line. Also: second single “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — in which O’Connor took songwriting credit for the sanctimony and clear conscience — didn’t even scratch the Top 40.