She knows no shame: The best of Sinead O’Connor

Greil Marcus and others writing at the dawn of punk recorded how watching Johnny Rotten was so unsettling that an atmosphere of danger and impending doom would hang over the venue. Sinead O’Connor at the peak of her evanescent stardom in the early nineties had that impact on me. I hadn’t seen her live — what live performance could match the tremors set off by “Troy,” “Jackie,” and “Just Like U Said It Would B”?

A while ago Eric Harvey noted how O’Connor tearing a photo of John Paul II asunder on “Saturday Night Live” provoked the biggest earthquake of all. Watching it at my uncle’s house, the act happened so quickly and spontaneously that we all sat blinking as if a fly had flicked across our lines of vision. It wasn’t all though:

A couple other reactions bear mention: Tim Robbins, that evening’s host, didn’t even acknowledge her in the good-nights. Didn’t even look at her or mention her name, and she’s standing right next to him. Tim Robbins! Then it got worse the next week, with Joe Pesci. His “hey I taped the photo back together” stunt was fine, but then he said, “if it was my show, I’d have gave her such a smack!”, at which point the audience applauded. Seriously. A round of applause for a man threatening physical violence against a woman who had made a gesture trying to draw attention to child abuse in the Catholic church. Crazy.

She still releases pretty good albums without a centimeter of the attention she would’ve gotten twenty years ago (!). The Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got remain doors through which few of O’Connor’s descendants have passed: the instinct for stylistic play; a control over physical and songwriting voices that belie her inchoate public image; the congeries of literary and folk influences. Merrill Garbus comes closest.

1. The Emperor’s New Clothes
2. Jump in the River
3. Troy
4. I Want Your (Hands on Me)
5. Mandinka
6. Nothing Compares 2 U
7. Fire on Babylon
8. My Special Child
9. You Do Something To Me
10. The Last Day of Our Acquaintance
11. Drink Before the War
12. No Man’s Woman
13. Ain’t It a Shame
14. Jealous
15. All Apologies

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