Throughout the years, Sinéad repeatedly stated that the then-controversial incident didn’t throw her career off course—it put her back on the path she was meant to be on, that of a singer. (“Nothing Compares 2 U,” her highest-charting single, released in 1990, made ’92 a time when she had everything to lose.)
In my 2020 interview for SPIN, I asked her: “Do you ever have any regrets about speaking your mind?”
Her response: “No. I absolutely don't.”
In 2022 I devoted my annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame open letter to Sinéad’s induction, and comments on the post were peppered with laughter emojis and “NFW” comments. While there were a few diehard supporters, many sneered that she was a one-hit wonder with a song she didn’t even write herself. Because social media bullies love to hate, those voices seemed plentiful and blaring.
Mere days after this post, Sinéad’s 17-year-old son, Shane, after an extended internal battle, took his own life. If you can believe it, the bullies came back.
If that’s what I remember from these isolated incidents—what did Sinéad remember? What did the 31 years between ’92 and her untimely death bring her?
When it came time for the SPIN editors to have a serious discussion about our Artist of the Year —who was the musician who made the most impact this year?—there were so many to choose from, from long-awaited comebacks to record-breaking stadium stars. All of the editors additionally chose their personal artist of the year, but a majority consensus would determine SPIN’s.
When it came time for me to make my case for Sinéad—my choice—I started from the beginning. Sinéad’s career was launched at SPIN, an altogether true alt-rock fairytale about one fated after-hours evening when SPIN Founder Bob Guccione Jr. discovered a discarded cassette labeled The Lion and the Cobra in an editor’s trash bin and played it all night. As the story goes, his call to her publicist the next day was the only phone call she received. In 1991 SPIN put her on the cover of the November issue. The cover line to Guccione’s interview with her read: “Exclusive: Sinéad O’Connor on Her Child Abuse, Sex, Abortion, God, and Music.” These are the things she was willing to openly talk about when most others were not. In 1991.
The discussion sparked an all-important debate of what it means to be an artist, in our industry, a label applied liberally and all-inclusively. The title is for Artist of the Year, not musician/singer/songwriter/pop star. Artist. So, what is an artist? Is it someone who sells out arena tours? Makes the most money? Has the highest social media engagement?
Sinéad died. This wasn’t her year. As an outsider, one could argue that the last many years and decades weren’t “hers,” either. One can assume from her 2021 memoir, Rememberings, she wasn’t the wealthiest working musician in the room. Since being famously booed during the Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden (October ’92), stadium offers likely weren’t pouring in. And until her death, social media was hardly the cushion of support she deserved.
So, where were you? Not when she died, but the years before. For all of you that offered words of worship, where were you when she openly cried for help? When others took verbal stabs at her, did you defend her? And for all of you—a mere weeks after her death—who caused her streaming downloads to increase by nearly 3,000%—is there any reason you couldn’t have done this sooner? Does the music sound better once an artist is gone?
What does all this say about us? What does Sinéad—her life and her death—say about the best and the worst of us?
A true artist’s life and work reflects the best and the worst of the world around them. Sinéad was a true artist. She shaved her head and spoke her mind and did the unpopular thing. She started conversations and stood up for causes she believed in when others were too afraid. Sinéad believed that’s what fame was for. And all this combined with an exquisite, undeniable natural talent for both singing and songwriting, showcased throughout her career and its 10 studio albums.
Sinéad is our Artist of the Year not because she died, but because she lived a life of fire.
That’s what trailblazers do.