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Oct 10

SINEAD O’CONNOR – “Nothing Compares 2 U”

FT + Popular167 comments • 11,049 views

#641, 3rd February 1990

Sinead O’Connor is one of the finest song interpreters not just because she thinks hard about the material and the feelings locked in it, but because she’s so good at placing songs into a situation. A great example of this is her version of “Chiquitita”, warm and homely where ABBA’s is melodramatic, replacing its theatrical flourishes with a cosy tick-tock rhythm like a parlour clock. In the video she makes you, the viewer-as-Chiquitita, a cup of tea and settles down for a chat, and it’s perfect: that’s exactly what her version feels like.

This ability to find an angle gives her cover versions life and variety: she’s happy to switch up her singing style as the track demands, she’s never reliant on one-size-fits-all passion. She can belt with the best of them – think of her “You’re killing me!” ranting on “Success Has Made A Failure Of Our Home”. But she’s also happy to keep her distance if that’s what the song needs. This is why the famous video for “Nothing Compares For You” – tight close-up on O’Connor’s face, a tear sliding down her cheek, her spitting some words and flinching from others – can be misleading. It makes you think the record is brilliant because of its raw, unsimulated emotion: but really it’s more subtle than that, and the artifice of the video’s framing is as much a tell as those two teardrops.

Her “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a very moving track – it captures the stasis, anger and devastation of a bad break-up with awful accuracy – but it seems to me Sinead comes to that emotion through very calculated vocal choices, particularly the shifts between a gentle vocal tone and one more edged and occasionally so harsh it almost sounds treated. Take the chorus, for instance – it builds up as a big soft rock sweep: “But nothing compares…” – and then starts to zig-zag, O’Connor picking out individual syllables – “no-THING! com-pares” – before blurring the last two into a single stabbing cry – “TOYEW”.

How does this way of singing work with the grain of the song? “Nothing Compares 2 U” is – at least partly – about control and its limits. The singer has freedom and autonomy, she knows exactly how long she’s hurt for and is withering about others’ attempts to advise or alleviate it. By the end of the song she’s acting like it’s her choice whether he comes back or not – and this coda is the record’s prettiest and most desperate moment. So the ultra-precise vocals on “Nothing Compares” dramatise this. And they allow for some magical moments – the hopelessness of “I can see whoever I choose“, and the showy melisma on “whatever I want” and “restaurant” underlining their pointlessness in a life where all activity has become decorative and empty. The defiant, then trailing “every boy I see“. The chilling first line. And – of course – “GUESS what he told me!”

I haven’t even mentioned the music, whose stately, sympathetic pulse gives O’Connor the canvas she needs to be so devastating. Compare it to the Prince-produced original by The Family and you can easily see the work this rich, understated backing is doing – the melody is there on the Family’s version but the production strands it by turning the song’s sorrow into a fog. Everything about Sinead O’Connor’s track is clear, by contrast. But there’s still something irreducibly private about it, this portrait of a woman whose grief is all she has to hold onto.

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Comments

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  1. 91
    Rory on 9 Nov 2010 #

    Curiosity got the better of me and I filled the gaps in my Sinead O’Connor collection last week. Throw Down Your Arms was the biggest surprise; I’m not much of a reggae fan, but this I enjoyed. Theology is taking a bit longer to get into. But my reason for posting right now is that I just listened to the live version of NC2U on She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty, and it’s fantastic: strings rather than synths, and a vocal performance that clearly benefited from 15-odd years of singing it. Well worth tracking down.

    Can’t say the same for the original version of the song by The Family, available on YouTube (don’t read the comments if you’re a fan of O’Connor’s version). Apart from sounding like an early ’80s Prince b-side without Prince, the “oh, woah woah woah” element really brings it down with a thud — it’s a good thing S.O. omitted it. Prince kept it in his own later live versions, though.

  2. 92
    swanstep on 9 Nov 2010 #

    the “oh, woah woah woah” element really brings it down with a thud

    I agree. Getting rid of this is one of Sinead’s key streamlining decisions…. one that opens up all the joy division-y space that she can then fill with her drama!

    Continuing to think over this record and Rosie’s ‘Eh, this stuff was a dime a dozen in the ’60s’ challenge to it, I’ve ended up sort of agreeing with one part of Rosie’s complaint.

    It’s true that by the late ’50s and ’60s that jazz/songbook singing had really matured: lots of songs that had been around for 20 years now received near definitive reading from great singers and orchestras who’d learned from everything before them, etc. (Only very occasionally, e.g., I only have eyes for you, was the original ’30s version definitive – I defended the dick powell original of Only have eyes at length on the art gunfunkel 1976 popular entry a while back!). It’s an amazing/golden age period: not just sinatra and ella in their pomp, but a whole host of people (vaughan, torme, prysock, shirley horn, helen merill, and many others). If you listen to the best records from this group/period, which *often* have ‘doomed love’ themes, then I think it’s fair to say that they’re the equal of Sinead’s record. Put the other way around, Sinead’s NC2U *fits in* with Torme’s Gloomy Sunday, Shirley Horn’s Once I loved, and the like, but it doesn’t dominate those earlier records. Nothing could: they’re flippin’ masterpieces after all.

    But all this perspective finally just serves to clarify for me Sinead’s amazing achievement. On the one hand, she lifts NC2U into the timeless songbook (see jimmy scott’s version from 1992, which is on youtube). Her clarifications of the underlying song and her interpretation of the lyric made NC2U a standard. (Prince wasn’t especially gracious about this at the time [and as I recall Sinead gave as good as she got, bad-mouthing him back, suggesting he needed a hit, the royalties etc.], but realistically he should be very grateful to her by now.)

    On the other hand, the super-duper sophisticated song-book stuff from the late ’50s and ’60s mostly didn’t get anywhere near the top of the charts. E.g., ella fitz. had a bunch of US #1s but only in the ’30s and ’40s, most/all of which are pretty lightweight, certainly compared to what she’d do later. Sinead then did something really remarkable: she did to prince’s song what the great songbook/jazz singers mostly did to ’30s and ’40s pop tunes only after 20 years or so, and she made it a massive #1 record all over the world. That’s what makes it one of the great #1s (just as Nina Simone getting Just in time to #1 in 1968 would have been). It’s kind of a miracle if and when something really great connects broadly and quickly enough with lots and lots of people: the stuff that was, it’s true, all over the place in the late ’50s and ’60s and that was as good as Sinead’s NC2U didn’t manage it or, for the most part, even come close.

  3. 93
    Paulito on 10 Nov 2010 #

    @78 – I hate to piss on your ‘Saint Sinead’ bubble, but people don’t find SOC insufferable because of her “defiance”. They find her so because of her strong tendency towards exaggeration and self-mythologising (her admirers generally choose to hear only her side of her numerous stories); her shrill sermonising; and her many ludicrous publicity stunts (“I’m a lesbian/nun/Rasta/whatever you’re having yourself”). Ever pompous and didactic, she uses her ‘victimhood’ as a stick of righteousness to beat others with (“I was abused, therefore I’m right about EVERYTHING”). In short, she’s rather a pain in the arse.

    I know I said people ought to stick to discussing her music, but if you can’t lick ’em…

  4. 94
    punctum on 10 Nov 2010 #

    Or to put it in other words: “shut up, uppity woman, and know your place.”

    Right, P?

  5. 95
    wichita lineman on 10 Nov 2010 #

    Not really. Shrill is subjective but didactic isn’t. Humourless was mentioned above. There is a reason she gets on people’s nerves that has nothing to do with a mistrust of strong women. If a bloke went on tv and tore up a picture of the pope I’d equally think “that’s really helping the discourse, isn’t it.”

  6. 96
    punctum on 10 Nov 2010 #

    It’s remarkable how with rock critics Lennon, Jagger, Elvis, Lydon etc. all get a free pass and/or cheers for their character/rebellious nature and get away with some hideous bullshit but when a woman dares to stand up and say something she’s “humourless, “didactic” and “pompous.”

    Or when male rock stars are called out on misogyny there’s always detailed reasoning and analysis but when a woman says something the “mansplainers” just crowd round her, sneer and denounce.

    Either way, this is “mansplaining.”

  7. 97
    wichita lineman on 10 Nov 2010 #

    Of course you have a point, but equally I’m sure you don’t really think that I’d use words like humourless and didactic (pompous wasn’t mine) every time “a woman dares to stand up and say something”. There are plenty of humourless and didactic male pop stars, with far more suspect agendas, who I react to much more strongly than I do to Sinead O’Connor.

  8. 98
    lex on 10 Nov 2010 #

    I found O’Connor’s gesture in ripping up a picture of the Pope inspiring, liberating and deeply helpful to me in the context of freeing myself from a religious upbringing. And it seemed brave and deeply felt, not (just!) a superficial attention-seeking move.

  9. 99
    lex on 10 Nov 2010 #

    Also lest we forget, despite being dismissed as a madwoman at the time, she was actually RIGHT about that.

  10. 100
    wichita lineman on 10 Nov 2010 #

    That always feels to me, personally, like a war that was won a while back because of my (barely) religious upbringing and that of my peers, compared to our parents and grandparents. Hats off to Sinead if it was liberating for you or anyone else, Lex. I don’t doubt for a moment that it was heartfelt but it seemed as crass as Hugo Chavez always mentioning the devil and George Bush in the same breath. Even with the catholic church and Bush’s records, I think you need a little more delicacy to make a bigger impact.

  11. 101
    Tom on 10 Nov 2010 #

    It would be lovely if the Randy Newman approach worked more often but I think pop stars wanting to make a statement have a tiny window of opportunity to do it and taking the most direct route is useful in terms of starting a conversation. Which Sinead did – at the very least people were asking “Why is she tearing up a picture of the Pope?”, and even if a lot of people answered “She’s a madwoman”, a lot of people didn’t.

    (Comparable recent example: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Stark, reductive, sensationalist, “not his place” to say it, but apparently even GWB admits in his memoirs it’s a defining moment of his presidency.)

    At the time the UK press didn’t backlash against SOC for the Pope thing, though of course it cost her her international stardom. But the times were more friendly to anger and gesture in pop than they were in the 80s or 00s. I remember Select bracketing it with Cathal Coughlan pretending to shove a statue of the Virgin Mary up his arse in front of an arena full of Italian U2 fans, next to which “Fight the real enemy” looks like delicacy incarnate.

  12. 102
    Tom on 10 Nov 2010 #

    BTW while I’m on Punctum and Lex’s side in this one, isn’t “mansplaining” when men patronisingly explain back to a woman what she’s already said or demonstrated she knows (which they ignored because she’s a woman)?

    I think I may be mansplaining “mansplaining” TO A MAN here.

  13. 103
    wichita lineman on 10 Nov 2010 #

    Fair point, Tom. Lest we forget Lee Ryan’s 9/11 window of opportunity: “This New York thing is being blown out of proportion. What about whales? They are ignoring animals that are more important. Animals need saving and that’s more important”.

    Pop stars, bloody hell.

  14. 104
    punctum on 10 Nov 2010 #

    As I understand it, mansplaining involves patronisingly explaining to a woman, not just what she already knows, but also why she is wrong and “he” is right. The irony is that when it comes to prominent female musicians, damnations are often unexplained or shrugged off for kneejerk/unfounded reasons, but basically it represents an extended pat on the head: “very good, little girl, now go away and play,” thus maintaining the patriarchy’s predominance.

  15. 105
    Rory on 10 Nov 2010 #

    I see blokes on TV tearing into the Pope all the time — Mock the Week, Have I Got News for You — figuratively, if not literally.

    If O’Connor’s tearing up of that picture didn’t help the discourse, it was because most people read it as “she’s disrespecting a lovely man” rather than “she’s trying to draw attention to serious problems with the Catholic Church in Ireland”. But from her point of view this wasn’t a lovely man, this was the leader of a broken institution, and the best way to draw attention to that was to do something dramatic and memorable. If she’d launched into an on-air rant about the church it would have been quickly forgotten; tearing up that picture wasn’t.

    No matter how admirable John Paul II was in other ways, there’s no denying that the Catholic church in Ireland was keeping a lid on some disturbing stuff in the early 1990s. O’Connor’s action was before the stories of abuse in Magdalene laundries and schools for the poor came into the open; in that context, there was no discourse for her to help. She was trying to start one, and that takes more than just a polite “excuse me”. She recently said, “I was perfectly willing to deal with the consequences, the main one of which was people saying I’m a nutcase, which I agree with anyway.”

    Nobody really wanted to listen to her in October 1992; it took the discovery of unmarked graves in a former convent to start the discourse properly the following year. But at least she tried. And we know now that the cause was worth the attempt.

    @93: If showing an interest in Rastafarianism and reggae is a “publicity stunt”, there goes a lot of 1970s/80s punk and pop music (and if she did it for publicity in the 2000s, she sure missed the boat). If being a lesbian or bisexual is a publicity stunt, how come the general public hasn’t heard of 99% of them? If being unusually interested in the Catholic church is a publicity stunt, how come half the people of Ireland aren’t world-famous?

    In fact, if she’s been doing any more publicity stunts since that single very famous one in 1992, they’ve been pretty rubbish, because I haven’t heard of them. Talking about what you’ve been up to lately in an interview doesn’t count. If someone asks O’Connor onto their Irish talk show in 1995, 2005, 2010, because it’s a small country and there’s a limited number of local celebrities to go around, and asks her what’s on her mind, and she tells them, and the word goes out in a 100-word Reuters story to be picked up by celebrity-watchers in other countries and read with indifference by most, how is that a publicity stunt?

    [Yikes, the thread was only at 96 comments when I started writing this.]

  16. 106
    Paulito on 11 Nov 2010 #

    @98, 101, 105 – where did I mention her ripping up the Pope’s picture? I was specifically referring to a range of daft proclamations which, whatever your take on Popepicturegate, highlighted nothing other than Sinead’s addiction to notoriety. Rory, I doubt very much if “the general public hasn’t heard of 99% of” these episodes, which occurred in fairly quick succession in the late 90s/early 00s IIRC. However, it’s true that they probably garnered more attention here in Ireland than in the UK, where most people had long lost interest in her…which in turn may have been one of the reasons she resorted to such desperate shenanigans. Another one that I forgot to mention was her public announcement (on Ireland’s most widely-watched TV chat show) that Shane McGowan was a heroin addict and that she was trying to save his life.

    @96 – Sad to see you playing the misogyny card in order to deflect valid criticism of SOC’s behaviour. An old and unworthy trick, that.

  17. 107
    Lex on 11 Nov 2010 #

    That always feels to me, personally, like a war that was won a while back because of my (barely) religious upbringing and that of my peers, compared to our parents and grandparents

    I’m sure many liberals, even in the USA, would feel the same way for much the same reasons 20 years on. And so Sarah Palin and the Tea Party rampage across the heartlands, doing immeasurable harm to women and gays (and more besides) with their rhetoric and the actions it inspires, because “the war’s already won” in our cosy secular liberal bubbles. And racism obviously doesn’t exist because me and my peers all agree it’s a bad thing. Fucking liberals!

    Call them hysterical or simplistic women if you must, but growing up seeing artists like Sinéad O’Connor and Tori Amos and Madonna rage against organised religion was absolutely crucial to someone like me growing up with an upbringing like that. And it’s actually quite perturbing that there is barely any public figure – pop star or not – who’s willing to take that sort of stance on religion these days – everyone’s so mealy-mouthed and scared of offending the Christians. Which is exactly what Sinéad et al helped me grow out of as a teenager. Seriously, who the fuck is taking on the Church beyond that low-level, chronic scepticism among UK chatterati which has zero cultural effect due to being aimed at everyone and everything?

  18. 108
    Rory on 11 Nov 2010 #

    @106: I doubt very much if “the general public hasn’t heard of 99% of” these episodes

    I actually meant 99% of lesbians and bisexuals. How come the general public hasn’t heard of 99% of lesbians and bisexuals (as specific individuals), if being lesbian/bisexual is a publicity stunt? Pretty ineffective publicity stunt, in other words.

  19. 109
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 11 Nov 2010 #

    It seems a bit of a weird category error criticising popstars for publicity stunts: it’s their job explore the art and deployment of the PS; to see what you can do with it

    James Brown: “I’m a sex machine!”
    Paulito: “He only wants us to notice him, you know”

    Of course he does. Pop is to chronic attention-seekers what surgery is to folks who enjoy cutting people’s chests open: a valuable social harnessing of a pathology

  20. 110
    Erithian on 11 Nov 2010 #

    And somehow we seem to have come back via a circular route to X Factor Katie…

  21. 111
    punctum on 11 Nov 2010 #

    #106: No, your post wasn’t “valid criticism,” it was a string of unfounded assertions.

    If you care to recast those assertions as evidentially-based facts then your objections could be seriously considered.

  22. 112
    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2010 #

    Re 107: Until humanism is granted charitable status, like proper religions with ghosts and headscarves, then the war isn’t totally won. When you marry in a registary office you still have to bring God into your vows, whatever you think. I’m anti-religion full stop. I’m a humanist. I was trying not to cause offense, Lex, but don’t call me a fucking liberal! I think most people in the UK – not just the middle classes, or middle class socialists (which is what I am, ta) – are, in 2010, suspicious of religion. Which is why Tony Blair using God to defend his decision making on the the Iraq war was basically the end of his political career. This is a good thing, and this is why pop stars in the UK aren’t “taking on the church”. How many churches in your neck of the woods have been turned into flats? “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness”, so in our cosy secular English bubble I think we’re getting somewhere.

  23. 113
    punctum on 11 Nov 2010 #

    I’m very much pro-religion because without it you wouldn’t have any art of any kind, especially music. Where do you think the “soul” in soul music comes from? Also it brings in the process of worship without which pop music really is pretty pointless – where would pop be, after all, without its idols?

    I don’t let it dictate my life but neither would I wish it not to be there, for reasons which are outside the scope of this blog.

  24. 114
    DietMondrian on 11 Nov 2010 #

    I don’t hear much religion in the greatest body of art in human history, which is, of course, the music of Kraftwerk.

  25. 115
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 11 Nov 2010 #

    Neon lights
    Shimmering neon lights
    And at the fall of night
    This city’s made of light

  26. 116
    Chelovek na lune on 11 Nov 2010 #

    If we have to draw parallels between the heroine of “The Model” and the Virgin Mary….it is all too surreal for words. Or presenting “Trans-Europ Express” as a latter-day pilgrimage… Hmm. Maybe one could pull that off. Or not. I’m insufficiently familiar with the ouevre to try it.

    The one thing that SO’C did that I do think can legitimately be described as a “silly publicity stunt” was when she claimed that she had “been ordained as a Roman Catholic priest”, which is patently not, and could not be, the case.

    Pop stars who “take on the church” frequently succeed in only looking stupid (SO’C’s pope-picture ripping is a rare exception to this, because of the exact context and her intentions and reasons: that guy from Westlife who made a crap record claiming to have been screwed up by the Christian Brothers is more typical); it’s something to do with the distinction between the sacred and the profane, and the weight of words that one attaches to a Pope, as compared with those of a pop star. There are of course pop stars who think they are popes (Bob Geldof and Bono obviously spring immeidately to mind), but they should be avoided at all costs.

    Anyway, vulgar anti-religionism was tried (and thankfully failed) in the Soviet Union. I daresay the likes of Stephen Fry (or the late Clare Rayner) would have liked to revive it, on the basis of some of their most recent pronouncements . Although frankly English society (and I do mean specifically English, as opposed to other parts of the UK) is so secularized that that sort of fanaticism really doesn’t have much mass support. The people attacking the pope (often on spurious or dishonest grounds, and in almost all cases in abject unfamiliarity with the matter at hand) during his recent visit looked like the unpleasant extremist fanatics that they were.

    Although, I grant that almost all “Christian rock music” (an oxymoronic term IMHO) is worse still. And I think the reason for that is basically that the expression of eternal truths (quite regardless of whether *you* perceive them to be truth or not – but in anycase something that warrants reverance) and a transient form of casual youth-orientated, historically-detached, entertainment don’t really mix.

    More or less.

  27. 117
    Steve Mannion on 11 Nov 2010 #

    The last time I saw SOC on TV was her appearance on ‘Bang Bang! It’s Reeves & Mortimer’, hair grown long, being baffled and bemused to the point where I couldn’t tell if she was just playing along or genuinely didn’t know if the show was over as V&B abandoned her on the set (as they did with each guest during the Stott brothers skits).

  28. 118
    DietMondrian on 11 Nov 2010 #

    I applaud Sinead for saying what she thought of the Catholic church but, as an atheist for as long as I can recall, brought up in the mildest of C of E environments, I could only relate to it intellectually, not viscerally. If that makes any sense.

    She might as well have been having a go at Findus Crispy Pancakes. Well, if you hate them that much good on you for saying so, but it says nothing to me about my life*.

    * Sorry.

  29. 119
    pink champale on 11 Nov 2010 #

    #113 you’ve obviously never seen ‘footloose’

    #116 there’s about a million things in this post that make me cross, but this probably isn’t the place to go into default secularist ranter mode.

    good on sinead for getting a bun fight going!

  30. 120
    punctum on 11 Nov 2010 #

    #119: I am really John Lithgow but don’t tell anyone.

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