From “Thank You for Hearing Me.” Sinéad O’Connor (1966-2023)
It must have been springtime 1988. I was 27 and living in Columbus’ Victorian Village in one of those brick quadplex rentals. One of my neighbors had just graduated from college, clean-cut and preppy looking; he surprised me with his musical tastes, was always quick to share new music with me. I remember talking outside one afternoon about this Irish woman he had just discovered. Sinéad O’Connor. (I can’t remember if he pronounced her name correctly. It took me a long time to memorize the correct pronunciation, fighting my non-worldly Ohioan urge to say “Sin-aid.”)
My neighbor was insistent on sharing Sinéad’s music and he went inside to get out his boom box and loaded it up with the cassette. Her voice —the screaming, whispering, growling rollercoaster pitch—jarred me. But I kept listening. A few weeks later, my neighbor moved out to California and left me with a copy of The Lion and the Cobra. It changed me.
It was mostly in those snarling moments, like on “Troy,” that I heard a woman step outside of convention, speak up, shout, refuse to be ignored; it was guttural and from a place I recognized in myself. You should’ve left the light on. Howling, a-wooo-oh. That defiant piece of me. I played that cassette over and over again in my car, driving by myself, shouting oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh to “Jerusalem.” But also the unabashed, unapologetic simplicity of one of the sexiest songs I’ve ever heard, “I Want Your (Hands on Me).” The percussion. The cowbell. That beat.
I listened to Sinéad, who should always be called by her first name because even though we never met, I felt like she was part of me. Our bones moved in the same direction, though I never could be her or even a teensy bit like her. She sang for many women I knew. We each may have listened to her while driving, or dancing alone in our bedrooms, or on the dance floor of a club, spinning madly in our reveries. Our bones and flesh and spirit, the being of our deepest selves, were grateful for this wistful, capacious, vulnerable woman who stood alone so often.
How do you explain to the rest of the world what it was like to hear yourself in someone else’s voice? I don’t have to. Today, the day after she died, so many women are sharing these memories, this gratitude for saving our lives. Or at least, saving us from wordlessness. We were once compliant, mute, demur. Maybe we didn’t stand in front of the world, tearing up a picture of the Pope and calling out hypocrisy, but maybe we were a little braver because she was mighty.
She said many times she didn’t want the fame she earned. No doubt, it probably made her cringe that some studio executive chose the softer version of the The Lion and the Cobra’s album cover, not the “edgy” one that appeared across the pond. No doubt, some advisor told her to grow her hair out, and others probably asked her to not say “fuck” so much in interviews, and she probably received far too much unwanted advice about image and gratitude and motherhood. She was no rube. She knew far more than we did, saw farther ahead, paved that gravel road for others.
Today, I take these words to heart: There’s life outside your mother’s garden. There’s life beyond your wildest dreams. (from “John, I Love You.”) She gave us hope when others had ripped it away from her. She was a generous soul.