With her bald head, piercing eyes and fierce bearing, O’Connor burst onto the music scene in the late 1980s, serving as a rebuke to the parade of sexist tropes that dominated the era’s hair metal scene. She gave notice of her bold path away from the typical packaging of female pop stars from the very first notes of her 1987 debut, The Lion and the Cobra, which she recorded while pregnant at 20 with her first child.
A mix of driving rock (“Mandinka”), alluring hip-hop (“I Want Your (Hands on Me)” and intense ballads (“Jackie”), O’Connor emerged as a fully formed force to be reckoned with, her powerful voice a haunting howl full of pain and mystery one moment, a steely suit of armor at others. Not concerned with the typical trappings of pop stardom, O’Connor’s public face — the shaved head, slouchy wardrobe and curious mix of dance, rock, folk, Irish balladry and devotional tropes — was an instant hit on alternative radio, as well as dance clubs, where remixes of “Mandinka” and “I Want Your Hands (On Me)” became staples for many party DJs.
Though her debut brought raves from both sides of the Atlantic, it was 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got that served as both O’Connor’s career high and turning point. With the run-away success of her gripping cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” as well as the chilling video for the track, the singer was thrust into the international spotlight, a place she seemed uneasy with at times. The album laid bare her personal struggles and feelings of loss in a striking manner, weaving the words from a Frank O’Connor poem with Celtic melodies and a sample of the James Brown “Funky Drummer” beat on the eerie “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.”
In between, she hits pop highs (“The Emperor’s New Clothes”) amid personal turmoil and touches on wrenching real-life drama (“The Last Day of our Acquaintance”) with massive beats, while mixing in a six-minute a cappella dirge and a prescient elegy for the police-involved death of a black London youth.
Even as her star was rising, O’Connor refused to play the music industry game, controversially defending the sometimes bloody tactics of the Irish Republican Army in interviews, lashing out at longtime cheerleaders U2 and refusing to perform and refusing to perform on Saturday Night Live in May 1990 alongside comedian Andrew Dice Clay. She earned the ire of Frank Sinatra a few months later when she refused to perform at a New Jersey venue when she found out the national anthem would play before she took the stage. The move caused some stations to pull her music from airwaves and resulted in Sinatra threatening to “kick her in the a–.”
The controversy continued two years later, when O’Connor was again booked on SNL, where she performed an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” and, in a surprise to producers, stared into the camera at song’s end and tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II and said “fight the real enemy” as a protest against the Catholic church’s cover-up of child abuse by clergy; O’Connor would later say she she was abused as a child.
Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor was born on Dec. 8, 1966, in Glenageary, County Dublin, Ireland, to Sean and Marie O’Connor, who split when the singer was 8 years old. She claimed over the years that she and her two siblings were physically abused when they went to live with their mother after the divorce. Her teenage years were spent getting sent to reform schools and boarding schools due to bouts of shoplifting and other bad behavior and her discovery at 15 by the drummer for the Irish band Tua Nua, who heard her singing Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” at a wedding.
O’Connor studied voice and piano at Dublin’s College of Music before moving to London in the early 1980s, where she collaborated with U2 guitarist the Edge on a song for the soundtrack to 1986’s The Captive.
Her career was marked by an unpredictability, including the pop standards album she released in 1992, Am I Not Your Girl?, which failed to reach the success of its predecessors and began a slow commercial decline. She laid low for several years after the SNL incident — and another one shortly after in which she was roundly booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in New York — returning in 1994 with the underappreciated Universal Mother solid, which featured a moving Nirvana cover (“All Apologies”) and several songs that laid brutally bare her fierce drive to protect children from dangerous mothers.
The years that followed included stories about her retirement, a permanent ban on talking to the press, a return to her Irish folk roots on 200’s Faith and Courage and 2002’s Sean-Nós Nua, a detour into covers of reggae songs on 2005’s Throw Down Your Arms and 2007’s two-disc Theology collection. O’Connor’s final album, 2014’s I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, was widely praised for its return to her honest, emotionally charged songwriting and unique pop craft.
O’Connor had been very open about her mental health issues, which include a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder, later amended to PTSD, including depression and suicidal tendencies, canceling a tour in 2012 after a doctor ordered her to get some rest following what was described as a “very serious breakdown.”
She is survived by four children.