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Like an Oak

Sinead O'Connor
Is She Not Our Girl?: Despite the periodic crises--from a nixed album cover to a shredded photograph of the pope--in her career, Sinead O'Connor's songwriting, commitment and vocal skills have remained undimmed and undeniable.

Photo by Jill Furmanovsky

Sinead O'Connor's new EP, 'Gospel Oak,' reaffirms her uncompromising musical roots

By Gina Arnold

PUNDITS USED TO SAY that the '90s were going to be the '60s, only upside down, and in certain ways, that has proven true. In the '60s, for example, women may have called themselves liberated, but they sure spent a lot of time in stereotyped roles, singing folk songs, giving good lovin' and baking bread. In the '90s, women who call themselves feminists are now allowed to shave their armpits, but musically, it's back to folky-sounding songs about how bad life would be without a man to "call yer own."

Looking on the bright side, however, at least there are lots of women to be heard now. Back in 1985, the only women one caught on the radio were a few miniskirted bimbos fronting icky new-wave bands--plus the occasional legend, like Tina Turner. Now the world abounds with Jewels and Poes and Fiona Apples, and the air is full of ladies attempting to cash in on Alanis Morissette's "I'm strong, I'm wronged" stance.

But alas! For all the progress made in getting women on the air, the word they're putting forth about womanhood in general is separate, whiny and not very equal. You wouldn't hear Bob Dylan--or Jakob, for that matter--complaining about how hard it is to be a guy, but from Paula Cole's plaintive "Where is my John Wayne?" to Meredith Brooks' inescapable "I'm a bitch / I'm a whore / I'm a lover / I'm a bore" (sic), today's women songwriters seem afraid to write songs that rise above mere stereotypical gender plaints, that delve instead into larger issues of humanity.

That's why, although some people might surmise that women's place in rock has broadened and strengthened since the early '80s, I think the only thing that's happened is that there are more of them.


Sinead O'Connor Shrine: An earnest fan page with lots of links.

Sinead O'Conner Audio Archives: Real Audio clips to download.


NONE OF THE NEWER singers has the charisma, talent or emotional force of--say--Sinead O'Connor, whose debut LP, The Lion and the Cobra, came out in 1987, at a time when the idea of a strong woman rock songwriter was at its most invisible.

Really, one cannot overemphasize the bravery and nobility of O'Connor right from the start. Patti, Chrissie and Debby all came to the fore in the '70s, while her closest counterpart, Joni Mitchell, had disappeared from the scene years and years earlier.

O'Connor really came out of nowhere, but despite her youth and her aloneness in her field, she fought the good fight. At the age of 21, rather then be marketed as your usual pretty-girl bimbo, she shaved her head. And legend also has it that she held up the release of The Lion when she discovered that the record company had airbrushed pink lipstick on her face on the cover.

O'Connor's early anti-beauty gesture showed a kind of nobility of purpose not seen since. But it also indicated the lack of justice in the music world. At the same time that pundits were railing against Madonna for "using" sex to get ahead, O'Connor's opposite tactics just proved that you couldn't win for losing.

Even without hair or lipstick, O'Connor's first LP scored the wondrous hits "Troy," and "Mandinka," but she had earned herself the reputation of being a scary, strong troublemaker. It's a reputation she's never shaken.

In 1992, she appeared on Saturday Night Live singing a luminous, a capella version of a Bob Marley song about oppression, and at the end, she tore a picture of the pope in two. Now, it's not like she allegedly shot heroin while pregnant, bit the head off a bat or was accused of sodomizing small boys, like some other rock stars we could mention. And yet, this rather obscure gesture caused such an outrage in America that O'Connor was literally booed off stage at a tribute to Dylan a few weeks later.

Sadly, that ridiculous incident has become the defining one of her career. And it seems like in some ways she has yet to recover from it, since she's been relatively unproductive since. In 10 years, she has released only four full-length albums, and one of those (Am I Not Your Girl?) was all cover songs. Rather than continue her acrimonious pop career, she briefly studied opera and appeared in Hamlet at Dublin's project Arts Centre.

Detractors have always had a hard time discrediting O'Connor, however, since she is such an undeniable talent. Her deep songwriting and deeply moving voice are above reproach, and never falter, as the 1994 album Universal Mother proved. And at the few gigs she played on the Lollapalooza tour of 1995, word was she stopped the concert cold, felling the otherwise rowdy crowd with her wonderful voice alone.

O'CONNOR DROPPED off the Lollapalooza tour due to the discomfort she felt from pregnancy. It turned out she was expecting her second child at the time. Gospel Oak is her first offering since then, and it's a simple EP that showcases her voice and deeply emotional songwriting. The music on it sounds a bit like that of Enya or the Cranberries; really, of course, Enya and the Cranberries sound a bit like her.

As was the case on Universal Mother, Gospel Oak often uses as its text mother love, rather than romantic love, and in O'Connor's hands, this is a very fruitful topic indeed. "This Is to Mother You," for example, is a ballad that could be addressed to a child or a lover, since it subtly explores the similarity of the two feelings. The elegiac "4 My Love" begins with the line "for my love this night I have your baby in my belly," and ends with a beautifully composed Irish-pipes tune.

O'Connor's music invariably uses highly conventional melodies and Celtic rhythms, yet they stand apart from other artists' work because they are positively hymnal in their intensity. She always makes amazing use of dynamics. "This Is a Rebel Song," in particular, is sad and lovely, a quiet rumination about personal loyalties and betrayals.

The record ends with a live version of a traditional Irish song called "He Moved Through the Fair," and it shows how O'Connor has almost single-handedly updated traditional Irish sounds, transferring them into a present-day pop idiom without removing one whit of their depth.

Ironically, it's just that depth of emotion that makes O'Connor's records sell less well than those of her peers in both Irish music (Enya and the Cranberries) and women's music (Paula, Alanis, Meredith and Co.). Frankly, some people can't handle the forceful nature of her art any more then they can handle her outspoken opinions; they'd prefer the watered-down version.

That's why, although Sinead O'Connor is one of those transcendent, once-an-era artists, kudos for her art may be a long time coming. Even without being personally shocking, vulgar or musically avant-garde, she has unwittingly pushed the limits of power and control that the industry has set on women artists. Like Joni Mitchell before her, who was only elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year after much protest on the part of her fans, O'Connor may have to wait for official honors.

But history always will out. Eventually, Sinead O'Connor will no doubt be recognized for what she is: one of this generation's premier artists of any gender or genre. Thus far, the '90s haven't proved to be her spiritual decade--but by the year 2000, she may well come into her own.

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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