Sinead O’Connor passed away in July of this year, leaving behind a legacy of speaking out unapologetically about what she believes is right and gripping musical performances. To deny that O’Connor had the ability to captivate her audience is, for lack of a better term, ridiculous, and one might even say entirely incorrect.
I could write a whole book about the striking brilliance of her live performance repertoire. However, for the sake of keeping this within an article-friendly length, I’ll stick with just one eye-widening, jaw-dropping performance: her 1988 performance of “Troy” at the Pinkpop Festival.
To truly take in the pure intensity that exudes from this particular performance, it’s helpful to understand a bit of O’Connor’s identity as a public figure and musician. Knowing why her voice is paramount in the music industry gives definition to this performance and allows you to fully relish in its raw artistry.
O’Connor could be quickly recognized by what became an essential feature of her appearance: a fully buzzed head. The media often focused on her distinct look, as a shaved head was considered un-feminine, especially over 20 years ago. It separated her from other artists at the time, like a physical representation of her different approach to music. She had a look and a heart-wrenchingly passionate voice.
O’Connor rose to international popularity with her 1990 release of the song, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” It was originally written by Prince, but after her breathtaking rendition, it undeniably belonged to her.
While that song is what gave O’Connor a name in the United States, she had already gained fame in Europe with her song, “Mandinka,” which was released in 1987. She spoke on several occasions about her lack of interest in the fame that came with releasing her music. For O’Connor, making music was about vulnerability and strength working in tandem to move an audience.
Although she may not have been looking forward to her rise in fame, O’Connor was gaining a lot of traction in the music industry. From the very beginning of her career, she was never shy about speaking her opinion clearly, regardless of what it might mean for her career.
To begin to understand what O’Connor meant to the music industry, it is important to acknowledge her apt distaste for it. She spoke strongly about her position that the music industry feared the ability that music has to change a society.
Even in the final years of her career, she remained strong in these opinions, speaking with articulate grace on the subject in a 2021 interview with Penguin Books UK. She referenced several artists she believed to be trailblazers in regards to societal change, such as N.W.A. and The Beatles.
O'Connor's dedication to her artform while also speaking critically of the industry that claims to shed light onto said artistry is admirable and something every music enjoyer should be in awe of. In a 1991 interview on the Arsenio Hall Show, O’Connor discussed her decision to pull out of the Grammys and other award shows she was nominated for, saying:
“I believe very much that the music industry as a whole operates mainly, is concerned mainly, with material success. A lot of artists, I think, are responsible for encouraging the belief among people that material success will make them happy, and I think one of the ways that the industry encourages commercial success and materiality is by having award ceremonies which very much honor those who have achieved material success rather than people who have told the truth, or who’ve done anything to pass information to people, or to inspire people, or to be truthful about anything.”
She strongly supported the idea that music can move people, causing change in the world that is not often supported by media and award shows. Her rejection of award shows is not often seen from musicians, who typically consider winning awards as a stepping stone to success. Instead, O’Connor used her art as a way to communicate what she was passionate about — to share her talents with those who appreciate it.
She has been known to attend award shows, but in the aforementioned interview on Arsenio Hall, she mentioned it was mostly for curiosity's sake. Before going to the shows, she was of the opinion that they are for rewarding materiality rather than what she believes to be the true core values of music. She said that after being invited and attending, it was confirmed for her that her opinions were right on the mark.
Singers don't often speak ill of the award shows that are meant to give platform to their artistry, which makes O’Connor's continual act of doing just that all the more admirable. This is direct evidence for the fact that O’Connor wasn’t a part of the music industry for fame, because oftentimes she was speaking out in ways that would actively defame her.
Besides this, O’Connor consistently advocated for numerous causes, the most controversial example being her live performance on SNL in 1992. While appearing on the show, she ripped apart a picture of the Pope, John Paul II at the time, in a protest against child abuse within the Catholic church. This act of protest left her banned from SNL and with near career-ending attention. Outside of that, she felt strongly about using her platform and her music to advocate for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ and anti-racism campaigns.
Many of the topics she was vocal about throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are still relevant today, a prime example being a song she wrote in 1990 entitled “My Special Child,” which was about her experience with having an abortion. She was an advocate for women to have a choice, even over 20 years ago when that opinion was a far less accepted one.
With this broader understanding of O’Connor as a figure, I can discuss, with a hefty emotional bias, the beyond incredible performance that I can only wish for time-travel to see in person: O’Connor's performance of “Troy” at the 1988 Pinkpop Festival.
This performance leaves me, without fail, silenced and in complete awe every time. She stands in front of an audience in knee-length denim shorts, with her classic shaved head, holding a guitar and armed with a voice unlike any other artist. The entire performance is just her: no dancers, no back-up singers, no band. She grasps the audience with her bare hand, holding on to them as she cries out in a rageful song.
The intensity of emotion strung through long, breathy notes and gritty belts is gut-wrenching, and there is a rawness in her voice that is so innately human. She pleads to the audience to understand these very emotions as the sound moves from left ear to right, then into our hearts, only to be pumped into our bloodstream, forcing us to feel.
The recorded version of “Troy” is the sixth track on O’Connor’s 1987 debut album, The Lion and The Cobra. While it is beautifully sung on the album recording, this particular live performance of “Troy” bleeds with torment, escalating with each line she roars and each strum of her guitar.
The performance begins its climax with the line “I'd kill a dragon for you.” It seems so simple on the surface level until you hear the meld of coarse and smooth notes O’Connor is able to achieve within one word. The song up until then is no less captivating than what follows — but it is clear that there is a change. She elicits a guttural burning from that point forward.
The song itself can be interpreted several ways, one being a betrayal by someone who is meant to be a protector. Some believe this is in reference to O’Connor’s complex and emotionally damaging relationship with her mother. Another interpretation is that O’Connor is singing of grieving a relationship with infuriated awareness of inconsolable sadness. To me, the song leans toward a romantic grieving. O’Connor portrays the absolute depths of desperation and anger that come from feeling betrayed by someone we loved and from our own heart for trusting them.
O’Connor sings with an exasperation that feels agonizing and familiar. It is a feeling that is so specific to this performance, which is what makes it so tantalizing and replayable. I have watched and listened to this performance more times than I can count, and the feeling has yet to dull.
As the song reaches its conclusion, O’Connor changes the original lyrics from “you’re still a liar” to “you’re still a fucking liar.” She showcases the intensity of her emotion with a finality and in the most grounding and relatable way — the use of the word “fuck.”
Her final few lines of the song are howled with a jarring tension between the lyrics and just how roughly they are sung. It is a display of her undeniable ability to write songs with a sting of poetic lyricism and perform them to show an audience just how much they belong to her.
The performance lacks pristineness, but O’Connor somehow holds composure that is jaw-droppingly tender-hearted. She loses her breath between screams, allowing the passion of her artistry to be seen: seething and unhinged. Even as she belts on stage, she can reel it in, shifting her weight from one foot to another, waiting to continue in expression.
O’Connor somehow produces notes that are almost yodel-like, which convey a yearning for understanding. She possesses the ability to meld the mind and hearts of her listeners as she moves between steadily sung words to gravelly belts with chill-inducing fluidity.
If you have yet to watch this performance, you must. It is imperative that you watch it more than once, not only for your own enjoyment, but to fully immerse yourself in it, too.