There aren't many popular music performers who've had the strength of character to hold onto and express views or opinions that rouse the masses out of their usual state of somnolent ambivalence. While the occasional vocal minority may flail about in agitation over Janet Jackson's nipple or Madonna's plastic sex shows, there have only been a few occasions where an opinion expressed by a pop star has galvanized orchestrated outbreaks of the old lynch mob mentality. John Lennon's famous quote about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus among young people, The Dixie Chicks apologizing to a London England audience for George Bush being from Texas, and Sinead O'Connor ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul before singing Bob Marley's "War" on Saturday Night Live.
So much for free speech. There's no quicker way to chill individual freedom of expression than to incite mob violence against an individual for daring to say or do something the least bit unpopular or controversial. While I'm not familiar enough with the Dixie Chicks to know how the outbreak effected their music, neither Lennon or O'Connor allowed "public opinion" to stifle their willingness to speak their minds. One only needs look at hard the FBI tried to prevent Lennon from being allowed to take up residency in the US to see how silent he became. It took a gun in the hands of a mad man to silence him. As for O'Connor her music remained as emotionally charged and painfully honest as it ever was, and she continues to be a strong voice advocating reform of the Catholic Church and condemning its complicity in child abuse.
I wonder how many of those protesting Sinead O'Connor ripping up the picture that night were the same people later protesting the behaviour of the Catholic Church in New England? Or how about all of you who find the theocracy of Iran appalling? Don't you think it a little hypocritical that you can support people demonstrating against an Islamic government, but not someone protesting against the policies of the Catholic church as personified by that Pope? Did you know that in Ireland divorces were illegal at the time O'Connor ripped up that picture because the Catholic church forbid it? Under that pope the rights of women were set back years, and he's the one who led the crusade against condom use and family planning in the the developing nations that aided and abetted overpopulation and the spread of disease which continue to ravage much of South East Asia and Africa.
All of which might seem to have little to do with the recent issuing of a special edition of the disc that first propelled Ms. O'Connor to renown. However with EMI Canada releasing I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (Limited Edition last April it's given us an opportunity to listen to not only the original album again but a second disc of remixes, previously unreleased material, and a couple of live recordings. Listening to her as she was in 1990, when this was first released and recorded, I have to wonder what had other people been hearing that they were so shocked when she ripped up that picture? Don't they hear the anger, the sadness, and the rejection of authority? Did they think they were just songs that didn't mean anything like so much other pop music?
When you listen to songs like "Feel So Different", "I Am Stretched On Your Grave", or "The Emperor's New Clothes" do you not feel how different they are from what normally passes for popular music? Her record company at the time, Ensign, certainly did. According to the introduction to the album by John Reynolds, who played drums on the album and selected the songs for the second disc in this release, they refused to release it because it was too much like reading somebody's diary. Instead of trying to convince them or coming to some sort of compromise she simply replied "Drop me". Reynolds points out the obvious when he says she wrote from her heart and about her own life, giving her music what he calls a tough to listen to factor, and she refused to moved from that path by anybody.
However, the album went to number one and sold multi-platinum in so many countries so it must have struck a chord with more than just a select few. Of course the music is compelling and O'Connor's voice is one of the wonder's of pop music with her ability to soar into the stratosphere and then pull back to a whisper without losing any of her emotional intensity. Yet, perhaps it was the majesty of her voice that allowed people to pretend in those early days of her career that she wasn't anything more than another popular singer. They could sit back and listen to her voice in wonder and not have to listen to what she was saying.
Maybe I've the advantage of hindsight listening to the material on this disc, but I still can't see how anybody could miss out on the fact that this wasn't the work of another pretty voiced pop singer. Didn't they hear the brittle edges to the beauty? The one's that are so sharp they could slice you open? Don't they hear the ghosts echoing in the spaces between the lyrics that haunt all her material? When I listened to this disc the first time years ago, and again this time, I knew nothing about O'Connor's personal life. It wasn't until after that I went to her site that I learnt about her parent's troubled marriage, the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, and her being sent to reform school at fifteen, yet it's all in her songs if you're willing to listen.
That becomes even clearer on some of the tracks that John Reynolds has pulled together for the second disc of this special edition. Listen to her previously unreleased version of John Lennon's "Mind Games", and I defy you to do so without being moved to the point of tears. It's not only her passion for the message of the song that makes it so powerful, it's the fact that you can hear how much it means to her personally. It sounds like its something she yearns for, for herself as well as the world at large.
It's a symptom of our society not to listen to those things we don't want to hear or what makes us uncomfortable, until finally people like O'Connor feel forced to try and shake us from our complacency with acts guaranteed to make us pay attention. The music on I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, both in its original release and this new Limited Edition, is some of the most poignant you're liable to hear. Maybe now, almost twenty years after its first release, people will be willing to listen to it. I hope so because Sinead O'Connor was, and remains. one of the few voices out there worth listening to.
(Originally posted June 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.