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LONDON — In 1990, Sinead O’Connor’s cover of a near-forgotten Prince single, “Nothing Compares 2U,” burst onto the global musical consciousness like an exploding firework. Combining soaring vocals with the shock of a shaven head that served only to make her expressive eyes more poignant, O’Connor’s performance was mesmerizing.
Fame followed — and later imploded — amid a slew of unpopular religious and political opinions from the singer, including an attack on the Roman Catholic Church for its cover-up of child sex abuse.
Despite the fall from grace the singer remained entrancing, combining gamine fragility with an appetite for hard politics. Her tight crew cut, consciously anti-feminine Doc Marten boots, baggy sweaters and old men’s overcoats remained her trademark look. And nothing she wore or didn’t wear could disguise the sheer power of her vocal and lyrical talent.
Earlier this week, more than two decades after her astonishing debut, pictures of a very different looking O’Connor surfaced online after a performance at the Bray Music Festival on the West Coast of Ireland. Showing a frumpier, bespectacled O’Connor under a mop of black hair and in black garb that would have been nun-like, but for the exposure of a generous segment of plump belly, the singer’s appearance has caused quite a stir — even on our own website.
Newspapers, online blogs and the social media sphere of Facebook and Twitter, have erupted with astonishment and shock at O’Connor’s transformation.
“The 44-year year-old singer was unrecognizable from her musical heyday as she took to the stage wearing a highly unflattering combination of a stomach-baring black net top, and an ill-fitting black trouser suit,” said the Daily Mail.
As if that weren’t damning enough, the singer’s self-absorbed air appears to have irked the paper further: “With her black hair in a messy crop, and wearing glasses and a gold crucifix necklace, Sinead appeared to be in a world of her own as she performed alongside [reggae singer Natty] Wailer.”
Closer to home, Us Weekly wrote that the singer had shocked her fans with a look that was “completely unrecognizable,” while ABC News put the “formerly slim” singer in a gallery of stars including Kirstie Alley and Jennifer Hudson who have had trouble with their yo-yo-ing weight. “Nothing compares…to what Sinead O’ Connor looks like now,” it captioned.
Hang on. Should a singer who used her window of fame to highlight discomfiting political opinions as well as bringing hauntingly personal songs like “Troy” and “Three Babies” into the musical canon really be judged by the same harsh standards that are common currency for actresses and reality TV stars?
Sinead O’Connor is no Kim Kardashian, whose every eyebrow pluck and forehead wax is the stuff of a celebrity interview or product endorsement. Nor is she a Natalie Portman or Renee Zellweger, whose morphing body shape is part of her artistic reach.
Instead, the Dublin-born singer, who has four children since achieving the heights of fame, has always turned her back on the conventions of beauty that are apparently necessary for media acceptance. The prickly distaste that she still manifests for a prototypical feminine style seems remarkably unchanged from the attitudes she held in her youth.
Per the outrage that has followed the singer’s appearance at Bray, you could be forgiven for thinking that O’Connor has spent the last decade and a half under a rock, all the better to astonish her fans when she re-emerged several kilos heavier and without a bald head. In fact, she has an enjoyed a musical career that has continued, somewhat under the radar, and the singer has released a new album every two years or since 2000 as well as touring recently in Moscow and the UK.
What the voices expressing astonishment at her new look are really shocked by, is that Sinead O’Connor should care so little for the opinions by which so many in the entertainment industry are harshly judged. The astonishment at her weight gain is as much at her carelessness of what others think of her as it is about a singer succumbing to the ageing process over 20 years. In fact, it’s not overplaying it to suggest that her critics are actually uncomfortable with her refusal to hide herself away permanently now that the years where gamine skinniness was her trademark look are in the past.
It is just weeks since the music industry deified Amy Winehouse, a troubled singer whose addictions transfixed tabloid readers during the years that they also cruelly foreshortened a talented jazz diva’s life.
Like O’Connor, Winehouse’s talent was of the once-in-a-generation kind, a degree of difference away from even the commercial heights achieved by the likes of Adele, another British talent who for all her record-selling success, falls into a more conventional mold. Even as Winehouse’s failed romances and damaging addictions were lived out in the harsh glare of newspaper front pages, her emaciated thinness, hyper-sexualized outfits and suspiciously enhanced cleavage nonetheless less fell on the right side of the aesthetic the entertainment industry is prepared to accept.
Unlike Winehouse, Connor has managed to get through life, have a family and keep doing what her fans want her to do: perform and record music. Along the way her various admissions of suffering child abuse, a bipolar disorder and coming out as a lesbian suggest that the journey has not been without its demons.
But, far from criticizing the singer for her temerity to continue performing even when she does not fit the nostalgic memory of two decades past, O’Connor should congratulated for her ability to keep on going. Twenty years on, the lyrics of songs like “Feel So Different,” “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got” and “Three Babies” have become even more poignant than they were the first time around.
And as this video of the singer performing “Nothing Compares 2U” in Moscow last month shows, her voice has lost none of its ability to astound and move.
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