Jazial Crossley on the lasting impact of Sinéad O’Connor’s breakthrough album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.
A companion of mine has died, someone whose art kept me company in tough moments and provided stability when that was something my real life lacked. Sinéad O’Connor has passed away at the age of 56.
She leaves behind a legacy of ten studio albums, a lifetime of activism against child abuse and organised religion, and years of media ridicule for suffering mental health problems and for speaking up publicly about uncomfortable issues. I think she’s a fucking legend.
Her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was one of my closest childhood friends. 1990 was a tumultuous time for me. I attended three different primary schools in different parts of Auckland. My father, who had been absent since I was a baby, decided to move back to New Zealand and suddenly I was expected to spend time with a grown man who I didn’t know. My mother was deeply unwell. It was a complex and confusing life for a little girl to navigate.
We didn’t have a lot of money so each album bought on tape was a carefully considered purchase, something precious and deeply loved. Mum loved that Sinéad O’Connor tape. She also owned a copy of Prince’s Purple Rain and lost it, but she held on to a copy of the U2 album The Joshua Tree. She had the Crowded House album Woodface, like everyone else in New Zealand. One of her boyfriends had the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday, but I don’t know what happened to those tapes after he went to prison.
I am an only child so was often alone as a kid. The music I loved kept me company. In my bedroom, I would play I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got on repeat all through my primary school years. The music of this Irish woman with a shaved head and a complex heart resonated with me.
The record opens with the the words of the Serenity Prayer that 12 Step programs use to worship their non-denominational version of God. Those words have saved the lives of several people I have loved, including a musician I dated who dumped me for an American woman with more tattoos than me.
On the album, Sinéad O’Connor is a political activist, grieving mother and heartbroken lover. She sings about divorce and being so infatuated with someone she would jump in the river if they told her to; someone with whom she had such passionate and violent sex “there was blood on the wall.” On ‘I Am Stretched On Your Grave’, she sings about sneaking out of her family home to lie on someone’s grave through the night. I learned as an adult that those lyrics were a translation of an anonymous Irish poem from the seventeenth century. It’s not exactly the kind of pop music you would expect a primary school aged girl to listen to adoringly, especially at a time when music like Roxette was available.
Sinéad O’Connor was in love, grieving and angry all on the same album. These intense, heightened emotions existed equally. With her shaved head and bold persona, she represented the multifaceted, conflicted and complicated emotional landscape of a grown woman. She spoke straight to my young soul.
It was disappointing as an adult to consume media that treated her like a joke. One of her most controversial acts was tearing up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live in 1992, in a protest against child abuse and the way the Catholic church covered it up. Years later, whenever she spoke up, the media would report it with an underlying tone of, “here goes mad old Sinéad again, being mad.” Frank Sinatra reportedly called her a “stupid broad.” Her shaved head didn’t help matters: women who cut off all their hair were always considered crazy.
She wields her voice thoughtfully on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, keeping it low and restrained through the verses of ‘You Cause As Much Sorrow’ then building it up on the chorus, but she doesn’t belt any words out at full force on that particular song. On ‘Three Babies’ she sings softly and sweetly then howls her heart out. On other tracks, like the Prince cover ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, she holds back then unleashes.
Our cassette tape of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is long gone, but I own the album on vinyl; a copy I bought secondhand at Real Groovy on Queen St sometime in the early 2000s. As a child it was the first album I learned every single word to. I still remember them all.
Now when I look up the lyrics to her banging pop song, ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, the search engine serves up the Panic! At The Disco song of the same name. But when I think of Sinéad O’Connor, it is these lines that come to mind:
Whatever it may bring
I will live by own policies
I will sleep with a clear conscience
I will sleep in peace
She was a bold, unapologetic woman with immense talent and great troubles; always sure of herself no matter how badly she was treated by the media. She deserves to be remembered in a kinder light than how she was depicted during her lifetime. May she sleep in peace.