An immensely talented and principled singer who became one of the world's most controversial women, Sinéad O'Connor debuted with the 1987 album The Lion and the Cobra. Instantly recognizable for her powerful vocals, shaved head and otherworldly beauty, she achieved superstardom with 1990's LP I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got and its crown jewel, the aching "Nothing Compares 2 U," written by Prince. The album and song topped the charts, the music video earned three MTV Video Music Awards, and she earned four Grammy nominations and one win - all of which she refused to accept. Fiercely political and fearlessly iconoclastic, O'Connor angered many when she refused to play in any venue where the U.S. national anthem was played and became one of the most divisive pop culture figures of all time when, to protest the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church, she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II in an era-defining appearance on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). The outrage proved so great that it ended O'Connor's mainstream recording career, and she retreated to Ireland to make music on a smaller scale. After revealing that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had once attempted suicide, many grew concerned for her when, in 2011, she began blogging and Tweeting explicit sexual and suicidal messages. Although the controversies engendered by her outspoken political and social consciousness often overshadowed her music, Sinéad O'Connor remained a fascinating, complex woman with artistic talent and the courage to follow her convictions regardless of the consequences.
Born Dec. 8, 1966 in Glenageary, County Dublin, Ireland, Sinéad Marie Bernadette O'Connor grew up in a troubled home, with her parents separating when the young girl was eight. The three elder siblings, including O'Connor, were sent to live with their mother, where they suffered frequent abuse. O'Connor's father attempted to regain custody of the children, and in 1979, she was allowed to move in with him. Her wild behavior soon proved too much, and O'Connor was sent to live at the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity's Grianán Training Center. While there, she came to the attention of Paul Byrne, drummer for the band In Tua Nua, and she recorded "Take My Hand" with them. Inspired to continue to write and perform her own music, she benefited from a transfer to a Quaker boarding school and recorded a four-song demo of her own. The aspiring musician put together a new band, Ton Ton Macoute, and dropped out of school to perform in Dublin, where the act attracted a cult following.
O'Connor's mother died in a car crash in 1985, which devastated the young woman, who quit the band and moved to London. On the strength of her raw talent and time in Ton Ton Macoute, O'Connor was signed by Ensign Records and acquired a powerful manager, Fachtna O'Ceallaigh. With U2's The Edge, she co-wrote and sang the song "Heroine," which was placed on the soundtrack of two films: "Captive" (1986) and "The Clan of the Cave Bear" (1986). She began to adopt a fiery political and socially conscious persona, speaking in support of the IRA and clashing with music executives. Pregnant by her session drummer, O'Connor produced her own debut, 1987's The Lion and the Cobra, which became an underground sensation upon its release, spinning off the college radio hits "Mandinka," "Troy" and "I Want Your (Hands on Me)," with the latter track earning prominent placement on the soundtrack of the hit horror flick "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" (1988). The album eventually went gold and earned her a Grammy nomination.
Besides her powerful voice, ferocious intelligence and highly charged music, O'Connor both dazzled and challenged mainstream pop culture, due in great part to her shaved head and uncompromising political ideals. Refusing to wear the traditional over-the-top sexy costumes most popular musicians, O'Connor both impressed and frustrated audiences who admired her iconoclastic independence, but found it difficult to separate her more controversial views from her universally acclaimed music. She achieved superstardom with 1990's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, a groundbreaking album whose centerpiece was O'Connor's wrenching cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U." The album and song both topped the charts, becoming worldwide smashes, and the music video - an intense close-up of O'Connor's fragile-yet-powerful face and nothing else - made history, winning three MTV Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year, the first time a woman had earned that honor.
The album's success continued with the modest hit "The Emperor's New Clothes" and the entire set earned O'Connor four Grammy nominations, including a win for Best Alternative Music Performance. O'Connor refused to accept the nominations or award. She had already made headlines for refusing to perform in any venue if the U.S. national anthem was played, which earned her the ire of Frank Sinatra, who threatened to "kick her ass," as well as having her music banned from several radio stations. In fact, O'Connor's severe persona proved ripe for parody throughout pop culture, and she popped up frequently as a punchline. Her otherworldly beauty and disdain for materialism helped set her apart from her celebrity peers, and she turned her mysterious and imperious charm to great effect as Emily Brontë in an updated film version of "Wuthering Heights" (1992), for which she chose to be uncredited.
Seemingly undaunted, O'Connor contributed her music to many charitable projects, and again surprised the world when she released 1992's Am I Not Your Girl?, which consisted mostly of jazz standards and was dedicated to the citizens of New York City, especially the homeless. This artistic curveball helped curtail her professional momentum, but her mainstream recording career was effectively destroyed with a courageous yet unpopular political statement she would make on the Oct. 3, 1992 episode of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). Serving as the show's musical guest, O'Connor sang an a cappella version of Bob Marley's "War" as a protest over the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church, changing the lyric "racism" to "child abuse." At the end of her performance, she held up a photo of Pope John Paul II, tore it into pieces, and said, "Fight the real enemy." The incident stunned Lorne Michaels and crew who had no idea of her grand plan. It also became a flashpoint across the world, with NBC being flooded with angry phone calls. The outrage was so great that it drowned out any true discussion of O'Connor's message and instead turned her into a "monster" in the eyes of millions. Since the night it aired, it is one of the few "SNL" moments to never be replayed in any form.
The following week, "SNL" host Joe Pesci attempted to defuse the situation by holding up the taped-together photo, and Madonna would later parody the incident on the show by tearing up a photo of Joey Buttafuoco. Although most people believed that O'Connor had acted out of a sincere belief rather than attempting to increase her own fame, the singer was vilified to the point where, two weeks later, she was booed off the stage at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute concert at Madison Square Garden. O'Connor retreated to Dublin to focus on her family and cultivate her singing voice. Her subsequent albums, including 1994's Universal Mother and 1997's Gospel Oak did little to restore her success, although she booked a short stint on the 1995 Lollapalooza tour and played the Virgin Mary in Neil Jordan's "The Butcher Boy" (1997). Mostly vanished from American mainstream pop culture, the majority of reports involving O'Connor detailed her erratic and bizarre behavior, including her coming out as a lesbian, only to retract the statement or her ordination as a priest by an independent Catholic group.
O'Connor continued to release music that had little impact in the States, including 2000's Faith and Courage, 2002's Sean-Nós Nua, 2003's She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty, 2005's Throw Down Your Arms and 2007's Theology. That same year, O'Connor revealed to Oprah Winfrey that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had attempted suicide in 1999. In 2010, she resurfaced with a new look (longer hair) and began contributing written and broadcast opinion pieces on the sex abuse scandals that continued to rock the Catholic Church. O'Connor made even more headlines in 2011 when she began posting strange, explicit messages on her website and via Twitter, describing her desire to find a sex partner and then, more disturbingly, asking for tips on how to commit suicide. She later explained that while feeling suicidal at times was an unavoidable aspect of human nature, she did not consider the act itself in any way acceptable and urged readers to make the same distinction.