One of the great love songs, though Sinead O’Connor was thinking about the death of her mother when she wept those iconic tears. O’Connor’s intense sincerity was already painful enough on record; the stark images of her bare, childlike face are completely heartrending. It was the ultimate artistic statement from a singer who bared her inner self in an unprecedented way. It was also a creative reaction to everything that was overstyled, overhyped and insincere in pop music at the time. The 80’s were an orgy of big hair, clashing colors and puffy skirts. Though we now feel a lot of nostalgia for those styles, for those actually trying to live and be creative in those times, the emphasis on gloss and artificiality was suffocating. Sinead O’Connor’s unapologetic rejection of the glamour standard was a game-changer. Sinead was punk as all fuck. And she had a lot of things to say. She didn’t always say her piece coherently, and she sure burned a lot of bridges. But she put her foot down and demanded to be seen and heard on her own terms.
It’s a bit of a shame that, after everything she’s done as an awakening inspiration for a generation of feminists, she seems to have ended up on the wrong side of the debate for a new generation. In 2013, the pop singer Miley Cyrus took overt inspiration from the imagery of Nothing Compares 2 U in her video for the hit song Wrecking Ball. The video was controversial for its nudity and suggestive images. O’Connor jumped in with an open letter to Cyrus, but instead of being supportive, she took a judgmental tone, accusing the younger singer of ‘pimping herself’ and of allowing the music industry to take advantage of her sexuality. Cyrus responded that her nudity was her own choice and her sexuality was her own to do with as she pleased. Although I think Miley Cyrus has zero value as a musical artist, I agree with her. She’s created a wild-child image for herself, explicitly sexual and implicitly self-empowered. That reflects the attitudes of the younger generation. In 1990, Sinead O’Connor’s buttoned up personal style was a reaction to the all-flounce and no substance excess of the Madonna years; it resonated with a generation of women who were sick of prom queen pop stars with deep cleavage and nothing to say for themselves. O’Connor introduced grunge style and confessional songwriting. But for the young women who’ve come of age since then, the landscape has changed. They don’t see style and substance as mutually exclusive, and they see sexuality as yet another facet of free personal expression. When young women embrace formerly ‘demeaning’ things like pole dancing, BDSM, or pornography as part of their own liberation, it sets older feminists’ heads spinning. Isn’t this what we fought to liberate you from, they ask. If it’s freely and happily chosen, it’s not demeaning, the young explain, sometimes to deaf ears. The Sinead/Miley debate just really illustrates in simple terms the generation gap and resulting in-battles within the movement. It’s unfortunate that Sinead O’Connor doesn’t seem to grasp this, but really, who can blame her. She fought so hard against a status quo that silenced women by using their own sexuality as a weapon against them. It’s ok if she can’t relate to the generation she paved the way for.