Queer Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor dies at age 56

Sinéad O'Connor from her 1990 "Nothing Compares 2 U" video Photo: YouTube screenshot

Renowned queer Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor died today at the age of 56 from a yet-to-be-revealed cause. Though she is best known for her 1990 song Nothing Compares to You, she released 10 studio albums and was an outspoken political activist throughout her career. She is survived by three of her children.

In a statement posted on Wednesday, O’Connor’s family wrote, “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad. Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time.”

Born December 8, 1966 as the third of five children, O’Connor survived what she referred to as the “extreme and violent” psychological and emotional abuse of her mother and went to live with her father at age 8, following her parents’ divorce.

O’Connor was placed in the Catholic-run An Grianan Training Centre in Dublin at age 15 after she was caught for truancy and shoplifting. There, a nun gave her a guitar and encouraged her to funnel her rebellious nature into music. She continued practicing her music and, at age 16, recorded two original compositions with the help of a teacher. Soon after, she formed a band called Ton Ton Macoute and dropped out of school to pursue her music.

Her debut 1987 album The Lion and the Cobra got a Grammy nomination for best female rock vocal performance. Her second 1990 album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, won the Grammy Award for best alternative music performance.

The album featured her best-known track Nothing Compares to You. Its music video featured O’Connor on a black background, singing directly to the camera and shedding a single tear, an iconic moment that won the video three MTV Video Music Awards.

In 1990, she covered gay composer Cole Porter’s song You Do Something to Me for the AIDS fundraising album Red Hot + Blue, and inn 1991, she also covered gay musician Elton John’s Sacrifice for the tribute album Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin.

O’Connor garnered controversy in the ’90s by refusing to perform at a New Jersey concert venue unless it dropped its usual playing of the U.S. National Anthem before all concerts. Her refusal led some radio stations to boycott her music.

She performed a version of Bob Marley’s human rights anthem War during an October 3, 1992 episode of Saturday Night Live. During her performance, she tore up a photograph of Catholic Pope John Paul II while saying, “Fight the real enemy.” She did this nine years before the pope acknowledged the extensive child sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

O’Connor mentioned the incident in her 2021 book Rememberings, writing, “Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.” Despite her criticisms, she proclaimed herself a devout, lifelong Catholic.

She also declared herself a “dyke” in a 2000 interview with Curve magazine and sang a gender-swapped cover of the romantic Canadian folk song “Peggy Gordon” in her 2002 album Sean-Nós Nua. Clarifying her sexuality, O’Connor said in a 2005 Entertainment Weekly interview, “I’m three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay.”

Nearly 10 years later, in a Pride Source interview, she said, “I think if you fall in love with someone, you fall in love with someone and I don’t think it would matter what they were. They could be green, white, and orange, they could be whatever the opposite of gay or straight is. I don’t believe in labels of any kind, put it that way. If I fall in love with someone, I wouldn’t give a s**t if they were a man or a woman.”

In 2017, she changed her legal name to Magda Davitt to be “free of the patriarchal slave names” and of “parental curses,” she said. After converting to Islam in October 2018, she began using the name Shuhada Sadaqat. However, she continued to perform under the better-known O’Connor name.

During her life, O’Connor married and divorced four times and had four children. Her 17-year-old son Shane died by suicide in 2022. O’Connor herself spoke openly about her own battles with suicidal ideation, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and agoraphobia in order to de-stigmatize mental illness.

Her unapologetically outspoken nature likely reduced the career success she might’ve had otherwise. Nevertheless, her powerful voice and genre-defying albums still achieved notoriety and helped pave the way for similarly rebellious artists.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at The Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) is staffed by trans people and will not contact law enforcement. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgment-free place to talk for youth via chat, text (678-678), or phone (1-866-488-7386). Help is available at all three resources in English and Spanish.

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