The first time I heard Sinead O’Connor sing, I nearly fell of the edge of my dorm room bed. A freshman in college and a major U2 fan, I had just purchased the soundtrack to the film “Captive,” which was essentially a solo album from U2 guitarist the Edge, who had crafted the score for the UK-released film.
For one song, a particularly haunting and ethereal one, Edge enlisted the talents of a young singer who had been generating a buzz in Dublin with the band Ton Ton Macoute and had recently gone solo. O’Connor co-wrote the tune “Heroine” with Edge, and her singing on the track was at once incredibly virtuosic and heart-rending. Her delivery was intense. She grabbed you by the lapels and made sure you were paying attention.
Nearly 30 years later, I’m still paying attention.
O’Connor was the type of artist who experienced music as a calling, as much as a craft or vocation. She has proven herself incapable of stifling the emotional torrents that simultaneously make her art consistently incisive and get her into trouble with a music industry and a broader culture that still seem to have trouble accepting strong, intelligent and opinionated women, particularly when they aren’t using sex to sell themselves.
O’Connor, who brings her “American Kindness Tour” to the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda at 8 p.m. Tuesday, has more than a little to say on sexuality in popular culture, unsurprisingly. In fact, she said plenty on the topic in a recent series of “open letters” to tween pop-tart Miley Cyrus, following Cyrus’ bizarrely and aggressively sexual performance with Robin Thicke at MTV’s VMA ceremony.
The back and forth between O’Connor and Cyrus launched a media frenzy, a culture-vulture maelstrom that painted O’Connor as somehow psychologically tormented. In conversation, however, she seems anything but. The long-standing, but currently in hyper-overdrive, tendency for female pop stars to equate self-empowerment with sexuality is simply something that O’Connor finds troubling.
“It’s an important question you ask,” she said in her gorgeous, lilting Irish brogue, speaking to me by phone in the midst of her tour. “Sexuality is really only a part of a larger whole, when it comes to self-empowerment.
“We have to look back nearly 20 years to see the whole picture of how we ended up here. You see, when the industry saw the possibility of making lots of money from rap and hip-hop, they grabbed onto it, watered it down and, as far as its power as a force for both entertainment and the spreading of spiritual truths was concerned, shut it down. Once that happened, it then became simply a voice for materialism, not the voice of the poor and the disenfranchised from the urban streets. Today’s pop music is born from this clamping of the mouth. The industry managed to silence the most powerful voice of the time and replace it with vapid odes to empty sexuality and material wealth.
“So the true voice of young people was lost, was sucked into the establishment, and it became about money, first and foremost.”
O’Connor labeling her current tour “American Kindness” comes as a bit of a shock. As an outspoken critic of the activities of empire and the tendencies toward colonialism in foreign policy evidenced by many nations, you would expect O’Connor to have an attitude toward America. That’s not the case, though.
“Americans are incredibly kind when you meet them in person,” O’Connor said. “They are warm, open, welcoming – they’ve always been incredibly kind to me.
“Whenever a country gets itself into trouble around the world, the first victims are the people of that country itself. These days, the media has completely taken over control, and we really don’t know each other, because we have no direct contact with each other, no genuine human interaction. Calling this tour ‘American Kindness’ is just my way of reaching my hand across this perceived divide and saying, ‘I know you, and I acknowledge your kindness.’ ”
On hallowed ground
O’Connor has wrestled with issues surrounding religion in general and Christianity in particular for far longer than she has been in the public eye. These internal struggles were writ large Oct. 3, 1992, when O’Connor – then at the peak of her commercial powers – appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” In what she described as a protest against sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, O’Connor sang Bob Marley’s “War” and then ripped a photo of Pope John Paul II into pieces before the live studio and television audience. Predictably, the fallout from this performance was considerable, and it hurt O’Connor’s popularity within some factions of her audience.
O’Connor refused to back down. Twenty years later, she’s still turning her piercing eye toward such abuses and still wrestling with similar demons. One of the most striking tunes among many such songs on her most recent collection, “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?” is certainly “Take Off Your Shoes,” an aggressively emotional and dramatic piece that would seem to be commenting on the general schism between spiritual feeling and the flawed earthly “representatives” of religion.
“I often write ‘character songs,’ songs narrated from a particular point of view that is not necessarily me or mine,” she said. “In the song you mention, the character is the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is speaking directly to the Vatican. It’s brutally direct, intentionally so. These are very clearly songs in the tradition of what Bob Dylan calls ‘finger-pointing songs.’ ” (She laughs.)
O’Connor, who was ordained as a priest by Bishop Michael Cox of the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in the late 1990s, favors a “direct relationship with God, one without intermediaries, because God truly exists outside of religion.” It’s a nuanced and sophisticated view, one that often has been misrepresented in the media, and one that has gotten O’Connor into trouble repeatedly with those who favor a more conservative interpretation of spirituality. O’Connor has never flinched, though.
The ‘X’ factory
In recent weeks, O’Connor’s distaste for televised music talent shows such as “The X Factor” and “American Idol” has been made public through various published interviews. In keeping with her well-established tradition of tracing cultural problems from branch to root, the singer sees the problem with these shows as a question of “artistic immorality.”
“Music has become part of the establishment now, obviously,” she said. “There has been a spiritual shift from the ’70s, when music was in a more spirited and spiritual place – when it could entertain as well as uplift. That’s not the case now, and these shows have something to do with that fact, because they present no artistic challenge, and they put forth the idea that a shortcut toward fame and riches is somehow to be admired and lusted after. Great musicianship is not for money – any great musician will tell you that. Getting paid is nice. But the musicianship itself is above that.
“This is dangerous, because we will all be dead one day, and what young people are doing today will be considered music in the future. There is a place for this empty sort of pop music, but the problem comes about when it seems to be the only thing that the industry feels is worthwhile to get behind and push.
“I’m optimistic, though. I believe people are becoming sick of concocted bands and contrived shows like ‘X Factor.’ This sanitization of music is not being perceived of as a good thing by everyone. What we need is a nonviolent musical revolution. And I believe we will get one.”