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‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ Grows More Haunting Each Year

Sinéad O’Connor’s biggest hit made her a star. Then came decades of tragedy and mistreatment, which have only made the song’s stark beauty more poignant

Every time I see Sinéad O’Connor’s name trending, I get nervous. I’m always fearful that this will be it, this time it will be the thing I’ve feared hearing for years. She’s had a hard life, battling mental-health issues and openly discussing her suicidal tendencies. There aren’t many celebrities I spend time worrying about — I don’t know them, they don’t know me — but she’s one of them. 

In recent weeks, O’Connor has been in the news, and it’s been nothing but sorrow. About a week ago, her 17-year-old son Shane, who’d been on suicide watch in a Dublin hospital, escaped and killed himself. Soon after, she herself was hospitalized, writing on Twitter, “I’ve decided to follow my son. There’s no point living without him.” Your heart breaks for her, and being a fan of O’Connor means that your heart will break again and again. A Bonnie Raitt lyric comes to mind: “Why the angels turn their backs on some / It’s a mystery to me.”

O’Connor’s time as a superstar was short-lived, but I was old enough to remember it, and I’ve never really let it go. She made two indelible albums and then that was all — she kept making records, of course, but in terms of a cultural footprint, she never matched what she’d achieved in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That was enough, though. And while there are so many songs from that period I can point to, there’s really only one necessary. Maybe there are people who are immune to “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but they’re people you don’t need to know.

By all accounts, she has always been an emotional person. In her 2021 memoir Rememberings, she writes about being unable to function after learning of Elvis Presley’s death. (“I’m crying so fucking much I can’t make my bed. My body won’t work.”) Born in December 1966, she had a rocky home life. His parents split when she was a girl. She lived with her dad, although she said in her book that she noticed that “my father is not a happy person. I can’t say I blame him. … He gets blue and goes to bed after lunch a lot. I sit next to him at the table and see the sadness come up into his eyes from down inside his belly. He doesn’t like me to see it.” 

Her mother died in a car accident when O’Connor was 19, the singer later accusing her of sexual abuse. “She was not well,” O’Connor said in 2017. “She was very, very, very not well. I would say she was possessed. Although I’m not sure I believe in such things.” Her mother “encouraged me to shoplift,” O’Connor wrote in a 2010 essay, landing her in a religious correctional facility. “We worked in the basement, washing priests’ clothes in sinks with cold water and bars of soap,” she recalled. “We studied math and typing. We had limited contact with our families. We earned no wages. One of the nuns, at least, was kind to me and gave me my first guitar.”

Soon, she was fronting her own bands. In a 1986 article from The Irish Times, she mentions that she’s recently recorded with U2 guitarist the Edge after running away from home. Even back then, she shaved her head and wore Doc Martens. “I’m a real schizophrenic,” she said in the piece, later adding, “I like to contrast five or six elements of one person in me. … I have a skinhead, but I’m not a skinhead. I have the haircut because it makes me feel clear; it makes me feel good. I like to say, ‘I’m not a man or a woman — I’m Sinéad O’Connor.’”

Her first solo album, The Lion and the Cobra, came out the following year. It’s the epitome of college rock: smart, literate, personal, flecked with New Wave influences and slightly arty. If you were a fan of Kate Bush or Siouxsie and the Banshees, you sought the album out, and its hit “Mandinka” wielded a killer riff. “Passion is volatile in Sinéad O’Connor’s songs; within a verse, it can become love, anger, lust, vulnerability, defiance or religious fervor,” the New York Times’ Jon Pareles wrote at the time. “The songs on her debut album … carefully channel those raw emotions, shifting unpredictably from plea to accusation or from meditation to rock stomp; her voice can be sweet or lacerating, delivering endearments in a bitter rasp or breaking into wordless ululation.” She hadn’t yet turned 21.

The Lion and the Cobra brought her to the world’s attention, and in her personal life she had married record producer John Reynolds, who had worked on her debut, giving birth to their son Jake in the summer of 1987. Around that same period, she went to see a medium. She was visited by her mom. 

“My mother asked my sister to forgive her for what she had done to all of us,” O’Connor recalled. “But my sister would not forgive her. And while I understood this, it made me very, very sad for my mother’s soul. I was so young and didn’t know any better.” O’Connor went to bed that evening, and her mother appeared again, this time in a dream. It was the first time she had dreamed of her mom since her death. “I told my mother I was sorry that [my sister] couldn’t forgive her. My mother said, ‘I do not want what I haven’t got.’ What my mother meant was that she didn’t deserve my sister’s forgiveness and that she knew she didn’t deserve it so that I shouldn’t feel sorry for her.”

I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is an album about a lot of things — racism in the U.K., the struggles of being a parent and a romantic partner, celebrity — but it’s also very much about O’Connor’s relationship with her deceased mother. “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” is not a story about a woman pining for a dead lover but, rather, her mom. “Feel So Different,” which opens with her reciting the Serenity Prayer, finds O’Connor concluding a tale of self-empowerment by declaring, “I should have hatred for you / But I do not have any / And I have always loved you / Oh, you have taught me plenty / The whole time I’d never seen / All you had spread before me / The whole time I’d never seen / All I’d need was inside me.” That’s not an ex she’s singing about.

In some ways, I Do Not Want’s biggest song is also connected to her mother. 

“Nothing Compares 2 U” had been written by Prince around the time of Purple Rain, arguably the most prolific period of an artist who had his share. It was meant for the Family, a band he’d put together fronted by lead singer Paul Peterson (aka St. Paul). “I was told to learn Prince’s inflections, his emotions and the melody line,” Peterson recalled, later adding, “So I thought about a girl called Julie, who broke my heart in high school.” (Side note: He’s now been married to Julie for three decades.)

The Family’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” wasn’t a hit, although it boasts the synth-heavy pop melodrama of that phase of Prince’s career. So when O’Connor decided to cover the song a few years later, it wasn’t like it was some beloved chestnut. She made some radical changes. Her version was operatic, spectral, funereal. It felt like going to church, except she’s testifying about a lover who’s left.

​​It’s been seven hours and 15 days 
Since you took your love away 
I go out every night and sleep all day 
Since you took your love away 
Since you’ve been gone I can do whatever I want 
I can see whomever I choose 
I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant 
But nothing
I said nothing can take away these blues

‘Cause nothing compares 
Nothing compares to you

O’Connor leaves Prince’s lyrics basically intact, starting with that terrifically specific opening regarding just how long ago the breakup occurred. The narrator got dumped about two weeks ago, and she still sounds bereft. But O’Connor’s desire to contain multitudes is evident, her singing both distraught and a bit angry. Breakup songs tend to be either enraged or anguished — we cycle through those emotions, one to the next — and yet “Nothing Compares 2 U” has room for both. And as stately as the music is, that’s how raw her vocals are — two different versions of beauty presented simultaneously. Her one significant lyrical tweak involves switching the gender in a few lines, and it’s remarkable how much harder they hit in her version:

I went to the doctor and guess what he told me
Guess what he told me? 
He said, “Girl, you better try to have fun no matter what you do” 
But he’s a fool

Coming from a male doctor to a female patient, the advice now sounds patronizing and sexist. And O’Connor gets noticeably more enraged in that moment: It’s bad enough you’ve left me, and now I gotta deal with this asshole?

“Nothing Compares 2 U” was the first single released off I Do Not Want, hitting radio just as the new decade was starting. It went to No. 1 across the globe, including the U.S. for four weeks in April and May. This was the era of Madonna’s “Vogue,” Taylor Dayne’s “Love Will Lead You Back,” and other female artists like Wilson Phillips, Alannah Myles and Mariah Carey. But nobody sounded like Sinéad O’Connor. And nobody looked like her. That latter feeling was only cemented by the video she did for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” still one of the best ever made.

O’Connor didn’t think so at the time, though. She thought she had ruined the shoot. In Rememberings, she talks about what is now the video’s most iconic element, the spare, straight-on shot of her singing, looking right at us, in tight close-up. “I just sang the song along with the track, sitting in a chair wearing a black polo neck,” O’Connor writes. “But in the part where it says, ‘All the flowers that you planted, Mama, in the backyard, all died when you went away,’ I cried for like 20 seconds. … I think it’s unusable. … I feel bad I wasted everyone’s time and money.”

In fact, it proved to be an incredible punctuation mark to a video that was as stripped-down as the song, and O’Connor herself. The clip alternates between her singing to camera and scenes of her walking around a Parisian park. But the tears that appear near the song’s end have a spontaneity that couldn’t be faked. O’Connor was crying because of her mom. “I’m still really messed up about [her death], even though I’m 24,” she writes in her autobiography, putting herself back into that headspace. “A little embarrassing. But there you go. I’m a girl.”

All these years later, even though you know the moment is coming, O’Connor’s tears are still a shock, because you can sense that they’re a shock to her. By 1990, music videos were already pricey affairs, an official piece of promotional product, filled with elaborate effects or ambitious storylines. By comparison, “Nothing Compares 2 U” was stunningly simple, her shaved head practically an act of defiance at a time when female artists had to flaunt sexuality to help sell songs. Recalling the intimate close-ups of one of the great silent films, 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, starring Maria Falconetti as the doomed martyr, “Nothing Compares 2 U” was startling in its insistence that the capturing of emotion on a human face was all the drama a video needed.  

The top man at O’Connor’s label thought I Do Not Want was going to stiff — “It’s too personal; it’s like reading someone’s diaries,” she remembers him telling her — but the album became a critical and commercial smash. But then things quickly started going wrong for O’Connor. She talked about having a nervous breakdown. She mentioned how her fame created problems close to home. “[T]he rift that it caused me within my family made me want to kill myself,” she said in a 1991 Spin interview. “I contemplated killing myself on numerous occasions. Because I just couldn’t see that there was any way out.”

Not to mention all the controversies — the ones you remember and the ones you don’t. In the latter category, she refused to have “The Star-Spangled Banner” played before her shows, prompting New York state senator Nicholas Spano to suggest his constituents boycott her shows, while Frank Sinatra declared, “She should leave the country. … For her sake, we’d better never meet.” (“I sincerely harbor no disrespect for America or Americans,” O’Connor said in a statement at the time, “but I have a policy of not having any national anthems played before my concerts in any country, including my own, because they have nothing to do with music in general.”) But that kerfuffle was quickly overshadowed when, while promoting her subsequent album, a collection of covers entitled Am I Not Your Girl?, she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II during a performance on Saturday Night Live while declaring “Fight the real enemy.”

Her feud was with the Catholic Church over its shameful history of covering up sexual abuse, but the blowback came from everywhere. She got booed at a tribute concert for Bob Dylan, one of her heroes. She was viewed as unstable and difficult, a pain in the ass. O’Connor couldn’t have cared less. “The media was making me out to be crazy because I wasn’t acting like a pop star was supposed to act,” she said last year in a New York Times profile. “It seems to me that being a pop star is almost like being in a type of prison. You have to be a good girl.” 

In short order, she stopped being a pop star. Subsequent albums like Universal Mother and Faith and Courage failed to generate much interest. There was a general sense that O’Connor had been one of those singers who’d flamed out. The early 1990s had been a period when musicians of different stripes — whether it was O’Connor or George Michael or Kurt Cobain — complained openly about stardom and the toll it took on their artistry, but while a lot of grunge and alt-rock acts earned credibility by not wanting to sell out, O’Connor was merely branded the stereotypical “crazy chick.” Even at a time when female artists, like Liz Phair and Alanis Morissette, were gaining respect for speaking out about sexism, O’Connor never got to ride that wave. She was just viewed as some sort of self-destructive weirdo. It wasn’t fair.

I wouldn’t claim that anything she’s made since I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got has been nearly as impressive. And she’s been felled by what is often labeled in the media as “erratic” behavior. (For instance, it was hard to know if she had, in fact, actually retired from the music business.) Even her feelings about her biggest hit have shifted in recent years. In 2015, she announced she’d no longer perform “Nothing Compares 2 U” in concert, writing on Facebook, “After 25 years of singing it, nine months or so ago I finally ran out of anything I could use in order to bring some emotion to it. … If I were to sing it just to please people, I wouldn’t be doing my job right, because my job is to be emotionally available. I’d be lying. You’d be getting a lie. My job is to give you honesty.” But in her 2021 memoir, she seemed to reverse itself: “‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was a song I was always — and am always — singing to my mother. Every time I perform it, I feel it’s the only time I get to spend with my mother and that I’m talking with her again. … I love the song and never get fed up singing it.”

But the song has also been besmirched in some ways because of how O’Connor claims Prince treated her after it became a hit. They’d met around The Lion and the Cobra but had never really hung out until he called her out of the blue, inviting her over to his place. “I’m still 23. Me and my friends get romantic ideas. We all thought maybe me and him would fall in love,” she recalls thinking in her book.

That’s not what happened. According to Rememberings, after asking her if she’d like a drink, “[Prince] turns his back to reach up in the cupboard for a glass. Then quick as a flash he spins round and smashes the glass so hard down in front of me that I don’t know how his hand didn’t go through it, saying ‘Get it yourself.’” What follows allegedly involves a shouting match — he doesn’t like that she swears in interviews — and some intimidating behavior on Prince’s part. At one point, he tries to make her have some soup, and later threatens her with physical harm. 

“You’ve got to be crazy to be a musician, but there’s a difference between being crazy and being a violent abuser of women,” O’Connor said in that Times interview from last year. Not that she has any misgivings about the connection between her cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Prince: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s my song.”

Others have covered the song since, and none of them got close to stealing it away from her. A few different versions by Prince have popped up, as well, including an early demo released after his 2016 death. But every take on “Nothing Compares 2 U” that isn’t hers struggles to land on the immediacy that she found so profoundly. 

Meanwhile, sadly, woes continue to find her. In 2015, she had a hysterectomy that wreaked havoc on her well-being. “Nobody had explained to me or my family that she’s going to be a crazy bitch because we took her ovaries for no reason,” she later told The Guardian. “So the children were terrified of me. … I was furious. I was completely gone. I was suicidal.” She’s sought spiritual enlightenment, converting to Islam in 2018, but then lashed out, declaring, “I never wanna spend time with white people again. … They are disgusting.” She’s been hospitalized before this most recent incident, tweeting in 2019 that she was “suffering very badly from depression” and was “[t]rying to find a way to get up off the floor.”

The publication of Rememberings last year, and the interviews she gave around that time, left one feeling hopeful. “I think I’m good now,” she said in that Guardian profile. “But I’m not stupid enough to think I won’t have relapses. I’m not stupid enough to think I won’t end up in hospital again. I’m a recovering abuse survivor, and it’s a life’s work. It’s not like you get reborn or something.” Her parting thought to her interviewer was an amusingly sardonic one: “So yeah, I’m always going to be a bit of a crazy bitch, but that’s okay.”

The tragic death of her son Shane, and the news that she was being treated again for suicidal depression, only underlined the fragility of her contentment. At a time when Britney Spears’ mental-health issues are earning a sympathy they haven’t always received — at a time when Kanye West is very outspoken about suffering from bipolar disorder — it seems that Sinéad O’Connor should also be the recipient of a reconsideration. Too easily branded as “crazy” (or worse) in the media, she has lived a very public life and suffered for most of it — partly because of the strain fame puts on people, and partly because of the depression and alleged abuse she’s experienced. Her attacks against the Catholic Church hardly feel that controversial or “brave” anymore — she was ahead of her time. “Whatever it may bring / I will live by my own policies,” she sang on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. “I will sleep with a clear conscience / I will sleep in peace.”  

In 2015, New Yorker writer Sarah Larson noted what an anomaly “Nothing Compares 2 U” was in O’Connor’s body of work, especially in comparison to the rest of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got:

“[T]he song’s lyrics, standard pop love-song stuff, don’t sound like words she’d write. Would she try to cheer herself up by eating dinner in a fancy restaurant? Would she cry lonely tears and say, ‘Tell me, baby, where did I go wrong?’ The resignation, the powerlessness, the lack of imagination, the sweet old rock-and-blues lyric tradition of going to the doctor for your heartbreak — ‘Guess what he told me, guess what he told me? He said, “Girl, you better try to have fun no matter what you do”’ — don’t have the feminist fight of the songs that O’Connor writes herself. Her original songs on that same album, from ‘Feels So Different’ on, are piercingly honest and lyrically complex; they’re rarely straight love songs, or straight anything.”

That may be true, although I think Prince’s original lyrics are better than Larson gives them credit for. Still, her conclusion feels pretty dead-on: “Part of the global appeal of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ … may have been its lyrical simplicity — it gave the world O’Connor’s emotional power in a form that felt palatable. She made it resonate with what she brought to it.”

You can’t hear any of O’Connor’s songs, originals or covers, and not feel that resonance. She has a voice that can’t not be honest — it just comes out of her. Every time you turn on “Nothing Compares 2 U,” you hear a very specific heartbreak, one first dreamed up by Prince but perfected by her, who was thinking about her mom. But that’s not how we receive it. Instead, we think of that video, of a woman looking into the camera, utterly unprotected, withstanding our gaze looking back at her. The desperation in her vocal only gets sadder with time. She was so young then. She had no idea of everything that was to come. 

When I hear the song, I get the same sensation every time: I hope she’s going to be okay. “Nothing Compares 2 U” leaves you feeling uncertain about that. And I’ve never stopped feeling uncertain since.