Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 32, which explores the history of the legacy of Sinéad O’Connor, her biggest hit, and how Prince factors into it all.
This is a story about Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Prince wrote it. She took it. It’s her song. But it cost her dearly.
Prince, as you are probably aware, wrote a shit ton of songs. And gave a shit ton away. And it transpires that some of those songs just sound better when sung by a woman. The Bangles doing “Manic Monday.” Chaka Khan doing “I Feel for You.” Sheila E. doing “The Glamorous Life.” You want the truth? Cyndi Lauper’s version of “When U Were Mine” is better than Prince’s version of “When You Were Mine.” That’s right. What are you gonna do about it? I’m not on Twitter (as far as you know, probably). You don’t know where to find me. It’s not that Cyndi Lauper changed the meaning of this song, it’s that Cyndi Lauper distilled the pure exquisite flamboyant misery of this song.
But Sinéad O’Connor doing “Nothing Compares 2 U” on her second album, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got—this is different. However cordial the initial business transaction here—the process by which Prince allowed her to record and release his song—forget all that. This is a hostile takeover. Sinéad embodies this song on a molecular level. She changes the fundamental meaning of this song. She owns this song. She steals this song. Just the audacity of that. The greatness and the fearlessness required of her to do that. Sinéad O’Connor saying, “I’m gonna steal a song from Prince” is like Nicolas Cage saying, “I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.”
But that’s what she did.
Who is this person? What does she want? What doesn’t she want? What do we want from her? In June 2021 Sinéad O’Connor published a memoir called Rememberings. It’s rough. She was born in Glenageary, Ireland, in 1966. The third of four children. Her parents split up when she was 9; she split time between her father, who was initially granted custody of the children, and her mother, who in Sinéad’s account was physically and mentally abusive. Sinéad mentions a few times that when she’d come home from school for the summer she’d pretend she’d lost her field hockey stick, because she didn’t want her mother to beat her with it. She says her mother would beat her with a carpet-sweeper pole instead and make Sinéad say “I am nothing” over and over. That’s it for details. Her mother died in a car accident when Sinéad was 18, shortly before she got her first record deal. I tell you that much only because this might somewhat explain both the fragility and the ferocity with which Sinéad O’Connor sings, and the hard-fought self-assurance she brings to every song she’s ever sung.
The pop-star-memoir arc, generally—the Rise and Fall narrative you know and love from any Oscar-nominated biopic or tawdry VH1 Behind the Music episode you’ve ever watched—at least there’s a rise, right? At least there’s a brief period when the pop’s star discovery, and breakthrough success, and apex fame and fortune are enjoyed by the pop star. Over-enjoyed, inevitably. But enjoyed. But Sinéad’s book is rough going in this respect as well. She writes that she was sitting on the toilet—she wants you to know that she can’t remember whose toilet—when she is informed that both “Nothing Compares 2 U” and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got have both hit no. 1 in America, on the singles and albums charts respectively. She writes, “Whoever it was who told me got cross with me because I didn’t take the news happily. Instead, I cried like a child at the gates of hell.”
Sinéad’s first album, released in 1987, was called The Lion and the Cobra. A biblical name. From Psalm 91.
If you say, “The Lord is my refuge”
And you make the Most High your dwelling
No harm will overtake you
No disaster will come near your tent
And so on. You will tread on the lion and the cobra. And so on. The record company didn’t like the way Sinéad looked on the cover of The Lion and the Cobra, her mouth wide open, her head shaved of course. They thought she looked angry. They thought she looked like she’s screaming. The record company preferred another image from the photo shoot where she’s looking down, and her mouth is closed. Good luck with that, record company. She’s not screaming, actually. She’s just singing. That’s just the way she looks when she sings.
The biggest single off this record was called “Mandinka.” Sinéad was inspired by Roots, the blockbuster 1977 TV series based on Alex Haley’s famous novel about slavery. She writes, “I was a young girl when I saw it, and it moved something so deeply in me, I had a visceral response. I came to emotionally identify with the civil rights movement and slavery, especially given the theocracy I lived in and the oppression in my own home.” That’s a tricky comparison for Sinéad to be making. But just try to convince this person to not speak her mind.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.