Nothing Compares is currently showing at Sheffield Doc Fest.
The year is 1992, and Sińead O’Conner is about to walk on stage at Madison Square Garden for Bob Dylan’s 30th-anniversary concert. However, as Kris Kristofferson introduces her, the crowd erupts in a mix of jeers and boos. As Sińead stands before them, a look of sheer emotional rage covers her face, her mind a whirlwind of thoughts as she decides whether to run or fight the audience in front of her. Kristofferson walks back on stage, hugs her tightly and says, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Sińead was due to sing I Believe in You but quickly scrapped the song and opted to fight the hate in front of her, delivering a fiery, emotional and angry performance of Bob Marley’s War before taking comfort in Kris Kristofferson’s arms once more.
But what had led to this uncomfortable moment on live TV? And why did an American audience and press who idolised her just months before suddenly paint her as a villain and public enemy? The answer lies in two events leading up to that 1992 performance. The first was Sińead’s open criticism of the Gulf War and her refusal to go on stage if the National Anthem was played before a concert, leading to calls from a bunch of flag-waving nationalists for her to “get out” of the United States. However, it was the second event that would truly upset a nation built on religious control and evangelical ideology.
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Following the child sex abuse claims brought against the Catholic Church in Ireland and the discovery that Pope John Paul II had suppressed information for decades about the scale of the abuse, O’Connor would use a 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance to make the ultimate statement. Here O’Connor would sing Bob Marley’s War before tearing up a photo of the Pope on live TV. For many Americans, this was a step too far, her criticism of the Catholic Church on live TV a sinful act of no return.
The resulting fallout would see the apparent global centre of free speech and liberty remove Sińead O’Conner from the airwaves. Here her albums and tapes would be crushed with steamrollers while comedians engaged in a series of disgusting and abusive sketches. Meanwhile, commentators would defend the Catholic Church despite the years of abuse uncovered.
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These events bookend Kathryn Ferguson’s unique, passionate and exhilarating documentary, Nothing Compares. Here Ferguson dovetails O’Connor’s childhood abuse and trauma with Ireland’s history as a survivor of religious abuse and control. As we are taken on O’Connor’s journey from children’s homes and school exclusions to unexpected pop stardom, O’Connor’s voice guides us through archival footage, personal recordings, historical film and music. The result is a delicate yet bold portrait of the artist and the campaigner – a story of bravery, artistry and defiance.
Nothing Compares is showing now at Sheffield Doc Fest
In her songs, O’Connor was unafraid to explore the abuse she suffered as a child and the national acceptance of abuse that sat behind it. Here the internal rage of her writing dovetailed with an angelic non-binary appearance. O’Connor understood that Ireland had to change, stand up and be counted after years of oppression – oppression that had shaped the lives of countless generations and stopped the Country from achieving its rightful place in the world.
In songs ranging from Troy to Never Get Old and Mandinka, O’Connor’s beliefs and experiences sat centre stage – each track an act of healing. She would shave her head as an act of rebellion against her record label and blur the boundaries of gender identity in a music industry where women were still viewed as sexual objects. It is, therefore, no wonder that O’Connor found her tribe in London through the LGBTQ+ community. O’Connor was ahead of her time, a pioneer who knew no fear and openly challenged the system even when society walked two steps behind her artistic vision.
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Of course, since the documentary wrapped, O’Connor’s life has been further impacted by the tragic death of her seventeen-year-old son following a mental health battle, and it’s impossible to watch the documentary and not feel tremendous sadness as she reflects on her role as a mother. But, equally, recent political events haunt the documentary, from the repeal of Roe v Wade in America to the increasing march of far-right ideology.
Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary reminds us that we need figures like O’Connor now more than ever – musicians and artists willing to wear their beliefs and values on their sleeves in the fight for change. Sińead O’Conner forged her own path despite the attempted control around her and never deserved the treatment she received in the press and broader media, but she defied the hate. As the documentary came to a close, I questioned whether such passion still existed in our music industry? Or whether artists are now afraid to say or do anything that may lead to their public cancellation? The answers to these questions are complicated and rooted in a changing media landscape but equally urgent; therefore, I will leave you with another question: Would an artist like O’Connor make it through the industry today?
Nothing Compares is a delicate yet bold portrait of the artist and the campaigner – a journey of bravery, artistry and defiance.