Artists of the Year - SPIN-Interview 1990
By Legs McNeil
I really didn't think I'd ever see her again, because the last time we visited wasn't very pleasant. But here I was, visiting Sinead in her hotel room at the Omni Berkshire to get an update on Sinead for SPIN's "The Year in Music" issue. Sinead O'Connor: The Final Chapter, Round 15.
"So how is all this? Is it beyond your wildest dreams?"
"Yes, very much."
"You're a machine now, Sinead."
"No, I'm not" - she pauses - "What makes you say that?"
"Well, you're a legend now."
"No, I'm not."
"Sure you are."
"And if I was, being a legend is not being a machine."
"Little girls don't run away from home and show up on my doorstep because I know an ordinary person. They show up on my doorstep because I know a legend: you. And if little girls are running away and showing up on my doorstep, it must be pretty bad for you."
"I didn't know about that happening. When did that happen?"
"About two weeks ago. I didn't touch her. She was 15."
"All I could think of was going to jail."
"And it would've been all your fault."
"It would not."
The last time I'd seen Sinead had been in early 1990, the beginning of the Year of O'Connor, and Sinead was lying in bed at the Parker Meridien with her best friend from grammar school, Ciara O'Flannagan, talking on the telephone, watching music videos on the TV, reading a story I'd written on her. Her single "Nothing Compares 2 U" had just hone No. 3, on its way to No. 1; her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, later held at No. 1 for eight weeks. She was on the way to becoming one of the biggest rock'n'roll stars in the world, but she looked more like a 12-year-old who'd skipped school and broken into the hotel. The room-service trays were piled everywhere, the food looked like it had been licked from the plates, and Sinead and Ciara were actively devouring all the rest of the comforts the hotel had to offer: cable TV with remote control, multiple-line telephones, the works.
Little Sinead O'Connor, happy at last. Until she started reading the article.
"Why did you have to put all this personal stuff in here?" she asked, in a voice that suggested I just ran over her teddy bear with an 18-wheeler.
I got flustered. I wanted to say I put all the personal stuff in because I wanted to; because that was the way I wrote. But I didn't. I decided to be tactful and said, "Because you're a rock star, and people are interested in you."
Sinead looked up at me, going from marble to granite and said very flatly, "I am not a rock star."
On that note I left. I knew that if she didn't believe she was a rock star then, she was in for some difficult times ahead."
Not long after, the album had sold three million copies in the U.S., and MTV was playing "Nothing Compares 2 U" every five seconds. Everyone could finally pronounce her name. Reporters from English newspapers were calling me, offering up to 2,000 bucks to give them the name of guys she'd had affairs with. My mother, who hasn't been to the movies or bought a record since The Sound of Music was released, called to tell me Sinead had broken up with her husband, John Reynolds, and had replaced him with Hugh Harris, the British pop star who opened for her during the first leg of her tour.
"Hey Mom, when did you become a now happening hipster?"
"That's not the point. I just think it's scandalous that . . . "
The next time my mom called, it was to tell me about the row over Andrew Dice Clay hosting Saturday Night Live when Sinead was scheduled to be the music guest. She had canceled because of Andrew's misogyny and racism.
"Well, it's nice to know she's kept her values," my mother told me, showing her support for Sinead over Andrew.
"But Mom, I thought you didn't like her now because she was going out with a black guy?"
"That's right Eddie, go ahead and pick a fight with me!"
"I'm not picking a fight, Mom. I'm glad you like her again, but I don't care for censorship in any form. I don't think she should've boycotted Andrew. I don't think it's a good idea for one artist to boycott another because they don't like what the other has to say. I think it's dangerous."
"I don't know why I even bother talking to you. You damn kids always loved torturing me." Click.
This time it was my mom's turn to hang up on me. But I was pissed that Sinead didn't think her fans had enough smarts to figure Andrew Dice Clay for themselves. Plus it seemed hypocritical - she had after all appeared on the Grammys with the black and yellow Public Enemy symbol drawn on the side of her head, and then on the MTV Music Awards with 2 Live Crew. It made me wonder if she thought Public Enemy's and 2 Live Crew's racism and misogyny were okay because they were black, and Andrew Dice Clay's racism and misogyny were bad because he was white.
But then it was Sinead's turn to feel the heat. Some clown at the Garden State Arts Center decided that the national anthem was to be played at every event the Arts Center hosted, and when Sinead arrived she rightly told them that she would prefer to stick with her own repertoire. The resulting headlines made her out to be the new Ayatollah Khomeini, though no self-respecting American would ever stand for being forced to sing the national anthem. Radio stations banned her, Irish bars in Queens threw her off the jukebox, and good ol' Frank Sinatra was quoted as saying Sinead needed a kick in the pants.
A radio station called me and asked for an interview about the controversy.
"I'd like to make a quick comment," said one caller. "Seems to me that this young lady has what we call a B.A., which is a bad attitude. You know, I understand that this may be part of her image, and maybe the national anthem isn't supposed to be played at the rock concert. I saw her on TV not too long ago in an interview with Maria Shriver, and I've never seen such an ornery and mean, nasty kind of person. Hey, if you don't like the fame that Americans and people of the world have given you, get out of it. I think she should be a little more grateful."
"Well," I said, "I think rock'n'roll is all about celebrating a bad attitude, isn't it? It's about the underbelly, hopefully. I mean I don't want to listen to Donny and Marie."
"Tell me what her view of the national anthem is?" the interviewer asked me, retiring the caller.
"I'm sure she doesn't have a view of the national anthem. I'm sure if she wanted to play any national anthem, she would have played the Irish national anthem, since she's Irish. It's not a case of not being un-American - she's not American. Why should she play our national anthem before her show? I mean, I think it's ludicrous."
"Can't she see the headlines before she says something like this?"
"Sinead's 23 years old and from Dublin; she doesn't look for headlines. It's almost an accident that she's as big as she is."
"I wasn't saying she was seeking publicity. Couldn't she see the ramifications that the press would take?"
"No, I don't think Sinead's that sophisticated."
"What do you think the damage is?"
"I think the damage is that America says, 'Oh, that ungrateful, artful little bald-headed Irish girl, we bought her records and now she doesn't play the national anthem.' But I don't think Americans look beyond the headlines, and I think that's a shame because Sinead's an awfully talented person and a delightful person."
"But when they take the makeup off and sit down and become more like you and I?"
"Sinead's a delightful person, she's really a sweetheart, and I think she's a little overwhelmed at what has happened to her, and I think she's trying to maintain who she is, and I think it comes off . . ."
" . . . as arrogance?"
"Yeah. But you know, she's 23 years old and the whole world is watching her."
Walking down the hallway of the Omni Berkshire I sense right away that things are different. Coming out of the elevator, the maids are huddled in a doorway talking about the correct way to make up the Bald One's room. The door is answered by a hulking, good-looking bruiser named John whose job is to catch the bullets in his teeth. Ciara O'Flannigan is there again, now working as Sinead's personal assistant. Sitting on the couch, wearing a long, beautiful black dress, purple granny glasses, and . . . combat boots, is Sinead, looking as dreamy as ever.
And even more startling, she is tanned and relaxed. Instead ow worrying that someone is going to catch her moonlighting as a star and return her to the dreariness of a Dublin suburb to live the boring life of a housewife, she looks as if she has finally accepted that it really is her own life she is living. When she leads me to the room next door to sit down and do the interview, she acts like she owns the hotel, instead of her usual way: like she'd just snuck in the back door.
"So what are we going to talk about this time?" I ask.
"I don't know. You haven't asked me anything yet."
"I think the last thing you said to me was, 'I am not a rock star.' "
"No, well, I'm not, insofar as I don't know what a rock star is. I'm not what people perceive as a rock star to be. I'm not what I know they mean when they say, 'You're a rock star.' That's not what I am. I like being a human being."
"What about the quite from Musician magazine? 'If they don't leave me alone, I'm going to stop doing this.' Are you serious?"
"No. At the time, that's how I felt. Now I understand it better."
"What prompted it?"
"What prompted it was I came here on tour and I didn't know what to expect. And the whole success thing happened very quickly, and it wasn't what I had in mind. I didn't understand it, and I didn't understand it from the people's point of view. I just told them to go away. I let it freak me out too much. But now I think I'm more relaxed about it. I realize that people mean well and that they have a lot of affection for me and they want to let me know it."
"Can you walk around? Or, is that why that big guy in the other room is there?"
"No, I can walk around. I don't have a problem with people wanting to say hello to me. When it gets too much or if I'm pissed off or if I've got something going on or I've got something on my mind, I don't particularly feel like being chatty. Then he sort of gives them this feeling like stay off me. It doesn't happen to me that much. I don't really get mobbed; I'm not that sort of person, you know? I just get on with business."
"So what do you do all day?"
"(Grinning) Just roam around and be a rock star."
"Do you like it now?"
"Yeah, I do actually."
"You know," I tell Sinead, "I defended you. I defended your honor."
"Me? Who called you?"
"Who are they?"
"Network radio. It goes around the country."
"The transcripts. It was the day after you appeared on the cover of the New York Post for not letting the Garden State Arts Center play the national anthem before your show. I did an interview defending tou. Chivalry is not dead, Sinead."
"Thank you, Legs. '(Reading) It's an accident that she's as big as she is.' It's true. That's very accurate for you to say. Thank you very much. '(Reading) How well do you know Sinead?' 'Well, that's kind of sticky.' "
" 'Not at all,' is what I should have said."
"Thank you. Can I keep that?"
"When I said in that interview that I didn't think you were that sophisticated, I didn't mean it as an insult."
"No, I wasn't offended, and I'm not sophisticated and I don't want to be. I don't want to start thinking that that's not important, you know? 'Cause it's not. It's very easy to fall into the trap. You know, you want everybody to like you. I can't allow myself to start thinking about what effect that's going to have on the public, or I'm really doing it for myself. I can't start living my life for the media or to encourage favor with everybody."
"And they do now, Sinead? They're screaming for you?"
"I don't know. Some do, some don't. It's not important. What's important is that they understand whatever it is you're saying."
"Do you think they do?"
"Yeah, I do. I'm sure they do. There was a time when I thought they didn't. But with the national anthem thing, talking to my audience, to the people that like me, I know they do get it and they do understand. So, that's a success as far as I'm concerned."
"Was the backlash overwhelming?"
"Yeah, it was. It was very frightening. But it wasn't frightening enough to make me change my beliefs or apologize. I didn't feel I had anything to apologize for."
"Andrew Dice Clay. Don't you think it's a dangerous idea for one artist to boycott another artist?"
"I wasn't boycotting him."
"I have to be aware of the fact that I am in a way an influence on people. And I didn't want to be responsible for somebody being influenced or being exposed to things that I don't believe in."
"Did you feel that appearing on the show with him would somehow endorse his behaviour?"
"I found it to be irresponsible for a number of reasons. I felt first that it would be insulting to a lot of women, that in some way look up to me - well, not lok up to me, but respect me - I felt that it would be disrespectful of me to affiliate myself with that. And secondly, because I have a problem with homophobia and racism."
"But, you didn't on the MTV awards, with 2 Live Crew?"
"But that's because I like 2 Live Crew; I don't like Andrew Dice Clay."
"Wow, I'm glad we straightened that out. So, it's as simple as that?"
"That's not the point I was making. I don't necessarily like 2 Live Crew's records, but, as I said at the MTV Awards, I don't think the censorship thing is about censorship. I think it's about racism. Otherwise, there'd be a lot more bands being censored."
"Agreed, but do you tolerate someone's homophobia and racism because they're black?"
"No, I've never said that I tolerated anything they said in any of their songs. I wouldn't make a comment about 2 Live Crew's songs as to whether I like them or not because that's not the issue. It's not a musical issue. The issue I'm trying to draw attention to is the fact that I believe - and anybody can sit down and tell me I'm wrong - but I believe that the reason why people like 2 Live Crew are being censored is because they're black. Because I sit watching MTV practically every day, and I can see things like that Warrant video for 'Cherry Pie.' What an offensive video that is - a woman being hosed down, you know? And when the guy looks through the binoculars you can see her tits and her ass, you know? That's quite offensive. Billy Idol, that 'Rock the Cradle' song, is really offensive. That Heart song ["All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You"] is a potentially dangerous song, in that it could encourage young girls to go out hitchhiking and picking up strange men. And I don't see any of those videos being censored. And yes, the 2 Live Crew are offensive, yes N.W.A. are offensive - of course they are - but so are people like Billy Idol and so are people like Warrant."
"But - "
"So, if you're gonna censor people, let's censor white people as well. I don't have a problem with censorship for that reason."
"But, why censor anyone?"
"Exactly. I don't think that anybody should be censored. I think that things should have warning stickers. I think that there should be a sort of parental guidance system, the same as there is in film, but I think that a person should be entitled to be exposed to anything they want to be exposed to. In order for a person to make up their personality and decide what they want and don't want, and what's them and not them, they have to be able to see everything."
"But aren't the stickers a form of censorship?"
"No, I don't think they are. I don't have a problem with stickers at all."
"No, I don't. I think that something has to be done. There are cases where you have to be careful. Like I, as a mother, have to be careful what my son watches on television, because I don't want him to grow up thinking that it's all right to shoot people, or that the cowboys were the good guys, you know? Do you know what I mean? So, the same should apply to records until he is 17 or 18 or whatever and he can actually be responsible enought to chuck out what's shit and keep what's true."
"But don't you think people should be allowed to hang on to themselves? Don't you think people will figure it out for themselves?"
"Mmm . . . "
New subject. "It's been a hell of a year for you. And you've missed me terribly."
"Oh, I've been aching for you, Legs, of course."
"You get any hot numbers on this tour, Sinead?"
"What do you mean by a hot number?"
"You know, hot phone numbers?"
"No, unfortunately. I wish I had."
"You must be doing something wrong."
"I think I am too. I'm trying everything. I've tried everything, but . . . I don't know. Maybe I need to grow my hair."
"The only time I get chatted up is when I have a wig on. But I don't know what I'm doing right now. I might stay in America actually, if I'm allowed."
"Are you doing any movies?"
"I don't know."
"We'll just have to wait."
"I suppose so. I'll have to get a few lessons."
"Are you going to take acting lessons?"
"I suppose I should, although this is quite an acting lesson in itself."