Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Folkie Madonna

Two years ago, Sinéad O'Connor took great pains to prove she wasn't "some ethereal Irish woman." Making New York her home away from home, the London-based Dubliner was a vociferous rap fan before that became an obvious move, adding M.C. Lyte's voice of restraint to a dance remix of the ravishingly sexual "I Want Your Hands on Me" and choosing Rob Base to open her show at the World. In December 1988 she was the big name at Refuse and Resist's left-wing bash, where she met Karen Finley, who soon surfaced as the voice of mad lust on a dance remix of the ravishingly sexual "Jump in the River." She said "fuck" a lot; she shaved a Public Enemy gunsight onto her stubbly skull for the Grammies. "I'm not an admirer of folk music, of Suzanne Vega and Joni Mitchell," she told Bill Coleman in Musician. "All that stuff is wishy-washy as far as I'm concerned."

The distance between Sinéad and Joni was broadcast, of course, by her famous skinhead haircut, which according to good buddy Legs McNeil countered Chrysalis's request that she please try and act more "girlie." But the gap was clear enough on her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, which Chrysalis pencilled in for 25,000 U.S. sales when it came out in late 1987. Although O'Connor had put in guitar-strumming time on the Dublin pub circuit before a U.K. indie moved her to London in 1985, this was definitely a rock record. Subgenre art-rock for sure, but not in the chamber-music mode of For the Roses--more like Kate Bush at her raucous best, except that no matter how loud she gets Bush is altogether sweeter and rounder. O'Connor has most of Bush's startling range, but her deep swoops are more Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist, and there's something sere and coarse in her timbre; even when her singing is beautiful it has an unpretty edge. On The Lion and the Cobra her music was similar--the string effects were plainly synthesized, more beats or textural interjections than anything else, and there were sheets of guitar and lots of drums. Harsh stuff. Sinéad was big on harsh. But people took to this 21-year-old original anyway, and unlikely though it had first seemed, The Lion and the Cobra eventually went gold. After she'd moved a mere 50,000 units, since-departed Chrysalis prexy Mike Bone shaved his head in penance for his meager faith.

"To write harshly, that's my ambition," she was still telling Time a month ago. But on her new album you have to listen for it. The title of the first cut announces her program: "Feel So Different." "I am not like I was before," it begins, and proceeds for six-and-a-half violin-soaked minutes toward real-life satori: "The whole time I'd never seen/That all I'd need was inside me." At her wildly SRO Beacon concert last Wednesday, she opened with that song, and all over the theatre an impromptu chorus of amateur angels sang softly along. It's true, too--Sinéad O'Connor is not like she was before: "How could I possibly know what I want/When I was only twenty-one?" And though she's too good (and too slippery) to pin down to a single mood or meaning, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got is closer to Joni Mitchell than refusers and resisters had hoped or expected; she pulled a track called "The Value of Ignorance" because it was too "aggressive and bitter." And riding her smash-hit cover of the obscure Prince ballad "Nothing Compares 2 U," the new Sinéad is also the biz story of the season. She doesn't just have a number-one album (for four weeks running as I write); together with Public Enemy, of all people, she's credited with creating retail traffic that has upped record sales 10 to 15 per cent. She's this year's U2, or at least Tracy Chapman. From foul-mouthed weirdo to savior of industry. From outspoken rage to personal fulfillment. All in two years. Without "compromise." Whew.

My sarcasm doesn't signify disbelief, exactly. Now married to the father of the son she bore shortly after completing The Lion and the Cobra, O'Connor seems to have achieved some reasonable happiness, and given how many things she already has, I'm gratified that she doesn't want any more--it's nice to see a rock star enjoy success, even temporarily. Nor could anyone disagree that her new album is, as reviewers are forever noting, exceptionally "private"/"personal"/"introspective." But I'm less impressed by her inner feelings than by the natural skill with which she converts them into consumable fantasies. Even pumping serenity, Sinéad is not really Joni or Suzanne or Tracy. She's Madonna, a self-created pop commodity--an old pro at 23. With a songwriting credit from the Irish band In Tua Nua already under her garrison belt, she started chasing her star at 16 in Dublin and took only two years to break into London's image-obsessed scene. Her guitarist is Adam Ant henchman Marco Pirroni; her husband and drummer played in the image-obsessed garage band Transvision Vamp. So you'd best believe she knows the lore. My favorite quote from her saying-fuck days explains her bald pate: "Hair's a fashion statement and I don't want to make one." That's perfect even if it was piped. No one has ever put the logic of reverse hype in a neater nutshell.

People put out a lot of guff about O'Connor's deep meanings--betrayal, redemption, sexual mysticism, and so forth. But all such talk is based on her lyrics, and she isn't yet writer enough to hold it up. She's insisted many times that she doesn't want her meanings known, and specifically declared that the gorgeously chugging and gliding "Jerusalem," a starting point for those mysticism rumors, is "just words" ("There's one verse which means something, but the rest is just shit"). Her gift of gab could eventually translate into great songwriting. But beyond a few striking images ("Like the times we did it so hard/There was blood on the wall"), she's like the early rappers--it's her commitment to words rather than what the words say that wins you over. On the new record she usually simulates plainspeech, striking a blow for directness and honesty without actually coming out and saying any one thing. The slow songs that dominate often juxtapose flat conversational statements that don't quite mesh, or work simple but ultimately unreadable metaphors, as in "Three Babies," which probably says something about responsibility/dependence and definitely has a melody that sings. Thus each listener is free to delve her or his depths with the printed lyrics--and to sing along by heart without meaning the same thing as the angel three seats down.

Nothing wrong with that--it's your basic pop misprision, which many postmods see as the true function and just fate of all language. But it does put a dent in the widespread belief that the new record is serious and focused where the first was merely a show of force. Without doubt I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got is subtler and more durable than most slow, long-winded records, and at least half of it is terrific--if you think "Nothing Compares 2 U" cuts Taylor Dayne on the radio, wait till you hear "The Emperor's New Clothes" cut Aerosmith. But if there's anything that's older news than a 20-year-old who's angry at the world, it's a 23-year-old who's discovered life is worth living, and nowhere is this truer than in a music where being angry at the world has always been one of the things that made life worth living. For the umpteenth time, O'Connor proves that in rock and roll it's a hell of a lot easier to make something of your foreordained rage than of your hard-won serenity.

But at the Beacon, she was bigger than her latest record, as the best rock and rollers tend to be. Needless to say, her skinhead look renders her beauty inaccessible only to the narrow-minded--the Doc Martens accentuate her urchin's practicality the way the anticoif accentuates her soft cheekbones and larger-than-life eyes. She has moves, too, strange balletic leaps and fluttering, loose-wristed arm motions, and when she caresses her breasts with her long-fingered hands on the ravishingly sexual numbers the gesture seems unforced and unpornographic, though in fact it is neither. Sure I cringed when young acolytes cheered as she flashed the peace sign, or whistled for quiet lines that didn't mean fuckall. But I was glad the crowd was there, because it made her rock--O'Connor's pro enough to understand that live music demands pacing. So after "Feel So Different" was finally over she ripped right into "The Emperor's New Clothes." The acoustic interlude that gave the band its rest was more tuneful and less lulling than most. And the way her voice cut through the DOR raveup of the climactic "Mandinka" was like nothing I'd ever heard.

The encore was a guitar-strummed "Troy"--an early song, far from serene, capped off with her only "fuck" of the night, but new-Sinéad nevertheless. So it was encouraging that she thought her audience needed, and deserved, a rock and roll finale. Not since Patti Smith--whom she now cites as a role model, though Legs says she barely deigned to notice "Piss Factory" back in '88--has anybody had a better chance of defining rock-not-pop in a specifically female way. Which means confounding expectations, being neither a good girl nor the correct kind of a bad girl--how can you not dig it when a woman who says she's not much of a feminist shafts Andrew Dice Clay at NOW's behest? She's just the right mess of emotion and savvy, crudity and sophistication, fury and independence and, that's right, love. She has her own sound--several of them. And if she can withstand the media flood, which is never a safe bet, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got won't be all that hard for her to top. How can she possibly know what she wants when she's only 23?

Village Voice, May 22, 1990