Unpaid Shoes

Sinead: Her Life and Music by Jimmy Guterman. Published 1991.


The Irish eyes will always lure you in and torture your heart, I write that with plenty of personal experience behind it. When I heard the news, the image that came up in my mind was of those eyes.

Sinead O'Connor was mesmerizing to my seventeen-year-old American eyes in 1990. That Prince song she sang would come on and I would gawp at the video. It was one of those collective moments in pop culture that do not happen anymore when she appeared all in black between the trees with a nearly shaved head, stared straight through me on MTV and sang until she cried. You did not see women like her and one with such a beautiful voice on television.


Her death this week was not surprising like Prince’s or George Michael's and that was maybe the saddest part of her tragic life. Someone sitting in my living room told me the news and the first thought I had was that she must have finally killed herself. If you knew anything about her for the last couple of decades you kind of expected it.

Sinead O'Connor became the latest memorable artist that entertained Generation X to die at a young age. She joined River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Michael Hutchence, Scott Weiland, Prince, George Michael, Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman and many others who have died too young. The untimely deaths among my generation have been too copious for me to recall. It would be a gruesome hobby to try and maintain a list in my head and I would rather not. There were those who have died from mental health issues, drugs, alcohol or a cocktail of all three.

O'Connor will be mostly remembered for two things: singing 1990's Nothing Compares To You, written by Prince, and ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in October 1992.

It would be nice if she were remembered for more, but those were the two most newsworthy events of her sometimes troubled life that included getting caught shoplifting shoes as a teenager, her own childhood abuse, the hanging death of one of her sons in 2022, her suicide attempts and ultimately her death at the age of fifty-six. Documentaries will be made, books will be written and some people will take the time to get to know more of her story, but most will not.


Nirvana performing on SNL in January 1992.

I saw her performance on Saturday Night Live that eventful night. I watched the show for the musical guests back then in the cozy, fuzzy sweatered and moody 90s. My favorite band at the time, Nirvana, performed on the show in January of the same year. SNL mattered in the cultural zeitgeist during the early 1990s just as magazines, record stores, MTV and zines did. Those years were defining years in the lives of Generation X, as many of us, including myself, had come of age and were shaking off our dewy youth to find a way in the wilds of slackerdom.


Sinead on SNL in 1992.

The big moment when she ripped up the photo of the Pope did not seem shocking to me then, nor does it now. I understood it was some form of protest, but I did not have the context. Artists have a long history of protesting for causes that matter to them. I expect artists to be unconventional and I want them to be unconventional if they are genuine in their convictions and not merely a poseur. Sinead's protest went over my head that night. I never read anything about the Pope or religion in Rolling Stone or any of the other magazines I subscribed at the time. It was not until later that I learned it was about sexual abuse in the church. What did I know about religion or the Catholic church? I was raised without religion and was an atheist by the time I was a teenager.

Sinead was an easy target for the establishment of entertainment and media to react against. The more conservative elements in society were already keen to criticize her for her buzzed hair and implied that she was a lesbian and that was oh so taboo to be considered gay or lesbian thirty years ago. The backlash against the SNL protest was immense and grandstanders like Frank Sinatra and Joe Pesci publicly attacked her. Cowards and bullies often wrap themselves in either patriotism or religion when challenged with the uncomfortable truth that rattles personal ideology and their hold on power.


Morrissey, never one to bite his tongue, had this to say about Sinead in a scathing critique of the music industry, the media and modern society:

"She was a challenge, and she couldn’t be boxed-up, and she had the courage to speak when everyone else stayed safely silent. She was harassed simply for being herself."


His entire critique, You Know I Couldn't Last, is worth a read.


It was not easy being Sinead and few rallied to her defense in 1992 despite the tributes to her today. From my own life experiences, I can say that the few against the many and the more powerful is a lonely position in which to live. Popularity contests and the willingness to conform against your better judgment are for the weak. Strength is required to live on an island and Sinead had that until she ran out of it. Part of my attraction to her was her fearless willingness to be different. I did not have the glare of super stardom on my shoulders as she did beginning when she was twenty-three years old. Her appearance was not a contrived marketing gimmick, she had said as much in interviews at the time. She was not about being a pop star and the glamour, she wanted to be accepted as a serious artist.

Another part of my attraction to her in 1990 was her incredible beauty. With her buzzed head, beautiful face and the captivating Irish eyes she tripped off my attraction to androgyny. In faded jeans and Doc Martens boots she would have made one beautiful young man and I was attracted to the gay skinhead look that was fashionable in some circles. Yes, there was such a trend, though many might not remember it. It was the skinhead look without the politics attached.

There were also her talents of singing and songwriting. She was not an artist I followed closely for the last thirty years, but I knew she was out there still performing and struggling. I would revisit her music and interviews from time to time, like I do with many artists from the past. I had an emotional connection to some of her work and sometimes it was nice to pull out that old shirt buried deep in the closet and wear it again.

Upon further consideration, if she is remembered for Nothing Compares To You and the Saturday Night Live protest, then that is not such a bad way to be remembered. She can be remembered for her success and courage in standing up. What will fail to remain in the collective memory is the manner in which portions of society treated her and it is too late anyway.

It is worth knowing if her death was a suicide and not accidental or some other circumstance. A definitive answer is needed so that there can be an examination of what the reasons were and maybe it will help prevent some other person from experiencing a situation where they too feel like suicide is the only option. It was not until later that it was learned that Michael Hutchence had brain damage from an assault, which, along with some seriously bad choices in his private life contributed to his suicide. Whatever the reasons were for Sinead, she had seen, heard and experienced enough of this life and she deserved better when she was living - unpaid shoes and all.