I wrote a ridiculous amount in the Popular thread about this song. Here’s half of it.

Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, 3 February 1990

Unlike most of the recent Popular number ones, this one soundtracks part of my autobiography, not for any particular lyrical resonance but because it was so there. NC2U was number one in Australia for eight weeks starting at the end of February 1990, which overlapped with the beginning of my honours year. (In the Australian university system, honours is a separate and optional year after a three-year degree, more like the one-year taught masters degrees in the UK, and the experience is pretty intense.) Throughout those first weeks of essay writing and article reading, this song and its parent album were never far from my stereo, whether it was tuned to FM or playing a CD.

I had first heard Sinead O’Connor on the soundtrack to Captive, a film I’d never seen (and still haven’t), bought only because it was U2-related. My cousin introduced me to The Lion and the Cobra when she visited a year or two later, along with some weird band from Iceland who sang about birthdays. Of the two singers, I preferred the one from the land of ire.

The less-accessible stuff on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got came as no surprise, then, and when I listen to it again now it all feels deeply familiar, sunk into some submerged part of me, to surface once every few years when O’Connor releases a new album or EP... apart from the last few, when I seem to have lost track after Sean-Nos Nua.

I heard all the criticisms along the way, of course: the attention-seeking (as if any performer isn’t!), the worthiness (listened to Sometime in New York City lately?), the music’s difficulty (it was true, some of it didn’t grab me; but her voice always gave it interest, even when I couldn’t love it). What impressed me was how little the criticisms seemed to interfere with her sense of herself as an artist; every few years, she would release another album that ignored whatever everyone else wanted her to be or not to be, and struck off in a direction of her own.

Yet when I ask myself why I actually own most of her discography, it’s not because of “Mandinka” or “The Emperor’s New Clothes” or “My Darling Child” or “This is to Mother You” or “No Man’s Woman”, as much as I enjoy them; it’s because of this. This song and its continuing capacity to sound new has carried me through half a dozen album purchases, and although I might quibble over whether it matches other personal 10s (it doesn’t have the joyous quality of most of them), it has to be one.

Of all the criticisms of O’Connor, that of joylessness always seemed to carry the most weight. The parody of her on Father Ted made me laugh as much as any of that brilliant sitcom did. But when I now learn, from following links away from this thread, that O’Connor spent some of her youth in a Magdalene laundry, I can’t fault her even for that. If you haven’t seen Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, it will tell you more than you can bear about that subject: in a review at the time, I wrote that “watching this was like being fed head-first through a mangle: I was cringing, literally flinching away from the screen”. If that was just watching it, imagine living it.


O’Connor lost a lot of her audience with Am I Not Your Girl. The sales figures across her career are sobering, and show the impact of the monster hit under discussion: seven million for I Do Not Want dropping to a few hundred thousand for her albums of the 2000s.

I did get a sense of joy from Sean-Nos Nua that was missing from O’Connor’s earlier work (other than the occasional track like “My Darling Child”, which is quietly joyful rather than shouting about it). I hope it’s carried through the last decade; her first 10-15 years of recordings contain more than enough pain and rage for anyone.


Curiosity got the better of me and I filled the gaps in my Sinead O’Connor collection last week. Throw Down Your Arms was the biggest surprise; I’m not much of a reggae fan, but this I enjoyed. Theology is taking a bit longer to get into. But my reason for posting right now is that I just listened to the live version of NC2U on She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty, and it’s fantastic: strings rather than synths, and a vocal performance that clearly benefited from 15-odd years of singing it. Well worth tracking down.

Can’t say the same for the original version of the song by The Family, available on YouTube (don’t read the comments if you’re a fan of O’Connor’s version). Apart from sounding like an early ’80s Prince b-side without Prince, the “oh, woah woah woah” element really brings it down with a thud—it’s a good thing O’Connor omitted it. Prince kept it in his own later live versions, though.


When O’Connor tore up the Pope’s picture on TV, most people read it as “she’s disrespecting a lovely man” rather than “she’s trying to draw attention to serious problems with the Catholic Church in Ireland”. But from her point of view this wasn’t a lovely man, this was the leader of a broken institution, and the best way to draw attention to that was to do something dramatic and memorable. If she’d launched into an on-air rant about the church it would have been quickly forgotten; tearing up that picture wasn’t.

No matter how admirable John Paul II was in other ways, there’s no denying that the Catholic church in Ireland was keeping a lid on some disturbing stuff in the early 1990s. O’Connor’s action was before the stories of abuse in Magdalene laundries and schools for the poor came into the open; in that context, there was no discourse for her to help or hinder. She was trying to start one, and that takes more than just a polite “excuse me”. She recently said, “I was perfectly willing to deal with the consequences, the main one of which was people saying I’m a nutcase, which I agree with anyway.”

Nobody really wanted to listen to her in October 1992; it took the discovery of unmarked graves in a former convent to start the discourse properly the following year. But at least she tried. And we know now that the cause was worth the attempt.

30 December 2010 · Music