The moment Sinéad OConnor crossed that line,
The moment Sinéad O'Connor crossed that line. Still from "Nothing Compares"—Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary Nothing Compares makes several mistakes in its noble mission to recover the mostly unhappy pop career of the Irish-born singer Sinéad O’Connor, who now goes by Shuhada Sadaqat. Its main mistake is to connect O'Connor's cancelation in 1992 for ripping a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live with the pink pussy hats movement that erupted with Trump's defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. There is little to almost no live wire between the two forms of protest. In the history of popular movements and pop music, there exists two kinds of challenges: one that the establishment codes as acceptable and indeed benefits from, and one that it codes as unacceptable. Superstar rock, pop, hiphop, and R&B musicians almost never crack the latter code. O'Connor did.

The pink pussy hats movement—which, as The Daily writer Deborah Kwon explained in an October 4, 2021 post, is predominately an expression of middle-class white feminism—is not strictly anti-establishment. Its goal is a re-coding of power, not the elimination of it. (To get a proper sense of my use of the word "code" in this post, do not turn to Saussurian semiotics but instead to Katharina Pistor's The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality.)

The same can be said about Neil Young's decision to challenge Spotify's support of the enormously popular podcaster Joe Rogan. It was not an empty gesture for him to pull his music from a streaming service that's promoting lies about a pandemic that's soon to claim 1 million American lives (and nor is the pink pussy hats solidarity empty), but it would never have cost him everything. His was an act of protest that the establishment coded as acceptable, and, judging from the way things are going, is absorbing rather than rejecting. Spotify, a company based in one of the world's remaining realms of social democracy, Sweden, now says it will provide a disclaimer for Rogan's show (he does not speak for the company), a decision that, according to the Washington Post, the White House registered as a “positive step.” Spotify lost this one because Young had nothing to lose. He is an old rocker after all.

O'Connor lost her very bright position in the constellation of rock stars by the time she was 26. Meaning, at a time when she had everything to lose. Her protest—unlike, say, those who appropriate Handmaid's Tale imagery to protest the Supreme Court's stark reversal on women's reproductive rights—was way outside of the limits of a form of power that's coded by capital.

O'Connor did not just hit a nerve (Neil Young did that while brushing the dirt from his shoulder), she hit the heart of a system (the accumulation of capital) that apparently had Catholicism as one of its core components. As a consequence, O'Connor was canceled almost immediately, and not just by the right, but by centrists.

As the documentary shows, her post-Saturday Night Live appearance at Bob Dylan's Madison Square Garden concert was loudly booed. Dylan, whose music once captured the revolutionary feeling of the turbulent 1960s, was now apolitical, nothing more than a time capsule for much of his generation.

As the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote of the British rock band Rolling Stones in his final three-part series on the history of European capitalism, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991:

Can anyone who was not a contemporary of the Rolling Stones develop anything like the passionate enthusiasm which this group aroused in the middle 1960s? How much of the passion for some sound or image today is based on association: not because the song is admirable but because 'this is our song'?

This was the status of Bob Dylan when the canceled O'Connor opened for him in 1992. The fire of his revolution was long gone. His songs had become simply "our[s]" for fans who only wanted to relive the past that was reduced to catchy melodies and lines. But challenging the Pope in the age of a triumphal neoliberalism—this was completely another matter. In fact, O'Connor's transgression made it clear that Dylan never really cracked the code of power. Nor, for that matter, did Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Prince and Nirvana and Public Enemy, whose founder, Chuck D, praises O'Connor in the documentary. (It's also important to note that, unlike the local rapper and KEXP DJ Gabriel Teodros, the mainstream has yet to challenge Spotify's raw exploitation of emerging or underground artists.)

Lastly, the documentary fails to fully appreciate the greatness of O'Connor's talent, which did not stop growing after the United States canceled her (she still had a major following in Iceland and, curiously enough, Poland). The music that made her famous in the 1980s, and that got her a history-making spot on Saturday Night Live in 1992, was only a point of departure. For example, what one finds in "What Your Soul Sings," the second track on Massive Attack's 2003 100th Window, is an O'Connor now in the second-half of her 30s, whose genius is far from exhausted. Most pop stars have nothing new to say or offer after a few years in the business. This wasn't the case with O'Connor. Late in a career that started when she was barely not a girl, 19, the Irish singer possessed a voice that was more haunting and beautiful and tender and vital than ever before. O'Connor, who lost her son recently, joy still belongs to you.

Showtime recently acquired the rights to Nothing Compares and plans to give it a theatrical release "later this year," reports Deadline.