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NOTHING COMPARES

August 1, 2023 - permalink

In 1978, Karol Wojtyła was appointed the head of the global Catholic church and elevated to the position of Pope. He was the first non-Italian Pope since the 16th century, and for Poland — a nation where more than 90% of people are Catholic — this was a BIG deal. He took the name of John Paul II, partially in tribute to the short-lived Pope Paul VI, who preceded him and died after only 33 days of papacy. JPII was his Pope name, but Poles around the world always knew him as Karol.

I was born in 1981 in Poland, to two Polish Catholic parents, and I was part of a generation of young boys who were named Karol in tribute to the given name of the Polish Pope. I knew about my namesake from a very young age, because as I attended Polish School, I learned all about Karol Wojtyła and how proud I should be to be named after him.

But it wasn’t just at Polish school that I learned about Karol. I saw his image everywhere — images of the Polish Pope were all around my childhood home, I saw his face on the walls of the Catholic schools I attended as a young child, and anytime there was something religious going on in the news, I would see his face there, too. My parents (along with hundreds of thousands of other people) went to go see him on his first papal visits to Canada, and those photos of him visiting Midland, Ontario were so valuable to them.

It’s kind of hard to overstate how much this guy’s face was woven through my life as a kid. And yes, on top of that, I was named after him.

***

I was a voracious listener of music, even back as a small child. My parents had helped me acclimatize to life in Canada with transitional selections of the pop music that was popular in Poland and also happened to be massive in Canada: ABBA and Michael Jackson. In the 3rd grade, a friend’s brother had made me a dubbed cassette of Slayer, Sepultura, Metallica, and Ministry, which tore apart my idea of what I believed music could sound like. I was also a dutiful viewer of Much Music, which helped to bridge the chasm between those two extremes. One face that I got very used to seeing in the early 90s on Much Music was that of Thee Sinéad O’Connor.

Her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” — and the stark, raw, and vulnerable video that came with it — catapulted her into the televisions and living rooms of homes around the world, including mine. It’s still one of my favourite music videos for everything it doesn’t do, and I see echoes of it in videos by other iconoclasts like D’Angelo. It’s hard to get across just how much it stood out among its cohort. As videos were cutting faster and faster, sometimes averaging an edit every 1-2 seconds, “Nothing Compares 2 U” said “fuck it,” let’s just linger here, on her face, for the whole goddamn video (and throw in a handful of vague religious images for good measure).

Sometimes a cover can be so goddamn good that it becomes the cultural property of the covering artist. I know a lot of people feel this way about Johnny’s Cash’s version of NIN’s “Hurt” — I respectfully disagree. It’s a great cover, and Cash rules. But it’s still Trent’s song. “Nothing Compares 2 U,” on the other hand? From 1992 onwards, that song belonged to Sinéad.

Anyhoo, One of the most important places to see new music in the late 80s and early 90s was Saturday Night Live, and I watched that show pretty much every goddamn week. Sinéad being on SNL was not some far fetched idea — I mean, she was one of the biggest “pop stars” on the planet at the time, and that show was a crucial stop for artists releasing new works and trying to get (or keep) their names into the public consciousness.

Every musical act on SNL gets two songs. First up, Sinéad played “Success Has Made A Failure Of Our Home.”

The rest is history.This recently unearthed old interview is worth watching to better understand Sinéad’s perspective on that moment, which she articulates very clearly. She does not mince words and she does not stumble. In fact, when speaking about The Moment she even lets a slight smile cross her face. Bless her.

I was 11 years old, and I remember this very clearly. I wasn’t repulsed, and I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t mad. But, I had just watched a person that I admired greatly rip up a photo of my namesake, after a jaw-droppingly intense a capella performance, and then proceed to tell the whole world what she expected us to do about it. I was completely overwhelmed with a sense that a lot of what I had been told for a long time was not right.

It was not unlike the feeling of hearing Public Enemy for the first time the year before, or Rage Against The Machine for the first time, a year or so later. In both cases, I heard their anger, set forth with such clarity of purpose, and was drawn to it intensely. While I wasn’t equipped to understand the entire context and content of what they were saying, I could feel in my fucking bones that it mattered. The way they expressed it, it felt like maybe the only thing that mattered. It felt like it was my job to try to understand it.

I realize now that what happened in that moment on SNL and the moments that followed, was that I trusted Sinéad O’Connor and her voice more than I trusted all of the voices of the authority figures and older people around me, all of the people who told me how great the Pope was, all of the people who praised him, and what he represented, unconditionally. She stared right down the barrel of the camera, singing with such goddamn righteousness. I had no doubt about it. Her singular voice outweighed the cumulative weight of all of the others. It wasn’t even close.

This industry is a motherfucker, though. And what happened next is history as well. I don’t need to rehash it all because there are a million thinkpieces flying around about this right now, and I hate me a reactionary thinkpiece. But I will say this: there are many different ways to neutralize a threat: you can meet it with all of your might and pound it into the ground; you can convince other people of the threat and have them fight for you; you can try to become part and parcel of the threat, and dilute its power by yr presence alongside it; you can ridicule the threat until it loses its power on a psychic level. There are as many methods as there are threats.

What I didn’t know was that the Pope incident was the culmination of a growing hostility between Sinéad and the industry.She articulates her antipathy for the industry very well in this Arsenio Hall interview, talking specifically of the commercialism of the Grammys, and the exclusion of rap artists from the awards. It was bound to come to a boil, and it did, as anyone could predict now with the benefit of hindsight.

Still, after it boiled over, I don’t think it’s semantics to say the industry didn’t “silence” Sinéad. She continued to put out records for another two decades, and tour, staying true to herself and her ethos all the way along. Chrysalis didn’t drop her, and Atlantic even picked her up for a record after her Chrysalis contract was up. She got a Grammy nomination on her next record. She kept putting out vital music, and it even moved some units, including four subsequent gold records. She collaborated with and played alongside so many seriously dope artists, often for very important causes.

But, those industry motherfuckers fought a stealth war, and they just made sure that any word of her, from October 3 1992 onward, had an asterisk beside it. Sometimes the asterisk was obvious and sometimes it was implied, but it was always there. And that asterisk referred back to a little note on a desk somewhere that said “this far, but no further.” They didn’t silence her, they just made sure the microphones she was given were piped into an echochamber, drowned out in the reverb, and coated with a dusting of “this woman’s crazy” just in case you ever forgot.

I’m not a Sinéad O’Connor expert by any means. Apart from her first two records, the only one I’m really familiar with — and the one that I’m particularly enamoured with above the others— is her headlong dive into reggae on 2005’s Throw Down Your Arms. I think she had always been partial to rastafarianism… again, I’m no expert, but I think the fact that the Pope Moment was catalyzed through a cover of Bob Marley’s “War,” and that her stage setting contained a shawl or scarf with the rasta colors seemed like a nod. The Throw Down Your Arms record proper shows a deep reverence for the form and function of reggae, but it’s the dub versions on the second disc that really bring the material to life in a different way. The live performances from that era, always with Sly & Robbie, are goddamn sublime.The influence of reggae on Sinéad would persist, often with thrilling results. She took on the material with profound sincerity. It amazed me how much she thrived in the spirituality of it, how much spirituality had remained a throughline in her work, how much she embraced singing for god as she continued to rail against institutional religion. Fuck.

The reviews from that era are mixed. For every one that praises the authenticity of her approach and interpretations, there is a review that asks “why do we need these faithful covers of roots reggae material when we have the originals?” Of course, the same question could be asked of almost any record — why do we need this? Reviewers rarely shift perspective and ask “why did the artist need this?” Listening to the record and watching the performances, it’s clear that it was something Sinéad needed to do, and did it with the most heart she possibly could, just like always.

***

I’ve always liked my name; I’ve always appreciated that it was a bit weird and unique (in Canada) and even if I didn’t like where it came from, I liked the name itself. Around the time I was 13-14, though, a few years after The Incident, I started making a point of writing my name in all lowercase whenever possible. This wasn’t often possible, and years of academic bureaucracy, jobs, and government documents are a testament to that. But anytime I could spell it lowercase, I did. I still do. I feel really lucky that in my current job / career, I work for an organization that honors this and allows me to spell my name in lowercase in all of my public accounts and communications, even on the “Team” page of our website.

The other night, July 21st to be exact, my search history shows the ghost of this feeling following me closely:

can i change my name to all lowercase legally in canada
ontario change name legally all lowercase

To be honest, I don’t know how much I can say that seeing Sinéad O’Connor tear that picture up led me to this point — and I’m always hesitant to reverse engineer motivations to fit a neat narrative.

But, seeing her tear up a picture of the “Polish hero” I was named after really was a formative moment. It was like an axe being swung through a wall of institutional religion and nationalism around me, cracking it open to let this blinding light in. I was a bit too young to wrap my head around it, but that was actually better for me, I think. Her act of defiance encouraged me to stretch my mind across a gap of understanding to see what was on the other side. And goddamn, I needed that. We all need that. I think it had a profound effect on me, and at the very least, it contributed to me wanting to reclaim my name, in some small way.

Sinéad’s whole career was about challenging people to stretch their minds across these chasms. Watching her performances from the Throw Down Your Arms era, I’m struck by how much she seems like she’s turned inward, concentrating on the words, never grandstanding above Sly and Robbie, and it’s clear she has a deep reverence for their contributions and their presence. And by her very presence there, the axe swings, asking us to stretch our minds to understand how a bald-headed white woman can be singing passionately about Jah and Babylon, with the support and musical accompaniment of two of the genres founding fathers.

What does it mean to pay respect and engage authentically? What does it mean to resist? What are you willing to stand up for, regardless of the cost to yourself? What are you willing to actually risk to speak truth to power?

I hope wherever she is now, she knows just how much her work mattered.

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