Rolling Stone declared 2018 “a year of nineties obsessions.” We’re one month into 2019, and our cultural fixation on the ’90s — the clothing, the movies, the music — looks as though it’s finding its footing, not losing steam. This phenomenon is strongest among college students, I think; people who were born in the 1990s but have no memory of it. My friends and I take pictures of each other with disposable cameras; we part our hair down the middle and wear giant jackets and it makes us feel cool. The nineties happened just recently enough that we’re able to fetishize those years in a way that feels accurate but isn’t, and this is part of the appeal. It can be anything we want it to be.
We’re curating a version of the ’90s for ourselves to live through, and to do so we punctuate the soundtrack of our days with the music of the era — Run-D.M.C., Melissa Etheridge, Blondie, the B-52s. These are the conditions in which I was first exposed to Sinéad O’Connor. She showed up on my Spotify Weekly playlist in early January, a decidedly non-analog introduction. Suddenly it was 1990 again, the first year of a decade whose complexities I was born too late to remember, whose decadent simplicity is so very appealing.
Sinéad O’Connor is an enduring mystery. Her career has taken sharp turns and unexpected detours, her public persona shifting from brave to bizarre and back again. In the ’90s she became an international icon with her shaved head, dark eyebrows and weird outfits. She built a reputation as a badass Irish pixie, someone who relished voicing unpopular opinions.
In 1992, years before abuse in the Catholic church was widely discussed, O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live and told a shocked and silent live audience to “fight the real enemy.” On tour in the United States, she stirred controversy for refusing to sing if the national anthem was played before her concerts. O’Connor has always embraced contradiction. She’s a loud feminist in baggy clothes, an unmarried mother, an angry radical, a sexy pop star.
“You know that I can thrill you,” she sings on “I Want Your (Hands on Me).” “I want you, call me to you / I wanna move, will you? I really wanna feel you.” She pivots to police brutality on “Black Boys on Mopeds”: “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses / It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.” She wants sex; she wants a more just world; she wants love but forgets how to give it.
This is the Sinéad of 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, her second and most well-known album. In the music video for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” she is beautiful and mad in a black turtleneck. Her voice rises sharply and then drops to a whisper: a wounded bird, a wounded woman. “I could put my arms around every boy I see / But they’d only remind me of you,” she sings, the camera zoomed in on her pale, angular face, and you believe every word she says.
Then there’s the strange, darker Sinéad, the one who cried and ran offstage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert, who wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus telling her to dress more conservatively, who said Prince punched her over her cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Similarly unsettling incidents pepper recent news coverage of O’Connor. In 2016, she went missing but was later found safe, riding her bicycle around a suburb of Chicago. She briefly had two face tattoos. She appeared on Dr. Phil for a televised therapy session about her mother. When she converted to Islam in 2018, she legally changed her name to Shuhada’ Davitt. These incidents cast O’Connor as both vulnerable and volatile, an artist whose actions are directed by some unknowable combination of mental illnesses, childhood traumas and a frustrated excess of talent.
This is all to say that listening to I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got 29 years after its release is an experience that cannot be divorced from the person O’Connor has become in the intervening time. Here lies the persistent difficulty of nostalgia: We know how it all turned out. But does that really matter, when our current infatuation with the ’90s is so fun? It’s a relief to revisit the cultural artifacts of an era that seems far less dangerous than the current one.
“Whatever it may bring / I will live by my own policies / I will sleep with a clear conscience / I will sleep in peace,” O’Connor sings on “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” With that fuck-off attitude, her placid anarchy: I just want to keep listening.