songs that soundtracked the AIDS crisis: sinéad o’connor’s “nothing compares to you”

is she a skinhead or is she not? why is she bald? why is she all about? these were the questions i remember people asking upon the release of the video for sinéad o’connor’s “nothing compares 2 u.” without any historical context, these questions seem odd, but with sleekly produced pop/dance divas like janet jackson and paula abdul dominating both radio and mtv, sinéad’s presence gave folks whiplash!

but in a matter of months after her mainstream breakthrough with the touchstone that is the single “nothing compares 2 u,” sinéad o’connor’s voice, presence, and immense talent captured the hearts and imagination of millions worldwide.

sinéad o’connor, one of the most polarizing, influential, and revered artists, emerged as a prominent figure in the music industry when her 1987 debut album “the lion and the cobra” achieved gold status in the US. the success softened the ground for her monstrously successful 1990 sophomore effort, “i do not want what i haven’t got.”

released in march 1990, “i do not want what i haven’t got” was launched by the emotionally charged ballad “nothing compares 2 u.” written and produced by prince for the family, a band he assembled, “nothing compares u 2” appeared on the family’s self-titled 1985 album. four years later, the song was reimagined by sinéad, who co-produced her version with nelle hooper of soul II soul fame.

released in january 1990, “nothing compares 2 u” became a surprise crossover hit amid a musical landscape of pop, dance, and hip-hop-oriented singles. the song’s success was largely due to o’connor’s haunting vocal delivery that beautifully expressed a deep sense of loss and grief that people feel when losing a loved one.

the accompanying music video for “nothing compares 2 u” brilliantly communicated the pain and anger that is accompanied by mourning. consisting mostly of close-ups of o’connor’s face, the video reaches an emotional climax towards the end when two tears roll down her face, one on each cheek.

sinéad’s version of “nothing compares 2 u” became her first and only #1 single when it topped billboard’s hot 100 for four weeks in the spring of 1990 and became one of the year’s most critically and commercially successful singles and propelled the “i don’t want what i haven’t got” album to 7,000,000 in global sales.

like many other artists, sinéad recognized the devastating impact of the AIDS crisis and used her fame and influence to raise awareness and compassion for people living with AIDS. in late 1990, sinéad participated in the groundbreaking AIDS fundraising album “red hit + blue.” her cover of cole porter’s “you do something to me” was backed by a music video that featured queer imagery and sinéad in a kind of campy drag.

in the decades that followed sinead’s global success of “nothing compares 2 u,” she was an outspoken and uncompromising activist advocating for marginalized communities, including sexual abuse survivors, LGBTQ people, and people living with HIV.

on july 26, 2023, the family of sinéad o’connor posted the statement, “it is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved sinéad.” she was 56 years old. her hauntingly beautiful voice and emotionally charged performances that garnered attention and admiration from audiences worldwide will continue to live on. her audacity, courage, and advocacy have left a lasting mark on HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ history.

rest well, sinéad.

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