UPDATE: A version of this story appeared Feb. 3, 2022, on the news page of Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink. Sinéad O’Connor died at age 56 on July 26.
Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor was barely 20 years old when she wrote, recorded, and co-produced her stunning debut record, The Lion and the Cobra. And, because she’s a Hall of Fame multitasker, she was also pregnant with her first child at the time. The record received glowing reviews from even the fussiest critics — we see you, Robert Christgau — and the track “I Want Your (Hands On Me)” also preceded one of the grossest scenes in Nightmare on Elm Street 4. (Swings and roundabouts, I guess.)
But it was her second record, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, that really sent her rocketing towards the stratosphere. Rolling Stone’s five-star review called it “breathtaking,” and Irish journalist Bill Graham described it as “unflinchingly brave” and “the first major Irish album of the new decade.” The record went to Number 1 in over a dozen countries, largely on the strength of her powerfully emotional cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
When the 1991 Grammy nominations were released, it was totally unsurprising that O’Connor was up for four awards, including Record of the Year for “Nothing Compares 2 U.” What was unexpected was O’Connor’s announcement that, not only was she pulling out of her scheduled performance at the ceremony, but she’d also refuse any Grammy that she won.
In a letter that she sent to the Grammy’s sponsors, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, O’Connor wrote that she wasn’t interested in participating in what she called the “false and materialistic values” of the music industry.
“As artists I believe our function is to express the feelings of the human race–to always speak the truth and never keep it hidden even though we are operating in a world which does not like the sound of the truth,” she wrote. “I believe that our purpose is to inspire and, in some way, guide and heal the human race, of which we are all equal members.”
She explained that she didn’t like that musicians had been elevated and over-rewarded in a way that presented them as “more important, more special than the very people that we are supposed to be helping.”
The Recording Academy responded with what was basically an “Oh no! Anyway…” and the show went on with performances from Bob Dylan, Garth Brooks, and MC Hammer. (We did say that this was 1991, right? Because this was 1991.)
O’Connor won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and, true to her word, she didn’t show, and didn’t collect her award. (The only glimpse the audience got of O’Connor that night was on Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid’s t-shirt, which featured an oversized portrait of the singer.)
As of this writing, Sinéad O’Connor remains the first and only artist to flat-out refuse a Grammy. Nothing compares 2 U, indeed.
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