In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which went to No. 1 on April 28, 1990, where it stayed for five weeks.
The song is just three simple chords, an acoustic lament that owes a debt to Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and Neil Young’s “Helpless.” But “Black Boys On Mopeds”—a track from Sinéad O’Connor’s breakout album, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got—is a different kind of melancholy folk-rock ballad. Where Dylan and Young curl inward, O’Connor lashes out with a righteous sadness: “Margaret Thatcher on TV / Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing / It seems strange that she should be offended / The same orders are given by her,” she sings, her voice a sliver of glass. The song condemns, from the prime minister on down, the nation that would allow the 1989 death of Nicholas Bramble, a 21-year-old black man who died in a road crash after being chased by police who suspected he was riding a stolen scooter—a vehicle that belonged to him.
It wasn’t the last time O’Connor would speak truth, as she sees it, to power. From tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992 to posting a critical open letter to Miley Cyrus following Cyrus’ controversial MTV Video Music Awards appearance last year, O’Connor’s outspokenness has become infamous. And at times self-sabotaging. It’s as if the multiplatinum success of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got—which claimed the top spot on the Billboard charts for five weeks during spring of 1990 before being bumped by MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em—was something she neither anticipated nor felt like sustaining.
The history of alternative rock has been written by the guitar-wielding victors. It’s not noted often enough that I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got stormed the gate before Pearl Jam’s Ten or Nirvana’s Nevermind. Not only had O’Connor firmly established herself as an edgy, singularly mysterious presence on her stunning 1987 debut, The Lion And The Cobra, she welcomed a host of post-punk notables—including Public Image Ltd.’s Jah Wobble and The Smiths’ Andy Rourke—to play on the follow-up. What resulted is a wide panorama of sounds, from the hymnal ambience of “Feel So Different” and the punk punch of “Jump In The River” to the Celtic funk of “I Am Stretched To Your Grave” and the haunting a cappella of the disc’s title track.
Where most emerging alternative artists of the early ’90s, up to and including R.E.M., found a single sound and shrewdly stuck to it, O’Connor embraced diversity, idiosyncrasy, and range—an approach that wouldn’t be fully matched until Björk’s sprawling Debut three years later. But the mainstream establishment was also listening. It’s not hard to imagine Madonna taking notes as she heard I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Although she would later blast O’Connor for her anti-Catholic protest on SNL, her hit “Justify My Love”—which came out in December of 1990—might as well be a tribute to the funky-drummer sultriness and proto-trip-hop vibe of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave.” Only O’Connor inserted Irish fiddle into her song, a startling move that only makes sense when tied together by her beguiling, will-o’-the-wisp vocals.
“Jump In The River” was released as a single—it was the album’s opening shot, unleashed a full seven months before the album—but it’s been mostly forgotten. It’s nonetheless prophetic. Co-written by Marco Pirroni of Adam And The Ants fame, it starts with a snare-drum intro that calls to mind The Jesus And Mary Chain’s 1989 song “Head On”; from there it kicks up into a chunky, midtempo rocker that marks I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got at its most rocking. There’s a freshness and swagger to it that feels boldly ahead of its time. It’s no a surprise that one of Ireland’s biggest exports of the alt-rock ’90s, The Cranberries, were influenced by O’Connor. But “Jump In The River” maps the entire genome for a decade’s worth of simpatico artists—from PJ Harvey to Liz Phair to Courtney Love—to follow.
The public was most immediately gripped by the album’s centerpiece and biggest hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Written by Prince and released by his Paisley Park Records signee The Family in 1985, the song made no impact on the world until O’Connor got her hands on it. Minimal in arrangement yet orchestral in scope, the song redefines soul for an age ruled by digitized R&B and a rising sense of jaded irony. With a video that zeroes in on O’Connor—a gaunt, bald Irish woman singing as though her heart was being slowly swallowed whole—“Nothing Compares 2 U” not only introduced her to the world at large, it did so with an unsettling intimacy. It’s been overplayed to the point of becoming wallpaper, but “Nothing Compares 2 U” still quietly demands to be given full attention. In the video, the space behind O’Connor is ghostly and blank; she might as well be singing through the grille of a confessional.
O’Connor’s career has been in a gradual decline since I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and her personal life has remained tumultuous. The strident anti-papist became an ordained priest; she drew fresh attention to her famously cropped scalp by shaving “Free Pussy Riot” into it; she opened up about being the victim of child abuse. Her most telling gesture, though, was given in 1990. On the heels of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’s success, she withdrew her name from Grammy consideration after being granted four nominations. Having achieved the kind of fame and acclaim most musicians only dream of, she slammed on the brakes rather than be turned into something she was not. “These are dangerous days,” she sings on “Black Boys On Mopeds, “To say what you feel is to make your own grave.” With I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, O’Connor both assured her immortality and made damn sure she’d never be mistaken for a mere pop star ever again.