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Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor has died at 56

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is the kind of news story that forces you to take a breath. Sinead O'Connor has died at the age of 56. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this appreciation.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: When Sinead O'Connor broke out on the music scene in 1987, she was just 20 years old and a brand-new mother. But the wisdom and depth in her voice immediately marked her as an old soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDINKA")

SINEAD O'CONNOR: (Singing) I don't know no shame. I feel no pain. I can't...

TSIOULCAS: Along with having that arresting sound, she was physically beautiful. But she shaved her head in an explicit rejection of the male gaze and of a record industry that still relied very heavily on women's sex appeal to sell music. The cover of her first album, "The Lion And The Cobra," shows her in a punkish tank top with her arms crossed defensively over her heart. She embodied both fire and fragility.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDINKA")

O'CONNOR: (Singing) I do know...

TSIOULCAS: Three years later, she became a mainstream star with her album "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," and especially the song "Nothing Compares 2 U," which was written by Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING COMPARES 2 U")

O'CONNOR: (Singing) Nothing compares to you.

TSIOULCAS: But soon she was as famous for her declarations as for her songs. During a 1992 appearance on "Saturday Night Live," after singing Bob Marley's anti-racist song "War," she infamously ripped up a picture of the then-Pope John Paul II as an outcry against child abuse. This was decades before child abuse in the Catholic Church became a worldwide outrage. But her prescient protest was treated as poison by many, and her career faltered. In her later years, O'Connor wrote frequently on social media about her struggles with her mental health. She released uneven recording projects spanning reggae, new age and folk pop, but her fans still cherished her singular voice and presence.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING COMPARES 2 U")

O'CONNOR: (Singing) 'Cause nothing compares, nothing compares... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.