Sinéad O’Connor Makes Her First US Television Appearance: Watch Her Sing “Mandinka” on Late Night with David Letterman (1988)

On Sep­tem­ber 7, 1988, a skin­ny, near bald, 21-year-old moth­er took the mic mid­way through Late Night with David Let­ter­man and blew the socks off both the live stu­dio audi­ence and the folks view­ing at home.

She also appeared as an unwill­ing par­tic­i­pant in a cheesy green­room sketch with fel­low guests come­di­an Robert Klein, croon­er Jer­ry Vale, and a female day play­er cos­tumed as a sexy cig­a­rette girl from anoth­er era.

It’s a stu­pid, ret­ro­grade bit that’s become even worse with age, but young Sinead O’Connor’s refusal to play along with the prob­lem­at­ic premise was as true to form as her howl­ing per­for­mance of Mandin­ka off her first album, The Lion and the Cobra.

Per­form­ing in a stud­ded jean jack­et and Claddagh ring, she made her live US tele­vi­sion debut with eyes most­ly closed.

Let­ter­man intro­duced her as a “remark­able, young singer and writer from Ire­land.”

It’s fun to see the truth of that canned line hit­ting the house band as the song pro­gress­es. Band­leader Paul Shaf­fer looks espe­cial­ly tick­led by the feroc­i­ty of O’Connor’s per­for­mance and her con­fi­dent musi­cian­ship.

In her mem­oir Remem­ber­ings, O’Connor explains that the song was inspired by the 1977 tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of Alex Haley’s semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal his­tor­i­cal nov­el Roots:

I was a young girl when I saw it, and it moved some­thing so deeply in me, I had a vis­cer­al response. I came to emo­tion­al­ly iden­ti­fy with the civ­il rights move­ment and slav­ery, espe­cial­ly giv­en the theoc­ra­cy I lived in and the oppres­sion in my own home.

She reprised Mandin­ka sev­er­al months lat­er at the Gram­my Awards. She may have lost Best Female Rock Vocal Per­for­mance to estab­lished leg­end Tina Turn­er, but the LA Times wag­gish­ly declared her “black hal­ter top, bare midriff, torn, fad­ed blue jeans and large black work shoes” the “out­fit of the evening”:

The lat­est addi­tion to her shaved-head look is a tat­too of mil­i­tant rap group Pub­lic Ene­my’s insignia–a view through a tele­scop­ic gun sight–over her left ear. None of which detract­ed from her elec­tri­fy­ing per­for­mance of her song “Mandin­ka.”

“I thought it was a lit­tle odd that they asked me to per­form, because of the way I look,” a ner­vous-look­ing O’Connor told the press back­stage. “But I find it encour­ag­ing that they asked, because it’s an acknowl­edg­ment that they are pre­pared not to be so safe about the music and push for­ward with peo­ple slight­ly off the wall.”

Two years lat­er, her cov­er of Prince’s Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U, abet­ted by her defi­ant appear­ance, made her a house­hold name. Nom­i­nat­ed for four Gram­mys, she declined an invi­ta­tion to per­form at the cer­e­mo­ny. She also declined her award for Best Alter­na­tive Music Per­for­mance.

In a let­ter to the spon­sor­ing orga­ni­za­tion, the Record­ing Acad­e­my of the Unit­ed States, she argued against the music industry’s pri­or­i­ties, its overt ten­den­cy to rank artists based on their com­mer­cial suc­cess:

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. 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.

Those look­ing for ear­ly-90s exam­ples of man-splain­ing might appre­ci­ate Record­ing Acad­e­my Pres­i­dent Michael Greene’s response, in which he over­looked the Let­ter­man appear­ance, claim­ing the Gram­mys pro­vid­ed O’Con­nor with her first nation­al­ly tele­vised expo­sure in the States:

We applaud that Sinead feels so strong­ly about these issues and believe that her con­vic­tions only add to the seri­ous­ness of her work. But she may be mis­guid­ed. We respect her immense­ly as an artist… But I’m afraid that Sinead may not be prop­er­ly informed about the dif­fer­ence between the overt­ly com­mer­cial aspects of pop­u­lar­i­ty con­tests as opposed to the Gram­mys, which are vot­ed on by the cre­ative com­mu­ni­ty.

O’Connor dou­bled down, attempt­ing to ral­ly her fel­low musi­cians to shine a light on society’s ills, telling the LA Times that “It’s not enough any more to just sit in your chair and say, ‘Yeah, it’s ter­ri­ble.’:”

Musi­cians are in a posi­tion to help heal this sick­ness, but I’d say 90% of the artists in the music busi­ness fail in that respon­si­bil­i­ty. You must acknowl­edge if you are an artist that you are a role mod­el for young peo­ple, whether you like it or not. If you don’t want to accept that respon­si­bil­i­ty, you shouldn’t be an artist. With pow­er comes respon­si­bil­i­ty.

The indus­try, includ­ing awards shows, sends out the mes­sage that sell­ing more records is good rather than telling the truth.

Hon­or­ing com­mer­cial suc­cess is the obvi­ous pur­pose of the Amer­i­can Music Awards tele­cast, but it’s also the intent of the Gram­mys as well.

I think if artists were to be award­ed for what they had achieved in so far as telling the truth … as far as heal­ing the human race, then I’d say Van Mor­ri­son or Ice Cube, peo­ple like that should be hon­ored.

That state­ment lends an extra poignan­cy to our view­ing of O’Connor and Morrison’s 1995 Let­ter­man appear­ance, when, backed by the Chief­tans, they duet­ted on Have I Told You Late­ly?

In the wake of O’Connor’s death at 56 last week, the media remind­ed us of the time she ripped up a pic­ture of Pope John Paul II on Sat­ur­day Night Live as a way of draw­ing atten­tion to the Catholic church’s coverup of sex­u­al abuse by the cler­gy.

They remind­ed us of the time Frank Sina­tra claimed he’d like to “kick her ass” when she wouldn’t sub­mit to singing the Nation­al Anthem before a con­cert.

They remind­ed us of her cor­re­spon­dence with Miley Cyrus, where­in she warned the younger singer not to “obscure (her) tal­ent by allow­ing (her)self to be pimped” either con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly.

Mean­while, Let­ter­man bassist Will Lee react­ed to the news by revis­it­ing that 1987 appear­ance on his Insta­gram:

Sinead O’Connor RIP — I always felt her pain, but now I don’t have to. She is free. Her death comes as a shock to the sys­tem because I always hoped she would find resolve, but she went too soon….

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Clara Rosa says:

    Love respect , will miss you ..Blessed to have expe­ri­enced your pres­ence nev­er going to to for­get …You …Rest in peace.…💋💋💋💋

  • Kiran Rana says:

    Spir­it is painful … and Sinead had spir­it enough to save the world. we were blessed to know her.

  • Nelly says:

    May she Rip 💔 beau­ti­ful soul I will always remem­ber her as I grew up lis­ten to her liv­ing in the UK as a teenag­er and the child 🕊️🕊️🌹 what great loss 🌹🌹🕊️she with her angle now may ther Rip 💔

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