State of the Arts

Donald Trump’s use of Sinead O’Connor’s song Nothing Compares 2 U wasn’t just wrong – it felt violent

O’Connor’s tender lament ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was used to soundtrack a Trump rally this week, prompting an angry response from the late Irish singer’s estate. For those of us still mourning her loss, writes Laura Barton, it was particularly galling – the star’s life and music were the antithesis of Trumpian politics

Friday 08 March 2024 08:23 GMT
Her estate and her record label, Chrysalis, were quick to condemn the use of the song, they said in a joint statement, She would have been disgusted, hurt and insulted’
Her estate and her record label, Chrysalis, were quick to condemn the use of the song, they said in a joint statement, She would have been disgusted, hurt and insulted’ (EPA/Getty)

If we know one thing about Donald J Trump, it is his predilection for seeing something he wants and attempting to grab it. I picture the 45th president – and possibly the 47th, too – a pink-fisted toddler, sticky with rage, forever reaching out towards pussy, elections, classified files; foundation funds, Theresa May’s hand, the fundamental concept of truth. For much of his life, the approach has served him well. But of late, the path between Donald and his desires has been obstructed by a bothersome array of legal cases and an FBI investigation. Then, this week, the presidential candidate encountered his latest hindrance: the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor.

Last month, Trump held a campaign rally in Maryland. It was much as one might imagine such an event — a ballroom at a waterfront resort, the type of crowd familiar to a Conservative Political Action Conference, and a dazzling selection of Maga merch. The only aberration came in the choice of piped pre-speech music. There, somewhere between Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds”, the tannoy played O’Connor’s 1990 hit “Nothing Compares 2 U”.

O’Connor died last summer, but both her estate and her record label, Chrysalis, were quick to condemn the use of the song. O’Connor, they said in a joint statement, would have been “disgusted, hurt and insulted” to be included on a Trump playlist. She had lived, they said, “by a fierce moral code defined by honesty, kindness, fairness, and decency toward her fellow human beings”. She had even described Trump as a “biblical devil”.

O’Connor is not alone in the distance she wanted to keep from Trump. Other artists, including Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Rihanna, Tom Petty, Phil Collins and the Village People, have all demanded the former president desist from using their music. Balking at the proposed use of “Hallelujah” at the Republican National Convention, Leonard Cohen’s estate said they would only realistically have considered the use of the singer’s 2016 track, “You Want It Darker”.

Whether or not these tracks have been personal choices is unclear, but Trump purports to be a music fan. In his infamous memoir/business handbook, The Art of the Deal, he recalled how he was almost expelled from school for punching his music teacher in the face, on the grounds that he believed the teacher “didn’t know anything about music” (the teacher in question denied the episode ever took place). Elsewhere, he has cited his favourite song as Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” and numbers Elton John, Eminem and The Rolling Stones among his favourite artists (the feeling is not mutual; in 2016, the Stones sent a cease-and-desist letter to curtail his use of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the campaign trail).

Still, the use of an O’Connor track feels particularly galling. In part it is the proximity of the singer’s passing, just seven short months ago, and that at the age of just 56, her loss seems untimely and raw. It is, too, that so much of O’Connor’s life and career had been marked by brutality – at the hands of her abusive mother, and the Catholic Church, and the music industry. That she had spoken of the grief of it, and campaigned against wider injustices, from racial discrimination in America to the treatment of the Palestinian people; none of which chime with the individualistic Trumpian worldview.

To use “Nothing Compares 2 U” specifically feels somehow violent. Few pop songs in existence possess such vulnerability, such absence of guile. A plaintive tale of newly lost love, it is striking in its spareness – despite layers of instrumentation, synthesisers, strings and saxophone, the singer’s vocal appears to stand unadorned and untempered. And rarely has a music video met the current of its song so well: O’Connor’s pale skin and shaven head, her simple black polo neck, the tears she later said came unexpectedly as she sang. Together they are the antithesis of Trump, bouffanted and orange-hued, full of fanfare and embellishment.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” appeared on O’Connor’s second album, the richly-praised I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Its title referred to a dream the singer had about her mother, but it also captured something of her own essence; an artist who turned down awards and accolades, and for whom celebrity could not be weighed over creative satisfaction.

It seems perfectly obvious that O’Connor would not have wanted her song used in the context of a CPAC conference and a Trump rally. And yet they took it anyway. Without asking, and for their own amusement, always wanting what they have not got. “I just start kissing them,” is how Trump once described his seduction technique to a colleague in a now-legendary covert recording. “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”

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