Prince wrote and recorded this song in 1984, but didn't release it. Instead, he gave it to The Family, a band that was signed to his Paisley Park record label. They recorded the song in 1985, with their singer St. Paul (Paul Peterson) handling the vocals. According to Peterson, he was asked to sing it in the style of Prince. To get the right emotion, he thought about a girl named Julie who broke his heart in high school.
The Family released the song on their 1985 self-titled album, which ended up being their only LP. Their version was never released as a single and the song was seldom heard until Sinéad O'Connor covered it five years later. Peterson would have liked it to be his hit, but it wasn't all bad: he ended up getting married to Julie.
Prince released a live version with Rosie Gaines on his 1993 album The Hits/The B-Sides
, but his original solo recording
didn't appear until 2018, when his estate released it from the vault. His version is guitar-based, with more of a rock feel.
This was a #1 hit in 17 countries. In the US, it was one of the top songs of 1990, topping the Hot 100 for four weeks.
O'Connor released her first album three years earlier. It got a lot of play on college radio, earning her a small, but devoted fan base. This song thrust her into the spotlight, and the attention had some deleterious effects on the singer. O'Connor claimed she hated the fame the song brought her, and that she struggled with the commercialization of her music. "Nothing Compares 2 U" earned her a Grammy for Best Alternative Performance, but she refused to appear on the awards show in protest of materialism in the music industry.
Director John Maybury shot a lot of footage around Paris for the video, but ended up using just a simple tight shot of O'Connor singing. It was the first time most people saw what she looked like and were surprised that she was bald. She shaved her head when she first started recording because she wanted to make a statement and not be known for her beauty.
When Sinéad cried In the video, it was a real tear. In the Rolling Stone Top 500 songs issue, she said, "I didn't intend for that moment to happen, but when it did, I thought, 'I should let this happen.'"
In her memoir Rememberings, O'Connor explained that the lyric that triggered the tear was:
All the flowers that you planted mama
In the back yard
All died when you went away
Her mother, who was abusive toward her, died in a car accident in 1985 when Sinéad was 18. That day, she removed the photo of Pope John Paul II from her mother's bedroom wall; this was the same photo she famously tore up on Saturday Night Live.
Prince wrote this during a very creative period when he was coming up with a song just about every day. According to his sound engineer, Susan Rogers, he wrote it at his rehearsal space in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, where he vanished for an hour and emerged with the lyrics on a notebook. He recorded the song on the spot, playing the instruments himself with St. Paul and Susannah Melvoin of The Family on backing vocals. Eric Leeds added the saxophone part later.
It was Sinéad O'Connor's manager, Fachtna O'Kelly, who came up with the idea for the Irish singer to cover the Prince song.
Chris Hill, the co-director of O'Connor's label Ensign, recalled to Mojo magazine January 2009 the first time he heard it: "Fachtna O'Kelly, Sinéad's manager, brought in a cassette and when I heard it I actually started crying. I just sat there with tears in my eyes. Then O'Kelly rang up Sinead OConnor and went, 'Chris is crying.' 'Was it that bad?' Sinéad asked."
This was O'Connor's last big hit. She turned off a lot of people with her political statements, which included refusing to let the National Anthem be played before a concert in New Jersey and tearing up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live
. It was a rough time for her, but she later realized it may have been for the best because it led her away from life as a celebrity, which she wasn't suited for. "I'm not a pop star," she wrote in her memoir. "I'm just a troubled soul who needs to scream into mikes now and then."
In 1998, MTV named this #34 on their list of the greatest videos ever made.
Although this was a mainstream hit, O'Connor was considered an "Alternative" artist at the time, as evidenced by her Grammy win for Best Alternative Music Performance.
The "2 U" in the title is a Prince thing. He has songs called "I would die 4 U" and "If I Love U 2 Nite."
The Jacksons beat him out as the first 2 chart with a "2 U" title; their song "Nothin (That Compares 2 U)" went to #77 US in 1989. That one was written by Babyface and L.A. Reid.
This was produced by Beresford Romeo (Jazzie B.) and Nellee Hooper, two members of the group Soul II Soul.
Why didn't Prince record the song himself? His sound engineer, Susan Rogers, told The Guardian
: "It's not a pained 'Help me, baby' track. It's: 'You're gone and I miss you,' which is probably why he felt comfortable giving the song away to the Family. He released his material based on what he wanted us to know about him and, wonderful as it is, he didn't want it to represent him."
Rogers added that Prince didn't like O'Connor's cover, but that was no slight on her: he didn't like anyone recording his songs unless he asked them to.
The video for Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball
" also contained some very tight shots of the singer's face, and also a tear, which Cyrus claimed was shed for her recently departed dog. Speaking with Rolling Stone
, Cyrus said, "It's like the Sinead O'Connor video, but, like, the most modern version."
This quote, which didn't even make the magazine (it was posted on the web), set in motion a feud between the singers, with O'Connor publishing what she called an "open letter" on her website, warning Cyrus about the dangers of her career path. Cyrus responded with a Tweet that simply said "Before Amanda Bynes.... There was....", a reference to O'Connor's past mental health issues.
The confrontation illuminated some of the strange parallels between the singers:
- Both shaved their heads. Sinéad did it so she couldn't be marketed for her looks; Miley so she could establish her style and blend in.
- Cyrus was a favorite on Saturday Night Live
, and hosted the show the week after the feud. O'Connor was banned from the show after her first appearance.
- Their tearful songs were their first #1 hits, but both were written by others. O'Connor's song was written by Prince, Cyrus' by a team of five professional writer/producers.
Aretha Franklin covered this for her 2014 album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. Her version was produced by Andre 3000, who gives it a classic jazz feel. Aretha's longtime collaborator, Clive Davis, has known the Outkast rapper since he was 17, and that friendship led to his involvement. "He said his dream is to produce a cut or two for the great Aretha Franklin," said Davis.
Sinéad O'Connor announced in March 2015 that she will not be performing this song anymore. The Irish songstress explained: "The first principle of the manner in which I'm trained as a singer (Bel Canto) is we never sing a song we don't emotionally identify with. After twenty-five years of singing it, nine months or so ago I finally ran out of anything I could use in order to bring some emotion to it."
"I don't want audiences to be disappointed coming along to a show and then not hearing it, so am letting you know here that you won't. If I were to sing it just to please people, I wouldn't be doing my job right, because my job is to be emotionally available. I'd be lying. You'd be getting a lie."
Madonna performed this song at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards in tribute to Prince. She was then joined by Stevie Wonder for a rendition of "Purple Rain
Some have speculated that rather than being about a lost lover, "Nothing Compares 2 U" was inspired by Prince's housekeeper, Sandy Scipioni, who left him to be with her family after her father suddenly died.
Prince's recording engineer Susan Rogers, who was present for the original recording in 1984, told the BBC: "Sandy was the person who made sure he had his favorite beverage, which was Five Alive, and she made sure the house was clean and that there were fresh flowers on the piano and that the socks and underwear were washed. That might have been the inspiration."
In O'Connor's 2021 memoir Rememberings
, she wrote about her contentious relationship with Prince, claiming that after this song made her famous, he invited her to his Hollywood mansion, where he verbally abused her and got physically agressive with her. In her account, she left on foot in the middle of the night and Prince followed her in a car. But her thoughts on Prince don't reflect how she feels about "Nothing Compares 2 U." She told the New York Times
, "As far as I'm concerned, it's my song."