The music videos for Nothing Compares 2 U and Wrecking Ball both won the MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year after their respective releases. O’Connor was the first woman to win the Video of the Year award, and also snagged Best Female Video, beating out artists like Paula Abdul and Madonna. In addition to this, O’Connor was awarded with the MTV Video Music Award for Best Post-Modern Video, which would be renamed Best Alternative Video the next year.
Nothing Compares 2 U certainly fits into an alternative category, what with its edgy and mesmerizing performance. It is the quality of this performance that Miley Cyrus sought to replicate with Wrecking Ball, and succeeded in becoming a controversial breakout hit at the VMAs. The two videos share with each other distinctive similarities when it comes to decor and use of space.
The music videos utilize contrasting but similarly limited color palettes, O’Connor featuring heavier darker tones, and Cyrus portraying a lighter and whiter setting. Both scenes were chosen and designed to deviate from prior imagery expected of the artist. O’Connor chose to strip down her performance due to the requests of producers to appear more polished and mainstream, leading her to rebel against their wishes and use a starker setting. Cyrus had been known for her lush, often pink, performances, and was now opting to find herself in a barren warehouse-like setting, with little color other than her lipstick (Richter, 2016). This minimalistic color scheme is a way to drive home a focus on the singers rather than their surroundings.
Nothing Compares 2 U has little in the area of decor, as O’Connor’s face takes up most of the visual field during the video. Additional footage shows O’Connor walking through Parc de Saint-Cloud in Paris, interacting with balustrades, staircases, and statues. The greenery is used as a verdant relief from the intensity of O’Connor’s gaze, as well as perhaps suggesting the loneliness of existence apart from love. The video mostly steps away from O’Connor’s gaze when she is not singing, thus underscoring the importance of a story being told directly from artist to viewer.
Wrecking Ball has a much more built scene and set, with some semblance of a context. The sudden appearance of a wrecking ball only make sense, fitting into both song and scene. While O’Connor sang directly into the camera, the voice of Cyrus is often overlaid during her actions. The decor in this video becomes more interactive, as viewers are invited to engage with the scenery. Cyrus consistently directs the attention of the viewer, instead of allowing the viewer to wander off for their own adventure in Parc de Saint-Cloud. There is no relief or break from the environment that Cyrus creates in Wrecking Ball until the very end.
O’Connor almost exclusively uses shallow and deep space to capture her song. When using shallow space to create a focus on O’Connor’s face, the video producers limited a unique sense of personhood, forcing viewers to imagine the rest of what O’Connor may be like. As so much of a person is inferred by their entire body, restricting O’Connor to a face made her an everywoman for personal heartbreak. Deeper shots serve the purpose of isolating O’Connor from the rest of the world, placing her in a lonely existence. The shots are not tracking shots, thus allowing the viewer to direct their gaze wherever they may wish.
In the Wrecking Ball video, Cyrus is typically centered in a range of depth. Just as in Nothing Compares 2 U, the close-up shots on Cyrus’s face force imagination upon the viewer. It is not until thirty seconds into the video that anything besides a face is revealed, creating somewhat of a surprise for the viewer. The only tracking shots that are used occur when Cyrus is at risk of moving out of the scene, such as when she is swinging on the wrecking ball. This technique forces viewers to always pay attention to the embodied performance.
Exhibition of the Body
The body of each singer is a critical scene element in both music videos. Both singers are introduced through their somber faces, both exhibiting signs of tears. It was the body of O’Connor that caught Cyrus’s attention when she decided to make the Wrecking Ball video, describing O’Connor’s look as “tough but really pretty – that’s what Sinead did with her hair and everything”(Eells, 2013). There may have been some level of generational misunderstanding that occurred, as the reason O’Connor was dressed ascetically was an attempt to completely de-eroticize her body.
In a 1991 interview, O’Connor explained that record company executives asked her to grow out her hair and wear form-fitting clothing. As a response, she shaved her head, attempting to escape the “conventional femininity” attempting to strangle her (Brady, 2016). Whether or not this was the exact reason, O’Connor’s performance in Nothing Compares 2 U would bee likened to that of an “androgynous monk” (Hoggart, 2013). The performance comes across as ultimately truthful, and completely arresting, possibly more complex than a reductive typing as “tough but really pretty.”
Cyrus portrayed her body in a completely different way, one equally empowering for her time. Cyrus uses her entire body to portray self-confidence, and the eroticizing which Cyrus has been accused of carrying out is the residue of a patriarchal and problematic critique on neo-feminism (Richter, 2015). Cyrus cited her performance as one to remove fear from womanhood, and the performance of tearing down barriers can be read as a series of metaphors for dismantling the patriarchy (Richter, 2015). The dialogue Cyrus created through controversy demonstrated the limitations of understanding the body within a patriarchal system.
The fact that both singers visibly cry during their performance is somewhat jarring, increasing the connection between the audience and artist. Crying is a marker of authenticity and truthfulness, and both singers explained their tears as being part of recent traumatic experiences. O’Connor refers to her mother’s death, Cyrus citing the recent death of her dog (Eells, 2013). It’s another homage to a modern bel canto, an authenticity in not only recording, but also in performance.