The Long, Contentious History of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”

Sinead O’Connor made a lot of music, but is arguably best known for her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which she eventually claimed as her own.
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on? / Prince: Michael Putland/Hulton Archive via Getty Images; Sinead O’Connor: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

A musician need not write a song to record the definitive version. There’s genuine artistry that goes into interpretation, and sometimes it takes an outside perspective to really push a song over the edge and make it resonate with mass audiences. We might call this the Sinead O’Connor Effect.

To be certain, O’Connor, who died from natural causes in 2023 at the age of 56, was a gifted songwriter who left behind an impressive catalog of original material. But the Irish singer is best remembered for her 1990 cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a wounded ballad the Purple One wrote in 1984.

Prince gave the song—arguably one of his finest compositions—to his funk-pop offshoot band The Family, who recorded it for their self-titled 1985 debut album. The Family version was never released as a single, and the song might have been completely forgotten had it not been for O’Connor. Her sparse, haunting rendition topped the charts in 17 countries, including the United States, making her a reluctant superstar overnight.

The Family Way

Written from the perspective of someone grappling with profound loss, “Nothing Compares 2 U” means different things to different people. On paper, it reads like a breakup song, and depending on who you ask, that’s precisely what it is. At the time Prince wrote it, he was dating Susannah Melvoin, a singer in The Family to whom he was briefly engaged. Melvoin remembers hearing the “heart-wrenching” song for the first time and connecting the lyrics to their strained romantic situation.

“It felt personal,” Melvoin told the radio show The Frame. “And it was … We’d had a rift. We were going through our own thing. It felt [like] the way he communicated.” 

Melvoin concedes the song is also about Sandy Scipioni, who worked as Prince’s housekeeper around that time. Prince’s longtime audio engineer Susan Rogers seems to believe the song is mostly about Scipioni, who “ran Prince’s life” prior to taking a leave of absence due to her father’s death. Prince was apparently lost without Scipioni. “He kept asking, ‘When’s Sandy coming back?’” Rogers told The Guardian.

When The Family recorded the song, Melvoin sang with frontman Paul Peterson on the second half and leaned heavily into what she knew the lyrics to be about. “You can really hear I’m singing that directly to [Prince],” she told The Frame. “That is a deeply powerful song for me.”

Songs From the Vault

Prince, who never spoke publicly about what inspired the song, recorded at least two versions of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” One is a terrific live performance with powerhouse singer Rosie Gaines that was included on the 1993 compilation The Hits/The B-Sides. There’s also his original 1984 demo, which was locked away in his legendary “vault” until April 2018, two years after his death, when it was issued as the final track on the album Originals, featuring Prince’s versions of songs he gave to other artists.

It’s unlikely Sinead O’Connor knew any of the history involving Melvoin or Scipioni when she cut the song with Japanese musician Gota Yashiki and producer Nellee Hooper for her album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. By all accounts, O’Connor was a Prince fan who liked The Family’s version, and she found at least one thing in the lyrics that touched her deeply. There’s a part that goes, “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the backyard / All died when you went away,” and it always made O’Connor think of her mother, who died in a car accident when the singer was 18.

“Every time I perform it, I feel it’s the only time I get to spend with my mother and that I’m talking with her again,” O’Connor wrote in her 2021 memoir, Rememberings. “There’s a belief that she’s there, that she can hear me and I can connect to her.”

“All the Flowers”

Those feelings must have been complicated, as O’Connor didn’t have the greatest relationship with her mother. In fact, Sinead accused her mother of abusing her throughout her childhood, and it was her mom’s personal photo of the Pope that she famously destroyed on Saturday Night Live. And yet the “flowers” lyric was enough to bring Sinead to tears in the “Nothing Compares 2 U” music video, notable for its intense close-ups of the singer and her trademark shaved head.

According to Paul Peterson, Prince didn’t care for O’Connor’s version. (Though Melvoin told The New York Times that Prince was at least happy about the money he made off O’Connor’s recording.) And the story gets even uglier.

In her memoir, O’Connor describes a truly bizarre night at Prince’s Hollywood mansion. The Purple Rain star allegedly berated O’Connor for swearing in interviews and then proposed a pillow fight, during which he placed a hard object in his pillowcase and went on the attack. O’Connor apparently fled the house in fear.

“I never wanted to see that devil again,” O’Connor wrote in her book.

Looking back on the song’s long and strange history, you might say “Nothing Compares 2 U” is about losing an invaluable assistant, drifting away from a romantic partner, and/or reflecting on family traumas, depending on who is singing it. But more importantly, it’s about whatever individual listeners take from the lyrics.

Then there’s the question of who owns the song. The Prince estate may have the publishing rights, but that meant little to O’Connor, as she told The New York Times in 2021.

“As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “it’s my song.”

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