2023 was a lot of hard things, but losing Sinead O'Connor and Pee-Wee Herman within a few days of each other this July felt especially cruel. Like the year decided to stomp down with its heel and twist.
Two icons of my youth—of the youth of so many people who grew up different—falling at the same time felt crushing.
While they were so different—Sinead wore pain on her sleeve and spoke in whispers and screams while Pee-Wee was perpetually a child, all wide-eyed wonder and hijinks—they were also so similar. Uncompromisingly themselves in a society that loved them for it at first, then then hated them for it. Then punished them for it. Then never forgave them for it.
Sinead and Pee-Wee taught those of us that grew up different how to walk in a world that only wants you to be the same. A mystic and a man-child, uncompromised by the forces that bend you 'til you break.
The other day my family and I sat on our threadbare couch and watched Pee-Wee's Christmas special. We've all seen it countless times, but this year—a year that has seen relentless attacks on LGBTQ+ youth and adults—the unapologetically gay overtones of the special felt especially subversive. So much of his work was subversive, barely hidden under the bright colors of Saturday morning cartoons. Watch any episode of Pee-Wee's playhouse today and it feels like a miracle it was made. What a gift he left us.
And while it's been decades since Sinead ripped up a picture of the pope on TV, her full-throated criticisms of sex abuse in the church have only been proven over and over again. But she was so much more than a single act of defiance on a late Saturday night. Her voice. That voice. Otherworldly and fully worldly. Haunting and alive. A contradiction and a confirmation. A lion and a cobra. There was only one and there will only ever be one and we are lucky to have lived for a while alongside that voice.
Pee-Wee and Sinead both brought beauty into a world that didn't want them. They taught us to see a world that was different, to demand that this world could be better. And, like so many before them (and so many after) the world tore them down to nothing for it and they responded by still being exactly who they were and apologizing to no one.
"Remember what I told you," Sinead sang, "If they hated me they will hate you."
It was a warning and a promise and a demand that you pay attention. That you know what's coming.
Pee-Wee would have taken a different tack, spitting out the schoolyard taunt: "Made you look."
They both made us look. At ourselves, at the world. Sinead looked and demanded better. Pee-Wee looked and offered a retreat into a childhood free of pain. A fist and a hug, both telling you it will be OK.
It will be OK.
Published December 28, 2023.
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