Dolores O’Riordan, ‘Zombie’ and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Column)

Remembering The Cranberries’ lead singer Dolores O’Riordan and the searing power of “Zombie”

Dolores O'RiordanThe Cranberries in concert at
James Shaw/REX/Shutterstock

Upon hearing the news that Dolores O’Riordan died, writer Ruby Brunton posted on Twitter what was, to me, the most fitting epitaph. It’s just two images. One is a screenshot of the headline. The other is a popular internet meme, which is reportedly a still from a Brazilian music video, of two sexily bestockinged legs and a slim hand holding a cigarette — a glamorous, ’90s kind of ennui. The caption reads: “My idols are dead and my enemies are in power.”

I’m prone to valorize the Cranberries — the Irish alt-rock band that O’Riordan fronted to wide success, especially in Europe, in the mid-’90s. Partly this may be due to a “Community” Season 2 joke in which the lyrics of “Linger” are rewritten about lead Jeff Winger. More likely, this may be because I spent one long summer watching MTV when the “Animal Instinct” video was in heavy rotation. O’Riordan is wearing a flower crown over her uncharacteristically long hair in the video, dancing barefoot. The music video is one of those that crams a whole prosepoem about poverty and displacement into a three-minute silent film. In 1999, this seemed patently ridiculous, but somehow still appealingly wistful. Just a few years earlier, though, the Cranberries had been part of an alternative rock sound that defined a generation, but by 1999 they were being pushed out of the genre that included R.E.M., Alanis Morissette, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Chumbawamba for something markedly more aggressive and male. In the entire decade of the 2000s, only one song with a female vocalist hit #1 on the alt-rock chart: “Bring Me to Life,” from Evanescence; the ’90s alt-rock chart started with Sinéad O’Connor’s smash “Nothing Compares 2 U” and featured several female vocalists until 1998, when Courtney Love’s Hole hit #1 multiple times with “Celebrity Skin.” By the time I was watching “Animal Instinct,” the time of the Cranberries was already over.

O’Riordan wrote “Zombie” in 1993 in response to the deaths of two children killed in the IRA bombing of Warrington — but throughout the years, she would dedicate it to others, like the victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda. This was, of course, the most ’90s thing ever, as was her cropped pixie hair and rebellious attitude. But the sincerity of her outrage in “Zombie” resonates throughout the years, even when the vogue of performative pacifism went the way of fashionable flannel. The song is exceptional — an antiwar banger, if such a thing is possible, with an unexpected combination of grungy distortion and O’Riordan’s ethereal voice. It’s, of course, a complete downer, and yet strangely galvanizing — a call to action that feels like a call to action, not least because it ends on an unresolved beat that seems to be expecting you to finish the song.

But more than just earnestness, “Zombie” reflects the moment’s frustration with the still-new mass media hegemony — one that constantly communicated and informed upon the injustices of the world, but offered less in terms of action. So much of the desire to heal the world in the ’90s stemmed from the idea that healing needed to happen somewhere far away, somewhere else — be it Diana with the landmines or Bono and world hunger. “Zombie” seems to describe watching TV or otherwise taking in the news about something bad that you didn’t witness. “In your head / in your head / they are fighting,” O’Riordan sings, before listing the tanks and bombs, bombs and guns, that are also in her head. The first lead up to the chorus suggests that O’Riordan is distancing herself from what she sees in her head: “But you see / It’s not me / It’s not my family,” she implores. But in the second build-up, she’s expressing frustration: “It’s the same old theme / Since 1916 … they’re still fighting.”

And then of course there’s the chorus — which is really just the word “zombie” stretched out over and over again, practically grunted out of her otherwise bell-like voice with a guttural vowel sound. I didn’t know it was called “zombie” for a number of years, and thought that O’Riordan was cursing the listener or grieving the dead, with some made-up word, some unknown spell. It seemed wildly plausible that the banshee behind the microphone was a straight-up witch shouting an incantation. And the zombie is not even really the dead children, but the dead children that populate your mind; the dead bodies you’ve seen in the images that you can’t forget. “Dolores” means “sorrows,” and that seems apt for a woman with a voice like O’Riordan’s — one whose voice often seemed bigger than her petite frame. “Zombie” is the Cranberries’ most popular song, but it didn’t often perform well, live: Maybe it was out of O’Riordan’s regular range, or maybe it required being in a pretty tortured mental state to come out right. Watching her perform it — on “Saturday Night Live,” or “The Late Show With David Letterman,” she seems to be purposefully making her own voice harsher. Like whatever was coming out of her was ugly.

It’s been an interesting week to discuss female rage, and at the New York Times Magazine, Leslie Jamison has a striking essay titled “I Used to Insist I Didn’t Get Angry. Not Anymore.” In it, she points to her own “ascendant female anger,” “more like an itch than a wound. It demands that something happen.” The Twitter epitaph seems more fitting than ever; our enemies really must be in power if more than 20 years since “Zombie,” it’s still extraordinary and striking when women express their anger.

With O’Riordan’s passing it feels that some further essential quality of the ’90s has slipped out of our grasp — a flawed era, but one that seemed much more united about global progress than our current one. Perhaps everything was broken, but wasn’t everyone kind of on the same page about what we were doing? Feeding the hungry, tending to the sick, giving heifers to the heifer-less? The bohemians were taking over, a la “Rent,” and with them they brought a healing doctrine of yoga and lattes. In the teens, or whatever this decade is, it feels like we know everything we’re supposed to know, but we deny the information the power to sink in. In 1994, O’Riordan was upset about the news; in 2018, 42% of Republicans don’t believe the news.

But mostly, I feel it is my turn to be the O’Riordan I want to see in the world. It’s bizarre how much I miss what O’Riordan showed me — which was that you could be sensitive, and aware, and pissed-off, and somehow that could still become a hit.