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“Why The Cranberries' Dolores O’Riordan was the Nineties feminist icon we all needed”

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Elle Griffiths
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Dolores O’Riordan, the lead singer of The Cranberries, passed away at the age of 46. Here, freelance writer Elle Griffiths pays tribute to the musician who provided the soundtrack to her youth.

After a whole year punctuated by one shock celebrity death after another, who can forget the last week of 2016? The cruel, final act of a horrific year, with icons George Michael and Carrie Fisher both passing away within days of each other, like some sort of twisted advent calendar.

As the world reeled from losing so many great public figures, it was understandable that people started to feel slightly jaded and indifferent to the BBC breaking news icons flashing up on their phones. I certainly did. I figured there were few of my heroes left whose death would really give me that sucker punch of shock.

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That was until I was scrolling absent-mindedly through my Facebook newsfeed one afternoon last January. I was stopped in my tracks by the announcement, via the Irish Post, that Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of The Cranberries, had died suddenly at the age of 46. After letting out a few exclamations to myself, alone in my flat, I knew exactly who to message first: my older sister, Faye.

Faye now lives on the other side of the world, but as children we shared a bedroom in a terraced house in Greater Manchester. Aside from watching one of the four, rather dull, television channels, or wandering the streets aimlessly with the neighbours’ kids, there wasn’t much to do. My sister’s radio, record and cassette player was our salvation and, luckily for us, the early nineties produced some pretty good music. 

Dolores with The Cranberries in 1999

Being the youngest by nearly six years, I took Faye’s lead on virtually everything. So when she played the album No Need to Argue and its hit song, Zombie, on repeat for hours on end one day, I decided that it was my favourite song, too. I listened as she sagely informed me that it had been inspired by the 1993 IRA bombing in Warrington, not far from where we lived, and the two young boys who were killed in it, before parroting that information precociously to my classmates the next day.

But aside from the usual sibling imitation, something about that unique voice genuinely did appeal to me. Unlike so many of the female popstars I had come to know until that point, O’Riordan had not adopted a generic transatlantic twang for her singing. She rocked her Limerick lilt, unapologetically.

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Being from an Irish immigrant family, like so many others in the North West of England, it was an accent I often heard floating from our living room when my Grandparents or other relatives were over visiting for a funeral, wedding or Christmas. But it had always been deemed decidedly uncool and definitely not something to be associated with beautiful, ballsy rockstars. Everyone knew cool people sounded American, yet this woman embraced her Irish identity wholeheartedly. And not just with her accent, but with her trademark (and much imitated) yodelling, as well as all the other celtic influences The Cranberries infused into their rock music.

Culturally, things snowballed as the band rose to fame. Regional, working class accents were quickly the lead-singer-sound du jour. Both boys (and girls) at school fell over each other to buy huge parka coats and walk like they’d been shot in the leg as Oasis-mania swept Manchester and the country at large, while bland American stars fell firmly out of vogue. But Liam Gallagher’s exaggerated swagger never impressed me. Tiny Dolores O’Riordan, standing defiantly in front of a huge guitar with her cropped hair and Doc Martins, was always a far more subtle personification of strength and cool.

“Tiny Dolores O’Riordan, standing defiantly in front of a huge guitar with her cropped hair, was the personification of strength and cool.”

As the nineties marched on, and my sister and I covered our room with posters hastily ripped from Smash Hits and NME, Dolores was joined by other amazing female lead singers on our woodchip wall of fame. Shirley Manson from Garbage, Cerys Matthews from Catatonia and Sharleen Spiteri from Texas all made the cut. The subliminal influence of such women, who were fronting bands while sweating and allowing themselves to shout and scream, and look ugly and in pain, was huge.

Eventually, Faye left for university in Liverpool and replaced indie music with house music and nights at the legendary Cream nightclub. Without her constant influence, I soon found my teenage years dominated by gangster rap of varying quality and dubious sexual politics. Dolores and the other tough women of the nineties sadly fell by my musical wayside and, by the time I went to university myself, I was happily dancing to anti-woman anthem Don’t Cha by the Pussycat Dolls.

But after a particularly bruising break-up in my mid-twenties I found myself revisiting The Cranberries, and the song Linger in particular. It had the dual comforting value of being both incredibly nostalgic to hear again and a beautiful song about heartbreak, with poignant lyrics that had obviously passed me by when I was younger and yet to encounter love.

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Admittedly, apart from such drunken, intermittent Spotify sessions, Dolores had largely fallen off my radar. But the news of her death still makes me sad; 46 is a tragically young age to die. While we have to sadly accept that no one lives forever, the loss of a talented Gen X-er remains shocking.

I can only hope that as I, along with many other children of the nineties, indulge in some nostalgia over her songs and performances this week, a younger generation will get to experience her phenomenal gifts for the first time.

Images: Rex Features, REX/Shutterstock