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'Why Sinead O'Connor Matters,' by Allyson McCabe: An Excerpt

This new book explores the rise of one of the most influential artists and activists of the '90s, and the price she paid for expressing her beliefs.
Tertulia •
May 2nd, 2023

In 1990, singer Sinéad O’Connor’s song and video "Nothing Compares 2 U" turned her into an overnight superstar. Within two years, she was widely spurned by the public after an appearance on Saturday Night Live. O'Connor shocked America and the world by ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II during the live televised show.

What many people don't know is that the photo had once hung in her mother's bedroom and that she had long intended to destroy it as a way of commenting on corruption in the Catholic church. A new, deeply researched and fascinating book about the singer by Allyson McCabe delves into the significance of this gesture, which has become so associated with O'Connor, and how she was perceived in the culture at that time — including recounting an episode in which Madonna pokes fun at O'Connor. Anyone touched by O'Connor's music and activism, or who thrives on '90s cultural history will enjoy Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters.

The excerpt below is from Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters, by Allyson McCabe, reprinted with permission of the publisher University of Texas Press © 2023.

In the weeks leading up to her appearance on SNL, O’Connor had been reading The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a contrarian history of the early Church, as well as various exposés in Irish newspapers detailing the Church’s role in condoning child abuse and discrediting the accounts of survivors.

She knew there would be millions of people watching the show, way more than Top of the Pops. She took the photo with her to New York and hid it in her dressing room, thinking of a possible plan. While exploring the city, she overheard a leader of New York’s Rasta community remark that “the pope was the devil, and the devil was the real enemy...”

...I believe O’Connor’s decision to destroy the photograph was not impulsive or irrational, but instead was triggered by abuse and the need to avenge it. If you read many of the controversial comments she has made, you can see that O’Connor is pushing back against the silence and shame she experienced as a child by telling people things they don’t want to hear, even when it opens her up to more shaming and more trauma.

Rather than speculating about whether O’Connor’s decision to destroy the photo was self-sabotage, better questions would be: What kinds of sacrifices would she have had to make to sustain her status as a pop star? What price would she have had to pay for obeying the code of silence? Which brings me back to Madonna, with whom I have no personal beef, only disappointment—as much directed toward the culture as the way she negotiated it.

In 1985, when Madonna was among the biggest pop stars in the world, Playboy and Penthouse published some old nude photos that her ex-boyfriend had taken. Shortly afterward, she came to Philadelphia to perform at Live Aid. When Madonna walked onstage, some people booed and screamed “slut,” taunting her to take off her coat. But she defanged them, turning their shaming into a joke, “Nah, I ain’t taking shit off today. They might hold it against me ten years from now.”

However, 1992 was a different story. Rather than pushing back against the shaming, Madonna chose to shame another woman and turn that silencing to her own advantage. A few months after O’Connor’s SNL appearance, Madonna appeared on SNL to promote her new album, Erotica. The song she chose to perform that night was called “Bad Girl.” It was an uneventful performance of an unremarkable song, except at the very end. Out of nowhere, Madonna started mimicking O’Connor, proclaiming “Fight the real enemy!” then tearing up a photo of Joey Buttafuoco.

Used with permission from the University of Texas Press

Want to keep reading? Check out Why Sinead O'Connor Matters by Allyson McCabe.

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