A stirring defense of Sinéad O’Connor’s music and activism, and an indictment of the culture that cancelled her.
In 1990, Sinéad O’Connor’s video for “Nothing Compares 2 U” turned her into a superstar. Two years later, an appearance on Saturday Night Live turned her into a scandal. For many people—including, for years, the author—what they knew of O’Connor stopped there. Allyson McCabe believes it’s time to reassess our old judgments about Sinéad O’Connor and to expose the machinery that built her up and knocked her down.
Addressing triumph and struggle, sound and story, Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters argues that its subject has been repeatedly manipulated and misunderstood by a culture that is often hostile to women who speak their minds (in O’Connor’s case, by shaving her head, championing rappers, and tearing up a picture of the pope on live television). McCabe details O’Connor’s childhood abuse, her initial success, and the backlash against her radical politics without shying away from the difficult issues her career raises. She compares O’Connor to Madonna, another superstar who challenged the Catholic Church, and Prince, who wrote her biggest hit and allegedly assaulted her. A journalist herself, McCabe exposes how the media distorts not only how we see O’Connor but how we see ourselves, and she weighs the risks of telling a story that hits close to home.
In an era when popular understanding of mental health has improved and the public eagerly celebrates feminist struggles of the past, it can be easy to forget how O’Connor suffered for being herself. This is the book her admirers and defenders have been waiting for.
Allyson McCabe is a writer, reporter, and producer whose work is often broadcast on NPR, and her byline appears in the New York Times, BBC Culture, Wired, and other publications.
Allyson McCabe’s intensely engaging, thoroughly researched, and deeply personal critical assessment, Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters, makes a serious and sharply observed yet compassionate appraisal of its subject, inarguably among the most influential artists of the late 1980s and early ’90s. McCabe’s willingness to reassess her own dismissal of Sinéad’s work as being too pop to take seriously is rare; not many writers are willing to be honest about what they miss. Acknowledging that Sinéad's life story can be a difficult, contradictory mess, McCabe painstakingly relates this magnificent, irreplaceable artist's tale to her own heartfelt story, showing us in the process how and why so many of us also connect with Sinéad.
Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters is a thought-provoking look at one of the most influential artists and activists of our time that ultimately asks, "Why did we abandon her?" In her time of need, when she needed support, when she stood by her values--her audience trusted the industry more than the artist. I hope this book is read by those who don’t know Sinéad’s story, and those that do will gain insight into the pain and punk ethos she still stands for. Allyson McCabe makes us all want to ask Sinéad for forgiveness and, one hopes, ask ourselves how we can do things differently.
~Sharon Van Etten
Sinéad O’Connor is a brilliant, fragile, and exceptionally courageous talent whilst blessed with the voice of an angel. This book underscores why O'Connor, having been treated so carelessly by the world, remains relevant, and it treats her with the reverence she so rightly deserves.
Part biography, part reflection on the meaning of O'Connor's artistry and actions, McCabe traces the achievements and media-generated scandals of O'Connor's career, and how she consistently sought to beat her own path in a culture that condemned women for veering off the course of sanctioned archetypes...What's most powerful is how McCabe draws on her own experience in parallel with O'Connor's. Perhaps this is O'Connor's most powerful asset as an artist: she opens up a space for people to see their struggles, their resistance and their trauma, in hers.
~The Irish Times
Absolutely brilliant, heartbreaking, insightful, and personal.
~Margo Price, Literary Hub
Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters reassesses the oft-misunderstood songwriter and activist through a lens that is both historical and personal...Written in clear and provocative language...McCabe’s impassioned defense of O’Connor in the wake of her many controversies is both heartfelt and persuasive...our protagonist emerges from Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters as a conquering hero; having weathered abuse, cruelty, and prejudice, not to mention the usual unreasonable expectations too often placed on female artists, the courageous nonconformist emerges wounded but wiser. Ultimately—and most importantly—she is redeemed.
[A] very personal and thought-provoking account of the media’s role in [O'Connor's] stratospheric rise and ultimate implosion…A touching tribute. O’Connor has been the subject of recent and numerous articles, a documentary, and books (including her own), but McCabe’s take is unique in its critical analysis of the media and its attempts to silence and cancel O’Connor.
I've been waiting for a book like McCabe's because...grappling with what happened to O'Connor—at her peak no less—carries important lessons that resonate today. The woman behind that sublime voice was a fierce, complicated, tormented, defiant badass. Yet somehow, she remains an enigma—despite publishing a memoir—because of how quickly and completely she was discarded from the music world for refusing to compromise her beliefs. The industry and world have ostensibly changed, but it's essential to remember and honor those who went before us.
A revealing reappraisal…McCabe skillfully renders the artist’s rise and ahead-of-her-time activism against the sociopolitical landscape of the 1980s and ’90s, persuasively rescuing O’Connor’s reputation from a mainstream media narrative that ‘all too often dismissed [her] as a slow-motion train wreck.’ Fans will be riveted.
A superb showcase of the artist as a musician and a person, [Why Sinéad O'Connor Matters] seeks to discern her persistent drive to make music despite the obstacles in her path and what we can learn from such an unorthodox creative spirit...The heart of this immaculate work lies in how McCabe deftly navigates the turbulent intersection of criticism and compassion. When McCabe talks transparently about her own childhood traumas and how they often mirrored O’Connor’s, her candor is both refreshing and admirable...This book sets a new standard in music criticism.
[Why Sinéad O'Connor Matters] is about much more than Sinéad O’Connor. The singer becomes a 'window and a mirror into culture,' as McCabe puts it, expanding far beyond SNL, MTV, Bob Dylan, Prince, or any of the well-trod touchstones of O’Connor’s early career. Instead, the story reaches deeper — more about the refractions and the shadows that O’Connor casts on ourselves and on the culture. It asks the reader to consider their own relationship to the forces that once leveraged themselves en masse against O’Connor. It’s a beautiful and compassionate meditation on silence, trauma, healing, and much more.
[Sinéad's] urges to "fight the real enemy" have been disregarded, mocked, and vilified for over 30 years – but McCabe's reexamination of O'Connor's treatment is both a tough lesson and a promising step forward.
~Laiken Neumann, Austin Chronicle
Shifting the focus back to music is key to Allyson McCabe’s Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters, published just two months before O’Connor’s death . . . The clarity with which McCabe tells these stories can make space for a more balanced assessment of Sinéad O’Connor’s music.
Released just two months prior to O’Connor’s death, this intimate and moving release from author Allyson McCabe reiterates the lasting impact she left behind. If you’re looking for creative context and thoughtful criticism of the media’s role in O’Connor’s personal and creative well-being, Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters is an essential read.
Reevaluations of maligned "loud women" are always welcome here, but this dissection of Sinéad O'Connor's artistry, activism, and unfounded industry ostracism hits even harder following the artist's tragic July passing.
~Carys Anderson, Austin Chronicle
When people ask why I enjoy reading music criticism, I tell them the books shine a light upon our collective human psyche. Why Sinead O’Connor Matters by Alyson McCabe does exactly that . . . The heart of this immaculate work lies in the intersection of criticism and compassion crafted by McCabe.
~Ancillary Review of Books
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