By Allyson McCabe
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 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. As we eagerly await the May 23rd publication of Allyson’s book, Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters, we asked her to share some of her favorite Sinéad O’Connor songs.
The lead single from O’Connor’s debut album The Lion and the Cobra, “Troy” is a stunning account of love and betrayal inspired by a poem by W. B. Yeats and O’Connor’s relationship with her abusive mother, who died in a car wreck in 1985. Rather than soften O’Connor’s intensity, John Maybury directed a music video for the song that matched it. Released when teen queens Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were burning up the pop charts, “Troy” shows that O’Connor was aiming for something else entirely. Critic Jon Pareles observed that she “knows the power of the female voice, and she uses it to rail against every betrayal or barrier she can envision.”
“Mandinka,” the Grammys, 1989
As the first few notes kick in, O’Connor indeed serves notice that she is “no ordinary talent.” Her voice alternates between a whisper and a dare. Even from a distance you can’t miss the massive man in the crosshairs of a gun who has been painted onto the side of her head—it’s Public Enemy’s logo, described by Chuck D as symbolizing the Black man in America. O’Connor wore it to express her solidarity with the band, and by extension all rappers who had been erased from the program when the Recording Academy decided not to televise its first presentation of an award for rap. That night O’Connor showed a fierceness that made her great, but also foreshadowed how it would all come crashing down.
“Nothing Compares 2 U,” 1990
This is the song that transformed O’Connor into a global icon, the face that Hilton Als described as “meant to play on the big screen of our imagination,” the tear that launched a thousand memes. But if you really want an illustration of what made O’Connor an incomparable legend, you really need to watch it live. When do you start crying? Do you even get to the part where she begins to sustain a single note that builds into a deep howl of anguish?
War, Saturday Night Live, 1992
So much has been said about this moment, much of it dead wrong. In destroying a photo of Pope John Paul II, O’Connor didn’t mean to attack the man, or the faith, but to draw attention to the child abuse crisis brewing in the Catholic Church and the Church’s complicity in the silencing of victims. The problem was, the world wasn’t ready to hear her message and she didn’t do a great job of delivering it.
During the dress rehearsal O’Connor told SNL producers that she intended to perform Bob Marley’s “War.” At showtime, she changed some of the lyrics to address the evils of child abuse, and paused briefly at the end to hold up the photo of the pope. Staring down the camera lens, O’Connor sustained the word “evil,” ripped the photo, and proclaimed, “Fight the Real Enemy!” She then left the stage, providing no further explanation. The world gasped.
Her actions were hurtful to some, and offensive to many, but there was so much going on that night that the public didn’t see or know, from what inspired O’Connor’s decision to cover “War” to choosing to destroy a photo that once belonged to her mother to the fact that she was right about the Catholic Church. Read my book for the full breakdown—but for now, I want to draw your attention to one week later, when guest host Joe Pesci used his monologue to attack O’Connor, bragging that if he were hosting that episode he would have “gave her such a smack” and “grabbed her by the . . .”
The word Pesci says next is “eyebrows”—meant to insult her shaved head—but it doesn’t take much, thanks to Donald Trump, to imagine him saying another word. The crowd’s cheers show that Pesci’s lines landed, not because he was misogynist but because the culture was. If you don’t believe me, check out his “Wise Guy” rap, released a few years later. To this day, people keep asking O’Connor if she owes anyone an apology, sidestepping the question of whether an apology is owed to her.
War, Madison Square Garden, 1992
Two weeks after SNL, O’Connor was on the bill for an all-star Bob Dylan tribute show at Madison Square Garden. She wasn’t just a Dylan superfan. O’Connor credits his music with helping her to survive her childhood. The song she chose to sing that night was “I Believe in You,” from Dylan’s 1979 album Slow Train Coming. It’s about being rejected by the world, but holding fast to one’s faith in the almighty.
O’Connor intended to perform it as a whisper, the way she thought it was meant to be heard. But when she took the stage the audience was divided between those who booed loudly and those who tried to drown them out. O’Connor paced around for a few minutes, trying to figure out how to proceed. Then she started shouting the lyrics to “War” before breaking down in tears and being escorted offstage by Kris Kristofferson. Neil Young immediately swooped in and started his rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” while Dylan just sat there, saying nothing and doing nothing. My heart breaks watching this, even all these years later.
On paper, it doesn’t look like it would work: a Celtic rap interpolating elements of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” But it does work, brilliantly drawing parallels between O’Connor’s experience as an abuse survivor and the experience of the Irish people during the Great Hunger and its aftermath. O’Connor points out that breaking the cycle of abuse requires confronting the past, not simply denying or burying it. She released the song on her 1994 album Universal Mother, at a time when there were volatile tensions between Ireland and England. In her memoir O’Connor says a London TV show tried to dissuade her from performing it live because they said it was “too political”; she doesn’t name the show, but here she is on Later with Jools Holland.
“Thank You for Hearing Me,” 1994
This is another cut from Universal Mother, this one said to be inspired by O’Connor’s breakup with Peter Gabriel, but referencing their short-lived relationship only obliquely. At first, “Thank You for Hearing Me” sounds like a simple expression of gratitude, but listen closely and you’ll pick up on something far more complicated and emotionally honest about what it feels like to love someone more than one is loved.
“The Wolf Is Getting Married,” 2012
After the 1990s, O’Connor’s music is rarely discussed and often overshadowed by a steady flow of tabloid headlines. One of her best and most overlooked albums is her ninth studio outing, 2012’s How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? Standouts include “Reason with Me,” in which O’Connor pleads for understanding from those she has wronged, and “V.I.P.,” in which she disses celebrity culture and materialism. I’m particularly fond of “The Wolf Is Getting Married,” a glowing expression of love, hope, and the power of connection—even in the face of adversity.
“In This Heart,” 2020
This track from Universal Mother was recorded live at O’Connor’s sold-out 2020 show in San Francisco. Performing barefoot and in her hijab, she is joined by two members of her backing band, throwing down gorgeous layered harmonies on a single mic. It’s not perfect, but she owns the flub, and keeps going. The applause at the end says it all. O’Connor has stumbled but survived, and she’s kept on singing, still as radiant as ever.
“Trouble of the World,” 2020
In 1990, O’Connor confronted police brutality against Black men in “Black Boys on Mopeds.” Three decades later, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, she quietly released two interpretations of “Trouble of the World,” made famous by the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, as a benefit for Black Lives Matter. I’m especially blown away by O’Connor’s a cappella version, which captures the song’s sorrow and its spirituality. In the liner notes O’Connor explains, “For me the song isn’t about death or dying. More akin, a message of certainty that the human race is on a journey toward making this world paradise and that we will get there.”
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.