Before I became a journalist, I was an academic cultural theorist. If you want to construct a scholarly argument, you cite other people. In journalism, its basically the same. But whatever academics or journalists claim, no matter how many times we do it, no matter how committed we are to sticking to the facts, absolute certainty does not exist.
When I was transitioning out of teaching at Yale en route to my current vocation, I took a brief detour through a journalism graduate program. There was this one professor we used to call “Sarge,” who was always blathering on about how the number-one rule of journalism was that you had to “get everything on record.” As my classmates scribbled away in their notebooks, I interrupted him. “What does that meanget it on record?”
Sarge was flummoxed. “It means pull out your goddamn notebook, McCabe, and write down everything the subject says. That way when they say later that they never said it, you can pull out that notebook and say, ‘Yes, you did!’ When they threaten to sue you, you can pull out that notebook and say, ‘Go ahead, make my day!’”
Everyone nodded and laughed, scooping up Sarges pearls of wisdom. “But whos to say they didnt just make up what they told you? Or that you didnt just make it up or distort what they said when you wrote it down?” I asked. “Then you get other people to talk to you,” Sarge replied, clearly exasperated, “and get them on the goddamn record, too!”
Everything in my lived experience up to that moment led me to reject this position as stubbornly naive, or absurd, the idea that THE TRUTH can be established through the steady accumulation of testimony, transcribed by a disinterested hand acting as judge and jury. Anyone whos ever done an interview knows it isnt a witness statement, and a memoir is even less so. Famous or not, people say the things they think other people want to hear and revise or hold back what they dont. Contradictions and omissions arent simply a consequence of dissemblance or forgetting.
Theyre the residue of feelings, not entirely erased, only obscured. Those who can “read” this half-hidden ink arent superhuman empaths who conceal their identities behind a mild-mannered facade to serve the noble cause of truth and justice. Theyre just better at understanding that the truth appears as much in whats not said as in what is, and in how its said, and when and where, and to whom, and why. Tuning your ear is totally different than sharpening your pencil. It starts with being in touch with yourself and being willing to risk exposing your own vulnerability to see or hear what someone else is trying to tell you.
Famous or not, people say the things they think other people want to hear and revise or hold back what they dont. Contradictions and omissions arent simply a consequence of dissemblance or forgetting.
This may be especially true for musicians, music journalists, and ardent music fansall of us searchers. Thankfully for us, the celestial jukebox is a limitless lost and found. Think about your favorite songs, especially the sad ones, and why they resonate for you so strongly. Its not necessarily the specific circumstances being described in the lyrics or the precise way the notes are arranged on the staff. Instead, its in the imaginary conversation youre having with the artist, and how it helps you to connect in some way with your own experience.
That experience often indexes something youve lost, whether consciously or not. Songs can help us bring it back, recollect it, make sense of it, or at least learn how to live with its absence. Even though memory is never identical to the thing thats been lost, that doesnt mean we shouldnt try to remember. It means we should try harder. As time goes by, we may find ourselves further removed from one kind of truth (what it was) but edging ever closer to another (what it means).
Going into my interview with Sinad OConnor, I knew it wasnt going to be as easy as the interviews Ive done before with artists such as Laurie Anderson, John Cale, or Thurston Mooreall big names and big talents, but not people I personally related to on the same level, not people whose music has made me weep so much or so deeply. I knew that OConnors story wouldnt be easy for me to tell, but thats why it felt especially important for me to try.
Although my profile would be built on my interview with OConnor, to bring context to her story I also interviewed feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna and music critic Jessica Hopper. When I started putting all of the tape together, I assumed that the hardest part was going to be packing everything I wanted to cover into five minutes of airtime.
Changing the narrative about OConnor proved far more difficult. The main point of contention was over using tape from her 1992 SNL appearance. Rather than leading with it, or bringing it in at all, I wanted the show host to refer to it only briefly in their introductionsomething along the lines of:
“Sinad OConnor rose to the top of the charts with an unforgettable song [Clip of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’]. Two years later a controversial appearance on Saturday Night Live dimmed the limelight. But OConnor is out now with a new memoir, and she says that moment re-railedrather than derailedher career.” Allyson McCabe has the story.
Then, rather than reminding the audience that OConnor was canceled, I wanted to show how and why she was canceled. That meant bringing in tape from Joe Pescis appearance on SNL the week after hers. Pesci goes after OConnor aggressively in his three-plus minute monologue, at first referring to what happened fairly neutrally, as “an incident.” He then tells the audience he thought tearing up the photo was wrong, and explains that he asked someone to paste it back together. He holds up the reassembled photo and the audience applauds wildly. Case closed, Pesci says. But it wasnt.
Pesci went on to implicitly blame Tim Robbins, who had hosted the episode, for “the incident,” for letting OConnor get away with it. Then he remarked that she was lucky, “because if it was my show, I would have gave her such a smack.” Pesci held his hand to demonstrate the smack, and, again, the crowd broke out in applauseaccompanied by cheers. Pesci took it in, smiling from ear to ear. “I would have grabbed her by her…by her….”
This is where I wanted to abruptly cut the tape. The word Pesci says next is “eyebrows,” a crack about OConnor being bald, but of course the audience would hear the cut and think what he said was “pussy,” and think of Donald Trump. And that is exactly what I wanted them to think.
Deciding what tape to use and where to cut it are intentional choices with powerful ramifications. They deeply influence how we frame a story and give it context and meaningand how you as the public see and hear it.
My point wasnt that Pesci = Trump. I know that Pesci was reciting lines he probably didnt write and expressing wiseguy viewpoints he may or may not have actually felt. (Pescis wiseguy character Vincent LaGuardia Gambini from the 1992 comedy film My Cousin Vinny was reprised in 1998, when he put out an album called Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You. It includes “Wise Guy,” a misogynistic gangsta rap song in which Pesci brags, in character, about how to treat “bitches.”)
What I wanted to show with my tape cut was that Pescis lines landed because the audience felt them. The point was not that he was a misogynist. It was that the audience, and by extension the larger culture, was misogynist.
In using that tape cut, I hoped to pose an implicit question: To what extent did misogyny mediate the way we saw OConnor in 1992? And to what extent is it still wovenconsciously and unconsciouslyinto our cultural scaffolding? This isnt just a matter of perspective, male versus female. As a journalist, Ive worked with men who acknowledge misogyny as a problem, and women who dont. When it seeps into reporting its rarely overtwhich is what makes it so powerful, and so hard to fight.
In this case, my editor (at that time) was a middle-aged cisgender heterosexual white man who would certainly identify himself as feminist. Nevertheless, he used words and phrases like “too suggestive” and “overkill” to urge me to dial Pesci down and bring more of OConnors “incident” in for “balance.” Which one of us was right?
On the one hand, journalists are supposed to be neutral: just the facts, maam. Thats what were taught and how were trained. But deciding what tape to use and where to cut it are intentional choices with powerful ramifications. They deeply influence how we frame a story and give it context and meaningand how you as the public see and hear it.
Therefore, our clash was more than a trivial difference of opinion. It was, on the contrary, a fundamental though unspoken disagreement. My editor wanted to include OConnors performance to remind listeners about the controversy that she invited or even provoked. I wanted to include Pescis monologue to show how OConnor was reprimanded and why.
Better, I think, for journalists to be transparent about these positions and to own them, rather than to pretend that one is objective and the other is biased. But deadlines are deadlines, especially in daily news, so rather than argue, I agreed to include brief clips from both tapes for “balance.”
However, I pushed for a new title, so it was “Sinad OConnor Has a New Memoir…and No Regrets” rather than the one the editor had floated, in which she “proclaimed” that she has no regrets. I also landed on the point that what OConnor wont do is apologize for survivingwhich was far more suggestive than anything I would have been able to show with the tape cut.
In the end, I think my title reflected the main point of the story, but it wasnt the whole story. Even if I had five years instead of five minutes, it would have been impossible to present a comprehensive biography. OConnor explicitly denounced several unauthorized attempts in the early 1990s. (There are a couple of pre-SNL Sinad OConnor biographies floating around, such as Jimmy Gutermans Sinad: Her Life and Music [New York: Warner Books, 1991] and Dermott Hayess Sinad OConnor: So Different [London: Omnibus Press, 1991]). In 2012, she pulled out of a biography project that she had officially sanctioned after only six months.
Even in her own 2021 memoir, OConnor acknowledged that there are significant challenges in telling her own story, namely, that her recollections are riddled with inconsistencies, gaps in her memory that she attributes to not being present for large chunks of her life.
Even in her own 2021 memoir, OConnor acknowledged that there are significant challenges in telling her own story, namely, that her recollections are riddled with inconsistencies, gaps in her memory that she attributes to not being present for large chunks of her life. She says other memories are private, or concern matters she would prefer to forget. In the foreword, she tells readers that she hopes her book will nevertheless make sense. If not, she advises us to “try singing it and see if that helps.”
I want to take that advice and honor it, to accept the inevitable gaps and inconsistencies, the difficulty of getting it right, and the impossibility of pure neutrality. I therefore plan not simply to recite OConnors story, but to “sing” it bel canto, which, as she explains in her memoir, has nothing to do with mastering scales, breathing, or any other formal technique. Instead, its about singing in your own voice, allowing your emotions to take you to the notes, and allowing the notes to take you to the truest expression of the song.
Such an approach entails not only close reading but telling OConnors story intimately, feeling the feelings myself, and letting the notes that are inside of me spill out onto the page from time to time, a bit like Fiona Apples duet with OConnor in the “Mandinka” YouTube video. My goal, simultaneously easier and more difficult than conventional biography, is to illustrate why OConnor matters, and to ground that assessment in the circumstances of her life and work and in mine.
As you read, I invite you to hold up a lighter, or a mirror, and sing along with us too, all of us piercing through the darkness together…journeying toward the kind of catharsis that only music can bring. Where better for us to begin than at the beginning?
Excerpted fromWhy Sinad O’Connor Matters, by Allyson McCabe, 2023, published with permission from the University of Texas Press