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Why Sinéad O’Connor’s protest on SNL still matters

Why Sinéad O'Connor's protest on SNL still matters
Why Sinéad O'Connor's protest on SNL still matters Copyright NBC - SNL via YouTube - Getty Images
Copyright NBC - SNL via YouTube - Getty Images
By David Mouriquand
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As we remember a talented singer, it’s also fitting that we celebrate an outspoken artist who risked it all to remain steadfast in her beliefs.

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When the news of Sinéad O’Connor’s death broke last night, it impacted me more than I thought it would.

The Irish singer will forever be remembered for making Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ her own, turning it into an anthem for the broken-hearted. She also lives on for me in her stunning contributions on Massive Attack’s overlooked 2003 album '100th Window', with haunting songs like ‘What Your Soul Sings’ and ‘A Prayer for England’.

Then there’s her 2021 memoir 'Rememberings', which was an incredibly moving read, a book in which she candidly spoke about her abusive childhood, her struggles with mental illness, and her lifelong non-conformism.

But I can’t deny that even if her music and words will remain her legacy, she will live on for me as an artist who fearlessly used her voice to stand up for what she believed in.

Even in the early stages of her career, O’Connor had quickly developed a reputation for taking meaningful action. Most famously, she had refused to play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' before a show and boycotted the Grammy Awards when she was nominated, writing a letter to the Recording Academy that the awards “respect mostly material gain.”

But even these actions were nothing compared to the international controversy she caused in a 1992 performance on US TV show Saturday Night Live.

This was a time before YouTube and social media. I remember reading about it and seeing pictures of the infamous moment in the newspapers. I didn’t realise what it all meant at the time. I just remember seeing photos of this beautiful, shaven-headed woman in a white lace dress tearing up a photograph, and the furore that ensued.

It was only later that I understood quite to what extent this moment of bravery made O’Connor stand out from her peers and made her a true trailblazer.

While performing an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s protest anthem ‘War’, O’Connor replaced some lyrics with the words “child abuse”. She ended her cover by holding up a photo of Pope John Paul II and tearing it to pieces, declaring as she looked straight into the camera and threw the pieces towards the camera: “Fight the real enemy!”

No one at SNL knew that this would happen. Show producer Lorne Michaels reportedly quickly ordered the “Applause” sign in the studio to be turned off. The silence that followed only made her gesture more powerful.

The backlash was immediate.

Protests, death threats, a lifetime ban from SNL... Joe Pesci, appearing as host the following Saturday, said, "If it was my show, I would have gave her such a smack." Charming. And the crowd approved that threat of violence. Later on that same night, Madonna mocked O'Connor by ripping up a photo of Joey Buttafuoco, who was then at the heart of a high-profile scandal. Well done, Madge. How brave.

These artists should have been taking notes, instead of declaring open season on O’Connor and using her “outburst” for social clout.

The performance took her reputation to another level. The press were merciless and the US, rather predictably, were the first to clutch their pearls, with a steamroller crushing her CDs in front of her recording company’s office in New York.

The performance was a blow to her popularity, and her ensuing albums failed to reach the commercial success of her previous work.

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But as O’Connor detailed in 'Rememberings', she never regretted the moment.

She explained how the photo in question came from her abusive mother’s house, and she removed it from the wall after she passed away.

“My intention had always been to destroy my mother’s photo of the pope,” she wrote. “It represented lies and liars and abuse. The type of people who kept these things were devils like my mother. I never knew when or where or how I would destroy it, but destroy it I would when the right moment came. And with that in mind, I carefully brought it everywhere I lived from that day forward. Because nobody ever gave a shit about the children of Ireland.”

Regarding the controversy, O’Connor always disagreed that the SNL moment ruined her career. Rather, “I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track,” she wrote. “I wasn’t born to be a pop star. You have to be a good girl for that… After SNL, I could just be me."

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"I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame,” she added.

O’Connor’s fearless protest against child sex abuse in the Catholic Church may have sparked worldwide outrage in 1992, but she was vindicated nearly a decade later, when Pope John Paul II publicly acknowledged the long-running abuse going on within the Church. He apologised for the sexual abuse of children by priests – and stories of systematic cover-ups are still surfacing to this day.

O’Connor was ahead of her time and had the bravery to shed a light on an institution that is rotten to its core, in order to call out the right person.

NBC - SNL via YouTube
Sinéad O'Connor during SNL in 1992NBC - SNL via YouTube

While performers using their art to speak out about politics and social issues has become the norm nowadays, with fans almost expecting artists to use their platforms to advocate for causes, a great deal of it still feels like risk-free armchair activism. Social media may ensure a predictable outburst of vitriol, but it also can bring encouragement from fanbases. If Sinéad O’Connor had torn the picture in the social media age, the reaction may have been very different, with perhaps more support. As it was, she was relegated to pop culture purgatory.

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Her goal was always to "force a conversation where there was a need for one” and even if not every artist needs to be “a protest singer” like her, many would do well to remember that part of the artist’s role is to use their platform to shake up the status quo when needed.

As we remember a talented singer, it’s also fitting that we celebrate an artist who never sought approval for her protests, and who risked it all to remain steadfast in her beliefs. 

I'll remember Sinéad O’Connor as a musician who deserved an apology she never got, a woman who sacrificed her mental-health and jeopardised her career in order to defy abuse and meaningfully speak out despite the likelihood of criticism. We need more artists like her: Unfiltered performers who don’t simply pay empty lip service to a cause as a publicity-chasing stunt.

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