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Great moments in (my) pop culture history: Sinead O’Connor on SNL.

June 9, 2010

On October 3, 1992 singer/songwriter Sinead O’Connor blew people’s minds, mine included, when she appeared on Saturday Night Live singing an a capella cover of Bob Marley’s song “War”, changing some of the lyrics to include references to child abuse, and ending the performance by tearing up a photo of Pope John Paull II and saying “fight the real enemy” as she stared defiantly at the camera. And of course, people went fucking ballistic. She had intended the tearing of the photo to be a condemnation of the sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic church. But instead everyone treated her like the Antichrist and proceeded to mock her, parody her and generally frame her as unhinged and godless instead of brave, outspoken and, well, right.

At that point in time I was massively into Sinead and her music. I had devoured her first two albums, The Lion & The Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and had the great fortune of seeing her live in Boston for the I Do Not Want tour. She was electrifying. Her image was so striking to me and her voice was unlike any I’d heard before. And she was pissed off. A lot. She was one of those outspoken, unflinching women who get framed as a bitch or a hysteric but I knew she was neither of those things. She was a gateway for me from the world of the mainstream music of my childhood into the alternative/indie/punk/whatever that I discovered as I moved through my teens.

The footage of her singing and tearing up the photo of the pope was chilling and amazing. Her anger and outrage resonated through the screen just as her otherworldly voice echoed through the silent studio where she performed. I thought it was an incredible, courageous moment and I still do. And she’s never backed down from it or from her criticism of the religion that she holds so dear despite its church’s many flaws. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times she heavily criticizes the Catholic church in the wake of revelations of cover-ups of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. She calls Pope Benedict XVI out for his “apology” letter and speaks of her infamous moment on SNL saying

Almost 18 years ago, I tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Many people did not understand the protest — the next week, the show’s guest host, actor Joe Pesci, commented that, had he been there, “I would have gave her such a smack.” I knew my action would cause trouble, but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist. All I regretted was that people assumed I didn’t believe in God. That’s not the case at all. I’m Catholic by birth and culture and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation.

As Ireland withstands Rome’s offensive apology while an Irish bishop resigns, I ask Americans to understand why an Irish Catholic woman who survived child abuse would want to rip up the pope’s picture. And whether Irish Catholics, because we daren’t say “we deserve better,” should be treated as though we deserve less.

In a pop culture landscape where people droolingly follow the mind-numbing exploits of spoiled, brainless celebutantes and overly privileged rich kids who are famous for nothing more than their hard partying ways, it’s comforting to know that someone like Sinead O’Connor still exists and is still stirring shit up, calling people out and trying to start dialogue about difficult matters more than two decades after she first flew onto our radar.

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