On October 3, 1992, Sinead O’Connor took a radical stand against child abuse in the Catholic Church when she tore up a picture of the Pope at the end of a performance on Saturday Night Live.
This was nearly a decade before scandals involving the Catholic Church became front-page news and the Irish singer paid a price for being ahead of her time.
As the musical guest on SNL, Sinead O’Connor sang an acapella version of the Bob Marley song War with modified lyrics to highlight the plight of children abused by the church.
At the end of the song she deviated from her planned performance and tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II and then looked at the camera and said “Fight the real enemy.”
The audience was silent throughout the performance, but NBC reportedly heard from nearly a thousand angry callers over the next few days. Just seven people called NBC to register their support for the singer.
Sinead O’Connor became the target of scorn from the public as well as other musicians and actors including Madonna who told the media, “I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.”
Madonna incidentally copied Sinead O’Connor when she appeared on SNL three months later in January 1993 and ripped up a photo of Joey Buttafuco. (If you don’t remember who he is check out ep # 1 of History of the 90s!)
The week after Sinead’s protest, SNL guest, Joe Pesci, devoted his opening monologue to condemning O’Connor. Pesci insisted that had he been in charge of the show, he would have given O’Connor “such a smack.” Ok wise guy- not funny!
And Jonathan King, a millionaire British television and record producer, and the executive producer of the BPI Awards, stated in an interview with Billboard that she needed to be “spanked” for her display of bad manners. Ten years later, King would be convicted of several counts of sexual assault on 14- and 15-year-old boys and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Two weeks after the SNL episode aired, on October 16, 1992, the outrage against Sinead O’Conner continued when she performed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden. She took to the stage to perform I Believe in You, but boos from the crowd stopped her from singing.
She fought back by singing War again, then Kris Kristofferson, the master of ceremonies for the evening, went out and gave her a big hug, telling her “don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Days after the concert, a 30-ton steamroller in front of Chrysalis Records’ Rockefeller Center offices crushed an enormous pile of records, cassettes and CDs bearing O’Connor’s name. The event was put together by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizers, which promised to donate $10 to charity for every one of her albums sent in. They received more than 200.
Despite the outrage, Sinead O’Connor stood by her actions and clarified that she wanted to “face some very difficult truths,” namely the epidemic of child abuse in her native country. For O’Connor the issue was personal. As a teenager she had spent 18 months in a notorious Magdalene asylum , an institution for “wayward or promiscuous” youth where physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of children at the hands of clergy was common.
This wasn’t the only time that O’Connor, who shot to fame following her 1990 cover of the Prince song “Nothing Compares 2 U” , took a controversial stand. In 1989, she announced her support for the Irish Republican Army, before renouncing it the next year. A year later, she refused to perform in New Jersey if the “Star Spangled Banner” were played before the concert began. And in 1991, she refused to accept a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album, as a protest against the commercialism of the awards show.
Turns out O’Connor was light years ahead of us all, at least on the issue of the Catholic Church. It would be years before we would grasp the extent of abuse in the Irish Catholic Church and connected institutions. And it was much worse than we could even imagine.
For more stories from the 1990s, make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at http://www.curiouscast.ca