It has been a wild and interesting life for Irish-born singer/songwriter Sinead O'Connor. Her breakout album The Lion and the Cobra put her in the spotlight, and her timeless 1990 cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" generated a sudden, meteoric rise to fame. However, her most infamous performance took place a couple of years later in 1992 on Saturday Night Live, of all places. Her appearance that night changed the trajectory of O'Connor's career and her relationship with the wider public.
The past was cruel to O'Connor, the present more vindicating. Today, she is well known for her outspoken stances on women's liberation, organized religion, and child abuse. In her SNL showing, she checked every one of those boxes, slamming the Catholic Church on national television and desecrating a photograph of the Pope in front of a live studio audience. The act brought her instant infamy.
Though she found continued success in later years, the long-term effects of her controversial, career-defining moment on Saturday Night Live are still felt years later.
Audiences Were Outraged, And Other Celebrities Publicly Condemned O’Connor
The wider public was infuriated by O’Connor’s stance on the Catholic Church. Some felt it was immoral. Others insisted that, while the singer had the right to her beliefs, Saturday Night Live was not the appropriate venue to express them.
In the immediate aftermath of her performance, the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizers announced a campaign that would donate $10 to charity for every Sinead O'Connor record donated to the organization. The 200 records were crushed by a 30-ton steamroller in front of Chrysalis Records' Rockefeller Center offices, with the intention to mail the remains to O’Connor herself.
One outspoken celebrity critic was Madonna. When asked how she felt about the ordeal, Madonna responded, "I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people."
Media And Religious Figures Could Not Get Over Her 'Voodoo' Performance
During the prolonged fallout of Satanic Panic and the Moral Majority, the media had a field day with the performance, which some described as sacrilegious. Critics from all sociopolitical alignments had words for O'Connor's decision to demand accountability from the Catholic Church.
Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor of New York City felt the singer's performance was a form of "voodoo," and that she used "sympathetic magic" to direct harm toward the Pope and the Vatican. Others felt her performance was not as deep as she wanted the public to think, discounting her intention and thereby reducing the delivery of her message to mere theatrics.
'SNL' Ripped On O'Connor In Future Sketches
Rather than quietly moving on from the incident, Saturday Night Live wanted to rake O’Connor over the coals for her transgression. Devout Catholic Joe Pesci hosted the following week’s episode, and he spoke about the events of the previous weekend. He held up the same photograph of the Pope taped back together, to rapturous applause.
As he addressed the crowd, he suggested aggression against O’Connor: "She's lucky it wasn't my show. Cause if it was my show, I would have gave her such a smack. I would have grabbed her by her eyebrows."
In An Interview With 'Time,' O’Connor Explicitly Connected Her Actions To Catholic Church Child Mistreatment
Despite the widespread criticism, O’Connor did not back down from her cause. In an interview with Time a month after the episode aired, she went into further detail:
It's not the man, obviously - it's the office and the symbol of the organization that he represents... In Ireland we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they're not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the sh*t out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that's been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorized what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.