Sinead O'Connor's SNL Actions Re-visited

On October 3, 1992, Sinead O’Connor held up an 8" x 10" color photo of Pope John Paul II, ripped it into pieces and said, “Fight the real enemy” after her performance on Saturday Night Live. I was watching a VH1: Behind the Music show about Sinead this weekend on (sorry, I did a little digging and I couldn’t find out when the show was taped; it seemed fairly recent, however), and discovered that NBC will still not allow the clip of Sinead tearing up the Pope’s picture to be broadcast.

My question is this: is NBC furthering Sinead’s cause by continuing to ban the broadcast of this clip? What would be their motivation for continuing this ban? Did Sinead accomplish what she set out to do with this controversial action if it’s still controversial 10 years later? I don’t think it would have the same impact on me to have seen the actual clip than it did to find out that almost 10 years later, they still won’t broadcast it.

I actually saw episode of SNL when it first aired. The main thing I remember was the complete silence at the end of performance.

I don’t think NBC is furthering anything. First off, SNL reruns are not exactly in hot demand. Second, most people probably don’t even remember the incident except when reminded. Sinead O’Connor’s popularity has waned. As to whether she accomplished what she set out to do, I don’t know what exactly she hoped to accomplish.

Sinead has been involved in a number of controversies, including refusing to perform if the American National Anthem was played before her concert (I think she objected to any national anthems) and being ordained by a renegade Catholic bishop. I really like her earlier music, though I haven’t heard her more recent stuff. Regardless of her political and religious views, I think it’s actually refreshing for a celebrity to be willing to express controversial viewpoints. Most celebrities are too concerned with their popularity to stand up for their beliefs.

Sorry to AOL, but me too. I can’t see how NBC’s silence can be construed as futhering O’Connor’s anti-Catholic spew. Out of sight, out of mind.

The next week Joe Pesci was the guest. He put on his patented wiseguy voice, and mentioned that he set it right. He held up the picture. He’d taped it together and put it in a frame. Then he mentioned that she was lucky he wasn’t there that week or he’d have knocked her teeth out. The crowd went wild.

I don’t buy this. Most of these celebrities have gained fame through matters completely unconnected to their political views. To the extent that they have influence it is not because they can persuade the masses of the justness of their cause, but because many among the shallow masses will identify more with a cause that has the hipness of being endorsed by a celebrity. If the celebrity is using this influence for a worthy cause more power to them. But the idea of celebrities using their influence as an abstract good in it’s own right just doesn’t fly.

In this example, Sinead o’Conner singing songs in which she expresses values antithetical to Catholicism is legitimate polical expression. Sinead O’Conner ripping up a picture of the Pope is nothing but a cheap slap in the face to the Pope and other Catholics.

JeffB wrote:

My recollection is that her intent was to protest the Pope’s (and the Church’s) continued opposition to birth control and abortion.

If I recall correctly, Sinead was an unwanted child herself, and felt that she had suffered because of it. She thought the stance of the Catholic Church would necessarily result in more unwanted children being brought into the world.

Now as to why she didn’t just say that…

Well would we still be talking about her views if she had? The girl had a soapbox and a cause; given that, it’s not all that surprising that she chose to use said soapbox.

I don’t see why this is so. She had a point that she wanted to get across, but doing so in a traditional manner (A) would not have made the impression that she wanted and (B) was probably not really possible (on a stage as large as SNL’s, at least). Had she launched into an anti-pope diatribe (or even an explicitly anti-pope song, I imagine) she would have been cut off, live show or not. Furthermore, without her SNL appearance Sinead O’Connor would probably have a hard time geting an invite to Larry King (or some comparable forum) in which to talk about her views on religion.

In any event, why is an artist only allowed to express herself in the medium with which she is most commonly associated? Did SNL decide to have on Sinead O’Connor just so long as she only plays pretty songs?

The OP: Whay does NBC refuse to air the clip? In the first place they probably wouldn’t have call to do so. More importantly, they do not want to create the impression that they endorse or tolerate O’Connor’s views. So long as they are not associated with or blamed for her cause, NBC has no stake in its success.

There are a few shows that NBC (and other networks or production houses) will not show in reruns or sell to syndication. Two that come to my mind right off are the SNL Sinead episode and the Seinfeld “Puerto Rican Day Parade” episode.

The rationale, as pointed out, is to not continue repeating what someone thought was a good idea at the time, but ended up offending a big chunk of your advertisers’ customers. No repeat performance = adverse publicity doesn’t keep coming back.

As to Ms. O’Connor, a highly talented singer, after that little incident she has mainly dedicated herself to… well… to out-weirding herself. Exactly how that helps further her sociopolitical viewpoints, I have no clue.

That’s not exactly what I meant, more that a celebrity promoting a cause or belief because the sincerely believe in it is better than a celebrity promoting a cause because the cause is popular.

And many celebrities choose their causes based on what is currently hip. An example was the red AIDS ribbons that celebrities wore for a brief period in the mid-1990s. For a year or two, it seemed that every celebrity at every awards ceremony was wearing a red ribbon. While drawing attention the AIDS issues was certainly good, I think many celebrities choose to wear the ribbons not because they were more concerned about this issue than any other but because it was a popular cause at the time. Celebrities can just as, if not more, shallow that the masses.

I agree. I was more referring to her taking unpopular position outside of her performance. I don’t think that ripping a picture of the Pope was productive and that it was insulting.

She’s got a beautiful voice, is very intelligent, but something of a wacko. She seems to like causing controversy for controversy’s sake.
Let’s see…I was about 12 when I saw that. I remember seeing her hold up the picture of the Pope and thinking she was saying he was a good guy…then she tore it.

I’m not all that crazy about everything about JP 2, and I don’t agree at all with his position on birth control and abortion, but when you consider his humanitarian efforts in helping bring down communism and such…I dunno, it just seemed like she did it JUST to cause a ruckus. Instead of saying something. She was looking for cheap thrills.

Kind of pathetic.

I would disagree with this point; I think she said exactly what she meant to say with her picture-tearing message. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
IMO, at the time it seemed like people were embracing her rebelliousness, and her controversial stands, but once she took aim at a very sacred cow, then the gloves were off. She was no longer a pretty, bald novelty act, but someone to seriously hate.

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “call to do so”, but (IMO) the VH1 special I was watching would have been enhanced by the airing of that clip, so that people watching it would have a fuller understanding of the rest of Sinead’s story.
Unfortunately (for NBC), whether they air the clip or not, I believe the network is inextricably linked with any discussion of this episode. They would be either condemned for showing it, or condemned for refusing to show it.


Sorry, i misunderstood your post. I agree with your points as you actually meant them.


Its not that as artist can only express herself in the medium with which she is mostly associated. It’s that the expression should be a meaningful and substantive one. I don’t think ripping up a picture of the Pope qualifies.

Fair enough, but I’m sure that Sinead would disagree. For that matter, so would I (particularly given the circumstances and contstraints of the setting).

Ah, but did she really? I remember watching that episode and, not knowing anything of her personal history, my reaction was WTF?! Where the hell did that come from? Well, I thought, since she’s Irish maybe it’s some sort of political statement/protest re: Northern Ireland. In the absence of proper context her “statement” was lost on me. Frankly, I rank her stunt alongside piss-christ and that dung smeared Madonna that recently garnered so much controversy. Cheap shock tactics.

Also, her recent ordination in some oddball Catholic sect indicates to me that she’s got some serious love/hate issues that need working out.

As for not showing the clip in the context of an SNL re-run I can’t blame NBC. Every network is scared shitless of controversy. What I find more troubling is the deliberate omission of that clip on a documentary show. The impulse to sanitize past events is becoming a disturbing Hollywood trend.


They do still show the Sinead O’Connor episode in reruns on Comedy Central, but they replace the “tearing up the Pope” song with a filmed clip of the rehearsal where she holds up a picture of a child.

There is another episode that SNL has altered in reruns–the Martin Lawrence “yeast infection” monologue. That was disgusting.

I watched that episode as a high-schooler, and (not knowing anything) I had wondered if it had something to do with N. Ireland, too. Being a Protestant-raised agnostic, however, I was not particularily offended by it. I thought, “Hmmm…she must disagree with the Catholic Church.” When I went to school that Monday, I found out that some of my Catholic classmates were absolutely livid about what she had done. Apparently, you don’t mess with the Pope. Ever. I was not surprised to find that NBC had banned the clip for life in reruns, since they are associated with the network, and they don’t want to alienate every Catholic viewer, I’m sure. I am surprised that the clip could not be aired on a documentary, though. I think that that decision does give more weight than necessary to what she had done. She only ripped up a picture. It is a free country. Then again, I was not particularily offended by what she had done, so what do I know?

The “dung-smeared madonna” you reference is a work done by Chris Ofili, winner of the Turner Prize. Elephant dung is often incorporated in traditional African Art, and he uses it in many of his pieces. He is a Roman Catholic, IIRC, and the art in question does not seem unreverential to me.

As for “Piss Christ”, Serrano’s done a whole series of photos of various objects immersed in various bodily fluids; Piss Christ was only one of many, and not his favorite. I believe he has stated that he wished to portray the intimacy of the deity relationship by immersing an icon in his own body fluids, and the dicotomy between the sacred and profane. It is also, IMHO, a eerily beautiful photo:

There is some art that is done solely for shock value. But I believe a misunderstanding of these two works has led to them being seen as the ultimate in offensive art, and a more thorough study of them would dispell that perception.

Thank you, Gaudere. You beat me to it.

I wouldn’t really consider them the same. After all, you didn’t have to pay for Sinead to tear up the picture of the Pope.

Thanks for the links Gaudere. I admit that when I posted my examples I put little thought into them and merely picked two examples that immediately popped into my mind. While I’m willing to change my mind on Ofili, I still have problems with Serrano’s work. This may have more to do with my problems with conceptual art in the first place. It just feels like he dipped objects in piss and then came up with tortured art-speak rationalizations. I do agree with you that the photo is beautiful. Maybe I’m the one who’s conflicted :).


OK, a bit of a digression, but why is the Pope out of bounds whne it comes to criticism? The current Pope, John Paul II, is a nice enough man, but as head of the Catholic Church, he is responsible for denying birth control to millions of poor women on highly specious religious grounds. The Catholic Church in the US has covered up the crimes of pedophile priests, merely moving them from parish to parish instead of letting them be punished for their crimes until they commit offences too great to be covered up.I won’t even go into the errors of the past, like the silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust.

Sinead O’Connor may have been a bit shrill, but she had a point. She didn’t say, “Kill the Pope” or urge people to burn down churches. All she did was tear up a picture of the Pope and say, “Fight the real enemy.” Yet, in response to this bit of political theater, a a showbiz thug threatens physical violence and people cheered. Who has the more screwed-up moral system?