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TV’s Most Surreal Music Performances: Sinead O’Connor

It was the Tear Heard Around the World — and it may have pretty much destroyed Sinead O’Connor‘s career. The Irish singer had more on her mind than promoting her third album, ‘Am I Not Your Girl?,’ when she was the musical guest on an October 1992 episode of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ using the live television appearance as a national soapbox to protest against child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church by ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II. She was, of course, immediately banned for life from ‘SNL,’ and the furious media storm that followed made her performance possibly the most infamous in the show’s history.

O’Connor had reached the apex of her popularity two years earlier on the back of her platinum-certified album ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,’ and its global hit, the Prince-penned ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ but she was still a widely popular musician when she performed on the Oct. 3, 1992, episode of ‘SNL.’ ‘Am I Not Your Girl?,’ a covers collection featuring mostly jazz standards, had been out for just two weeks when she hit the ‘SNL’ stage; instead of offering up a cut from the disc, she chose another cover, an a capella version of Bob Marley’s protest anthem ‘War.’ Her rendition of ‘War’ definitely lived up to the track’s title.

Basically, O’Connor declared war against the Catholic Church live on national TV. As she got to a line in the song about racism, she substituted in the words “child abuse” repeatedly, then held up a picture of Pope John Paul II, ripped it to shreds and said, “Fight the real enemy.” Producer Lorne Michaels, everybody in the ‘SNL’ control room, the studio audience, every single person watching at home — nobody could believe what they just saw.

It wasn’t long before the backlash began. NBC received thousands of calls blasting the singer’s actions, and all future reruns of the episode used footage from her ‘SNL’ rehearsal instead of the controversial performance (that night’s tape-delayed original West Coast broadcast did, however, show the picture shredding). On the following Saturday’s show, actor Joe Pesci received a standing ovation during his opening monologue when he held up the photo and said that he had taped it back together.

Not surprisingly, the controversy grabbed international headlines (the New York Daily News’s cover story headline: “Holy Terror!”), and everybody from Madonna to NYC Cardinal John O’Connor (no relation, of course) spoke out against her actions. Not many in the media even seemed to even understand exactly what Sinead was protesting — the sex abuse scandal that has since rocked the Catholic Church was still shrouded in secrecy, hidden by a culture of permissiveness in the Church — and the result of that misunderstanding was an overwhelming revolt that ruined O’Connor.

When she appeared as scheduled at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute concert at NYC’s Madison Square Garden a few weeks later, she was almost booed off the stage before she even started singing; it’s probably her most high-profile concert appearance since ‘SNL.’ What nobody understood then — and O’Connor didn’t even try to explain — was that she really was willing to risk her entire career to speak out against such injustices, and she welcomed the attention, as negative as it was, as long as it drew more attention to her cause.

Unfortunately, it mostly just drew attention to her downfall; twenty years later, she hasn’t had a single record since then even come close to going gold in America. But, in light of the scandalous revelations about the Church that have emerged since, she’s certainly found some sort of redemption, no matter how few people even recognize it now. And if nothing else, Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ performance made for some unbelievably strange and shocking television. Few things compare to that.

Next Surreal TV Performance: The Flaming Lips

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