The story behind Sinéad O’Connor’s iconic Saturday Night Live performance

The singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor has died at the age of 56, prompting a flurry of tributes for both her music and her confrontational style.

She was a “passionate and highly engaged musician” with an “unswerving commitment to activism and truth-telling”, said The Guardian, while The Times said she was “someone who stood up for what she believed in, whatever the consequences”.

Her most contentious moment came in 1992, when she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on the US TV show “Saturday Night Live” in protest against child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

She was “a punk in reluctant pop star clothing” that evening, wrote Lester Fabian Brathwaite for Entertainment Weekly. But what happened?

The ‘real enemy’

During rehearsals, O’Connor had held up a photograph of a Brazilian child killed by police, as she sang an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War”. However, wrote Brathwaite, during the live broadcast she “switched it up” with a photo of the Pope.

She wanted to “protest the ongoing issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church”, said Mail Online, “long before such allegations were widely reported”.  

The photograph had belonged to her mother, who O’Connor said had emotionally and physically abused her growing up. When her mother died, O’Connor took the photo from her childhood home with the intention of tearing it up “when the time felt right”, added Brathwaite.

The time felt right on SNL. She pulled out the photo as she sang the word “evil” and, looking directly into the camera, tore it to pieces before declaring: “Fight the real enemy!”

She had rendered the song “with a forceful clarity, landing every line with nervy syllables held just a microsecond past comfort”, wrote pop music critic Jon Caramanica for The New York Times.

But it was her tearing of the Pope’s photograph that grabbed the attention. It was greeted with near silence in the studio, as she “removed her in-ears, and stepped off the stage into culture-war infamy”.

Protests and death threats

The episode prompted “intensely felt responses”, said Time. NBC banned O’Connor from SNL for life. Appearing as host the following Saturday, the actor Joe Pesci said: “If it was my show, I would have gave her such a smack.” He was “like a feckless politician stirring up his base”, said Caramanica, and the audience responded in kind with laughter and applause.

Worse was to come. There were “protests, death threats, cancelled gigs and even a bulldozer used to flatten a pile of her records in Times Square”, said Mail Online.

But there were pockets of support. When she faced boos at Madison Square Garden in New York during a tribute concert to commemorate Bob Dylan’s 30th year in music, singer Kris Kristofferson emerged from the wings to say “Don’t let the b******s get you down”.

They didn’t. In an interview with The Guardian in 2021, she was asked if SNL was a moment that defined her career. “Yes, in a beautiful fucking way,” she said. “There was no doubt about who this bitch is. There was no more mistaking this woman for a pop star.”

So “maybe the way to think about it is that she right-sized her career”, agreed Caramanica, “away from the silly and grim expectations of complaisance that come with universal acclaim and toward a more earnest plane”.

She has been vindicated by history, said Hello!, as evidence of “rampant sexual abuse” throughout the Catholic Church “has been continuously exposed in the decades since Sinéad’s once-shocking act”. In 2001, “the late John Paul himself” apologised for the sexual abuse of children by priests and systemic cover-ups by the Church.

“Ten years after the pope ripping episode, you all then found out in America that this was going on,” O’Connor told Today in 2021.