The gospel according to Sinéad O'Connor: She was right all along

The late singer's legendary "SNL" moment outraged the mainstream — and was a massive breakthrough for '90s feminism

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 27, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Sinead O'Connor performs in U.K. June 1st, 1990 (Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images)
Sinead O'Connor performs in U.K. June 1st, 1990 (Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images)

My first thought when I heard about the tragic death of legendary singer Sinéad O'Connor was, "I'm going to deck the next right-wing mofo who claims he's being 'canceled' because someone called him names on the internet." 

OK, that's not exactly true. My first thought wasn't really a thought at all, just grief over this loss. At her best, O'Connor could equal Tori Amos in cutting through the sardonic Gen-X emotional defenses so many people around my age developed in our macramé-covered childhoods. Songs like "Troy," "The Emperor's New Clothes" and, of course, "Nothing Compares 2 U" revealed a singer with the rare power of heartbreak, which was especially rare in the cooler-than-thou college rock era when she was a platinum-selling artist. 

As every obituary of the 56-year-old groundbreaking Irish singer will no doubt mention, O'Connor is probably most famous for being the object of a worldwide misogynist temper tantrum, although she's also famous for singing a killer Prince song better than he ever did. All of that is darkly fitting, somehow. O'Connor always framed her own personal tragedies in political terms in her music, drawing a line between her suffering and the suffering is inflicted on girls, women and other vulnerable people everywhere. Her death hits so hard because she so self-consciously drew us in, and made our pain hers and the other way around. 

Sinéad O'Connor is most famous for being the object of a worldwide misogynist temper tantrum — although she's also famous for singing a Prince song better than he ever did.

No doubt most people reading this will remember this era-defining event, but let's recount the details: O'Connor was the musical performer on a 1992 broadcast of "Saturday Night Live," and she did an a capella version of Bob Marley's song "War," changing the lyrics to be about child abuse. At the end, while singing, "We have confidence in good over evil," she pulled out a picture of Pope John Paul II and tore it up, saying, "Fight the real enemy." The audience reacted with shocked silence. Describing it in words really isn't enough: If you've never seen it, watch it. 

O'Connor was specifically protesting the Roman Catholic Church for its decades of covering up child abuse, an issue that was then coming to the fore in Ireland, America and around the world. But her statement was also deeply personal. According to O'Connor, the photo she ripped up belonged to her mother, with whom she'd had a painful and difficult relationship. "My intention had always been to destroy my mother's photo of the pope," she explained later. "It represented lies and liars and abuse." Classic Sinéad: My pain is your pain. Together, through art, we can find catharsis. Maybe even a sprinkling of hope. 

Unfortunately, that hope was dashed. Instead of opening people's eyes up to the church's sex abuse problem, O'Connor became the target of a staggering amount of vitriol, including huge public protests. "SNL" invited actor Joe Pesci to host the next week's show and in a disturbing monologue, Pesci said he would have given O'Connor "such a smack" and suggested, "I woulda grabbed her by her eyebrows." The audience went wild. (Hat tip to my partner, Marc Faletti, for reminding me of Pesci's behavior.) 

This wasn't just about vast affection for that particular pope, especially since many of the people who claimed to be outraged with O'Connor weren't even Catholic. In these situations, where the public targets a woman for a metaphorical stoning, it usually reflects years of seething over perceived uppity or unacceptable behavior. The Dixie Chicks (now just the Chicks) were abused for opposing the Iraq war, but long before then, many country fans hated them for outselling male artists and, oh yeah, for a song about the murder of a wife beater. Figure skater Tonya Harding, as Margot Robbie's performance in "I, Tonya" suggests, was loathed for rejecting the hyper-feminine stereotype of her sport. People loved watching Britney Spears melt down because they resented how much power her brand of bubblegum pop had in youth culture. And poor Monica Lewinsky became the siphon for immense collective anger toward Gen-X young women, who were finally getting a taste of the equality so many earlier generations of feminists had fought for. 

O'Connor made men mad because she shaved her head. I mean, OK, it was more than that — but it was also just that. She was, of course, extraordinarily beautiful, with big doe eyes and the kind of bone structure no surgery can replicate. You didn't need her to explain it in order to get her message: Her shaved head was a giant F-you to anyone who wanted to use her beauty to define and deride her as a silly pop starlet.

I was 12 years old when "Nothing Compares 2 U" came out, and I had to pray the video would only show up on MTV when no father, stepfather or uncle was in the room. I just wanted to wallow in Sinéad's perfect, gorgeous song without hearing snide remarks about her (lack of) hair. It was only years later that I realized what they were so mad about: They resented the implication that a woman has a right to exist for a reason other than pleasing a man. 

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She clearly and publicly struggled with her mental health for decades. I don't want to dwell on that issue much, especially as it was all too often used as an excuse to dismiss her. It's a miracle that more people who've been through what she went through don't suffer as she did, and it was something of a miracle that she accomplished as much as she did despite that suffering. What matters the most now, at least to me, is that she was the preeminent Cassandra figure of the '90s, the prophet who was ignored for far too long. Those of us who didn't know the truth then absolutely know it now: Sinéad was right about the church — and right about the importance of fighting the real enemy.

There was never any public reckoning about how we had all judged O'Connor unfairly, like those we've seen with Britney Spears and Monica Lewinsky. I don't know if she ever felt thanked, or loved, for what she did.

There was never any major public reckoning about how we had all judged her unfairly, like those we've seen with Britney Spears and Monica Lewinsky. I don't know if she ever felt she was thanked, or loved, for what she did. She lost a lot in trying to tell us the truth. She still had a musical career, more or less and off and on, but we all know it's not what she deserved, with that unbelievable charisma and that voice. 

It's obviously too late to matter to her now, but I want to offer my thanks to Sinéad O'Connor, on behalf of all the girls like me who didn't get to grow up with feminist texts at the library or a local record store hip enough to stock riot-grrrl 'zines. She was on MTV, right there on basic cable where everyone could see her. Her message about how women didn't need to live for men's approval? It planted a seed in all those girls, like me, who had never heard that before. 

No wonder so many people wanted to destroy her. It sent a message to the rest of us about not getting too many notions about ourselves — but the good news is that it didn't work. Ben Shapiro can set as many Barbies on fire as he wants, but whiny men are not finding much success right now canceling Greta Gerwig, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé or any other prominent female artists who refuse to apologize for their ornery feminist opinions. Even the abortion bans being enacted in state after state, as horrible as those are, are being met with a level of female fury that shows we won't give up easily. This, too, is why O'Connor's death is so gutting. I have to set aside my Gen-X impulses to play it cool, and say it: She was a martyr, and she paid the price so we can have this moment right now, more than 30 years later.  

O'Connor is most famous for being silenced, so I want to give her the last words, from a song she wrote and released two years before the "SNL" performance: "The Emperor's New Clothes." 

I will live by my own policies
I will sleep with a clear conscience
I will sleep in peace
Maybe it sounds mean
But I really don't think so
You asked for the truth and I told you
Through their own words
They will be exposed
They've got a severe case of
The emperor's new clothes

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Feminism Music Obituary R.i.p. Saturday Night Live Sinead O'connor