Yesterday, a friend and I got into a conversation about the Catholic Church, which led me to a discussion about how much I admire Sinead O’Connor. Today, I came across a piece from The Atlantic, written last October, on the 20th anniversary of O’Connor’s protest on Saturday Night Live. I decided, today, to write about that event. Because I care about it.
It was 20 years ago last fall that Sinead O’Connor protested the child rape scandal of the Catholic Church on Saturday Night Live. In a protest of the abusive priests and their control over the her country, O’Connor performed an a capella rendition of Bob Marley’s War, replacing the lyrics on apartheid with “child abuse, yea, child abuse, yea,” then produced a photograph of the Pope John Paul II, uttered the words “fight the real enemy,” and tore the photograph to pieces.
If you did not see or have not heard this event take place, it is beautiful, and tragic, and haunting, even today. It brings tears to my eyes. It is inspirational.
I have always considered this act of Sinead O’Connor’s heroic. She was clearly nervous. The courage to do this on national live television, the swiftness and fierceness of response, and the almost complete lack of understanding about what O’Connor was protesting, allow me still to marvel at her bravery.
Afterwards Frank Sinatra threatened to kick her ass. Madonna attacked her repeatedly and viciously. Joe Pesci, on the following episode of SNL, mused about beating her. O’Connor’s performance at Bob Dylan Tribute Concert soon afterwards was a hail of boos such that she could barely be heard.
Still, she picked up the microphone, and repeated her message.
I came across this Atlantic story on the 20th anniversary of the SNL performance, “The Redemption of Sinead O’Connor.” The author, Michael Agresta, gets into the story of that night, and the price paid by O’Connor, as well as the recent history around the sex abuse scandal that appears to vindicate her actions. Agresta also addresses O’Connor’s personal history of abuse when she was a child, a subject she’s been open about in the past.
It’s a good article if you’re not familiar with O’Connor’s protest or her role in Ireland and the sex abuse scandal. But this piece, like too many others, misunderstands Sinead O’Connor, and thus misses the power of that moment twenty years ago.
People have in the ensuing years discussed the vindication of Sinead O’Connor. Every year or two it seems there is a piece on the subject. It is 20 years later, and we know exactly what Sinead O’Connor was protesting. We have begun to understand the depth and horror of the rape and sexual abuse of children that was taking place in Ireland, and around Europe and the United States at the hands of Catholic priests. We have seen the callous cover-up and denial and intimidation by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and witnessed how hard the Church has worked to protect itself from the light. What we seem to miss, 20 years later, is Sinead O’Connor.
Before that night on SNL, O’Connor was a star. She was artist of the year, on the cover of Rolling Stone. Her album I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got was a monster global success, selling over 7 million copies and winning O’Connor a Grammy. The single Nothing Compares 2 U was number 1 on the Billboard for 4 weeks in the US. Her ceiling was, truly, unknown.
After that night, the United States turned on her. Her musical gifts, which are undeniable, remained as strong as ever, but her career sailed off-course. She identified primarily as a protest singer for a while. She stuck to her courage, despite the clear pain she felt from the American Press and public’s hatred of her. The vitriol from within the US against O’Connor was so strong that she wrote an editorial in the Irish Times asking people to leave her alone. Then she laid low for years, releasing some music here and there. But not much.
All the while, she was active in the movement against the sexual abuse scandal that caused her alienation.
Eventually, O’Connor righted the ship, musically. She released an album of traditional Irish folk songs, a reggae album (which is really good), and finally found her own footing again with the double-album, Theology. Her most recent album, How About I Be Me (and you be you) is full-on tremendous O’Connor, as a good as any she’s released in these 20 years.
In 2010, O’Connor gave an interview with NPR, in which she discussed her SNL performance. The interview is quite interesting, but it starts where we have always started with Sinead O’Connor in the US: do you feel vindicated? And still, decades later, she answers on point, putting the light where it belongs:
“It’s not about me or anyone else being vindicated. Who is vindicated are the victims, it really isn’t about anyone else. It’s more important to realize that they’ve been vindicated, and believed, and treated with respect.”
And, later, she is asked if she’d do it differently, knowing how much the nuance in her protest was lost:
“No. People don’t realize that we knew about this back in 1987 in Ireland. It didn’t become an issue in the States until about 1995. In 1987, the Catholic Church in Ireland took out an insurance policy in every diocese to cover themselves against claims which they foresaw would be made by victims and their families…the reason people were so shocked in the States, quite rightly, no one could imagine that this could be happening…people need to understand that we in Ireland knew a good 10 years before anyone else knew.”
How could Sinead O’Connor, of passionate mind and spirit, member of the faithful watching the leaders abuse the children, not protest that which she saw happening in her country?
Sinead O’Connor never left the Catholic Church. This, more than anything, moves me when I think about her performance on Saturday Night Live. It is true that Sinead O’Connor ripped the image of the Pope, and in response, the people of the US turned on her. It is true that Americans, Catholics, the media did not receive the message that O’Connor was sending, did not understand or want to believe what was happening in Ireland, or churches around the world. It is true that only slowly has the full reality of this scandal made itself clear, and slowly we understood what this young bald woman on the television was doing. This is what happened.
I love Sinead O’Connor. I always have. Sinead moves me to make the world better, but more fundamentally, I love her voice, and her music, and her passion. I love her commitment to the things which she believes, her openness with her struggles with mental illness and her personal history from which many can learn. I love that 20 years ago she enraged the United States, without blinking, and did not concern herself with what was to come next. Obviously she was trouble by the response her actions caused. But her resolve never faded. I love that she does not need to be redeemed, and was never looking for vindication.
Sinead O’Connor does not need our redemption.