Twenty years ago today, Sinead O'Connor tore up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live—and the media largely misunderstood why. Is America finally ready to hear her out?
In the weeks and months after Sinead O'Connor tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on live television, commentators in the media sought to explain the motives of her protest. Very few, however, made use of the traditional tools of journalism: interviews, research, and textual analysis. Instead, most commentators seem to have consulted their own imaginations.
On the right, John Cardinal O'Connor in Catholic New York suggested that the singer had employed "voodoo" or "sympathetic magic" to physically destroy her enemy in the Vatican—an extraordinarily poor choice of imagery for a Church authority attempting to silence an outspoken female. On the left, Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times celebrated Sinead for providing "a moment of truly great television." He assumed offhand that she was protesting the Vatican's positions on women's rights or the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland, but he focused his praise on O'Connor's acumen as an entertainer.
Anthony DeCurtis, writing Rolling Stone's December "Year in Music" feature, perhaps best summed up the American entertainment media's reading of the protest:
Sinead O'Connor, meanwhile, managed the seemingly insurmountable task of pushing the bondage-clad Madonna out of the headlines with her bizarre attacks on what she quaintly and archaically refers to as the Holy Roman Empire. The Catholic church is a perfectly legitimate target, particularly for an Irish single mother who grew up in an impoverished country in which Catholicism is virtually a state religion, contraception is discouraged and abortion is banned. But is O'Connor's aim to educate people about her point of view or to alienate them and insult their beliefs—as she did when she ripped up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live, ensuring that they will never take her seriously?
DeCurtis and Roeper provided their own speculative reasons for O'Connor's protest plucked from American headlines at the time, like access to contraception, abortion, and the Troubles. Almost entirely overlooked in the controversy was the text of O'Connor's protest—a Bob Marley song, "War," with lyrics taken from a speech by Haile Selassie. O'Connor had replaced out-of-date lyrics about apartheid African regimes with the phrase "child abuse, yeah," repeated twice with spine-stiffening venom.