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The Night Sinead O’Connor Took on the Pope on ‘S.N.L.’

The Night Sinead O’Connor Took on the Pope on ‘S.N.L.’

What people remember about Sinead O’Connor’s Oct. 3, 1992, appearance on “Saturday Night Live” is this: At the end of her second performance of the show, a cover of Bob Marley’s “War,” O’Connor intoned gravely, “We have confidence in the victory of good over evil.” As she held tight to the word, stretching it like a castigation, she grabbed a photo of Pope John Paul II and held it up to camera. When she let the word go, she punctuated her exhale by tearing the photo three times, followed by an exhortation to “fight the real enemy.” She tossed the fragments to the ground, removed her in-ears, and stepped off the stage into culture-war infamy.

Throughout her career, O’Connor — whose death, at 56, was announced on Wednesday — was a fervent moralist, an uncompromised voice of social progress and someone who found stardom, and its sandpapered and glossed boundaries, to be a kind of sickness. She was also a singer of ferocious gifts, able to channel anxious passion with vivacious power and move through a lyric with nimble acuity. She was something grander than a simple pop star — she became a stand-in for a sociopolitical discomfort that was beginning to take hold in the early 1990s, a rejection of the enthusiastic sheen and power-at-all-costs culture of the 1980s.

And so, in an era where late-night television performances could still prompt monocultural mood shifts, her gesture was a volcanic eruption. She became a target instantly — of the religious right, of other celebrities, and, as she reported many years later in her memoir, of a couple of egg-tossing young men, as she exited the studio that same night.

But none of that extinguished the power of her protest. And she was a savvy radical — reportedly she had done something slightly different in rehearsal, and saved the pope photo for the actual show. (The photo itself had hung on the bedroom wall of O’Connor’s mother, who O’Connor later said had physically and sexually abused her as a child.) Also, she was on live television, holding court for three minutes on the miseries of discrimination and abuses of power, under the guise of being a pop star performing a song. She was daring the cameras, and the viewers, to look away; no one did.

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