Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor is an Irish singer and songwriter best remembered for her 1990 cover of the ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and the subsequent immolation of her public image following a televised attack on the pope during an appearance on Saturday Night Live. To some members of the Roman Catholic Church— and also, apparently, Madonna—she was one of the most detested symbols of anti-Catholic sentiment to emerge in the 20th century.
As a performer, Sinéad’s style can be described as a product of her time. She emerged during the late 80s to early 90s as part of the “college radio” scene. This was back when Kurt Cobain was feeling angsty about multimillion dollar success, but some years prior to Ace of Base destroying international confidence that it was possible for music to deliver a message, so Sinéad sang about a lot of weighty topics. However, this also being the era of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, most people just noticed her distinctive lack of hair.
Then came 1992, and the infamous Saturday Night Live incident. Following an acapella performance of Bob Marley’s “War,” which O’Connor had repurposed as a protest against sex abuse by the clergy, she produced a photograph of then-pope John Paul II. “Fight the real enemy,” she said, as she tore the picture apart and threw the pieces toward the camera. The audience, too stunned to fight an enemy of any kind, simply sat motionless, without condemnation or applause. The show then went into one of the most awkward commercial breaks in television history.
The quiet wouldn’t last long. By the next day the media was swarming with reports of angry viewers who were offended by the previous evening’s broadcast. NBC received calls from thousands of outraged Catholics, non-Catholics, ex-Catholics, and also possibly Bob Marley. Next week’s SNL episode viciously parodied the incident, and a week after that Sinéad was being booed off the stage at a tribute concert. It was a total crash landing to a once promising career.
After that there were no more big hits for Sinéad. She slunk off into the heretical obscurity of the underground quasi-lesbian folk scene, occasionally remerging with a scandalous new headline. The closest she came to hitting the big time again came in 1999, when she was ordained as a priest by rebel priest Michael Cox. This resulted in a rash of disapproving headlines and automatic excommunication from the Catholic church by virtue of her gender (since a penis is like an antenna channeling radio waves from heaven).
In 2010, Sinéad was back in the news after writing an essay accusing Pope Benedict of insincerity in his apology to the victims of sex abuse. However, this time there was no musical performance, no torn up picture, and really no mainstream career left to speak of for Sinéad, so American instigators felt less need to bulldoze her CDs in the streets.