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The 5 Most Controversial Musical Guests in Saturday Night Live History

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Back in 1975, NBC took a chance on a guy named Lorne Michaels who had an idea for a live sketch show. Four decades later, Saturday Night Live is celebrating 40 years on the air, and this Sunday, Feb. 15, NBC will air a special three-hour live broadcast featuring past and present SNL stars.

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Looking back on the show’s legacy certainly involves recalling the best (and worst) sketches and the actors who performed them — but it also means reflecting on another key element of SNL: the live music. Over the years, some performers have been remembered simply for being great, but others have gained notoriety for more complicated reasons. Here, a look back at five of the most notorious musical guests in SNL history.


Nirvana, 1992

In its first appearance on SNL, Nirvana performed songs “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Territorial Pissings.” The performances themselves weren’t particularly notorious — that part came later, during the end credits, when the cast gathered on stage to wave goodbye during their usual sendoff. As the show’s closing music played, the band’s members — Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl — grabbed each other for a brief make-out session. Cobain purportedly said this was an attempt to “piss off the rednecks and homophobes.” NBC made sure to edit out the kiss for all future re-runs.

Lana Del Rey, 2012

There was nothing particularly outrageous about the performance itself, but what makes it so memorable is the intense vitriol Del Rey received, both from professional critics and casual watchers. Generally, people criticized her detached, bizarre stage presence and claimed her singing was downright terrible. Actress Juliette Lewis, in a since deleted tweet, said, “Wow watching this ‘singer’ on SNL is like watching a 12 yearold [sic] in their bedroom when theyre pretending to sing and perform #signofourtimes.” In an interview with Rolling Stone shortly after the performance, Del Rey admitted she was nervous and that she’s “not a natural performer or exhibitionist.” Ultimately, though, she defended herself. “I actually felt good about it,” Del Rey said. “I thought I looked beautiful and sang fine.”

Fear, 1981

John Belushi was a huge fan of Fear, so at his urging, the punk band got to perform on SNL‘s Halloween episode in 1981. Lorne Michaels reportedly wanted some “authentic punks” to join the band onstage to dance. Said dancing turned into full-out rioting, with fans thrashing around, screaming profanities and destroying equipment. NBC security guards failed to get things under the control and New York City police officers eventually arrived to disperse the mob. The performance reportedly landed Fear a lifetime ban from SNL.

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Ashlee Simpson, 2004

During her visit to SNL in October 2004, Ashlee Simpson pulled off a normal, unmemorable performance of her hit song, “Pieces Of Me.” But when she returned to the stage to sing the next tune, “Autobiography,” everything fell apart. As she started dancing, ready to begin the song, the vocals for “Piece Of Me” began playing again while her mic was resting at her side. Clearly flustered, Simpson launched into some kind of Irish jig. She later blamed a gastric disorder for her choice to lip-sync, but the nation was still too busy cringing to pay any attention.

Sinead O’Connor, 1992

The Irish songstress is probably the first person to come to most people’s minds when you bring up the topic of controversial moments on SNL. Two decades ago, she famously tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II during a haunting cover of Bob Marley’s “War.” She looked straight into the camera and, in an even voice, said “Fight the real enemy.” She then tossed the torn scraps to the ground. A few weeks later, TIME asked O’Connor why she did it. She said, “It’s not the man, obviously — it’s the office and the symbol of the organization that he represents. I consider them to be responsible for the destruction of entire races of people and the subsequent existence of domestic and child abuse in every country they went into.”

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