• Entertainment
  • Music

The Controversial Saturday Night Live Performance That Made Sinéad O’Connor an Icon

4 minute read

The Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor has died at the age of 56, her family said in a statement on Wednesday. With a stirring voice, O'Connor rose to fame in 1990 in part through her cover of Prince’s hit song "Nothing Compares 2 U," which went on to earn three Grammy nominations and put the artist at the forefront of the pop scene. She became known for working against the grain—showing off her shaved head after a record executive advised her to appear more feminine, for example, reflecting a lifelong refusal to conform to typical feminine beauty standards. She also used her platform to speak out on issues ranging from human rights to Irish politics to mental health, even when doing so jeopardized her career.

But perhaps the most memorable public statement she made came in the fall of 1992, when O'Connor ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II while performing on Saturday Night Live in an unwavering protest against child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. The move sparked worldwide outrage, and assertions that O'Connor had completely ruined her future. But she stood behind her actions. "Everyone wants a pop star, see?" she wrote in her 2021 memoir, Rememberings. "But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame."

The story behind Sinead O'Connor's 1992 SNL performance

O'Connor appeared as the musical guest on SNL on Oct. 3, 1992. As planned, she sang an a cappella cover of Bob Marley's "War" for the night's closing performance. But she veered off plan at the end of the song, when she replaced some lyrics with the words "child abuse" and held up a photo of Pope John Paul II and tore it into pieces, looking straight into the camera. "Fight the real enemy," she said.

Right after, SNL producer Lorne Michaels reportedly ordered the "Applause" sign in the studio be turned off, leading to silence in the room. By this point in her career, O'Connor was known for speaking out and taking action: she had previously refused to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" before a show and boycotted the Grammy Awards the year she was nominated, writing a letter to the Recording Academy that the awards “acknowledge mostly the commercial side of art” and “respect mostly material gain.”

But the SNL moment took O'Connor's reputation to a new level—prompting intensely felt responses. NBC banned O'Connor from SNL for life, and the show would later wrap her actions into its own jokes. Joe Pesci, appearing as host the following Saturday, said, "If it was my show, I would have gave her such a smack." Madonna, performing that night, mocked O'Connor, ripping up a photo of Joey Buttafuoco, who earlier that year had become something of a celebrity following a high-profile scandal. A couple weeks later, O'Connor was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden, where she performed "War" again.

Speaking with the New York Times in 2021, O'Connor said she had no regrets, though the backlash was overwhelming. "I'm not sorry I did it. It was brilliant. But it was very traumatizing. It was open season on treating me like a crazy b-tch."

More From TIME

How history looks back on that performance

More than 30 years since her appearance on SNL, performers using their art to speak out about politics and social issues has become the norm, to the point where many fans expect artists to use their platforms to advocate for causes. Whether she meant to or not, O'Connor helped carve a path for female artists, especially, to speak out despite the likelihood of public criticism and professional consequences. Artists from Fiona Apple to Bono have called her a hero and an inspiration.

In Rememberings, O'Connor wrote that her protest against the Catholic Church was personally clarifying—even if from the outside, it might have looked like everything was falling apart in her world. "I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career,” she wrote. “And my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.” 

As a protest singer, leading the charts and reaching the peak of popularity was not where O'Connor wanted to be. Her goal, she maintained, was always to "force a conversation where there was a need for one."

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com