There are a lot of conflicting demands placed on young women trying to make it as a musician: be hot but still approachable; be smart without alienating anyone; and above all, make plenty of money without selling out. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine anyone (least of all someone in their teens or early 20s) making their way through the industry unscathed. Consider Britney Spears’s fraught trajectory, or Fiona Apple’s withdrawal from the public eye after calling the trappings of fame “bullshit” at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. Consider Sinéad O’Connor, who died this week at the age of 56.
Despite her long and varied career, O’Connor is still perhaps best known for the so-called “SNL incident”; At her October 3, 1992, appearance on the late-night variety show, the then-25-year-old performer delivered an impressive, a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” before holding up a picture of Pope John Paul II, ripping it to pieces, and telling the audience: “Fight the real enemy.”
O’Connor’s allusion to the Catholic Church’s widespread abuses of power would later be confirmed many times over, and she would speak out about her own history with physical and sexual abuse as a child. But from that moment on, O’Connor became low-hanging fruit for disdain and moral panic, with Saturday Night Live quickly banning her from the program and the following week’s host, Joe Pesci, holding up a taped-together picture of the pope before averring, “If it was my show, I woulda gave her such a smack.”
Over the years, the SNL incident was criticized by everyone from Frank Sinatra to, ironically, Madonna (whose first video to find mainstream success featured her experiencing stigmata in front of a host of burning crosses), and for decades afterward, O’Connor couldn’t shake the loose-cannon image that the press had attached to her. It should be noted, though, that she wasn’t entirely upset about that reality; in 2021, she told the Guardian of the incident, “People say, ‘Oh, you fucked up your career,’ but they’re talking about the career they had in mind for me. I fucked up the house in Antigua that the record company dudes wanted to buy. I fucked up their career, not mine.” Still, it’s hard not to see what happened to O’Connor as a sobering message to her young, female peers: Don’t dare step out of line.
Whenever I encounter yet another report about the abuse of children within the Catholic Church (a societal scourge that doesn’t seem to be abating), I can’t help thinking of O’Connor, who had an intimate and firsthand knowledge of what it meant to be victimized and told that her story didn’t matter. It’s hard to locate many genuine acts of bravery within the entertainment industry, but that’s exactly what O’Connor’s gesture on SNL was; she used her voice—and her actions—to speak out for those still suffering, at great personal cost and years before 2017’s #MeToo movement encouraged greater empathy and understanding for survivors of sexual abuse and misconduct. None of us can go back and undo the collateral damage that her life and career suffered as a result of that bravery (even if she didn’t see it that way), but we can collectively learn from this moment and go easier on the next young woman in the public eye who dares to speak up about something unpopular.