Sinéad O’Connor: Rememberings

NETHERLANDS - JANUARY 01: Photo of Sinead O'CONNOR (Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns)

Trial lawyers say whoever tells the best story wins. And love her or hate her, in her memoir Rememberings, Sinéad O’Connor tells a case-winning story of her life. Of the Americans under 30 who even know her name, most probably have it archived with #pretty, #skinhead #onehitwonder, #SNL and #meltdown. Three of these hashtags derive from the event that shit-canned her career: when the global pop star closed out a gig on Saturday Night Live by displaying a photo of the Holy Father of the Roman Catholic Church, declaring “Fight the real enemy!” then tearing the photo — and her life — in two. 

This is lost in translation to YouTube, but in 1992, that Pope-icide really wasn’t a crowd-pleaser. “Total stunned silence in the audience,” she writes, going on to report not seeing a single person backstage as she made her way to the dressing room, then exit, then outside to get egged on the sidewalk. By Monday, major media were calling O’Connor a blasphemous twit, shrill loudmouth, spoiled brat, and other synonyms for bitch; two weeks later she was booed off the Madison Square Garden stage in a Bob Dylan tribute concert. And she remained essentially banned for life from the media’s main stage.

Even if subsequent headlines didn’t vindicate her views, the events in her book leading up to SNL all tumble with a domino-chain inevitability. Growing up in Ireland, a small country run by the Catholic church, where abortion and divorce are both illegal, Sinéad is regularly tied up and beaten by a mentally ill mom who keeps a photo of John Paul II on her bedroom wall. At 12, she watches Bob Geldof celebrate the Boomtown Rats’ single having bumped “Summer Lovin’” from its week-long reign at number one by showing up on “Top of the Pops” to rip up a photo of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. At 21, she’s a major-label recording star, at 24 a global icon, and at 25 so un-stoked by all of this that she retreats into a New York City rasta community whose spiritual elder tells her “The Pope is the devil and the devil is the real enemy.” The week of SNL, she sees an Irish newpaper’s exposé of abuse and predation within the Catholic Church, an article whose main surprise is making it into print. She takes a cab to 30 Rock carrying the photo of John Paul II that she took from her mom’s wall after she died.

From this account, the only weird thing about any of this is that she kept getting asked about that night many years after the fact: Did Sinead O’Connor know what she was doing? Does she regret being self-righteous? At least that’s what I asked her, for this publication back in 1998, and ever since, as I followed her career and life — through media scandals that include posting details of her sexual practices, tweeting that all non-Muslims are “disgusting,” declaring “I’m a dyke” then retracting it, and appearing on Oprah, on Dr. Phil, and in various world religions — I’ve been stuck in a chicken-or-the-egg quandary about Sinéad O’Connor: Was she more traumatized by life events that compel her to speak out or by the vilification she got for doing it?


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