It has been Twenty-Five years since the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor shocked a Saturday Night Live audience with what proved to be an act so scandalous that it earned her widespread and loud condemnation. What she did was simple. Her last song on the show that night was Bob Marley’s “War.” At the end, she held up a color photograph of then-Pope John Paul II, she declared, “fight the real enemy,” and tore the photo to pieces. The reaction was immediate and stark. There was no applause. The next day the press covered the incident intensely. The following week’s host on SNL, the actor Joe Pesci, devoted his monologue to a misogynist tirade against O’Connor. Several weeks later, at a major star-studded concert in New York honoring Bob Dylan, she was booed off the stage. Her record sales plummeted. She was the subject of student protests on campuses such as Notre Dame.
Her argument against the Pope and the Catholic Church was profound and heartfelt, and in the words of one reflection on her act on its 25th anniversary, is now well-justified by the way history has unfolded (Daily Edge, 2017) . O’Connor’s intent was to protest what has now been shown to be widespread abuse of children within the church, something she herself had experienced.
But I want to focus on how this gesture, and its aftermath, signaled a profound shift in the geography of American religion: a recentering of religious authority and meaning-making away from its traditional sources in history, doctrine and clerical authority and toward a diffuse and dispersed circulation of “the religious” in the visual and material cultures of the media.
Her objective target—the church’s action and inaction on clerical sexual abuse—is important and significant, and related to my central argument here. But I want to center instead on the nature of her act. Instead of a direct assault on the church, she focused instead on a person: the Pope. That she did so on a national television program which at the time had a significant younger demographic, is also significant. John Paul II was, by that time, widely-recognized as someone who had “modernized” the Papacy to the extent that he had made it much more media-friendly through his projection of a warm, accessible persona. He had humanized the office through the media. This made him a kind of icon in human form, but an icon centered in the media landscape as much as in the church. He had become a global celebrity.
O’Connor seems to have recognized this, both in her focus on him, and her choice of Saturday Night Live as a venue. She might have assumed that such a context—a supposedly “secular” one—and a youth audience, presumably less connected with the church, would be the right context for her protest. What she seems instead have done was to have attacked an icon that had achieved a significant level of public sacrality in that same media sphere.
The controversy was deeply ironic given the work of another raised-Catholic singer, Madoona. Only three years before, she had released her controversial “Like a Prayer” single and video. For most of her career, Madonna had contested the Catholic Church. Many early photos, including her cover shot on Penthouse magazine, mixed exposed flesh with crosses and crucifixes. She shared with O’Connor a desire to push back against what she saw to be the Church’s damaging presence in her life and in the lives of other young people.
The “Like a Prayer” video provides an interesting juxtaposition to O’Connor’s SNL appearance. Actually quite theologically and historically incoherent, it combined burning crosses with a Black Gospel choir and placed a Catholic Romanesque interior in a country chapel in the Pentecostal south featuring a statue of an African-American corpus as a saint. In the most salacious gesture, she cavorts lasciviously with this corpus on the floor, all the while dressed in a filmy black dress. This could not have been a more focused attack on what she saw to be the main “sins” of the church: its racism and its puritanical repression of women and sexual expression. At least one thinks that is what it was about.
While Madonna had faced some criticism for such work, the irony is that her career had progressed more or less unabated in spite of these gestures. By October of 1992, her whole oeuvre was “mainstreamed” among popular-music and media audiences. This presumably included the audience for Saturday Night Live on October 2 of that year and the audience at the Dylan concert several weeks later. Madonna was not attacked by the tabloid press or students at Notre Dame. She was not booed off stages because of her approach to religion. The religion in Madonna was, simply, a big ho-hum. Her approach was met with what media theorist Larry Gross (1972) would call a “tacit” reading and thus reception by its publics.
This juxtaposition points to a transformation, by then well underway, of the locus of religion. It seems that, by 1992, important Catholic symbols, specifically the cross and the crucifix, if not saints and other tokens of piety, were no longer visibly sacred in the broad circulations of the media sphere. But the Pope, as a man and as a historical figure, was. That was what religion mattered enough to fight about, where it mattered enough to engage that conflict, and where—in the broad sphere of market power—the fight would be engaged.
And, it is in that broader context that religion and spirituality have become more and more present and more and more profound, yet subtle and layered, in their presence in contemporary social life. They have become more symbolic, in a way, and thus their circulation as symbols and as expressions of symbolic power are also expressions of real power. This is more and more obvious all the time in contemporary politics.