Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 21 January 2024

Sinead O’Connor and the death of free speech

OVER the Christmas break I watched a documentary on the late Sinead O’Connor, or Saint Sinead if you live in Ireland.

O’Connor is best known for her haunting voice on Nothing Compares 2 U and for ripping up a photo of the then Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992. She was arguably one of the original victims of the cancel culture, as her actions triggered hundreds of complaints from viewers, criticism from institutions ranging from the Catholic Church to the Anti-Defamation League and celebrities such as Joe Pesci and Madonna, who both mocked the performance on SNL later that season. Two weeks after her SNL appearance, O’Connor was booed at a tribute concert for Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

I am not going to pretend that Sinead O’Connor was my cup of tea. No doubt if I was an adult at the time she tore that photo up, I would have supported that particular cancellation effort, with my Down with This Sort of Thing placard hoisted high. But I am always interested in looking back on the people who were considered counter-cultural ten or 20 years ago and then became the mainstream culture later. On balance I think Sinead was a pretty courageous person, she had her issues, but courage is always worth examining.

There was one clip in that documentary however, that caught my attention. Sinead was in the middle of the then culture war. She had objected to the American national anthem being played at one of her concerts, this created blowback, and then there was the photo frenzy. She pointed out that there was a big censorship movement in the United States at the time, that artists in particular were being censured and attacked and she thought this was wrong. (I am paraphrasing but that was its essence.)

Sinead O’Connor was correct on this. This was an era when the right still had a grip on the culture. Politicians and parents were objecting (rightly) to the video games and the explicit rap lyrics which were coming on to the scene. It was an era of parental advisory stickers (the original trigger warning) and some library blacklists.

This era was summed up by the rapper Eminem, in his (I must admit) very clever song White America:

America! Ha ha ha! We love you

How many people are proud to be citizens

Of this beautiful country of ours, the stripes and the stars

For the rights that men have died for to protect?

The women and men who have broke their necks

For the freedom of speech the United States government has sworn to uphold . . . or so we’re told.

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