Sunday night is a special night. It's the 18th anniversary of Sinead O'Connor's infamous Pope-a-ripping on Saturday Night Live. For the extremely small number of you who somehow have the Internet but not VH1, the facts are these: O'Connor, always the most peaceable and least controversial of performers, ripped up a photo of the Pope while singing the world "evil" then said, "Fight the real enemy."
And this wasn't our current Palpatine-esque Pope either. This was the previous guy, who most people sort of got along with. Or not. Rocks Off doesn't know. We were worshipping Satan around that time.
Many, many people pooped themselves. With anger.
NBC refused to rebroadcast the incident, and O'Connor got booed off the stage two weeks later at a Bob Dylan tribute concert. Apparently pissing people off pisses people off. Still, as late as 2002, O'Connor said she wouldn't change what she did if she could. Points to her for having a bigger set of testicles than most.
The whole thing kind of makes us wish Kanye had interrupted O'Connor at the VMAs instead. We've always wanted to see someone beaten to death with a Moon Man.
Here's a question for all you readers out there currently picturing that violent act with a sublime grin pasted on your mug. Why was what O'Connor did so damn shocking?
Three months ago, half of this fairly conservative metropolis paid through the nose to watch Lady Gaga writhe in a puddle of blood from a fountain topped with a flaming Jesus, and almost rioted in unanimous jubilation. People stood, and screamed, and applauded until their hands were redder than communion wine. Did Rocks Off miss a meeting, or something? Why aren't you people writing angry letters?
Some have postulated that time passed is a factor. After all, wearing the flag as clothing used to be one of those things that got you in major trouble. Abbie Hoffman wore one on TV in 1968 and the networks blurred it out. Now, it's nothing at all, though it's technically against the law.
The U.S. Flag Code is Federal law, and does prohibit using the flag as apparel or bedding, but there are no penalties for breaking the code. George W. Bush broke it by signing an autograph on the flag. Kid Rock wore one as a cape at a certain football game in 2004. Which brings us to...
The best moment comparable to what O'Connor did remains the day that Janet Jackson's nipple hit the Houston air in an alleged wardrobe malfunction during halftime of the Super Series or the World Bowl, or whatever the hell you people call the end of that glorified rugby crap.
Brief aside: Malfunctions are reserved for Johnny 5 and the security bots from Chopping Mall. Please don't cheapen the word just because you can't keep your milkshake out of the yard. End aside.
They called it Nipplegate, and actually compared it to a diabolical and criminal cover-up by the chief executive of the state. Just as many if not more pampers were pooped... over a nipple.
Hell, Bliss Blood of Houston's own Pain Teens had a malfunction at Fitz's and the world didn't stop. Or here's a name for you: Wendy O. Williams. In addition to often wearing nothing but shaving cream onstage, she showed up on SCTV in an outfit that exposed both nipples.
They asked her to change. She asked them to kiss her ass. The compromise that they reached was that they painted her tits black. See, black tits are NOT offensive, so why did the nation feel the need to go yammering down the hall over the antics of Ms. Jackson - we have to call her that because we're nasty.
"But Rocks Off," you say, "Wendy O. Williams didn't do it at the World Cup with children watching. Lady Gaga doesn't bathe in the blood of Fire Christ on Letterman."
Here then is the crux of the matter, the nitty and the gritty.
What is shocking is based upon context and expectation, nothing more. It's not enough to be offended; a person also has to be surprised. If we told you that Marilyn Manson's latest tour involved him sodomizing the Virgin Mary on the corpse of Santa Claus, many of you would be offended, but not shocked.
It's Manson, for a random deity's sake! People believed he removed ribs to blow himself. And Lady Gaga? Frankly, she could probably dance with an actual dead body at this point without anyone batting an eye.
But when America tuned in to SNL that night in 1992, they were expecting the pretty simple, static musical performances that they generally get. Sure, their audience can take a little edge, but what O'Connor did was an attack against those watching. It was as if she was trying to physically slap her version of sense into viewers regarding what she felt were inexcusable atrocities on behalf of the pontiff.
In addition to that, Rocks Off feels that people were somewhat offended by the hubris of the act. Most musicians, including yours truly, would sell their souls to be on SNL. Well, maybe not our souls, but we would definitely sell yours.
The gig is a one-way ticket to success that has launched or cemented many artists in the public mind and wallet. People felt O'Connor should have been grateful just to be there. Instead, she used the venue to press home a political message.
She could honestly have cared less about the gig and what it would do for her music career. In our consumer culture, such an act is very unexpected.
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SHOW ME HOW
18 years later, such an act would be even more shocking than it was in 1992. The ratings of reality TV and American Idol have proven that the God most Americans sacrifices to is the god Fame. In the service of this angry Jove, few major artists will willingly alienate an audience either through a partisan message or unexpected displays of integrity.
To do so is to risk the wrath of the Fame God, and maybe having all your acceptance and baubles taken away.
It is this caution, this fear, that is killing music very dead.
Jef With One F is the author of The Bible Spelled Backwards Does Not Change the Fact That You Cannot Kill David Arquette and Other Things I Learned In the Black Math Experiment, available now.