From Sinéad O’Connor to Kanye West: The 9 most controversial music moments in the history of SNL
Saturday Night Live, the now-iconic late-night live television sketch comedy and variety show, has been running prolifically each week since launching in 1975.
Having triumphed some of the most legendary comedians over the years, SNL has had a long tradition of welcoming a wide range of eclectic musical artists to arguably the most high-profile stage in television.
Each episode features a musical guest, in the shape of a solo act or a band, who will then perform two or three tracks after being introduced by the host of the show. Make no mistake about it, being booked to perform on SNL can make or break a musician.
While the majority of musicians thrive on the high-pressure moment some, unfortunately, do not. While technical issues can plague a live show, the strongest of personalities can refuse to bow down to SNL’s stringent rules and, every now and then, wind up in trouble.
Here, we explore some of the most infamous musical moments in the long history of Saturday Night Live.
The 9 most controversial moments on Saturday Night Live:
Kicking things off we have Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, a musician who has never been shy to make her opinion well known in the public eye. Nothing compares, though, to her now-infamous appearance performing on SNL in 1992.
Taking to the stage, the camera panned to O’Connor who, staring directly down the barrel, delivered an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley song ‘War’. The track choice, delivered as an attempt to protest against sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, was intended to flip Marley’s original war on racism to instead refer to child abuse.
O’Connor, who started to sing the lyrics: “We have confidence in good over evil,” then held up a photograph of Pope John Paul II to the camera at the very moment she sang the word “evil” and began tearing it up in pieces, throwing them at the camera and stating: “Fight the real enemy”. Apparently, the photo was one that had been situated on her own mother’s wall since 1978.
SNL had no idea about the stunt O’Connor was planning and, during rehearsals, she instead held up up an image of a refugee child. Following the sudden switch, NBC Vice-President of Late Night, Rick Ludwin stated that after seeing the religious protest he “literally jumped out of [his] chair” while the production team contemplated cutting the feed.
While O’Connor has often discussed her actions in the years that followed, the singer later explained that the plan was inspired by Bob Geldof: “When the Boomtown Rats went to No. 1 in England with Rat Trap, [Bob] Geldof went on Top of the Pops and ripped up a photo of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, who had been No. 1 for weeks and weeks before,” she told Hot Press. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, fuck! What if someone ripped up a picture of the pope?’ Half of me was just like: ‘Jesus, I’d love to just see what’d happen.'”
“It’s not the man, obviously—it’s the office and the symbol of the organisation that he represents,” she said in an interview with Time. “In Ireland, we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they’re not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the shit out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that’s been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorised what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.”
Having been raised through a religious family and the Catholic church, O’Connor detailed her own relationship with the religion and, subsequently, her own childhood abuse. “Sexual and physical. Psychological. Spiritual. Emotional. Verbal. I went to school every day covered in bruises, boils, sties and face welts, you name it. Nobody ever said a bloody word or did a thing,” she said. “Naturally I was very angered by the whole thing, and I had to find out why it happened… The thing that helped me most was the 12-step group, the Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. My mother was a Valium addict. What happened to me is a direct result of what happened to my mother and what happened to her in her house and in school.”
Her actions would be both chastised and celebrated by millions around the world. While many devout Catholics reacted negatively, a number of high profile figures such as Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson would pay tribute to her bravery in protest. Trying to get her message across through the relevant channel’s O’Connor also started sending out a letter to major news organisations explaining: “The only reason I ever opened my mouth to sing was so that I tell my story and have it heard,” she wrote. “My story is the story of countless millions of children whose families and nations were torn apart in the name of Jesus Christ.”
At the time of the incident many people struggled to understand her actions and, a decade after the performance, she reflected: “It’s very understandable that the American people did not know what I was going on about, but outside of America, people did really know and it was quite supported and I think very well understood.”
See the footage, below.
Elvis Costello (1977)
In 1977, Elvis Costello released his debut album My Aim Is True and not only earned a name for himself in Great Britain, but also a growing fanbase over in America. However, he wasn’t a superstar by any stretch of the imagination so an opportunity to catapult his career Stateside was one that Costello needed to grab with both hands.
The young upstart had never even toured in America and was relatively unknown to the masses before his appearance. However, with a slice of fortune, he would find himself in the most coveted slot in television and this was his chance to become a household name overnight. Costello had just signed to Columbia Records across the pond and, once they heard that The Sex Pistols had pulled out from appearing on the programme, Costello was drafted in at the last minute and was performing to tens of millions on primetime American television.
Costello, his label and the show’s producers had agreed prior to the live show that band would perform their catchy single ‘Less Than Zero’, a track which was written about disgraced British politician Oswald Mosley who, at the time, was the former leader of the British Union of Fascists.
However, as the lights of the famous studio glared down upon him, Costello wouldn’t miss his opportunity. While it certainly was considered the band’s biggest opportunity commercial to date, Costello put a stop to the performance mid-intro, yelling: “Stop! Stop!” in the direction of his band. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” he added, “but there’s no reason to do this song here.”
Instead, Costello and his band rolled into a performance of the song ‘Radio Radio’ which, controversially, includes lyrics that criticised the commercialisation of the airwaves in both television and radio as well as pointed the finger at corporate-controlled broadcasting. Costello had certainly made his statement clear and in the middle of one of the most hostile environments.
This move angered Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Micheals who was beside himself with rage with some reports stating that Michaels stood with his middle finger raised at the singer during the entire performance. Costello’s punk spirit that was front and centre of his performance endeared himself to the American audience even if Micheals wasn’t a fan, it would take 12 years before he would lift the ban and eventually invite Costello back.
Ashlee Simpson (2004)
Moving on from a wonderful moment of musical protest improvisation to one of humiliation and panic. Ashlee Simpson, it is safe to say, falls into the category of people who suffered the career collapse on the biggest stage out there.
In 2004, appearing on SNL to perform two songs, ran through a rendition of her single ‘Pieces of Me’ without a hitch. However, when the popstar returned to the stage to run through the title track of her debut album, Autobiography, things took a turn for the worst. While the band began to play the song, the vocals for the first track began to play and Simpson paused in horror. The lip-syncing plot had collapsed.
Clearly panicking, Simpsons looked around at the band with the microphone held by her side with the vocals beating out unnervingly loud. After pulling off a series of improvised dance moves, Simpson walks off stage and producers cut the performance and head to a commercial.
Returning at the end of the show alongside host Jude Law, Simpson passed off blame onto her band: “I feel so bad,” she said to the camera. “My band started playing the wrong song, and I didn’t know what to do, so I thought I’d do a hoedown. I’m sorry. It’s live TV. Things happen. I’m sorry.”
However, in the days that followed, Simpson was quoted by MTV as claiming to have lost her voice because of acid reflux and, under doctors orders, was ordered to use a backup track: “It’s so embarrassing because it sucks,” she said. “The total situation was a bummer. I made a complete fool of myself.”
With the media furore not slowing down, the singer then took to her official website to admit to lip-syncing: “I can’t cancel something like ‘SNL,”’ Simpson apparently wrote: “You and I know that even if I synched on it or not, I’d still get seen by millions, maybe even make a few more fans.
“I’ll hold my head high and say I think it was silly of me to do it, silly of me to blame the band, I was just so fucking embarrassed. But I don’t think it did me much harm, and people will see that soon.”
Years later Simpson was able to move on from the incident and, while being interviewed by E, she said: “It’s definitely not difficult to talk about. That was a very long time ago. It’s something that happened to me and things in life happen, and they make you stronger. They make you a better performer and a better person. I think things like that build your character and your strength, and it’s how you handle them [that matters.]”
She added: “I was a teen, an angsty girl on my show back in the day and now I’m a woman and a mother. I want people to know where I’m at and who I am in my life.”
See the clip below… if you can manage to watch it all.
System of a Down (2005)
Now let’s be honest, booking System of a Down for Saturday Night Live was always going to be a gamble. Then again, Johnny Knoxville was scheduled to host so the whole event was shrouded in an air of anxiety for the producers.
The band, already refusing to perform an edited version of their song B.Y.O.B., has censors on high alert. The track, which is actually entitled ‘Bring Your Own Bombs’, was written in protest against the Iraq War and was already heavily leaning on the stringent rules set out by SNL.
With the show operating on a five-second delay, NBC censorship was able to bleep out the word ‘fuck’ five times as the band ran through their usual lyrics which proudly belt out: “Where the fuck are you?”
However, the idea of being held back did not sit well with System of a Down guitarist Daron Malakian. With production staff breathing a sigh of relief after making it through the majority of the song without a single swear word making it onto the air, Malakian turned to the microphone and proudly shouted “fuck yeah” in protest.
Ah well, you tried your best SNL.
Kanye West (2018)
Kanye West has had a long and varied relationship with Saturday Night Live the rapper has dominated the musical guest spots over the years, delivering the kind of performance that changes culture. But one moment ranks as easily his most controversial on the show.
For the show’s 44th series premiere West arrived on the show sporting a Make America Great Again hat and gave a pro-Trump speech. “You see they’re laughing at me, they screamed at me,” West said onstage.
“They said, ‘Don’t go out there with that hat on.’ They bullied me backstage. They bullied me! And then they say I’m in a sunken place. You want to see the sunken place? Okay, I’m going to listen to y’all now, or I’m going to put my Superman cape on,” he said, replacing his MAGA cap. “This means you can’t tell me what to do.”
“There’s so many times I talked to a white person about this and they’re like, ‘How can you like Trump, he’s racist?’ Well, if I was concerned about racism I would have moved out of America a long time ago,” West said to the crowd at Studio 8H in New York.
The moment came at the end of Kanye’s three-song set after the show had started to go off the air, so much of his speech was cut off. It also raised claims from the cast of the show that they had been duped into going on stage with West when he made the speech. He went on to say “Follow your heart and stop following your mind. That’s how we’re controlled. That’s how we’re programmed. If you want the world to move forward, try love.”
It was met with a splattering of cheers, a heavy number of boos and an overwhelming amount of confusion. That confusion was only increased when West then hinted he may run for President himself in 2020.
We don’t think this year needs a late entry from Kanye West as President. Please.
How obscure LA punks Fear ended up playing on Saturday Night Live in the first place is a tale for the ages and, on top of that, their performance is just as insane as the reason they ended up on that very stage. The band fronted by Lee Ving, who remains the only constant member of the group today, enjoyed a chance encounter with film director Penelope Spheeris while sticking gig advertisements to telephone poles in Los Angeles. Spheeris, who asked Ving if his band wanted to be in a documentary about the LA punk scene, would later appear in The Decline of Western Civilization and kickstart Fear’s rise to the top.
While the film didn’t become a huge hit in the mainstream, it did catch the attention of comedian, actor, singer and all-round SNL legend John Belushi who became fascinated by Fear. After becoming so enamoured by the band, Belushi went out of his way to see the group perform live multiple times in varying different dive bars before ultimately reaching out with a collaboration proposal.
Belushi, at the time, was working on the set of John G. Avildsen’s dark comedy film Neighbors. Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Berger, the film starred Belushi alongside the likes of Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty, and Kathryn Walker in what turned out to be a commercial success for Columbia Pictures and Fear were meant to have an important part in it.
After striking up a dialogue between the band, Belushi somewhat surprisingly brought them to Cherokee Studios to record songs for the movie with the hope that the film’s closing credits would be soundtracked by the punk rockers. However, the producers decided against using their music which embarrassed Belushi greatly. Wanting to make it up to Fear, who had now become his friends, Belushi decided to pull some strings behind the scenes on SNL for their Halloween special which ended up being total carnage.
What ensued was total chaos. Upon entering the stage, boos rang around immediately as the New York natives who took offence to the band opening up with the words, “It’s great to be in New Jersey” which didn’t go down well. Undeterred, Fear played three songs: ‘I Don’t Care About You’, ‘Beef Bologna’, ‘New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones’, before a member of the mosh pit screamed into the microphone: “New York Sucks!” which resulted in their fourth song, ‘Let’s Have a War’ being pulled from the broadcast.
Later, a report in the New York Post would go on to claim that Fear caused $200,000 worth of damage to the SNL studio that night, destroying the green room, a mini-cam camera, two viewers and a viewing room. Unsurprisingly, the band were never invited back on to the programme but their performance lives down in punk folklore.
The Replacements (1986)
The Replacements played an integral part in pioneering alternative rock in the 1980s with their shows garnering a reputation for their chaotic nature and total madness. By 1986 that very same reputation had earned the band a dream slot of being the musical guests on Saturday Night Live but, as you might expect, it didn’t go down smoothly.
The previous year saw the band attempt to move from the underground into the mainstream as they released their major-label debut, Tim, and hired an established New York management company called High Noon. However, this cleaning up of their brand came at a time when guitarist Bob Stinson’s drug and mental health issues were spiralling out of control, internal tensions were ripping the band apart, and their self-destruction nature was shown to the entire nation on their first-ever national TV appearance.
Like Elvis Costello, The Replacements also arrived as a last-minute guest, replacing scheduled act, the Pointer Sisters, who had been forced to cancel just days before the show. The call up was down to the show’s musical director of the time, G.E. Smith, being a huge fan of the band but their catastrophic show would see SNL producer Lorne Michaels banning them from ever returning to 30 Rock.
The band performed ‘Kiss Me on the Bus’ whilst being completely out of their face then played ‘Bastards of Young‘ out-of-tune during which frontman Paul Westerberg yells out: “Come on fucker” which, as you can probably imagine, didn’t go down well with NBC bosses. To make things even worse they returned to stage wearing mismatched iterations of each other’s clothing.
In a 2015 interview recorded for the Archive of American Television, G. E. Smith recalled that although the band had performed well for the early evening pre-taped dress rehearsal performance, one of their crew then smuggled alcohol into their dressing room and they spent the next few hours drinking (with the guest host, Harry Dean Stanton) while taking drugs. According to Smith, by the time of the late-night live broadcast they were so intoxicated that on their way to the stage to perform, Bob Stinson tripped in the corridor, fell over onto his guitar and broke it—a fumble that led to Smith to hurriedly loan him one of the SNL house band’s spare instruments.
The Replacements would eventually return to NBC in 2014 when they appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon almost 30 years on from that fateful night in 1986.
Cypress Hill (1993)
Cypress Hill, the now-iconic Californian hip-hop group, hit the headlines in 1993 when DJ Muggs smoked a joint during the live broadcast.
Now, in reflection, Muggs’ actions hold less levity. But in 1993, when weed was still illegal in the state, Cypress Hill managed to cause quite the stir.
“Well, there’s a lot of stories behind why Muggs lit that joint,” Sen Dog later told Village Voice. “I remember Saturday Night Live gave us a green room and said, ‘Do whatever you want in here, just don’t light up out of here’. Muggs felt like he needed to make a statement with his performance. It wasn’t just the Saturday Night Live people saying he couldn’t smoke up on air. It was everyone: our record label, our management, our friends. I felt like, to me, Muggs wanted to make that statement.
“He asked me to light the joint up on stage, and I said, ‘I’m not doing that, man’. Before we did that second song, we agreed that we weren’t going to light up nothing. If you look, I was surprised that he did that. People loved it—people at the show loved it, because at the after-party they said, ‘That was so cool’. But when the hammer swung and we were banned from Saturday Night Live forever, we understood how serious it was. And understandably so — the world wasn’t ready for anything near that at that time. If he did it now, I don’t know what kind of backlash he’d have, but in the early ’90s, it earned us a kick in the ass from Saturday Night Live, and I haven’t seen that episode in reruns. It would have been cool to do Saturday Night Live again, but me personally, I didn’t think it was a great thing to do for our first time on SNL, but we paid the price and we moved on.”
When asked if there was ever a discussion about ending the band, Sen Dog said: “No sir, not at all. I would not expect them to.”
You can see the moment Muggs lit up at around the 4:23 mark in the below clip.
Rage Against The Machine (1996)
Notorious hell raisers Rage Against The Machine were another strange choice for the clean-cut nature of Saturday Night Live so when the group were invited to the mainstream TV show on April 13th, 1996, eyebrows were raised by the loyal fans of both camps.
The programme tried—back then at least—to remain apolitical as much as possible when it came to its musical performances which, all things considered, made the decision to recruit Rage Against The Machine even more baffling. To make things even worse, the show was hosted by Steve Forbes, the two-time Republican presidential candidate and billionaire who epitomises everything Rage detest.
According to guitarist Tom Morello: “RATM wanted to stand in sharp juxtaposition to a billionaire telling jokes and promoting his flat tax by making our own statement.” The band made their statement by hanging American flags upside down from their amplifiers as the took the stage to perform ‘Bulls on Parade’. While it may feel a little tame by the band’s standards, it was enough to enrage the patriotic producers and stagehands were sent in to remove the flags. After the flags were pulled, almost instantaneously, the first performance of the evening concluded officials approached RATM and ordered them to immediately leave the building.
Upon hearing of their expulsion from the building, bassist Tim Commerford stormed Forbes’ dressing room throwing bits of the recently torn flag as he went. Morello said that members of the SNL team “expressed solidarity with our actions, and a sense of shame that their show had censored the performance.”
Ever since this incident, Rage Against The Machine have not appeared on Saturday Night Live again and who knows if they will ever return.