|Day 156: Sinead O'Connor (Black Boys On Mopeds)
June 20, 2022
This October will be the 30th year anniversary of Sinead O'Connor ripping the Pope's picture on Saturday Night Live, getting banned from the show, and in many ways sending her career into the tank. She was an angry woman (had every right to be) and could have picked so many pictures to shred. 30 years later, I still wish she had chosen a different target.
I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got features one of the finest protest songs of all time, "Black Boys On Mopeds," ostensibly about the never-punished murders of young black men at the hands of the all powerful. The album's one picture, besides the beautiful close-up of O'Connor's face on the CD cover, was of the distraught parents of Colin Roach, a 21-year old black man who had recently died of a gunshot in a British police station. If a remastered version of the CD came out now, it could have dedicated thousands of pages to similar distraught parents.
Because her SNL appearance was aligned with her third album, Am I Not Your Girl, O'Connor had to inexplicably choose from a set of old Jazz standards in her opportunity to protest. She went with a cover of "War" (not from the album), probably believing it was not helpful to fall back on her older songs. Yet, "Black Boys On Mopeds" would have been timely. Race Riots in Los Angeles had exploded in the late Spring of 1992, a response to the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King a year earlier. New York, where SNL records, of course, had tense days and nights in July after a policeman killed an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. It certainly seems like the time was right to focus on a smaller target than the Pope.
After all, I am not sure the opening stanza can't always ring true, regardless of time or world leader. Substitute Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron for Margaret Thatcher, and almost any foreign city for Peking, and the lyric is still on target:
Margaret Thatcher on t.v./
Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing/
It seems strange that she should be offended/
The same orders are given by her.
In the second stanza, the social issues go beyond violence to systemic and institutional humiliation:
Young mother down at Smithfield/
Five a.m. looking for food for her kids/
In her arms she holds three cold babies/
And the first word they learned was please.
The song is delicately sung with the same breathy aura that O'Connor achieved with the hit "Nothing Compares 2 U" and the title track to "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got." Accompanied by her slightly strummed guitar, this is the epitome of the singer/songwriter, putting themselves out there in the must vulnerable of positions, attention drawn entirely to the song. When she declares "I love my boy/and that's why I'm leaving" in the chorus, she drives the point home and straight through the heart.
Oh, if she could have given SNL a live performance of "Black Boys On Mopeds," finishing by ripping any politician's picture at the end? She probably still gets booted off of SNL forever, but I suspect the longer term effects on her career wouldn't have been so devastating.
I suppose I can't blame O'Connor for going after the Pope; there are many enemies around the world, even if you are not a paranoid schizophrenic (I am not saying O'Connor is, as the poor woman has enough people judging her). One wants his artists passionate, and even though the fall out after the Pope-picture-destruction was very ugly, I respect her more and more. I just wonder if she ever thought to heed her own words from "Black Boys On Mopeds" -- "these are dangerous days/to say what you feel/is to dig your own grave.
Sinead O'Connor. "Black Boys On Mopeds." I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. Chrysalis, 1990. Link here.
Day 155: Alice Cooper "School's Out."
Day 157: Tim Booth "Monkey God"
Unfinished list here.