Three Lessons Miley Cyrus (And We) Can Learn From Sinead O’Connor

O'Connor met her end on SNL. This weekend, will Miley do the same?

Miley Cyrus hosts SNL on Saturday night, and because we seem to be stuck in a Miley Moment, and because SNL is broadcast live and has a rich history of such things, we might as well wager on the likelihood of some even bigger—shocking!—Miley Moment that will set tongues wagging, brows furrowing, and Hulu clips refreshing a million times by Sunday morning.

One of SNL’s most famous moments of surprise, of course, happened 21 years ago this week—when Sinead O’Connor sang Bob Marley’s “War,” and concluded her performance by ripping up a photo of the pope. “Fight the real enemy!” she cried, and nothing was the same for O’Connor’s career after that. Whatever happens this Saturday, it seems that anything Miley does will probably be A) far more premeditated and B) far less likely to do any real damage to her own career.

As it happens, O’Connor is in the news this week—for, of all things, giving career advice to Miley, urging the young woman not to let herself be sexually exploited by the entertainment industry. “I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way ‘cool’ to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos,” O’Connor wrote.

Miley responded with the 2013 social media version of eye-rolling.

Which is too bad, because there are some lessons to be learned from O’Connor’s career that—if not strictly applicable to Miley herself—we might consider as we survey the pop culture landscape that gave us, ultimately, a non-stop highlight reel of twerking.

Let’s boil them down to three ideas, shall we?

• Sexing yourself up is shocking for about three minutes in an oversexualized society. Desexualizing yourself will shake people to their core. Without benefit of a CD player in 1990, two things were immediately apparent about Sinead O’Connor. A) She was extraordinarily beautiful. B) She was bald. The second point was distracting, and it was supposed to be—O’Connor wanted people to engage her music, not her looks. She presaged the grunge movement that, however briefly, tried to strip the “glam” out of popular culture before deciding that it was OK to do Pepsi commercials after all.

O’Connor never changed, though, and as she got older, she allowed herself to be seen as older. One of the most enduringly shocking things about her these days is that she allows herself to be seen like this. It is real—people get old!—and it is what happens to most of us, but it makes us angry when celebrities don’t bother to fight the process with a trainer, a plastic surgeon, and a regular Botox appointment. It’s already easy to see which path Miley has taken.

Real rebellion is about real stuff: In her recent Rolling Stone interview, Miley seemed obsessed with “haters.” She even has a tattoo of a quote taken from Teddy Roosevelt. “It’s about how people judge who wins and who loses, but they’re not the ones in there fighting.” she explains to the writer. “It’s about critics.”

We’re never told who or what, precisely, Miley is fighting. And it doesn’t matter: Having haters these days is both proof of and reason to keep striving for fame. It’s an ethos that disappears up its own ass.

Back in 1992, though, we knew precisely what O’Connor was against—ripping up a picture of the pope is not a subtle act—even if most of us dimly understood why. Over time, the context became apparent: She’d changed the lyrics of Marley’s song to talk about child abuse, but Americans (and heck, most Catholics) weren’t really aware of the pedophilia scandals that were still a decade away from really emerging into public view. O’Connor was, if understandably ill-mannered about the whole thing, ahead of her time.

• Real rebellion has a cost. The result? Joe Pesci appeared on SNL the next week, openly discussing his wish to do violence to O’Connor. She was booed offstage at a Bob Dylan tribute. For better or worse, she’s been seen and portrayed—and vilified—as a crazy woman in the American media ever since. Lots of people hate her for, essentially, being right.

When Miley twerked on MTV, she got the cover of Rolling Stone. Which, a lesson: If you do something shocking and the result is that you’re more celebrated than before, you’re not actually shocking. You’re titillating. There’s a difference.

Go ahead and watch the videos again. There’s something undeniably scary about O’Connor when she rips up that photo, even a generation later. Miley’s VMA performance mostly seems cringe-worthy, already. What are the chances it will age well?

Nobody’s saying Miley should follow Sinead O’Connor’s career path. But O’Connor, for all her many flaws, seems like a real and whole human being a generation after her big moment. Miley, for all the imagined slings and arrows arrayed against her, seems mostly like she’s selling something, and having to sell more of it all the time in order to keep people’s interest. Which is a great way to have a Moment. But it’s no way to live a life.