The 10 most controversial ‘Saturday Night Live’ performances of all time

Kanye West and Lil Pump as water bottles on

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Kanye West and Lil Pump as water bottles on “Saturday Night Live.”
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Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

  • Artists sometimes use NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” live audience to stage political protests, like Sinéad O’Connor calling out the Catholic Church and Rage Against the Machine protesting a politician.
  • Backstage arguments also sometimes lead to messy performances, like with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
  • Equipment malfunctions also sometimes happen, like the one that nearly derailed Ashlee Simpson’s career.
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With a live show, anything can go wrong. “Saturday Night Live” has had its fair share of wrong lines, wigs gone askew, set issues, and actors breaking character to laugh.

However, the musical sessions every episode have just as many things that can go wrong and go wrong they have. Sometimes an artist uses the spotlight in an unconventional way, and sometimes the equipment malfunctions and ruins a performance.

Here are some of the wildest and most controversial performances on the “Saturday Night Live” stage.


Sinéad O’Connor tore up a picture of the pope on stage.

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Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II.
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NBC/YouTube

In 1992, the Irish singer-songwriter took the stage in one of the most memorable “Saturday Night Live” performances of all time with her own rendition of Bob Marley’s “War.” During the line of the a capella performance, “We have confidence in good over evil,” she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II as a protest of rampant child abuse in the Catholic church.

She proclaimed, “Fight the real enemy,” before leaving the stage to stunned silence.

NBC received over 500 calls about the surprise stunt, with only seven of them singing praise for O’Connor.

Most recently, a Pennsylvania grand jury found that nearly 1,000 children in six dioceses were sexually abused by 300 priests over 70 years, including under the rule of Pope John Paul II.


Ashlee Simpson’s lip-sync disaster made it look as if she couldn’t sing.

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Ashlee Simpson’s lip-sync controversy went down in pop culture history.
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Dana Edelson/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

At the height of her singing career in 2004, Ashlee Simpson was slated to sing two songs for “SNL.” For the second performance, the first track began to play again with the vocals, exposing that Ashlee was lip syncing.

When she heard the vocals play, she began doing a jig on stage, which she later called a “hoedown,” until the camera cut to the guitar players.

She later blamed the gaffe on complications related to acid reflux, saying that her throat was so sore that she couldn’t perform live.


Fans were shocked, but not excited when Kanye West performed as a sparkling water bottle.

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Lil Pump and Kanye West dress up as bottles of water on “SNL.”
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NBC

The musician and husband to Kim Kardashian West has had his fair share of ups and downs in the spotlight, and that includes his “SNL” performances.

During the 2018 premiere, he performed three numbers, danced in a Perrier costume, wore a “Make America Great Again” hat, and made a pro-Trump speech that was slammed by Pete Davidson and never made it to air.


Karmin’s “SNL” performance may have hurt their rising career.

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Nick and Amy Noonan performing.
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Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Husband and wife duo Nick and Amy Noonan gained fame from doing R&B cover songs on YouTube. When they debuted two new originals on “Saturday Night Live” in 2012, the bland hip-hop flavor, forced catchphrases, and choreography of hand gestures turned audiences off to the singers.

In a review at the time, one Spin writer wrote, “They’re both better at stage-y song-ending poses than they are at songs.”


Lana Del Rey’s crooning vocals split audiences in 2012.

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Lana Del Ray on “Saturday Night Live” in 2012.
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Lana Del Ray/YouTube

The then-new singer’s monotone voice and swaying hips were ripped apart the next day by critics – actress and musician Juliette Lewis compared her performance to “watching a 12-year-old in their bedroom when they’re pretending to sing and perform.”

Still, Del Rey fans defended her performance, citing her nerves.


The punk band Fear is banned from “Saturday Night Live.”

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Fear performed on Halloween, 1981.
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Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Upon Jim Belushi’s request, the punk band Fear was booked to play the Halloween episode in 1981.

For the real punk experience, fans such as Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, members of the Cro-Mags, and Tesco Vee of the Meatmen were invited to mosh on stage with the band, which escalated to “SNL producer Dick Ebersol [getting] hit in the chest with a pumpkin, some equipment … damaged, and during the final song, ‘Let’s Have a War,’ an audience member grabbed the microphone and yelled out ‘F— New York!'” according to Open Culture.


Rage Against the Machine was banned from the show after playing just one song.

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Rage Against the Machine on “Saturday Night Live.”
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NBC/Vimeo

In protest of host Steve Forbes, who’d just stepped down from the race for the Presidential Republican nomination, Rage Against the Machine hung an upside-down American flag from one of their amplifiers during their SNL performance of “Bulls of Parade.”

When Lorne Michaels saw the flag, he asked them to leave, so they never performed their second song.


Cypress Hill appeared to smoke weed on stage.

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Cypress Hill’s 1993 performance was one to remember.
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Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Before their performance of “I Ain’t Going Out” in 1993, DJ Muggs seemed to light a marijuana cigarette on stage and then yelled to the crowd, “Yo, New York City, they said I couldn’t light my joint, you know what I’m saying? Well, we ain’t going out like that!”

Defying instructions from Lorne Michaels resulted in a lifetime ban for the rap group.


Elvis Costello played an unscheduled song during his set.

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Elvis Costello performing in 1977.
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NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

As last-minute stand-ins for The Sex Pistols in 1977, Elvis Costello and The Attractions were told to play their new hit, “Less Than Zero.”

Feeling it wouldn’t be appreciated, Costello used the opportunity to switch mid-song to “Radio, Radio.” He proclaimed, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here,” before launching into the tune about the corporate-controlled media.


The 1992 Red Hot Chili Peppers performance is an awkward disaster.

When the group catapulted to stardom, lead singer Anthony Kiedis and guitarist John Frusciante had opposing views on the direction of the band.

Before the performance, Frusciante “nearly got in a physical altercation with a crew member prior to the broadcast, was vocally annoyed about Madonna ignoring him on set, and otherwise generally withdrew from the group, sequestering himself for much of the night,” according to Live for Live Music.

In protest of the whole performance, Frusciante played dissonant notes on “Under the Bridge” while Kiedis attempted to keep up.

In Kiedis’ memoir, “Scar Tissue,” he recalls, “I had no idea what song he was playing or what key he was in. He looked like he was in a different world. We were on live TV in front of millions of people, and it was torture. I started to sing in what I thought was the key, even if it wasn’t the key he was playing in. I felt like I was getting stabbed in the back and hung out to dry in front of all of America while this guy was off in a corner in the shadow, playing some dissonant out-of-tune experiment. I thought he was doing that on purpose, just to f— with me.”