8 of the wildest, most controversial 'Saturday Night Live' performances of all time

Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty ImagesKanye West and Lil Pump as water bottles on ‘Saturday Night Live.’
  • NBC’s hit sketch-comedy show, “Saturday Night Live,” welcomes musical guests on each episode to perform in front of a wide audience of viewers.
  • Artists sometimes use the platform to stage political protests, like Sinéad O’Connor calling out the Catholic Church and Rage Against the Machine protesting a politician.
  • Backstage arguments also lead to messy performances, like with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers in 1992.
  • Equipment malfunctions also sometimes happen, like the one that nearly derailed Ashlee Simpson’s career.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Performing on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” is a big deal, especially for up-and-coming musicians, for whom the opportunity can make or break their career.

In the past, artists have even used their time in the spotlight in an unconventional way, or encountered equipment malfunctions that ruined their performance.

Read on for some of the wildest and most controversial musical-guest performances on the “Saturday Night Live” stage.


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

NBC/YouTubeSinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on ‘SNL.’

In 1992, Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor took the “Saturday Night Live” stage with her own a capella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War.”

Just after the line, “We have confidence in good over evil,” she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II to protest the reports of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal that had already begun circulating in Ireland at the time.

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

According to then-NBC spokesman Curt Block, the network received over 500 calls about the surprise stunt, with only seven of them praising O’Connor, reported The Spokesman Review.

Per the Los Angeles Times, after receiving significant backlash, the singer wrote in an open letter, “The only reason I ever opened my mouth to sing was so that I tell my story and have it heard … My story is the story of countless millions of children whose families and nations were torn apart in the name of Jesus Christ.”


Ashlee Simpson’s 2004 lip-sync disaster affected the rest of her career.

Dana Edelson/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty ImagesAshlee Simpson’s ‘SNL’ performance went down in pop culture history.

At the height of her singing career in 2004, Ashlee Simpson was slated to sing two songs for “SNL.” However, during the second song, pre-recorded vocals from the first track accidentally began to play, which led to speculation that she was lip-synching.

When she heard “Pieces of Me” playing instead of her second song, “Autobiography,” she panicked and began doing a jig on stage – which she later called a “hoedown” at the end of the show – before exiting and letting her band play the rest of the song without her.

Per MTV News, a few days later, she told “TRL” that she was singing with a backing tape because she was experiencing complications related to “severe” acid reflux. She said that on the Saturday of the performance, she completely lost her voice and both her doctor and father/manager advised her to use the track instead of singing live.

Years later, Simpson told E! News that the snafu made her “stronger” and a “better performer.”


Fans were shocked when Kanye West performed as a bottle of sparkling water and then made a big political statement.

NBCLil Pump and Kanye West dress up as bottles of water on ‘SNL.’

The rapper has had his fair share of ups and downs in the spotlight, including his 2018 “SNL” appearance.

During his three performances on the show’s season 44-premiere, Kanye West danced in a Perrier costume, wore a “Make America Great Again” hat, and made an unaired pro-Trump speech that was later slammed by “SNL” cast member Pete Davidson.


The punk band Fear is reportedly banned from “Saturday Night Live” after their 1981 performance.

Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty ImagesFear performed on ‘SNL’ for Halloween in 1981.

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,” equipment being damaged, and an audience member grabbing the microphone and yelling “F— New York,” according to Open Culture.

They were reportedly banned from the show afterward.


Rage Against the Machine never returned to the show after playing just one song in 1996.

NBC/VimeoRage Against the Machine on ‘Saturday Night Live.’

In protest of host Steve Forbes, who’d just stepped down from the race for the Republican presidential 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 the production team saw the flag, they reportedly asked them to leave the building, so they never performed their second song, according to Far Out magazine.


Cypress Hill smoked weed on stage during the group’s 1993 performance.

Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty ImagesCypress Hill’s 1993 ‘SNL’ performance was one to remember.

Before their performance of “I Ain’t Going Out” in 1993, Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs lit a joint 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 the instructions from the producers apparently resulted in a lifetime ban for the rap group.

Group member Sen Dog recalled the performance in a 2014 interview with The Village Voice saying, “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.”

He continued, “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.”


Elvis Costello played an unscheduled song during his set.

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

The Sex Pistols were scheduled to play on the December 17, 1977, episode of “SNL,” but Elvis Costello and The Attractions stepped in at the last minute when they couldn’t make it

The new performers were told to play their new hit, “Less than Zero,” but Costello instead decided 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 corporate-controlled media.

According to UCR, the stunt got him banned from the show for dozens of years.


The Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ 1992 performance was an awkward disaster.

AP PhotoAnthony Kiedis, Dana Carvey, and Flea in 1992.

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

Before their 1992 “SNL” 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 while Kiedis attempted to keep up.

In Kiedis’ memoir, “Scar Tissue,” he recalled, “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.”

He continued, “… 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.”

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