something to remember

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American dream

2003 marked the first time Madonna pulled her own video... Not because of nudity, not because of sex, not even religion. Because of politics. A sudden patriotic sentiment or cold calculation?

After spiritual "Ray of Light" and party-oriented "Music", it was rather obvious Madonna would bring out heavier weapon with her next album. And she did - literally.

Before the “American Life” music video was even released, rumors regarding its content started to circulate in the media. Everyone was talking about American soldiers at a fashion show. Not really shocking? Not when Madonna does it! Rumors reporting that she allegedly planned to ridicule the president and openly speak against the invasion of Iraq only added insult to injury. American media swallowed Madonna in their criticism, even though not a single still from the video had been published. It looked serious. This time, it wasn’t sex, or not even religion. Madonna decided to politically confront a nation whose vast majority supported the war in Iraq, and still remembered the World Trade Center tragedy. The situation got so awkward that Madonna decided to issue the following statement:

I feel lucky to be an American citizen for many reasons - one of which is the right to express myself freely, especially in my work. I understand that there have been reports about my upcoming video “American Life” in the media - much of which is inaccurate. I am not Anti-Bush. I am not pro-Iraq. I am pro-peace. I have written a song and created a video which expresses my feelings about our culture and values and the illusions of what many people believe is the American dream - the perfect life. As an artist, I hope that this provokes thought and dialogue. I don't expect everyone to agree with my point of view.

The video came out on March 31, eleven days after the invasion of Iraq. The following day, April 1, Madonna suddenly changed her mind, pulled the video and released another statement:

I have decided not to release my new video. It was filmed before the war started and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.

Two weeks later, an alternative, rather repetitive video was released, depicting Madonna in a military uniform performing the song against a background of different national flags.

To date, it is still not quite clear what led Madonna to this decision. Some of her videos had already been banned by the media and rejected by the public, so it seemed she would feel very at home in this situation. What’s more, in the past she would cash in well on a controversy like that. But there’s a difference between the “American Life” music video scandal and controversies generated by clips like “Erotica”, “Like a Prayer” or “Justify My Love”. This time around, Madonna definitely didn’t win the American public. Having lived in the United Kingdom for several years, she seemed not to have sensed the sentiments in her home country. However, she did witness what happened to the Texan country band Dixie Chicks, after they openly expressed their opinion during a concert in London in March 2003: We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas. Cheerful response from the British audience painfully contrasted with the boycott of their music in America.

It now seems that speaking her mind just wouldn’t have paid off. She preferred to pull the video rather that become an object of public criticism and risk a complete career crisis after two best-selling albums.

At one point, a conspiracy theory started circulating, justifying Madonna’s decision and claiming that the American government was involved in the whole thing. Reportedly, they didn’t like the idea of one of America’s biggest pop icons, an idol of thousands of young people around the world, speaking out negatively about her home country. However, this theory was denied when Madonna screened the clip during her Re-Invention Tour. When the Democrats started to win majority, it paid off again to be opinionated, and Slant Magazine considered the clip one of the best videos of the decade: It isn't like either the video's message about viewing war as a form of popular entertainment or its striking, loaded images leave much room for misinterpretation. Prescient? Yes. Relevant? Surely. Subtle? Not so much.

Pulling the video still wouldn’t save Madonna from a massive criticism in America. Instead of “American Life” and “Hollywood”, some radio stations played “The Power of Good-Bye”. America turned out too proud to take any form of criticism, and Madonna, this one time, not brave enough. Unfortunately so, as years after it turned out she was right.

MS / transl. Matt

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