Depth for Madonna has often been along the lines of saying “Racism is bad” and then sticking her hand down her pants. But bless her heart if that isn’t exactly what we’ve needed, a stylishly philosophical titty dancer. Madonna has long stood as the willing whipping girl of America’s unreconstructed Bible brigade, a mote in our stagnant reservoir of cultural Puritanism. Make no mistake, for all of her vacuous glory, the Material Girl has institutionalized more perversity into the heart of culture than a whole battalion of nymphomaniac shock troops ever could. Madonna has made sexual deviance a matter of mere style, milking its supposed prurience for disposable allure and then chucking the hackneyed remains. As a gay person hoping that the rest of the world would just get over it, I can’t thank her enough for bringing banality where enlightenment isn’t always possible.
It’s hard to imagine what was on Madonna’s mind when she decided to pull the video for “American Life”. It’s probably the salivating right wing hordes, waiting for Clear Channel to fire the flare gun and send them on the hunt to defend freedom by stomping it out like unattended campfires. But that makes little sense, since she has previously lived to light a pyre in the rectum of America’s self-appointed crusaders. And let’s be honest, the people who are going to froth rabidly at “American Life” were never going to buy her new album anyway. It’s certainly not a case of Dixie Chick syndrome; Natalie Maines was chapping the asses of her demographic, who clearly love the President like they love baby Jesus, bullets and Vin Diesel movies.
Madonna has always been an impresario of churning out images simultaneously blunt and suggestive of ulterior depth, so I fully understand that my interpretation of her intentions could be a simple case of projecting a lake bottom on a mud puddle. Even so, “American Life” takes a few mildly suggestive jabs at the shallowness of our culture and the perversity at the center of the impulse to make war. The song itself isn’t exactly enigmatic. Basically “American Life” chronicles Madonna’s excess and emptiness, telling all of the unglittered masses that wealth, fame, and power aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. This is a tradition that dates back to Elvis crying in the laps of poor teenage girls who just wanted to score. Madonna tells us that everything she has means nothing, but curiously doesn’t simply give it all up for, say, a secretarial gig. The entire visual narrative of the video for “American Life” implies that Madonna’s bottomless wants are indicative of our own less successful versions. More tellingly, the spiritual void at the heart of our culture is exactly why we go to war as if it’s just something exciting to break up the regularly scheduled programming. I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiment, but after watching the panting, war-horny Fox News during Operation Freedom Liberation Jesus Gun (or whatever it was called), I’m embarrassed by Madonna’s observational accuracy.
“American Life” maligns our generally antiseptic representations of the people we kill. You’d have had to log on to a Middle Eastern news network if you wanted to acquaint yourself with the unseemly fact that people die when bombs go off or that “surgical” is an accurate description of bombing only if the surgery in question was performed in the Middle Ages. Our images of war are primarily of stud pilots standing at the tip of their planes, bathed in gorgeous desert sunsets, like those cheaply framed paintings sold off of trucks in parking lots. Madonna mines this desire for beautiful images of destruction to its decadent extreme, parading models draped in bullets and gas masks, goose stepping choreography, and keeping the visual tone of the militarized montage on the verge of orgy. Like much of Madonna’s other social commentary, the overt sexualization of the statement has a tendency to marginalize any of the political content. In “American Life”, much of the video is a fashion show of haute couture military gear. Perhaps Madonna is taking her correspondence course Freud full circle, placing the desire for death squarely within the desire to fuck. It’s difficult to tell whether or not she’s indicting the sexiness of war or reveling in it. But one does sense that the underlying theme is some fortune cookie politics like: “War is Bad”, “Men Make Wars as Extensions of their Hard Ons”, “American Life is Meaningless”.
The crowning “offense” of the video comes when Madonna busts into the fashion show riding on top of a weaponized Mini-Cooper and tosses a grenade to a George Bush look alike while also spraying bullets onto the crowd (a great ending to any fashion show, if you ask me). Instead of killing the George Bush impersonator, he picks up the grenade and lights his cigarette with it. (it was just a lighter, silly) Madonna’s official explanation for pulling the video was “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.” Misinterpret how? Let’s be honest, the gesture of tossing the grenade is a barely veiled desire to kill the president metaphorically. If it were a serious death threat, it would be reprehensible, but as an artistic fantasy of reversing power and meting out rough justice, it’s no different than Morrissey waxing breathless about beheading Margaret Thatcher. Its edgy, but also satirical and the only people not likely to see the humor in it are those people so jacked up by the war that they believe when an actor flaps their opinion in California, soldiers thousands of miles away die in a hurricane of lost nerve. Too many of those people think that having a war is like watching Peter Pan and all of us have to clap in unison so that Tinkerbell doesn’t die.
Right-wing groups have successfully marshaled patriotism into their corrosively partisan corner, draping authoritarianism and tax cuts in dead troops and arias to blind obedience. It’s a shame when artists have to feel that even minor deviations from the patriotic mind meld will be met with misspelled blacklisting. Partly, it’s the sheer laziness of a celebrity’s refusal to give up their fatted pens for the spare comfort of a clean conscience. But part of it is also the seething intellectual violence enshrined in the heart of Republican fundamentalism that equates difference with sin and dissent with deadly treachery. The star of conservatism is ascendant, let’s pray for its collapse and hope that all our precious cultural values and some of our most cherished cultural trinkets don’t get sucked down its blackhole wake.
Of course, I’m no fool. This entire catch and release video program could have been part of the Material Girl’s grand designs to prime consumers for the April 22 release date of American Life. Just as the song “Like a Prayer” had little to do with black horny Christ figures, burning crosses, and Madonna falling down in a skimpy camisole, the song “American Life” is only tangentially related to the video. I fully admit that my outrage could make me willing meat for Madonna’s venus publicity flytrap. Even so, I miss the last few incarnations of Madonna and have little use for the newer, less brazen, more craven one.