The “American Life” video was born against the backdrop of the American invasion of Iraq. The video was already causing controversy before the invasion of March 20, 2003. Premiering on American television on March 25, 2003, it was pulled by Madonna on April 1, 2003 who did not want to “risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.”
Click here to watch video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weCQ6ahu92g
“American Life” is not a song about war but a song where Madonna questions the American Dream. The video uses the metaphor of war as the outgrowth of greed and ego which the dream has become. Madonna appears as a military commander and a guerilla with a girl squad. A fashion show forms the centrepiece of the video featuring models wearing bullet belts, gas masks, grenade necklaces and other “war-fashion” paraphernalia while the deadened upper crust of American society observe from the audience.
Madonna and her girl squad gatecrash the runway and spray the fashion paparazzi with a water cannon. Images flash on an overhead jumbo-monitor revealing the horror and destruction of war. Madonna drives off the catwalk to a laughing audience and, in an alternative ending to the video, tosses a ticking grenade onto the runway. The original ending shows a George Bush lookalike catching the grenade and lighting a cigar with it.
The video highlights how the violence of war has become embedded in a decadent American society and culture. “No matter how many distractions we put up for ourselves, whether it’s a fashion show or a reality TV show or a hot contest,” explained Madonna “what’s happening in the world is still going on.” The video is “a statement about our obsession with the world of illusion.” American society becomes a fashion show with gawking spectators, insulated from the world and desensitized to its realities.
In one scene, two Muslim girls in hijab take the runway and are scared off by two army models to the amusement of the audience. The girls, with their serene, peaceful, sad faces, challenge the idea that there is a “barbarian” other. The water cannon and the grenade are symbols of protest rendered futile in a time of post 9-11 censorship. The grenade tossed at the end of the edited version of the video beckons: what will it take for America to snap out of its stupour?
The “American Life” video was not seen again until it was appeared online in 2005. The irony of the video as a protest is not lost since it was Madonna herself who withdrew it from the air. Yet, in hindsight, “American Life” has proved one of Madonna’s most prescient statements in representing “[her] feelings about our culture and values, and the illusions of what many people believe is the American Dream – the perfect life.” The America of the past ten years – the continued War in Iraq and Afghanistan, the growth of “pop idol” and reality culture, the World Financial Crisis, the loss of homes across America and the bailout of banks – show just how illusory that dream has become, making “American Life” all the more relevant.
Written by Randeep Singh
Further Reading: “From Blatant to Latent Protest (And Back Again): On the Politics of Theatrical Spectacle in Madonna’s ‘American Life.’ Martin Scherzinger and Stephen Smith, Popular Music, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 2007), p. 211-229.