Madonna takes a holiday

As she pulls a video from release in U.S., fans might say, 'Who's that girl?'

Pop Music

April 13, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Now she has a conscience.

After 20 years of in-your-face-and-down-your-throat attitude, lyrics and images, Madonna's concerned about disturbing the public. It was a surprise (dare I say a shock?) when the pop star -- known for, among other things, her pointless pornographic coffee table book and bad movies -- pulled the "controversial" video for her single "American Life."

And the veteran pop tart knows exactly what she's doing as she draws attention to her latest project. She'll appear on MTV on April 22 in an "exclusive" interview to "explain" all the hype now circling the video that the American public has yet to see.

The clip, ironically available in Europe, reportedly bombards viewers with wartime images and awkward references to American-style decadence and self-absorption. Directed by Jonas Akerlund, the clip was supposed to have its premiere April 4 on VH1 to promote Madonna's new album (also called American Life), which drops in stores April 22. The single is already in heavy rotation on pop radio and features the lyrics: "I tried to stay on top / I tried to play the part, but somehow I forgot / Just what I did it for and why I wanted more / This type of modern life, is it for me? / This type of modern life, is it for free?"

In a statement two weeks ago, issued after her decision to block the U.S. release of the video, Madonna said, "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 the video."

This is Madonna, right? The woman who has made millions by offending folks. The woman who writhed and rolled around onstage in a wedding dress at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, crooning and moaning "Like a Virgin." The woman who, in '89, upset Catholics and some African Americans with her "Like a Prayer" video, in which she shook her groove thing before burning crosses and shared a tender kiss with (ohmygod!) a black man.

All that clucking

Apparently the most sensitive scene in the "American Life" video is the one in which Madonna hurls a grenade toward a President Bush look-alike, who then picks it up and lights his cigar with it.

It's typical Madonna: Always pushing buttons, always stirring the air a bit. But now, at 44 and with two small children, she's concerned with what she's saying and how folks will digest it. Is Madonna belatedly becoming a responsible artist? Or is she just, to quote jazz / soul man Les McCann, "chicken feathers all without one gut"?

Perhaps she's worried about the kind of backlash the Dixie Chicks suffered after Natalie Maines dissed Bush. The Cover Girl-friendly group was the toast of country music -- and even pop audiences had been digging on its twangy version of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide." But since Maines' anti-Bush remark on a London stage last month, sales and airplay have fallen off quickly.

We're talking about Madonna, though, a woman who makes her living appropriating elements of fringe culture and packaging it for the mainstream. The ever-observant performer, for instance, must have been frequenting gay clubs when she put out "Vogue" and its video in 1990. Drag queens had been doing the same campy moves in their shows for years.

And we can go back to the beginning of Madonna's ascent in 1983 when she hooked up with Jellybean Benitez and brought a hip, South Bronx-flavored feel to pop. Her sound, though vocally soul-light, was an immediate hit with black, gay and Latin audiences.

Or a calculated move?

We have watched Madonna's re-inventions over the years, from bubbly dance-pop diva to Marilyn Monroe-obsessed material girl, from gamine-like sex freak to yoga-practicing artiste. Each phase has preceded a new album or a new movie. And this current, I-have-kids-now-so-I-must-be-somewhat-civilized Madonna seems like yet another attempt to drum up attention and push record sales.

Madonna smells trends as they're about to explode. And unlike other women in pop, she controls her sound and image. All along, the really admirable thing about Madonna has been her fearlessness, the way she could care less about being (literally) naked to the world. Sometimes her phases seem painfully contrived (What was that whole cowgirl thing about, anyway?). But she puts herself out there nonetheless, knowing folks will gasp at it, write about it, buy it as she sits back and says, in her newly acquired British accent, "Yes. Just as I thought. Another million in the bank."

By yanking the "American Life" video, she's clearly building anticipation for her new album. Her movie career, as we saw in last year's horrible Swept Away, is clearly on the skids. So the music bag needs to work.

She has already cut a deal with HBO to make a promo with the new single, which she's selling online. So the woman knows how to, as Missy Elliott would say, "work it, put her thing down, flip it and reverse it."

Madonna, the responsible artist? Yeah, Whatever. Madon-na, the smart business woman? Always.

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