‘Maybe We’re Wrong’: When Madonna Got Cold Feet Over Her ‘American Life’ Video

By - April 11, 2023 6:26 PM

This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2003 Week continues here with a look back at the controversial and ultimately shelved Iraq War-themed video for Madonna’s “American Life,” a rare moment of self-doubt and second-guessing from the Queen of Pop.


This summer, Madonna will embark on her Celebration Tour — the promised showcase of her four decades as a hitmaker, a title she’s rightfully held onto since 1983’s “Holiday.” But while certain landmark songs from the icon’s discography are, like “Holiday,” practically guaranteed to appear on the setlist, there’s one that feels like more of a toss-up: the doomed title track from 2003’s American Life, which served as both midpoint and turning point in her career.

Madonna is to some extent synonymous with the controversial lead singles (and especially music videos) she released on her rise to superstardom — from 1984’s VMAs-inaugurating “Like a Virgin,” to 1989’s Vatican-condemned “Like a Prayer,” to 1992’s NSFW “Erotica.” But 2003 was a rare case where provocation didn’t quite translate into sales. “American Life,” ill-timed for release within days of the United States invading Iraq, paired radio-unfriendly critique of Madonna’s home country with an anti-war video designed to shake people up. Her subsequent decision to pull the clip remains divisive even among her biggest fans, but its existence arguably foiled the album proper all the same — one of her most ambitious and introspective sets, however idiosyncratic. And though the song and video have, for many Americans, aged about as well as the Iraq War itself, the scandal of “American Life” seemed to force a permanent change to Madonna’s playbook as a provocateur.

Despite public-opinion speedbumps that led many to declare her career over at various points in her 30s, Madonna had ultimately forged into her 40s with 1998’s Ray of Light, the blockbuster new-mom album considered by many to be her magnum opus (and still her sole album of the year nomination at the Grammys). Then came 2000’s Music, which Encyclopedia Madonnica author Matthew Rettenmund calls “the exclamation point on her salvation in this period” — the first Madonna album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in more than a decade, having sold 420,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week. Critics and consumers alike had clearly responded well to her pivot into spiritual techno-pop and then folktronica, forward-looking sounds that heralded her into the burgeoning TRL era. “It was cool to love Madonna again, and to respect her,” says Rettenmund, “and motherhood was no small part of the equation.” 

By 2003, the “Material Mom” — as she’d been nicknamed by the press — was raising two kids with director husband Guy Ritchie, and had settled into a notably mature and reflective iteration of her ever-changing persona. But Rettenmund adds that the stage had in many ways been set for a bumpier period, noting “some fatigue from all the feel-good.” The new millennium had also brought a string of poorly-reviewed acting performances on Madonna’s part, including a live stint in London’s West End and a starring role in Ritchie’s panned 2002 film Swept Away. In a March 2003 piece, The New York Times noted these failed forays into acting and her “somewhat older audience” — largely north of the 11-25 age range most likely to buy CDs — and concluded that the 44-year-old star “may be looking at the final stages of a long career.”

Madonna had first started working on her ninth studio album, American Life, shortly after 9/11 — a period that, as Rettenmund puts it, “politicized the pop cultural environment to the extreme.” While President George W. Bush initially focused his retaliation efforts on Afghanistan, Hollywood edited the Twin Towers (and anything that might evoke them) out of movies, Disney Channel stars sat for bizarre PSAs extolling the American flag, and the country music world mobilized to provide (occasionally questionable) comfort to a wounded nation. 

Around this time, Madonna was apparently feeling let down by the priorities and preoccupations of her country’s culture. Reflecting on what she characterized as her relatively immature past selves, who’d been obsessed with things like stardom and superficiality, she explained, “A lot of times, you go through life looking for distractions to cover up pain, when what you should really do is face the pain, and then you don’t need the distraction.”

Teaming up again with French producer Mirwais, whose sound had provided the backbone for Music, she unpacked these feelings over ten tracks — also throwing in “Die Another Day,” the theme from the 2002 James Bond film of the same name (which peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November of that year). In all, American Life would see Madonna interrogate the American Dream, chide herself for both perpetuating and being conned by it, and spell out what she’d realized was important: love, family, and spirituality. 

The project was quite cohesive, if sometimes abrasive — confidently jumping between acoustic-folk and Euro-techno sounds, and containing the odd decidedly wacky lyric. Penultimate track “Die Another Day” (“Sigmund Freud / Analyze this”), which some figured had been included mostly to guarantee the album a hit, makes the most sense when read outside of its Bond context, as a kind of refusal to disappear — tying it to American Life’s closer, “Easy Ride,” where Madonna at once expresses a wish “to live forever” and “to work for it.”

While the star had made art about being successful but only semi-happy before, the album’s promo cycle turned things into more of a sweeping statement about, well, American life. When journalists questioned whether Madonna was the best medium for that message, multi-millionaire and global icon that she was, she argued that it should be most believable coming from her: “I do think that we’ve become completely consumed with being rich and famous … I have all those things and none of them ever brought me one minute of happiness.”  

This mindset was best exemplified by American Life’s title track, a bitter yet sporadically danceable lonely-at-the-top anthem that’s at least 75% squelchy bassline. Its most infamous component is its rapped bridge, where Madonna runs through the markers of her success — “Three nannies, an assistant, and a driver and a jet,” among other things — that don’t actually satisfy her. (The story goes that Mirwais had prompted her to improvise a rap in the studio, and while she was hesitant at first, they eventually made things work.) 

There was nothing lyrically about “American Life” — or American Life, really — that made explicit reference to the so-called War on Terror. But by the time Madonna was finishing up the album in late 2002, there was talk of a looming invasion of Iraq. It seems to have been around then that the album’s visual aesthetics started to click into place. In October, she appeared on the Craig McDean-shot cover of Vanity Fair, in a look that nodded to a wartime Marlene Dietrich. She also premiered her six-million-dollar video (one of the most expensive of all time) for “Die Another Day,” which — while obviously an extension of the Bond film — fused her Kabbalism with a storyline involving her character escaping a military torture chamber.

Sometime in November, Madonna got the idea to turn a potential video for “American Life” into an anti-war statement, what she’d later call a “last-ditch effort” to galvanize people to join the cause. She reached out to Swedish director and fellow controversy-magnet Jonas Åkerlund, with whom she’d been working at least once per album as of 1998’s video of the year VMA-winner “Ray of Light” — a rate the two have more or less kept up since. (Madonna had first sought him out in the aftermath of his MTV-banned “Smack My Bitch Up” video for the Prodigy.)

Åkerlund says that while his goal as a director isn’t always to generate controversy, it was very much the intention behind “American Life.” “It was a whole plan,” he remembers of the thinking. “We’re gonna wake people up with the video.” Its concept, conceived with Madonna’s go-to choreographer Jamie King, involved her and a group of women revolutionaries — cast specifically for their “real” body types — crashing a war-themed fashion show (literally, in a Mini Cooper). The show’s audience, full of fashion-world lookalikes, consumes this violent imagery as if it’s perfectly normal, and as the line between fiction and reality gets progressively blurry. “We were intrigued by fashion but then started to realize what a weird world we live in,” Åkerlund explains, “and then used the catwalk as a way of portraiting what was going on.” 

With things in pre-production, McDean returned to photograph Madonna for the official American Life shoot, which French designers M/M (Paris) then converted into its Guerrillero Heroico-esque album cover and booklet. Much was made of her rare return to her brunette roots — something she’s suggested signifies a “more grounded” state of mind — and of course her black beret and fatigues. Some immediately saw Che Guevara, others Patty Hearst; stylist Arianne Phillips has said she was inspired by both, additionally citing the Black Panthers.  

Phillips’ “insurrectionist chic” look was carried over to the video, shot in Los Angeles over a few days in early February. Seemingly not put off by the fashion-world skewering, Jeremy Scott cameos in the video as the show’s designer, and, according to Åkerlund, made the camouflage looks that are sent down the runway. The director also remembers the set being the first he’d been on where everyone had to check their phones; peer-to-peer file sharing was the big thing keeping the industry up at night, and Madonna had watched Music leak in its entirety on Napster in 2000. (Her camp would later upload fake American Life tracks to discourage piracy, including one where she asked, “What the f–k do you think you’re doing?”)

Immediately following the shoot, a statement was issued that Madonna’s upcoming video would “[depict] the catastrophic repercussions and horrors of war.” When accusations of ‘un-Americanism’ started to build in response, she issued a first-person 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 am not anti-Bush. I am not pro-Iraq. I am pro-peace.”

Throughout the rest of February and ultimately March, many different versions of the video — “about ten,” Madonna guessed at one point, including a longer cut with car chases and dialogue — were made, as things progressed both behind the scenes and on the world stage. Though MTV ran a teaser ahead of the February 23 Grammys, there was privately some sort of back-and-forth happening with the network, which was at once objecting to certain images and actively covering any cutting-room developments. During these same weeks, Bush moved from laying the groundwork to invade Iraq — including delivering his famous March 17 ultimatum — to officially beginning the war on March 20.

With the “American Life” video set to premiere across networks in early April, the timing was less than ideal. One of the bigger questions was how to conclude it, since multiple options had been filmed: “We never really nailed the ending,” Åkerlund explains. The winning one, so to speak, had Madonna throwing a grenade at a Bush lookalike sitting among the fashion-world ones. “Bush” coolly picks the weapon up to reveal that it’s actually a novelty lighter, and uses it to ignite a cigar. (Åkerlund happened to find the lighter the other day, and demonstrates how it works over Zoom.) At first, it wasn’t public knowledge that Madonna would be throwing a grenade at Bush — just that she’d be throwing one, and that its as-yet unknown recipient would “[take] the destruction out of it by turning it into something else.” In her view, it was a tongue-in-cheek way of asking for an alternative to war.

Åkerlund says that he and Madonna were less antsy about the video’s message — he stresses that they’ve always stood by it, and still do — and more about its delivery, which was reading differently a season removed from their ideation stage. “We’ve been planning the video for months and months,” Madonna said while editing it, “and we didn’t know everything that was going to be happening in the world.” Though Åkerlund suggested in 2016 that it felt insensitive to release the project while parents were sending their kids to war, he says now that the pair was mostly focused on the question “Is this really the best way to prove a point?” He continues: “And it’s the first and only time I’ve seen her go, like, Well, maybe it’s not. Maybe we’re wrong.”

At the very last minute — late enough that it had already started airing abroad, the Bush detail by that point out of the bag — Madonna withdrew the video, writing on March 31: “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.” Besides, she’d add in the coming weeks, the public seemed to have already made their minds up about it. Writes Rettenmund in the 2015 update of his book, “Not only was it a total loss on a major creative statement, it was a rare example of Madonna flinching under a barrage of criticism.” Months of hard work notwithstanding, Åkerlund still believes pulling it was the right move: “Those weeks when we were supposed to release the video, it really felt wrong … just the way we did it.”

Through the remainder of American Life’s rollout, Madonna was careful not to sound apologetic in discussing the scrapped video. Instead, she credited her decision to a too-tense viewing public, one that she sometimes implied lacked the intellectual maturity to understand her intentions: “I think that what people would misconstrue was that I was slagging on President Bush, and I’m not … that I was making light of what’s happening to the soldiers in Iraq, which I’m not … Things are so serious and people are so volatile that they’re not gonna see irony, they’re not gonna see subtlety, they’re not gonna see the message.”

Still needing to deliver a visual, likely so that the single (released in the U.S. on April 8) would have a chance, Åkerlund edited together yet another version — this one almost bizarrely inoffensive, the original concept virtually non-existent. Released as the official “American Life” video in mid-April, Madonna performs the song in front of a number of flags, from Sweden’s to the Stars and Stripes. “That whole thing was like, What do we do now?” the director explains. He doesn’t remember there being much intention behind the choice of flags or their placement, just that he felt lucky to already have them on hand: “We needed [the official video] fast … and we didn’t want to lose the momentum, so I remember doing that video in a day or two.” Åkerlund admits that it isn’t terribly impressive on its own, and probably only flew at the time with the context of the pulled video behind it.  

In some circles, the biggest offense in this story was that Madonna had walked the original back. Rettenmund argues in his book that she’d replaced “her most daring video” with “one of her worst,” adding now that the official version unfortunately “lends credence to the idea that Madonna’s political revolutionary phase was not grounded and well-conceived.” In one April 2003 essay, writer Heather Havrilesky voiced frustration that even America’s staunchest pop-culture provocateurs were faltering at such a heated moment: “It’s a particularly bitter irony that the disaffected, reality-averse culture [Madonna] savages so well in ‘American Life’ seems to have persuaded her to shelve the video indefinitely.” (Various stations around the world opted to play the original anyway, with some openly flouting the withdrawal.)

But there was also that other thing that had happened in March: A week before the invasion, the Chicks’ Natalie Maines kicked off the group’s world tour by declaring that they were ashamed Bush was from their home state of Texas. Becoming the subject of national scorn practically overnight, country radio stations ceased playing their music and former fans destroyed CDs in the street. The Chicks weren’t the only other Bush-critical American celebrities — it’s worth noting that the president also had his share of international celebrity critics, including George Michael, who’d ruffled feathers of his own with his 2002 “Shoot the Dog” video — but domestic country listeners overwhelmingly supported Bush at the time.  

“You know, it’s ironic we’re fighting for democracy in Iraq because we ultimately aren’t celebrating democracy here,” Madonna said. “Anybody who has anything to say — against the war or against the president or whatever — is punished, and that’s not democracy.” Naturally, she was asked whether she’d been looking to avoid a similar fate as the Chicks in scrapping her video. “I give you my honest-to-God promise that that is not the reason,” she insisted. While she’d paid attention to their (temporary) fall from grace, she maintained that she was worried about that kind of ire being directed not at herself but at her family. She implied that it might’ve been hard on Ritchie’s career, and at one point specified, “I didn’t want people throwing rocks at my children on the way to school … If you’re one person on your own and you have no responsibility for people around you then that’s one thing, but I had to think about the bigger picture.” (Whether these fears were based on any credible threats she’d received, as has long been rumored on fan forums, it’s hard to say.)

The track itself may not have been destined for anything other than infamy, considered as it is by many to be among Madonna’s worst, or at the very least her most inaccessible. From its choppy sound, to its expletives, to its inelegant rap — “I’m drinking a soy latte, I get a double shoté/ It goes right through my body, and you know I’m satisfied” — it didn’t exactly scream radio smash. In the end, the single peaked at No. 37 in the last week of April, staying on the Hot 100 a total of eight weeks. And while Madonna continued to promote it through the rest of the spring, and would eventually perform it on 2004’s Re-Invention Tour, there was an ensuing stint where it was unclear how she felt about it herself: In 2009, for instance, she left it off her greatest-hits compilation, Celebration, where “Hollywood” and “Die Another Day” were American Life’s only reps.

But perhaps it was more so the video’s message — and especially who it was coming from — that had rubbed Americans the wrong way. “Madonna having anything to say about the war was an irritant,” Rettenmund says, “and the fact that she was criticizing high fashion and the way in which elites ignore global strife struck people as disingenuous; they did not want the lady who showed her boobs to present herself, albeit in fantasy form, tossing a grenade at a wartime president.” It doesn’t feel insignificant that the single performed far better outside of the U.S.: It was a No. 1 hit in Canada and multiple European countries, and made the top 10 just about everywhere else, even if it didn’t always stay for long.  

In any case, the hiccup didn’t bode well for American Life as a whole. Released on April 21, it sold 241,000 U.S. copies in its first week — not nothing, but a huge drop on the heels of Music. By the summer, Madonna was back to her blond ambition, hanging up her guerrilla-revolutionary guise until her tour. To promote the album’s second single, “Hollywood” — its message not unlike that of “American Life,” though with a comparatively accessible sound — she and Jean-Baptiste Mondino (another frequent collaborator) reunited for a video that funneled ideas like conformity and cognitive dissonance through the work of fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, leaving the war behind. Despite their efforts, the single completely missed the Hot 100. 

At this point, it’s something of a side note that “Hollywood” is what the star was performing, alongside Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, when the three kissed onstage at the 2003 VMAs in August — the headline-making moment that, for a lot of people, overwrote anything else Madonna did that year. The performance, which technically commemorated her two decades in music, saw her willingly play the role of elder stateswoman for one of the first times in her career — and to Aguilera, one of the “younger female pop artists” the Times had named as threats to her relevance back in March. 

Madonna’s subsequent collaboration with Spears that October, “Me Against the Music,” landed her back on the Hot 100 in time for the year’s end, since American Life’s final two singles — “Nothing Fails” and “Love Profusion” — couldn’t crack the chart (no matter that “Love Profusion,” a starry-eyed earworm addressed to Ritchie, was given the album’s tamest video). Rettenmund points out that American Life was mostly a failure according to Madonna’s own hitmaking precedent: It did debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — “something even Ray of Light could not do” — and was later nominated for two Grammys, even if both were for “Die Another Day.” In keeping with many fans’ feelings on the album, the author characterizes American Life as a cool-to-hate project whose red-herring title track had kneecapped it: “No other song on that record has an overtly political slant, and many of the songs are on par with her best work.” 

Nevertheless, while Madonna has continued to make daring and indeed inflammatory art — and is obviously not known in the cultural imagination for having faded into unobjectionable obscurity — she’s opted not to lead with said art in promoting any of her post-2003 albums, arguably saving the bulk of it for tried-and-true fans most accustomed (and generous) to her M.O. She kicked off 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor with “Hung Up” – a sure-to-please, ABBA-sampling disco track whose video paid tribute to John Travolta’s dance movies – and was rewarded with her first top 10 hit since “Die Another Day.” (To see her flirt with blasphemy and BDSM, two things that cursory listeners likely don’t associate with Confessions, you had to catch the 2006 tour.) Madonna’s most controversial video since “American Life” is undeniably 2019’s gun-control plea, “God Control,” which she and Åkerlund made for a non-single from that year’s Madame X before simply uploading it to YouTube — the advent of the platform having been a godsend for artists who’d often butted heads with MTV’s censors.

Going by the content that didn’t survive even the original cut of “American Life,” it seems that Madonna actually got off relatively easy in 2003. Depending on which since-leaked version you find online, you might see her throw her grenade indiscriminately at the crowd, or maybe the Bush lookalike cuddling up to a Saddam Hussein one (footage that she incorporated into tour performances of the song — not exactly an act of contrition). Some fashion shows are more gruesome than others, the crowd ranging from complacent to actively amused. And though most cuts incorporate genuine war footage, it varies from blink-and-you-miss-it mushroom clouds and artillery to pretty graphic images pulled from news broadcasts.

Some might instead read Madonna’s original intentions more charitably two decades later, when recent polling suggests that most Americans think invading Iraq was a mistake. The star, for her part, resumed performing “American Life” in the late 2010s, around which time the album itself was deemed “eerily prescient of Trump-era despair.” (A few months after Trump’s inauguration, she happened to attend the Met Gala with Jeremy Scott, wearing another of his camo designs.) On 2019 and 2020’s Madame X Tour, the song was even punctuated by a new twist: Several dancers in uniform act as pallbearers for a fallen colleague, an American flag draped over the coffin. “I think she returns to that song to double down on why she recorded it,” Rettenmund says of these more recent performances.

Of course, the same social media era that’s given Madonna a direct line to her fans has also seen several of her projects re-evaluated and/or revived by the general public — most notably 1998’s “Frozen,” which many younger listeners discovered through Sickick’s viral 2021 remix of the song. No matter the cut, uploads of the “American Life” video on YouTube are littered with comments expressing admiration for it. “In a weird way,” Åkerlund says while watching one of them on mute, “we kind of always knew … Give it a beat, and then this video’s going to be seen differently. I never really feared that it wasn’t going to see the daylight.” The director adds that the video’s message is a depressingly timeless one: “There’s always a war. I can look at the execution and think I would have done it differently today or whatever, but that goes with the fashion of things we do. I am still proud of it. I’m proud of everything I’ve done with her.”

Only time will tell whether the star has plans to perform “American Life” on the Celebration Tour; while we wait to find out, plenty of fans have been praising it as it turns 20, and artists like HAIM have even posted TikToks using its rap. But seeing as Madonna faces her biggest opportunity yet to recapture its narrative — and with the promise of hundreds of thousands of faithful supporters there as witnesses — the song’s odds have perhaps never been better.

“I think it is to Madonna’s credit that she tried,” says Rettenmund of the 2003 blunder. “And if it is a rare example of her waffling regarding her artistic integrity, it speaks volumes that in 40 years this is the only arguable example that comes to mind.”


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