Revisited A Decade Later: “American Life”

“I’d like to express my extreme point of view.  I’m not a Christian, and I’m not a Jew.  I’m just living out the American Dream, and I just realized that nothing is what it seems.”

~ Madonna 2003


March 2013 marked the 10-year anniversary of “Shock and Awe”, the launch of the US invasion of Iraq, and the launch of Madonna’s music video, “American Life”, protesting the invasion of Iraq.

Madonna’s 2003 “American Life” video was a commentary about the “social disease” plaguing America leading up to the war. In the video, looking more like the yet-to-be famous Sarah Palin, Madonna croons about living the American dream from jumbotrons at a fashion show. Meanwhile, between cutaway scenes of bombs exploding, models in military-chic uniforms work the runway before the paparazzi and unimpressed affluent audience.

At the time of the video’s release, the backlash was so brutal and unrelenting that for the first time in her outspoken career, Madonna retreated from her detractors and withdrew the video (to see uncensored version click here). On the subject, she said in a statement,”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.”

A decade later, there’s something haunting about “American Life”. Knowing what we know now, Madonna’s then controversial video seems more like an accurate foretelling of the past decade than the distasteful, unpatriotic betrayal critics made the video out to be in 2003.

When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, I recall how Main Street looked like a 4th of July parade, minus the crowds.  There were US flags, yellow ribbons, and yard signs urging neighbors to “Support the Troops”, but all the action was happening indoors, where Americans were feeding on the 24-hours news coverage of the unraveling war.

Sitting here today and looking back, the greatest atrocity of the Iraqi War is not the manipulation of Americans, the war profiteering, or the deceitful lies that led us to Iraq in the first place. Other than the loss of so many lives, what I find most sobering is how disconnected Americans became from both wars, myself included.

Other than writing this post with a sanctimonious tone, what did I do to support the troops?  Nothing.  Not one protest, care package, donation, or yellow ribbon.  Although I wished for the troops safety, I, like most Americans, ultimately got distracted as the war progressed.  Sure, I scoffed at the mess when it spiraled out of control, demanded change I could believe in, but in the end – I was removed from the horrors of war, a complacent member of the audience, attending the “American Life” fashion show.

american_life(madonna)Thinking back to the reaction against Madonna and other artists, like the Dixie Chicks, who dared to express their opposition to the war, I wonder now – What if I had been more outspoken?  Does it pay to speak the truth in the land of the free?

If Madonna is any indication, arguably “no”. For all intents and purposes, “American Life” marked the demise of Madonna, the American radio star. Preceding the controversy, Madonna had 12 number 1 songs and over a dozen more Top 5 Billboard hits.  Following the controversy, however, Madonna had only 1 song in top five (thanks to Justin Timberlake).

Perhaps it’s mere coincidence that Madonna became “radio irrelevant” after speaking out against the war.  Maybe you can dismiss 20 years of record-breaking success between the years of 1983 – 2003 and call it a fluke, but doing so would mean ignoring Madonna’s success outside America between the years of 2003 – 2013.

  • “Hung Up”, which was released in 2005, is one of the best selling singles of all time by any artists. While the song only peaked at #7 in the US, it broke the Guinness Book of World Records for reaching #1 in 41 other countries simultaneously.
  • Madonna’s 2012 “MDNA” World Tour is the 2nd highest grossing tour for a female solo artist of all time (1st place was achieved by Madonna in 2008 with her “Sticky and Sweet” tour).

The purpose of this article is not to say Madonna is awesome (although there is clearly some of that).  Regardless of whether you love or despise Madonna, as a matter of principle, I’d like the record to show…

Regarding the War in Iraq, Madonna was right, and George W. Bush was wrong.  When we didn’t want to hear it but needed to listen most, Madonna spoke the truth.  And in return, boys and girls, the King’s minions banished the Queen of Pop from the airwaves, where she’d reigned for 20 years.

In 2003, then President of the United States, George W. Bush, manipulated Americans into supporting the invasion of Iraq.  In the aftermath of 9/11, his administration preyed on our grief, fears, and patriotism, and lied about weapons of mass destruction, defrauding the citizens and ideals he swore to preserve and protect.

In rallying for unity, America sacrificed freedom and censored opposing views, discounting the very essence of the democracy that President Bush was peddling for Iraq.

Since the War in Iraq began over 100,000 people have been killed, including over 4,000 Americans.  Perhaps by 2023, once the ground stops shifting beneath me, I’ll have a better vantage of the war’s historical significance.

screen-capture-26In the meantime, this much I’ve learned…

Like it or not, in the past decade war became increasingly fashionable, and although there are obvious exceptions, on the whole, the American public became disengaged from the wars.

Had we been more engaged, we might have demanded justice and insisted that elected politicians atone for war crimes.  But we didn’t.  Because doing so, we were led to believe, would be unpatriotic.

In 2013, what I find unforgivable and un-American is that we didn’t fight more for our armed forces, we didn’t hold our government accountable for the well being of the men and women who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.  A right we ultimately punished the likes of Madonna for valuing and exercising.

Does it pay to speak the truth in the land of the free?  Despite her exile, I suspect Madonna would answer, “Of course, it does.”

After bursting on stage in a Mini Cooper, presumably feeling super-dooper, the “American Life” video ends with Madonna jolting her audience awake…

Freedom is not an illusion, or at least it shouldn’t be.  It isn’t fashionable or chic and should never be taken for granted. Freedom is the result of sacrifice, integrity, and courage.  It requires equal doses of pride and humility, the fortitude to accept our humanity and recognize when we are wrong.

In America, freedom is a measure of character.  It means standing by my convictions and calling out hypocrisy, while fighting relentlessly for my opponent’s right to express their (misguided) views.

Freedom is intended to be a celebration heard throughout the world.  Regardless of how much it may personally pain you, for America in 2013, freedom follows when we can admit together…

Madonna was right.  George W. Bush was wrong.


On December 14, 2011, President Obama announced the end of the War in Iraq.  On cue, a month later, in a formal ceremony watched by millions, Madonna returned home to the United States.

Her performance at the Super Bowl was the most-watched television event in U.S. history, drawing more viewers than the game between the Giants and Patriots.

Ushered into the stadium on a golden chariot pulled by centurions, Madonna’s performance was an over-the-top extravaganza, a fairytale homecoming worthy of an exiled Queen, who once upon a time defied a slack-jawed King and his minions.

Please join me donating to the Wounded Warrior Project.

gp(page_divider2)Progressive politics and the politics of Madonna are the subject of “Guy Penn & the Gospel According to Madonna” written by Damon Wallace. 

For blog updates, follow along through Facebook or Twitter.

Madonna: “An American Witch”

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is

the most despised woman of them all?


Although I am a Madonna fan, I accept not liking Madonna’s music or voice.  People like music for different reasons, and Madonna is not the most talented musician, vocalist, or lyricist (she’s admitted as much).

Trashing musicians (let alone the most vile of them all “pop stars”) is also not exclusive to Madonna, but there has always been something especially pitchforky in the collective tone when it comes to her. After 30 years, I’ve heard most of the arguments against her, including but not limited to: Madonna is an irrelevant, manipulative, lip synching, untalented, materialistic opportunist who perpetuates the objectification of women and has forever ruined music.

Recently, however, press coverage and public discourse regarding Madonna has also had an undercurrent of “isn’t she gone yet?” with a splash of “pinch me, I think she’s irrelevant, and here’s my hour long dissertation and handout notes explaining why…”

Case in point.  After originally reading the reviews of Madonna’s then forthcoming album, MDNA, I was eager to hear it.  There were the typical pointed, not-so-kind reviews that seemed more personal than objective, but overall feedback was positive or positive-leaning.  Consensus was that Madonna was in her element, creating good dance music again.   Sold.

Naturally, the 20% of the reviews that were bad took up 80% of the coverage and 99% of the conversation.  After news outlets begrudgingly reported that Madonna’s album debuted at number #1 on Billboard, the following week they were in a frenzy, stumbling over themselves to brand her an “epic fail”, because her album fell to #8 on the charts… marking the largest decline in one week sales for a #1 album in Billboard history.

Surely, the end was nigh. The hour was upon us. It was best to lock up the children.

I was struck by the jubilation in the narrative, like a battle against Medusa had just been won.  Add to the media’s coverage the growing chorus of people eager to proclaim her finally a failure, and I likened Madonna to a witch being marched through a mob…

“We demand an end to Madonna’s evil disco tyranny.  We will settle for nothing less than the Queen of Pop’s head on a platter!”

Fine.  Let’s do this.  I’m tired of fighting. But before we proceed, I just have one question for the mob…

What egregious crime has Madonna committed?

  • Is it her lyrics? Because if you actually listen to her music, she’s mostly singing about love and acceptance.  There are worse things to condemn.
  • Is it her ambition? In America we honor hard work, ingenuity, and accomplishments.  If Madonna were an Olympian, and ticket / album sales were a competition, career longevity was the marathon to be won, Madonna would be holding the gold. We’d erect statues in her name.
  • Is it because she’s annoying or offensive?  Really? Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Is my pitchfork and bad breath inviting to others?”
  • Is it her political and religious views?  Hmmm, we may be getting somewhere…
  • Is it because Madonna is a woman?

Madonna hasn’t always been in her 50’s, but she’s pretty much always been written off as a has-been past her prime.  She has always been a woman not to be taken seriously, because Madonna is a woman selling her sex, and by that I mean – womankind.

Whether you think she has helped or hurt the women’s movement, maybe we can agree – Madonna is an extreme, the counter Adam… Eve, the original good girl gone wild.

Madonna personifies what women have historically been told they couldn’t be (and after years of “progress” shouldn’t be): aggressive, independent, strong willed, and proud.

Madonna is living proof that it’s okay to be both powerful and girly.  You can like girly things, sing girly songs, and hang with girly boys.  You can be a girl that kisses girls, because there’s nothing wrong with being and loving a girl.

And in the process of being unabashedly unashamed of being a woman, Madonna committed the egregious act worthy of a mob. She became the undisputed top selling female recording artist in history… emasculating her detractors.

Admittedly, I find it odd that in my 40’s, I’m defending Madonna.  Take comfort, over the years I’ve placed much emphasis on the question, why do I even care?  Clearly, she’s doing just fine without my defense.  But it wasn’t until recently, with ageism now added to the chorus, calls from the mob for Madonna “to start acting her age”, that I began to realize why I care…

Turns out, why I care is the same reason I’m a Madonna fan, why in my 40’s I’m still eagerly buying the optimism she’s selling.  Because I hate bullies.  I hate judgement.  And I hate hate.

Madonna is a lesson to be learned and appreciated.   She is proof that with hard work, creativity, and perseverance, a girl from Detroit can conquer the world, even when faced with a growing mob.  But we don’t celebrate Madonna.  She is an epic fail, a woman to be marched through the mob and spat upon, to be judged and ridiculed for our pleasure.

Ignore and discount Madonna’s accomplishments.  They don’t matter.  Not here.  We damn Madonna for being unconventional.  She is un-American for daring to be free.

Madonna is a witch, and an old one at that.


I’d like to leave the mob with a cautionary reminder about persecuting witches.  Their trials tend to be less about justice and more about the mob.

Madonna isn’t an evil disco Queen feeding on youth.  She is the mirror on the wall, reflecting how you choose to see her and react.

I won’t begrudge you the music that finds you inspired, the fairy-God diva that helps you envision a better you to a disco beat.  So don’t begrudge me Madonna.

The Lady has earned her spot on this dance floor.

Stop being a bully. Grow up and dance.


Progressive politics and the politics of Madonna are the subject of “Guy Penn & the Gospel According to Madonna” written by Damon Wallace. 

For blog updates, follow along through Facebook or Twitter.

Guy Penn & the Gospel According to Madonna

“No matter who you are, no matter what you did, no matter where you’ve come from, you can always change, become a better version of yourself.”    ~ Madonna



  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Follow on Facebook

  • Top Posts & Pages

%d bloggers like this: