Shock and Withdraw

updated 04/14/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/14/2003 01:00AM

At first it seemed like another run-of-the-mill controversy for Madonna. In mid-February news leaked that the singer's latest video would include explicit war imagery. The veteran button-pusher ardently defended her latest creation. "As an artist I hope that this provokes thought and dialogue," she said on her Web site. "I don't expect everyone to agree with my point of view."

A month later, with the ground war in full swing and casualties mounting by the day, Madonna beat a hasty retreat. "I have decided not to release my new video," the singer, 44, announced on March 31, just four days before it was set to premiere on VH1. "It was filmed before the war started, and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. 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."

The 4½-minute clip, in which Madonna sings the title track from her upcoming album American Life, features her prancing in combat fatigues at a fashion show, juxtaposed with images of warplanes dropping bombs, mushroom clouds and a Middle Eastern boy on the runway with a bullet belt strapped to his body. Madonna also drives a tank through a wall and, in the controversial finale, lobs a hand grenade at a George W. Bush dopplegänger, who uses it to light a cigar.

Following filming in early February, the video itself lit a fire when the Drudge Report predicted it would be "the most shocking antiwar, anti-Bush statement yet to come from the show business industry." In response Madonna said that "I am not anti-Bush. I am not pro-Iraq, I am pro-peace." She told Access Hollywood last week that the video was "tongue-in-cheek" and the grenade scene reflected "my wish to find an alternative to violence, war and destruction."

Nevertheless, Madonna—who had previously made waves with risqué videos such as 1989's "Like a Prayer," which featured burning crosses—may have realized she'd gone too far this time and began editing the video in late March to remove some violent images. The decision to pull the video entirely came "solely from her," says her longtime publicist Liz Rosenberg.

Music insiders applauded the move. "Even for someone who enjoys thumbing her nose at the establishment, this is not the time to put something out that controversial," says Larry Flick, Billboard senior talent editor. "It would blow up in her face."

The Dixie Chicks certainly learned that firsthand last month after lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that "we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." Maines later apologized, but the damage was done. Dozens of radio stations removed the band from their playlists, and some fans destroyed their Chicks albums and concert tickets. While the Chicks backlash didn't play "a prominent role" in Madonna's decision, says Rosenberg, the singer was aware of the negative Internet buzz, as well as reports that "people were calling radio stations about not playing the song."

Some observers wondered if the flap might have the opposite effect. "If I were Madonna's chief PR engineer, if I was looking for a way to get publicity, it would be by throwing a cigarette lighter shaped like a grenade into George Bush's lap," says conservative CNN host Tucker Carlson.

Whatever her motives, "I don't think a video will make or break her," says Billboard's Flick. "After 20 years she is one of the most relevant musical artists out there."

Even without the video she'll have plenty of upcoming exposure on MTV. The singer is currently rehearsing in Los Angeles for a live MTV special, set to air on April 22, the same day American Life is released. And unlike her other controversial music videos, which ultimately resurfaced on video-cassette and DVD, American Life is down for the count. "It will go bye-bye," says Rosenberg. "In this climate the war's impact will not go away so fast. The video will not be released."

Jason Lynch
Elizabeth McNeil and Sona Charaipotra in New York City and Kwala Mandel in L.A.

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