grenade in your soy latte: an analysis of metaphor and narrative in Madonna’s “American Life” video

Watch the video here.

Madonna. Just the word has the power to instill awe and fear. Not only does this word point us toward the gentle but powerful Christian concept of the Madonna, but it is also the one-word signifier for the incisive, controversial, wildly successful, powerhouse pop-star Madonna of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who, very early in her career, stated that her goal was “to take over the world.” She has certainly succeeded in that goal in many regards. But she has also made some missteps. In 2003 she produced an album, “American Life,” which critiqued American culture and society so sharply that even her most ardent fans turned their heads away from her until she followed up with a more palatable and commercially successful project. In fact, she produced a music video for the title track that she decided not to release in its original form, opting instead to release a sanitized version for general consumption. Clearly music videos provide musicians like Madonna with an extremely powerful medium for elaborating on their art. By combining music and moving pictures, music videos allow artists to give their music context beyond lyrics and chords – and they sometimes use the medium to deliver messages they wish they’d kept under wraps until the public was ready to hear them.


Music videos are a relatively new method of communication. Emerging in the mid-twentieth century as promotional tools for recording artists, these gems came of age and achieved intense cultural significance in 1981 when MTV (Music Television) launched itself as a 24-hour cable channel dedicated to their glorification. Saul Austerlitz, though, simply defines music videos as “short films intended to serve as accompaniments to their musical soundtracks” in his introduction to an exploration and chronicle of the history of the genre, Money for Nothing (2). They have been vilified as disguised commercials and denounced for reducing the attention span of the youth who grow up watching them. They have also been lauded as a new art form. But one thing is for sure – pop star Madonna is good at making them.

By the time Madonna recorded her album “American Life” and filmed a video for its title single, she had already released eight successful albums and made 55 music videos (Wikipedia). Not only had she generated some of the most entertaining and critically acclaimed material in the genre of pop music –demonstrated, for example, by the fact that communication and music scholar Carol Vernallis devotes an entire chapter in her book Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context to an analysis of the play of aesthetics in the video for the song “Cherish” – but Madonna had become famous for creating controversy as well. Seemingly reinventing herself at every turn, she gained notoriety by speaking frankly about sexuality and spirituality. One only has to think back a few years to remember when her video for “Like a Prayer,” which featured a black Jesus and burning crosses, ended up costing her an endorsement deal with soda manufacturer Pepsi. Already a victim of the whim of corporate timidity in the face of public scrutiny, she was also already a fixture in pop music iconography amongst the likes of Michael Jackson and Elvis.

Madonna appears still ready to take a risk in 2003 by filming a video with a potentially unpopular message for the time – anti-war. America was still very much reeling from the wounds inflicted in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President G.W. Bush had ordered an invasion of Afghanistan. Civil liberties were abridged through the Patriot Act. Fear of further terrorist attacks weighed heavily on the collective American psyche, and images of patriotism filled the media. According to Scherzinger and Smith in an in-depth analysis of “American Life” in the academic journal Popular Music, Madonna filmed the video for the track with director Jonas Akerlund in the first week of February, 2003 (212). At the exact time it was being filmed, the Bush Administration ostensibly was cementing plans for its invasion of Iraq, which it launched on March 19, 2003.

What follows is where our interest lies. Madonna’s new album “American Life,” apparently intended as something of a concept album critiquing American consumerism, ended up not selling as well as hoped. Madonna decided not to release the original cut of her video – which actually surfaced with several alternate endings – but instead released a sanitized performance video of her singing the song in a military costume while flags of many different countries wave behind her in a cheap-looking green-screen setup. Originally Madonna released statements defending her decision to exercise her First Amendment rights to push buttons with her opinions, but ultimately delayed releasing the director’s cut of the video until 2011 on the internet after pulling the plug on the video and issuing a statement saying she didn’t feel it was the best time to release it, since it was filmed before the recently initiated Iraq War.

But what about a music video could be so provocative that a veteran of harsh criticism like Madonna would withdraw it? What could possibly be so controversial about a music video at all? Scherzinger and Smith suggest that the entire fiasco was a marketing ploy to generate publicity. Certainly Madonna was familiar with the publicity-generating effects of a good scandal. And indeed, the original ending of the video was quite provocative, with a grenade landing in George W. Bush’s lap, who then used it to light a cigar. But that wasn’t even included in the version that surfaced ten years later.

The video starts innocently enough with an a capella of a section of the song’s chorus juxtaposed against a series of quick shots of Madonna singing in front of a black backdrop, dressed in a sexy version of a military uniform. Shots of Madonna alternate with close-up images of parts of women’s bodies in the act of getting dressed in military gear. The songstress herself sings directly into the camera and wears a hat and a khaki shirt with a plunging neckline and a necktie over the skin of her chest. The next shot is of a woman pulling a leather harness up over the bare skin of her back. A woman zips a boot up her leg. Military dog tags drop over a bosom tightly contained behind a drab olive green tank top, and a jacket zips up over them. We then get a glimpse of the wider setting for the video – a crowd is gathered around a white runway with three large video monitors on the sides and rear projecting images of Madonna’s torso as she sings. The monitors on the left and right of the stage show Madonna in profile, facing toward the center monitor from which she glares directly down the runway. A black-gloved fist slams into a black-gloved hand in front of a black-brassiered bosom and the synthesizer riff of “American Life” takes off. The camera hovers over a busy backstage scene at a fashion show. Models are having hair and makeup done. Assistants shepherd racks of dark clothing through the confusion. A man gives another man a buzz cut, shaving off his long hair as assistants help the models into their outfits and the fashion show begins. A large throng of people with cameras crowd around the end of the runway as the models prance down it in their couture. The clothes themselves are, like Madonna’s, fetishized versions of military uniforms. A shirtless man wears fatigues, dragging a long train of camouflage taffeta behind him and flaunting a necklace made of grenades. We see members of the show’s almost exclusively European-looking audience for the first time, and they appear nonplussed. Another man comes down the catwalk and removes his large fur jacket to reveal a bare chest as images of fighter jets flying upside down play on the monitors behind the runway. A scantily clad woman in thigh-high boots and gas mask comes down the runway and the audience remains unmoved. We see quick shots of the scene backstage, assistants tapping models to head down the catwalk.

Madonna has completed the first verse by now, in which she sings about how she “tried to be a boy / tried to be a girl / tried to be a mess / tried to be the best,” but she did it wrong, and that’s why she “wrote this song.” Now we see an image of Madonna again as she begins singing the second verse of the song in a conversational tone, “So / I went into a bar / looking for sympathy / a little company / I tried to find a friend / it’s more easily said / it’s always been the same / this type of modern life / is it for me / this type of modern life / is it for free?” We cut back and forth between her and more models walking the catwalk in camouflage, exhibiting weaponry and skin. One model carries a faux severed leg.

At this point, we see Madonna superimposed over a black screen again as she sings the bridge, only this time there are fiery explosions behind and in front of her, and we meet a new cadre of models. A black woman in a leather harness and gloves writhes in a drab bathroom stall. A white woman in tighty-whities and a tank top confronts the camera. A woman with a skull and crossbones tattoo on her lower back sits on a toilet in another stall lighting a cigarette. Another black woman in drab olive fatigues and dog tags populates a stall. We realize these are the women whose fetishized body parts we see at the beginning of the video. We see Madonna herself, also in a stall, angrily carving up the stall wall with a knife as the third verse begins. She wears utilitarian camouflage pants and a black tank top, and buttons up a camouflage jacket as the next scene begins. These ladies bust out of their stalls and into the main area of the bathroom.

Back on the runway, something is different. A little boy of around 6 years of age with Middle Eastern features walks the runway in traditional attire as people who appear to be soldiers retreat by him and pull off his hat. The crowd laughs and the photographers go wild to get shots as an image of a tank rolls up behind the boy on the monitors. Two twin girls of about ten years of age with Middle Eastern features and wearing black burkhas walk the runway. Two men in olive drab race out doing gymnastics and scare them off, then give each other high-fives. A man in true soldier attire (olive drab and helmet) drags out a victim of some sort in handcuffs and struggles with him in the center of the runway. The crowd is paying more attention now. We cut to shots of Madonna and her troupe coming down a hallway with alacrity, anger and purpose.  They punch the walls and spin as Madonna leads them. We see choreography for the first time at this point – pseudo martial arts kicks and punches and pelvic thrusts. A white gloved hand flashes a middle finger repeatedly over an image of a mushroom cloud as Madonna sings, “Fuck it!” We see an image of a car motor starting up, and a Mini Cooper bursts through the monitor at the back of the stage, hits a man and throws him from the stage. Madonna and her models are on a Mini Cooper that has been outfitted for war. It flies an American flag from its roof and it sports a camouflage paint job. They dance violently around the car as Madonna raps about modern conveniences such as soy lattes and personal trainers and how these things do not actually satisfy her. As the rap concludes, we see the image of Madonna superimposed over an American flag as she sings, “I just realized that nothing / is what it seems.”

Madonna is now on top of the Mini Cooper and trains a water cannon on the photographers. The water blasts the onlookers as we see a shot from above of a soldier with missing lower legs clawing down the runway leaving a trail of blood. A man in the crowd stands up cheering and clapping. Two soldiers drag another soldier with severe abdominal injuries onto the runway. The crowd laughs and claps.  A woman in a white burkha comes running onto the runway in flames. At this point, the chords of the song are being overtaken by sounds of war – explosions, screams, and guns. Grotesque images of injured children fill the screen. Images of explosions are followed by explosions on the runway, and a soldier has his leg blown away. The crowd is absolutely titillated as the Mini-Cooper drives off the stage and into the crowd. Madonna pulls a grenade from her belt and rips out the pin with her teeth before throwing it back toward the runway as the Mini Cooper lurches away. The crowd continues to laugh wildly as more images of injured children and war-torn landscapes flash with greater rapidity and a soldier runs out onto the catwalk to save the leg of the soldier that was blown off before. The grenade lands in the center of the catwalk and the crowd gasps. An image of Madonna screaming with her hands over her ears looms from the monitors. A rapid ticking sound is heard as the camera stares at the grenade in close-up and the screen goes black.

After this description, it’s probably quite obvious to the reader how this might have been controversial to the American audience in 2003 as the country went to war. But how does the video achieve its impact? How does Madonna make a controversial statement in the “American Life” video? What rhetorical strategies do artists employ in music videos to give them impact? How do artists employ metaphor and narrative to make statements in music videos? Specifically, what rhetorical strategies does Madonna use to deliver her critique of American culture and foreign policy – and how did it end up being so powerful and controversial that she decided not to release it until ten years later?


Because music videos are such compact yet complex rhetorical artifacts, they require exceptional methods of analysis. The video for “American Life” is no different. Making heavy use of metaphor, this video also relies on a narrative format to manipulate and comment on the metaphors embedded in it and drive home its message. To gain insight on the communication process from the video, we will use narrative criticism to further illuminate the use of metaphor, clearly exposing how narrative and metaphor interact in the artifact. Neo-Aristotelian criticism, in which one examines a rhetorical artifact through the lens of the classical canons of rhetoric, might be a quaint and interesting methodology to apply to this artifact, but it would not necessarily help us answer our research question as it relegates metaphor and narrative to the category of “device” rather than “frame.” Slightly more appropriate would be the methodology of ideological criticism, in which the critic examines “rhetoric primarily for what it suggests about beliefs and values” (Foss 209). However, our interest is not so much in what the video for “American Life” says, but how it delivers the message, and how it says it in such a way that the rhetor felt it was necessary to withhold it from release.

Metaphors surround us in our language and create the paradigms through which we understand reality (Foss 269). The rhetorical critic using a metaphorical approach observes artifacts and searches for metaphors that color communication for the audience. To this end, I have examined the video for “American Life” and coded metaphors into groups. Similarly, the critic who uses a narrative approach evaluates the use of narrative within an artifact by examining setting, events, characters, narrator, temporal relations, causal relations, audience and theme. As Vernallis notes in her article, “Strange People, Weird Objects,” music videos “often lack essential ingredients . . . and cannot be described as possessing a classical Hollywood film narrative structure” ( 119). But there are definitely narrative elements in the video for “American Life.” Here I will focus on the characters, audience, setting and events in the artifact, drawing relationships between them. Examination of the interwoven metaphors within these parts of narrative structure will provide insight into the way Madonna’s video creates impact with its audience.


In the process of telling a narrative about a hijacked fashion show, the “American Life” video creates and describes a metaphorical frame, exposes and judges this metaphor, and then destroys the metaphor – or at least invites us to decide for ourselves how we want to proceed with our new information. Madonna quite literally drops in on her own metaphor in a narrative format to expose and destroy it.


Central to our analysis of this artifact are the characters and the metaphors they create. First, we have a fashion show put on by models and assistants for an audience of European-looking people and paparazzi-like documenters. This relatively homogenous audience for whom a gruesome fashion show is being produced is a metaphor for the elite of the American ruling class. The in-video audience is the vehicle and the American ruling class is the tenor. This is a brave move on Madonna’s part, as we shall see, as she is beginning to criticize the country and audience for whom she is producing the video in the first place. The audience at the fashion show is dulled by the excess of coverage of war and its glorification, just as the elite of America are insensitive to the reality of war. Only when things become disturbing, violent or perverse are they moved.

Another group of characters that create a metaphor are the paparazzi-like documenters snapping photos with cameras at the end of the runway. These characters are a metaphor for the media-hungry American public at large. Here the vehicle is the pack of documenters and the tenor is voyeuristic American society hiding at home. They feverishly watch and document the images the fashion show presents, hungrily consuming them just as Americans watch their televisions for ever-increasing hours each day.

Juxtaposed with these two groups we have Madonna and her team of anti-models. These ladies are self-aware and exist to destroy –or enlighten – the other characters. They have been sequestered in boxes, but have now broken free to unleash their anger and discontent on the world. Here the vehicle is Madonna and her team, while the tenor is the section of the audience who are fed up with American war-mongering, greed and blind adoration for violence. The women in this group appear more “real” than the models onstage and the audience watching them. These women are normal-sized and are of color, whereas the models and audience are almost exclusively white and rail-thin. Madonna appears to be inciting this group of “real” people to revolt against the former groups and the images they project. Similarly, in the text of her song, Madonna appears to be speaking directly to the audience about her experiences.


Here we delve directly into the events of the video and how they relate to the metaphors created by the characters. We see that Madonna, through characterization, has set up a metaphor of this fashion show as American society in 2003. We have a ruling class that glorifies war and has infected the general public with their irrational, gruesome passion for this unnatural human construct. Here the vehicle is the fashion show and the tenor is American society – and further, fashion is the vehicle describing the tenor of war. Madonna is saying that Americans are being led in the wrong direction, and that they need to step up and stop the progression into violent oblivion and humanize culture again.

How does she do this? She literally drives into the middle of the metaphor she has created and attempts to wake everyone up by blasting cold water on their faces. As the fashion show jumps the tracks from displaying purely fashion and begins showing an explicit depiction of war-time reality in the second verse, and as the audience appears to be confusing such atrocities as entertainment, Madonna literally destroys the construct. She drives in with her team and tosses a grenade in the middle of the whole affair, thereby saying that America’s fascination with an inaccurate vision of war must be stopped at all costs. We see that she is ready to do this at all costs implicitly when her gloved middle finger is repeatedly associated with a destructive mushroom cloud – she is ready to engage in mutually assured destruction. She is going down, and she is taking everything with her, just like America seems to be doing with its ignorant glorification of war.


Madonna’s video for “American Life” is controversial because it is shocking and unusual. From the perspective of the audience, Madonna is criticizing them harshly, violently and threateningly. She seems to be fighting fire with fire, which is ironic considering that her stance appears to be anti-war. Scherzinger and Smith found this to be true as well, and even go on to say that her protest is “made futile” by complicity in the same society she is criticizing – note her ineffective rap about modern conveniences and material excess (223). But from the perspective of the rhetorical critic, Madonna does something quite subversive and effective. She creates metaphors describing the way she sees things functioning – America gone off the rails and wallowing in a desensitized Roman-esque obsession with violence – and she subsequently takes things to a literal level by moving the metaphors like chess pieces in a narrative drama, capturing and destroying the metaphorical world she has created. In looking back to our research question, we clearly see that music videos can make extensive use of metaphor and narrative to deliver a message. Madonna has certainly done so in her video for “American Life.” And her message is controversial because it hints at destruction of the very society which it purports to persuade.

Works Cited

Austerlitz, Saul. Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007. Print.

Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. 4th ed. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009. Print.

“Madonna – American Life [Official Uncensored Music Video]” Online posting. YouTube. 20 Oct. 2011. <;. Web.

“Madonna videography.” Wikipedia. 20 Oct. 2011. <;. Web.

Scherzinger, Martin and Stephen Smith. “From blatant to latent protest (and back again): on the politics of theatrical spectacle in Madonna’s ‘American Life’.” Popular Music 26.2 (2007): 211-229. Print.

Vernallis, Carol. Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Print.

Vernallis, Carol. “Strange People, Weird Objects: the Nature of Narrativity, Character and Editing in Music Videos.” Medium Cool: Music Videos From Soundies to Cell Phones. Ed. Roger Beebe and Jason Middleton. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s