So what's all the fuss?


March 22, 2001




Oops, she did it again.

Tuesday night, she reclaimed her crown as the unrivaled queen of pop provocation with simultaneous airings on MTV and VH1 of the video for "What It Feels Like for a Girl."

Despite what anyone might think of her musical abilities, Madonna's biggest talent always has been her manipulation of the media. Normally, the third video for a dance remix of a mediocre song wouldn't garner much attention, especially when the album ("Music") is languishing at No. 36 on Billboard magazine's pop chart six months after its release.

But "Madonna" and "normal" are words that are seldom used in the same sentence. And so the singer scored a publicity coup for a video that doesn't really warrant the fuss.

Directed by her new husband, British gangster-movie auteur Guy Ritchie, the much-ballyhooed clip is part "Thelma and Louise" (with Madonna as Susan Sarandon and an elderly grandmother sitting in for Geena Davis) and part "Crash." Madonna gets her kicks by ramming vintage '70s muscle cars into pedestrians and other automobiles a la David Cronenberg's film.

According to Madonna, she's portraying "a nihilistic, [ticked]-off chick doing things that girls are not allowed to do."

In addition to smashing up her car--which sports license plates of "Pussy" on the front and "Cat" on the back--she robs a guy at an ATM after disabling him with a tazer, shoots some police officers with a water gun, blows up a gas station and runs over some kids playing street hockey. In the end, she seemingly commits suicide by crashing into a light pole. But these acts are not particularly artful, and her motivations are never explained.

MTV and VH1 decided to have their cake and eat it too by showing the video only once, at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, preceded by "news" reports saying that the cable music channels object to the video's violent content.

The levels of irony here are considerable. The sister stations--both owned by Viacom, rival to the Time-Warner media conglomerate that owns Madonna's record labels--have no such objections to videos by rappers such as Eminem, Dr. Dre and DMX, which get regular airings. Madonna's clip is partly a gender reversal of stereotypical gangsta images.

By "banning" the video from further airings, MTV and VH1 played right into Madonna's hands by generating more print, radio and TV coverage than the clip would have received if it had been placed in regular rotation.

Madonna has used this trick before, only with religion and sex instead of violence. She ran afoul of corporate sponsor Pepsi for what some called the anti-Catholic imagery in her 1989 video for "Like a Prayer," but the controversy helped make the video a hit.

In 1990, MTV refused to air the clip for "Justify My Love" because of its sexual content (lesbian and S&M imagery shot in black and white so it would seem like "art"). Two years later, the similarly themed clip for "Erotica" was deemed suitable only for late-night viewing.

In both cases, the controversy was more entertaining than the music.