She’s the ultimate quick-change artist, with a style that can absorb any trend and an image to match. She’s gone from material girl to S/M maitresse, from power diva to contented mother. I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton in the mind of the angry white male. This is Madonna.

Under all her convolutions lies a core persona, some would claim. In the pomo pantheon, Madonna is the emblem of desire in all its variations. But what’s kept her on top of the pops for more than twenty years is her ability to select the variation that fits the theme of the moment. Madonna’s great gift is staying ahead of the curve without getting truly out of line. That’s why it’s stunning to see her burned by the promotional video for her upcoming album, American Life.

Madonna’s chameleon instincts have been failing her lately. Sales of her music have slipped, and she’s made some terrible acting choices (such as starring in last year’s ridiculed remake, Swept Away). In these straits, a sex goddess can always fall back on provocation, but Madonna chose to walk a much trickier line by attaching her erotic energy to an antiwar statement. The result was a wet dream for Matt Drudge.

This video may be “the most shocking antiwar, anti-Bush statement yet to come from the show-business industry,” drooled the dean of Internet factoids. From Drudge’s description, you’d think Madonna had put a bullet through the President’s unimpeachable head. The closest she came to that is lobbing a grenade at a man in a Bush mask who uses it to light his cigar. But that sort of fantasy is treason these days, and with visions of demonized Dixie Chicks dancing in her head, Madonna withdrew the offending video.

That was embarrassing enough, but did she have to say she was acting “out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for”? This was a little like hearing Trent Lott praise affirmative action–not exactly a credible gesture of repentance. Now Madonna seems headed for icon limbo.

Meanwhile, the contraband video is circulating on the web. This may be one of those telling moments when the promo outlasts the product, and maybe it should, since the video is one of the best Madonna has ever made. Some of its mock violence looks eerily like the nightly news. But unlike the “real” thing, it bristles with ambiguity, deftly locating the hidden connections between sex and war–and exploding them. If you want to understand the erotics of contemporary combat, this video makes a good primer.

But pop culture isn’t down with ambiguity at the moment. Irony is the new Communism, which is why an artist like Madonna can’t get her message across. Nothing in her career prepares her for a climate where every intention must be clear and earnest. She has no experience with optimism, the official affect of the Let’s Roll Generation. She can rap, she can vogue, she can do bondage and ballads, but one thing Madonna can’t be is clean-cut. In order to plug into the present, she will have to play the Marlene Dietrich camp-follower role in a remake of Morocco, running off into the desert after some latter-day Gary Cooper. It’s come to that.