American Life revisited

American Life is a reminder of the Madonna that existed before she decided to stay young forever, and in a sense its failure sent her on the path she’s still treading now, with increasing cringe-factor. Whereas Confessions on a Dance Floor was a reclamation of dance, the body and youth (and for which Madge seemed suitably refreshed), American Life was framed as a meditation on her life at a juncture between past and uncertain future, in the broader context of conservative America and celebrity culture.

“I prefer my South American dictators to be played by Madonna”
But this is where the intent of the album became somewhat unstuck. As its Patty Hearst-inspired, faux-photocopied cover art signalled, Madonna was at war against… something. What exactly it was was never specified. The fame-machine she helped build? Her own excess? American foreign policy? Madonna’s strength has always been picking a range of different reference-points and then stitching them into something new, but not necessarily logical… and then defending any lack of coherence by labelling it art. But for an album with an apparent political intent, this was not convincing. While American Life’s infamous rap took a stab at teasing out her own complicity in the world she was trying to critique, it didn’t cut it. Instead the effect of a global superstar famed for her capitalist instinct and self-focus vaguely critiquing America, fame, and the superficial seemed, at the very least, a little limp.
Black hair=serious artistic period.
But if you subtract the half-hearted politics, there remain some beautiful songs that provide a bittersweet reminder of what Madge has left behind on her way to the Candy Shop. The album’s emotional core sits in a trio of songs, Nothing Fails, Intervention and Xstatic Process — all melodic, delicate, vulnerable, and unfortunately probably also about Guy Ritchie. There’s still the odd dud lyric (Madge’s lyrical quality control being generally quite appalling), but as songs they engage you on a level other than ‘superstar album.’ I’m So Stupid and Nobody Knows Me are the most overt critiques of celebrity culture, but don’t really work musically (albeit because of a presumably intentional abrasiveness). And while I think Mother Father is channeling some kind of therapeutic free association, it comes across as year 8-diary-confession detritus. While not always successful, the thought that’s gone into the songs is certainly a revelation in the context of Hard Candy’s laughable attempts at meaning (e.g. Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You).
But perhaps the main reason American Life seems a bit hollow is actually to do with history. Because what happened next seemed to fully undermine the album’s sentiment. After it failed commercially and (mostly) critically, Madonna, like the Terminator, returned to the forge. She re-built herself, re-grouped and came out with the dance album to beat all dance albums. While this was magical to watch, it nonetheless suggested that she maybe couldn’t handle a life without the success she was apparently so ambivalent about. As impressive as Confessions ultimately was, as Madge continues to strut from stadium to stadium, more ghoulish by the day, I wonder what form she’d be in today if she’d stuck to the artistic direction mapped out (occasionally bodgily) by American Life?

7 responses to “American Life revisited

  1. Great post.

    I am tempted to say that it would have been impossible for her to continue in the direction sketched by American Life. Only because it surely leaves her on a crash course with herself?

    Madonna doesn’t exactly have the cred to criticise celebrity culture. More than that – she’s totally complicit with it, one of its emblems par excellence. (Not exactly a controversial point.)

    But she also isn’t very good at subtlety and ambivalence (anymore?). So that rules out exploring whatever nuances there may be in her personal discomfort with the empty culture she has has helped create.

    I think flight from this subject matter was really the only solution left to her.

    I’ll be surprised if she can come up with ways of approaching her own relation to super-celebrity that differ very much from the sentiments of “Give It To Me” – i.e. the ‘be ruthless, that’s how I did it’ approach.

    Otherwise, expect hedonism as all she can muster. Not necessarily a bad thing, if she does a nice shiny job of it.

  2. Yeah, I agree it was kind of inevitable. And I also don’t want to discredit how great something like Get Together actually is (and probably much more creatively satisfying too.) I also love Give it 2 Me, probably because, like you say, you can really believe her when she’s going on about the ruthless pursuit of a goal. Which is why it’s great work-out music (not that I do.)

    And I shouldn’t eulogise the era — if you’ve watched “Let Me Tell You a Secret,” it’s full of hilarious scenes of her seeming completely vapid while she pitches for profound. But I think the one thing I miss from the American Life period is just that it was more *interesting*. And that she seemed vaguely human, as opposed to Hard Candy-era approximations of human emotion.

  3. I am picturing you running on a treadmill, listening to “Give it 2 Me”, and pausing to do Broadway-style hand flourishes everytime she goes “Yeah!” and “Now!”

  4. I need to ponder and re-listen to respond properly. But Guy, I fear your American Life nostalgia is perhaps an over-reaction to Hard Candy’s stamp-it-out obvious attempt at once again gaining chart positions as high as her new cheekbones. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that Hard Candy is an (average) album of a follower, and I look to Madonna as a leader. It’s made me lose respect for Madonna and her lack of quality control.

    What I respect about American Life is that it was the album of a musical leader, even if it doesn’t always succeed. Art starts with risk and to allow great art we have to allow structures which allow artists to fail. Fear of failure results in Hard Candy. But American Life is of course trying to re-create the brilliance and success of “Music”, with second album syndrome the result. “Confessions” takes us somewhere new and does so brilliantly.

    American Life, of course, doesn’t really know what it is. Or perhaps it just isn’t what it wants to be. Guy you’ve correctly identified the heart of the album is in Nothing Fails/Intervention/XStatic Process with the questionable irony of the gospel choir singing “I’m not religious but I feel so moved” lifting the album for the first time. But then we quickly clunk down on Mother & Father, confirming the awful Madonna rhyming machine rumours “THey couldn’t take my loneliness, I couldn’t take their phoniness”. Therapy indeed.

    With “Confessions”, she’s trying something new, able to strive for a new direction following the failure of American Life. She succeeded of course, with a brilliant album, a strong seller and an amazing live concert tour. Ahh but the allure of America is too strong, and worldwide success and artistic integrity must of course be sacrificed in order to win back those fickle and all important Americans. Bring on Hard Candy. Let’s hope that since it’s given us little else, the failure of “Hard Candy” can at least propel Madonna to make a more interesting album next time, rather than trying to re-create her previous successes (American Life) or re-create Justin Timberlake’s (Hard Candy).

  5. I remember when Madge was doing press for AL, she was being interviewed by Richard Wilkins who asked a really quite ridiculous question, something like “why did you decide to release another album now”. Madge just looked at him like an alien, and then said with disgust “well, contractual obligation”.

    Don’t know why I felt the need to share that. But I totally agree Simon that AL is the album of a muscial leader, and HC is the album of a follower. Madge should learn that she ONLY succeeds when she leads (Erotica excluded)…

  6. What an amazing post! You’re one of the few Madonna fans that can actually think/write objectively about their holy icon.

    For me, “American Life” summed up all the things that annoyed me about “Music” but that I put up with for the handfull of decent tracks. Madonna’s ego seemed totally out of control. All the fun had been sucked from her music and she was too busy trying to be an artiste to notice. That’s not even mentioning to hideous title track and video debacle.

    However, while I think “American Life” is a dire affair, I think it contains two of the best tracks of her entire career. “Nothing Fails” and “Love Profusion” are the last Madonna songs that I truly loved and that includes all the huge hits from “Confessions”.

    It’s criminal that those gems are now all but forgotten by the general public. Anyway, sorry for ranting!

    PS. It might amuse you to know that I’ve started writing something similar for “Body Language”! LOL

  7. No you must write something about Body Language! Although, apart from Slow I still think it is a terrible, terrible album. In fact, I’m quite enjoying revisiting commercially and/or critically failed albums… I think X deserves attention, as does Tina Arena’s Just Me, Madge’s Bedtime Stories, Nelly Furtado’s Folklore, everything Alanis post Jagged Little Pill (although I don’t think I have the strength), Shania Twain’s disastrous Up! “project”… the list goes on…

    Look forward to your thoughts on Bodgy Language!

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