erasing clouds

Madonna's American Life

reviewed by heather tylock

"I fought for so many things," she said. "I tried so hard to be number one, stay on top, look good - to be the best. And now I realize that a lot of the things that last and the things that matter are none of those things."-Madonna, 2003

While proofing the first review I wrote for Madonna's American Life album, I was struck with an over-whelming sense of disgust. Not that the article was crappy or anything like that, but that after repeatedly listening to the songs, reading the lyrics, and going over the articles and news releases surrounding the whole 'anti-war video' controversy thing, I felt a little duped. Ok, maybe 'little' should be replaced with 'a lot', or even better yet, 'completely'. Fact is, while I like the album, I don't love it. And, while I love and respect the music industry's 'Queen of Controversy', lyrically the album is bullshit. Though I'm sure the lyrics were meant to inspire, their relevance in the context of our pop cultured, capitalist society is completely negated. Dopplered out, if you will.

I did keep one part of the article though, and that's the little quote up top. It came off of an article on It's where the 'material girl' tells that world that material wealth and success mean nothing! It's where the diva tells us that her struggle for pop stardom and the superficially is propagates are a sham! What we see on TV is not real! What we see on the fashion runways is not real! 'Life ain't no crystal stair,' to quote Langston Hughes! Well, no shit.

Lyrically, the album wants to act as some type of anti-anthem, a catalogue of the joys and sorrows of success, American style. Each of the album's eleven tracks, reflect some aspect of Madonna's struggle, and I don't discount that. It's impressive. She has musically recounted her road to 'Tinsel Town', and made it into a dance/rock opera of sorts.

"American Life" appropriately starts it off. Musically, a mix of electronica and synthetic and acoustic vocals, the song has a good beat. Lyrically, it acts as a good opening paragraph. It tells us what her goals were, what she would have to do to attain those goals, and includes a rap-like list of the actual rewards received. The thesis statement is obviously the last line of the rap segment, 'And I just realized that nothing is what it seems.' Ok, so now we have an idea about the content of the rest of the album.

Video wise, considering I'm pro-military and pro-peace, I'd be more inclined to be offended by a poorly written anti-war protest sign than by the "American Life" piece. And really, if we weren't debating its 'anti-war' sentiment, we would be condemning is 'violent' content. Fact is, this controversy has only proven one thing, not only is Madonna a 'pop diva', but a 'public relations diva' as well. The controversy arose, she edited the video, declared her support for the troops, pled for peace, expressed concerns for democratic tolerance, and all the while getting press for a product in an industry that relies financially on exposure. We saw what happened to the uncontroversial 'Music', released in 2000. Or, I should say, didn't see personally until like four months ago.

The second song/paragraph specifically targets the Hollywood illusion. Entitled, imagine this, "Hollywood", the song discusses its allure and Madonna's disillusionment with the city's unrealistic image. The song has an alt-rock intro that moves into the album's thematic electronic/acoustic mix, and pleasantly combines notes reminiscent of Madonna's earlier work with nature sounds, bird chirping, in specific.

"Hollywood," combined with the next seven tracks, provides supporting evidence for her American Life thesis. "I'm So Stupid" highlights naivety, "Love Profusion" seems to reflect the pillow her personal relationships provided for career chaos, and "Nobody Knows Me" expresses the constant re-invention of her public image combined with her discontent over the media's portrayal of those images. The next four tracks, "Nothing Fails," "Intervention," "X-Static Process," and "Mother and Father," seem to wrap up the body of Madonna's life story. We get love, it's pros and cons, issues of isolation and self-realization, and the importance of coming to terms with her mother's death and the way her father dealt with the tragedy. All seven songs have that electronic/acoustic mix, some combining synthetic vocal with James Tayloresque harmonies, and others reflecting aspects of her early 80s pop styling.

The body of the work rounds out with the Bond theme "Die Another Day" and comes to a conclusion with the acoustic ballad "Easy Ride." "Die Another Day" is the best mix on the album. Its gritty Oakenfold/Brainbug-like intro tells us that the story has changed, the artist has changed. It seems to say that Madonna now embraces her past and now wants to put an end to the superficiality that the album detests. Even the video, featuring two Madonnas fencing, appropriately dressed in black and white, emphasizes her inner struggle and her need for personal growth, confidence, and acceptance. "Easy Ride"'s classical intro then wraps it up. Its sentiment is most likely expressed in the line, 'When I touch the ground I come full circle'. Now, there is harmony, she has embraced it all, the good and the bad. Madonna has found her 'happy medium'.

Fuck, I love a happy ending! But the happy ending, combined with the media frenzy over the "American Life" video, turned me sour. It's what made me delete the other two-page article I had written about Madonna's triumph, media pigs, and our society's Romanesque mob-like construct. "American Life" has initiated some good remixes by Paul Oakenfold and Missy Elliot, and I'll enjoy listening to the album while driving around in my truck. Do I like it as much as I liked 'Music'? Nope, but honestly who really cares as long as I've paid for it? We all know how much Madonna/Maverick/Warner hate piracy. And, originally I bought into the 'happy ending' illusion, as well, thinking that the album was Madonna's personal protest against pop culture. But what this album actually seems to represents is coming to terms with it, and I suppose in the end, that, too, has some merit.

Issue 15, September 2003

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