When it comes to promoting a new Madonna album, MTV has never been shy. So it was no surprise when the folks at the network rolled out the red carpet last week to celebrate the release of American Life (Maverick/Warner Bros.), the ninth studio album by the brash superstar who 20 years ago helped put them on the map. They declared last Tuesday " Madonna Day, " during which they aired an exhaustive music-video retrospective of the star as well as a live performance from MTVís NYC studios. Theyíre playing her new " American Life " video, which was rumored to be controversial until it was edited at the last second " out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, " and for good measure theyíve also been airing the video for " Do It with Madonna, " the novelty hit by Australian modern-rock upstarts the Androids. But they saved their most progressive marketing strategy for mtv.com, where they began streaming the entire disc free of charge a week before it came out.
It takes a special entertainer to justify that kind of fanfare ó and on " American Life " Madonna once again delivers. Teaming up with producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, who also worked on her previous album, Music (Maverick/Warner Bros.), she thrusts her body and soul onto the dance floor with typical sass. Her singing is bold and unaffected, and her favorite new toy, the guitar, weaves comfortably in and out of the songís minimalist grooves. " American life/I live the American dream/You are the best thing Iíve seen/You are not just a dream, " she sings on the title track, coffeehouse guitar moving to the foreground as the producerís cheery glitch recedes. If anyone lives the American dream, itís Madonna ó and if it took moving to England to make that dream come true, who are we to argue?
With her second husband, filmmaker Guy Ritchie, Madonna may finally have found happiness, but " American Life " makes it clear that getting to that point was no walk in the park. " Do I have to change my name/Will it get me far/Should I lose some weight/Am I gonna be a star? " she asks, confronting the fundamental quandaries of show biz over a wacky synth line. " Ah, fuck it, " she responds, then busts into a hilarious rap about the trappings of celebrity that touches on a couple of her other favorite topics, sex and religion. " Iím just living out the American dream/And I just realized that nothing is what it seems, " she concludes, letting Ahmadzai have the last word with the trackís smooth electro fade.
American Life is the third phase of Madonnaís recent creative comeback, the seeds of which were sown with her Golden GlobeĖwinning performance in the 1996 film Evita. The dance mix of " Donít Cry for Me Argentina " had once again made her a hot property in clubs around the world, and the singing lessons she took while preparing for the role left her voice stronger than ever. On her next album, Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros.), she enlisted seminal techno producer William Orbit and made some of the club-friendliest music of her career. The hard-hitting title track boasted an especially powerful vocal performance, and she ended up with her bestselling album of the 1990s and a Grammy.
Orbit and Ahmadzai split production duties on Music, which charged out of the gate even harder than its predecessor. Having explored her fascination with Eastern mysticism on " Ray of Light, " Madonna returned to the disco escapism of her youth on the feverish smash " Music, " which said it all in its opening lines: " Hey Mr. DJ, put a record on/I wanna dance with my baby. " The albumís second-biggest hit, " Donít Tell Me, " was adapted from a composition by roots-rock maverick Joe Henry (Madonnaís brother-in-law); it set a jumbled guitar sample to a pensive trip-hop beat. Released at the peak of the 2000 teen-pop explosion, the disc beat Britney, Justin, and the rest of the dance-pop youth at their own game.
Things have changed on the pop charts since then: in the past two years, Madonna-sanctioned junior divas Britney and Kylie have released brilliant disco-flavored albums of their own to disappointing sales numbers. As for Madonna herself, last year she endured an all-too-familiar professional misstep: the embarrassing commercial and critical failure of the film Swept Away, which she starred in under the watch of her otherwise successful director husband. She rebounded by performing the hit title track to the James Bond movie Die Another Day, her third recent soundtrack success (the other two were " American Pie " and " Beautiful Stranger " ). But she still seems likely to face an uphill battle on radio and at retail.
Last year wasnít the first time Madonna upstaged one of her own silver-screen roles with a soundtrack hit: sheís been doing that ever since 1987, when Whoís That Girl came out. Still, she refuses to use the film industry as a scapegoat on " Hollywood, " which, coming after the title track on American Life, paints another ambivalent portrait of the American dream. " Thereís something in the air in Hollywood/I tried to leave it but I never could, " she sings, slyly acknowledging her checkered past as an actress. Ahmadzai cranks the guitar and ups the tempo, but for a Madonna dance track, itís strangely subdued.
Same goes for the album as a whole: the beats are decidedly glitzy, but the choruses are as understated as the melodies are brooding. The opening guitar hook on " Iím So Stupid " sounds like a Keith Richards tribute, and give or take the songís playful electronic rhythm track, it wouldnít be out of place on an Aimee Mann album. Those comparisons arenít as frivolous as they sound: much of American Life is defiantly uncommercial, and it only makes sense that Madonna is gravitating toward singer-songwriter mode as she approaches 45. Thereís less of us and more of her on the disc ó the sexy adrenaline rush that kicked off Music has been replaced by a mood of jittery self-reflection.
The dance-pop highlight is " Nobody Knows Me, " the closest thing here to a mainstream club anthem. " I donít want no lies/I donít watch TV/I donít waste my time/Wonít read a magazine, " she rants, her umpteenth indictment of tabloid culture sounding downright giddy atop Ahmadzaiís aural ecstasy. She leaves her guitar at home this time, and the songís indignant tension keeps building until the singer stops to give her baby a surprise wink during the chorus: " Nobody knows me/Like you know me. " On " Nothing Fails, " she gives him the whole song, equating romantic love with spiritual deliverance as a gospel choir joins her for a moving homage to her own " Like a Prayer " : " Iím not religious/But I feel such love/Makes me want to pray. " For a recovering Catholic, the girlís got a hell of a Pentecostal streak.
God and family have been two of Madonnaís favorite themes at least since, uh, " Papa Donít Preach " ó and given their prominent roles in American Life, itís no surprise that they account for some of the most compelling moments here. " Jesus Christ, will you look at me/Donít know who Iím supposed to be, " she sings on the solemn " X-Static Process, " blurring the line between the sacred and the profane as craftily as ever. With nothing but a simple fingerstyle-guitar accompaniment to fall back on, she gives a haunting vocal performance that cuts through the darkness.
On the disco-funk workout " Mother and Father, " she comes to terms with the death of her mother for the first time in song: " I gotta give it up/Find someone to love me/I gotta give it up/Find someone that I can care for. " Halfway through, she launches into a nursery-rhyme breakdown that would be even goofier than the rap on the title track if not for the grave subject matter: " My mother died when I was five/And all I did was sit and cry. " Using cheesy dance-pop vernacular to deal with such a serious topic is something Madonna has excelled at for years ó this is the most ambitious cut on the disc, and also one of the most memorable.
My only problem with American Life is that she overdoes it on the urbane folk hop she perfected on " Donít Tell Me. " Sure, it was cool to see her sling a Les Paul around her neck on her most recent US tour, but the guitars on this album too often signify murky love songs. " And I know that love will take us away from here, " she sings on " Intervention, " a blue-sky reverie with too little spring in its step. She says she wants a celebration on " Love Profusion, " but the song fails to deliver more than a couple of fancy words and a tepid house groove.
Still, thereís plenty for dance-floor escapists to celebrate, including the survivalist anthem " Die Another Day, " which is making its first appearance on a Madonna album after climbing the charts last winter. With its deep-bass tremors and a foreboding string accompaniment that could have been lifted from an imaginary nightmare remix of " Papa Donít Preach, " the song is at once challenging and infectious. Twenty years after Like a Virgin, the same could be said of Madonnaís musical legacy.