X-Static Process: Madonna’s “American Life” Turns 10

Madonna, Circa 2003

Madonna, Circa 2003

American Life, Madonna’s 10th studio recording, boldly sealed off the second phase of her career.

That period began earnestly with Bedtime Stories (1994); Madonna spent the majority of the ensuing years reaching a renaissance peak of expression with her craft. American Life became Madonna’s letter to herself; the personal narrative described how she fit into the broader Western-American cultural context and how she related to herself as a woman. Was the world ready for that level of pathos from Madonna is the question still surrounding the American Life LP.

The History
Madonna, musically, was at a level of success that qualified her (finally) as a credible singer-songwriter and performer at the first half of the 2000’s. The Drowned World Tour and GHV2 (her second hits collection), both happening in 2001, celebrated her artistic shift toward that inward space.

Records like Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light (1998) and Music (2000) found ways to cut between ballads and the dancefloor; her sonics were stylistically at their most diverse.

Where else could Madonna adventure in the remainder of her third decade? If Music was a coeval, Technicolor dream of Madonna’s musings up-to-that juncture, American Life staged a sharp, monochromatic swing in direction. Recording began immediately once the ill-fated ‘Swept Away,’ the film partnership with her then-husband Guy Ritchie, wrapped in late 2001.

The Record
Madonna and co-creator Mirwais Ahmadzaï headed up the project, which left the rest of a Spartan supporting cast to round out the principal sessions: Mark “Spike” Stent, Guy Sigsworth, Jem Griffiths (later just Jem), Monte Pittman and Stuart Price. Ahmadzaï was one of the key players behind Music; his chemistry with Madonna echoed her former partnership connection with Shep Pettibone.

Alternate shot of the "American Life" single cover

Alternate shot of the “American Life” single cover

The intimacy of Madonna and her acoustic guitar (again) factored into the ingenious-incongruity that summed up American Life; the album was a mixture of flesh and steel taken to the next level.

Electro-fury shook on the jarring slam-bam beats of “Nobody Knows Me.” It labored alongside the superfluous production chatter and melodic guitar-lines of “Hollywood.” Further combinations dominated the record on the dramatic, string-laden, mechanized tango-stepper “Die Another Day.” There, Madonna’s voice was full-bodied and clipped (“Sigmund Freud, analyze this!”), dovetailing between the natural and artificial with guile. The clinical-cool vocal of the title track was nowhere to be heard on the zephyr-like “Love Profusion” and “Intervention” however. “Profusion’s” tempo was paced a tad faster than the subdued-and-stripped power ballad “Intervention”; both songs became definitive downtempos for Madonna.

Additional slower numbers littered the LP: the quiet folk of “X-Static Process” and the gospel-grace of “Nothing Fails.” Each marked a continuous confessional presence in Madonna’s second stage of her music. Lines like “Do I have to change my name? Will it get me far? Should I lose some weight? Am I gonna be star?” imbued American Life with a self-reflecting, if masochistic, air.

If “I’m So Stupid” and “Mother and Father” stuttered with their heavy-handed, if admirable, chastisements of celebrity culture and her (past) childishness, there was redemption in the album closer “Easy Ride.” Doused in grandiose violins, the song detailed that Madonna was hard at work on herself, her marriage, her family and the world itself.

American Life, at 11 cuts, didn’t overstate itself. In its span, the long player allowed Madonna to succinctly critique her idealized self and the “American dream” that spawned her.

The Impact
The “first” single from American Life was “Die Another Day,” the theme to the 20th James Bond spy film of the same name. Madonna herself had a playful cameo as a fencing instructor named Vesper in the movie. Released on 10/22/02, the song became the expected hit worldwide: U.S. Dance #1, Canada #1, U.K. #3, AU #5, U.S. #8, France #15. The actual American Life long player and its titular single wouldn’t be released until the Spring of 2003.

From the "Die Another Day" music video

Still from the “Die Another Day” music video

In a perverse sense of timing, “American Life” (the single) was dropped on 3/24/03.  That was just several days after the U.S. Invasion of Iraq on 3/19/03.

The video, one of her most controversial pieces, ended up being pulled by Madonna at the final hour. Never one to shy away from getting people to think, or speak, on a subject, Madonna maturely stated: “I have decided not to release my new video. It was filmed before the war started and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video. The Jonas Åkerlund directed clip featured an uncut and edited version, neither are available commercially currently.

The public flogging The Dixie Chicks endured at openly criticizing President George Bush a month earlier may have played a role too. In spite of all the buzz around the song, it met lukewarm-to-positive reception critically and on the charts: U.S. Dance #1, Canada #1, U.K. #2, France #10, U.S. #37. With its Che Guevara inspired album cover, American Life released on 4/22/03. The recording divided critics, positive and negative perspectives overlapping into one another.

All Music Guide’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine thoughtfully discussed:

American Life winds up as the first Madonna record with ambitions as serious as a textbook. It plays as somberly as either Like a Prayer or Ray of Light, just as it delves into an insular darkness as deep as Erotica while retaining the club savviness of the brilliant, multi-colored Music. This is an odd mixture, particularly when it’s infused with a searching, dissatisfied undercurrent and a musical sensibility that is at once desperate and adventurous, pitched halfway between singer/songwriterisms and skimming of current club culture.

It’s pulled tight between these two extremes, particularly because the intimate guitar-based songs (and there are a lot of them, almost all beginning with just her and a guitar) are all personal meditations, with the dance songs usually functioning as vehicles for social commentary. Even if the sparer ballads are introspective, they’re treated as soundscapes by producer Mirwais, giving them an unsettling eerie quality that is mirrored by the general hollowness of the club songs.

Dimitri Ebrlich of Vibe Magazine nailed the spirit of American Life on its head:

The formula she (Madonna) developed on her previous album, Music-acoustic-guitar ditties dressed up in with club friendly electronica-is still as distinctive as it is danceable. What has changed, however, are Madonna’s lyrics, which have evolved to examine aging, death, loss, and the meaning of life.

Stylus Magazine writer Ed Howard gave the effort a failing grade stating:

This is Madonna’s most conservative album instrumentally as well as lyrically. Producer Mirwais (who also helmed the boards for a few songs on 2000’s Music) crafts from his usual palette of heavily processed guitars and subdued techno beats, keeping the mood mostly restrained and low-key in stark contrast to the genre-switching Music.

After the squelchy keyboards of the opening title track and the mid-tempo guitar-hop of “Hollywood” (both of which, barring some gratingly awkward raps, are at least somewhat engaging), the album descends into a group of trite acoustic ballads. 

The chart statistics for American Life were initially strong: U.S. Billboard 200 #1, U.K. #1, France #1, Canada #1, A.R.I.A. #3, Japan #4. In some territories, the marathon year ahead for American Life and its subsequent singles would wear out the album, despite its early high energy showings.

Shot from the "Hollywood" music video

Shot from the “Hollywood” music video

“Hollywood” (7/14/03) and “Nothing Fails” (10/26/03) were lifted from the platter as singles; both were persona non grata at the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 where neither charted. Other U.S. charts (U.S. Billboard Adult Singles, U.S. Hot Dance Music/Club Play), the United Kingdom, and the general international scenes favored Madonna still: “Hollywood” (U.S. B.B. Adult Singles #35, U.S. Dance #1, U.K. #2, Canada #5, France #22), “Nothing Fails” (U.S. Dance #33, Canada #7, France #34, AU #54).

As “Nothing Fails” limped into the mid-to-lower chart regions, Madonna’s pair-up with her anemic follower Britney Spears, “Me Against the Music” (10/20/03) was making waves (U.S. Dance #1, AU #1, Canada #2, U.K. #4, France #11, U.S. #35). The song was serviced as Spears’ first single from her fourth record, In the Zone (2003).  This partnership came on the back of an eyebrow-raising performance at the MTV Video Music Awards the same year; Madonna performed with Missy Elliott, Spears and Christina Aguilera during a medley performance of “Like a Virgin,” “Hollywood” and “Work It.” In a memorable pop culture moment, Madonna kissed both Spears and Aguilera.

American Life’s credibility took a hit with the unnecessary kissing stunt. By the time the final single from the LP (“Love Profusion”) and a companion EP (Remixed & Revisited) appeared at 2003’s conclusion, the record had run its commercial course. The sadly forgotten and fine “Love Profusion” did have a few favorable showings globally: Spain #1, U.S. Dance #1, Canada #3, U.K. #11, AU #25.

In the end, Madonna pulled platinum in her major areas of interest (U.S., U.K., Canada, France, Australia) and gold in every other country. Madonna steamrolled into 2004 and unleashed her sixth concert, The Re-Invention World Tour. The show was a critical, creative and commercial victory/revenge against those that discounted Madonna just a year prior to its launch. Combining a “jukebox” hits approach, but without sacrificing that the tour was a hotbed for American Life’s music, Madonna had her cake and ate it too.

“Love Profusion”

Directed By: Luc Besson

Madonna rebounded with across-the-board favor on Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005); it was her first veteran affair. American Life was Madonna’s last album to be hungry for the kind of artistry that encapsulated the second era of her music career.

Appropriate then that it was the curtain call on a period known, mostly, for Madonna’s music garnering attention primarily. The record is a fantastic time capsule of where the Queen of Pop was personally and professionally; all-at-once American Life was (and is) unapologetic, refreshingly sensitive and thoroughly Madonna. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: American Life is readily in print, in digital and physical formats. For current information on Madonna, visit her official site.-QH]

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6 Comments

Filed under Pop

6 responses to “X-Static Process: Madonna’s “American Life” Turns 10

  1. Fantastic article, well written and very accurate perspective. And as you say, “Love Profusion” was sadly forgotten. One of her best pure pop songs.

  2. Pingback: The QH Blend’s Class of 2003 | theqhblend

  3. This is probably the best write-up of the “American Life” era I’ve ever read!

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