here, exactly, did Madonna start to go wrong? For so long it seemed like she could never falter in her relentless path; everything she did ruffled feathers and got people talking (and, not incidentally, sold bazillions of records -- and you thought she was doing this stuff just for fun?). When singing about virginity stopped being shocking, she dressed people up in leather and started shooting all her videos in seedy, suggestive black n' white. When even that became blasé, she took it all off and peed in some guy's mouth in her Sex book. Even as recently as her 2000 single "What It Feels Like For a Girl," she managed to stir up a healthy controversy over the banned video's frenzied violence.
But somewhere between then and now, she's lost that power to shock. Maybe our society has simply reached the point where nothing could possibly shock us anymore, but I don't really believe that: there are still plenty of Tipper Gores out there willing to raise a ruckus when entertainers try to corrupt their kiddies' innocent little minds. Furthermore, with the current state of the world -- and the overwhelmingly complacent, anesthetized condition of the public -- a good shock is probably just what we need. No, I doubt the problem is that we're too jaded. One listen to Madonna's new album and you'll realize that the blame rests squarely with her: it's the Material Girl who's become as complacent as her audience, it's Madonna who, surprisingly, has simply run out of things to say.
Despite the Che Gueverra poses in the sleeve art and the anti-capitalist rant of the title track, American Life is really just an album about, well, Madonna. Of course, on some level, everything Madonna does is about Madonna -- she's a human publicity machine -- but in the past she had other, broader social and emotional concerns overlaying it all. This time around, what we get is a celebration of her own cult of personality, the middle-aged pop star equivalent of Eminem whining about being too famous. "American Life," with its newly sanitized video (since when did Madonna ever balk at making a fuss?), is one of the album's few social/political statements, and even at that it falls short. When one of the world's richest women complains about commercialism and the emptiness of entertainment culture (as she does again on "Hollywood") it just comes across as hypocritical rather than insightful; here, she's raging against the life she herself is leading.
All of which might be forgivable if she was doing anything musically relevant, but 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. "Love Profusion" and "Intervention" address Madonna's marriage to director Guy Ritchie, and they find the once-cynical pop star surprisingly open and emotional, which prompts her to spit out cliché after cliché as she tells us how happy she is.
Whenever she does deviate from this theme of love and happiness, she resorts to idle incendiarism like "Nobody Knows Me" and off-hand denouncements of religion ("I'm not religious" from "Nothing Fails" and "I'm not a Christian or a Jew" from the title song). Nothing she has to say here has quite the power "Like a Prayer" once did; the same old song, over 10 years later, just doesn't cut it anymore. Once the album gets past its bogged-down middle section, there are a few scattered good moments towards the end. "Die Another Day," from the Bond flick of the same name, is still a great slice-and-dice hit of fucked-up electroclash, and "Mother and Father" is a deceptively upbeat techno track about the death of Madonna's mom (unfortunately, ruined by another wince-inducing rap towards the end).
But these bare moments of enjoyment can hardly salvage a whole album of mediocre music. Madonna was once the definitive pop auteur, craftily cultivating an entire image for mass consumption while remaining true to her own unique artistic visions. She's often been inscrutable, occasionally irritating, and most of the time she's balancing on the very limits of good taste (if not completely ignoring them), but at least she's always been interesting and (more importantly for pop music) entertaining. For once, Madonna has stumbled not because she reached too far, but because she didn't reach far enough.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01