Saturday, May 1, 2010

"American Life" by Madonna (2003)



While Madonna's musical instincts are, by and large, unimpeachable, and while it would be silly to pretend she has not made a real, tangible contribution to popular music, great in her own way, this song is widely reviled, and for good reason too. Madonna's reinvention at the turn of the century was inspiring. The electronic textures of the Ray of Light album were uplifting and rave-inspired, the more radical cut-ups of Music just as challenging and commercially successful. It was perhaps getting too old when she followed up that album with "Die Another Day", an ultimately empty Bond theme and tired variation of the Music sonic template.

But then there was this... when it came out, it was shrouded in nonsense about the war theme of the video, and whether or not it was a political statement about Bush, about Iraq, about militarism, etc. But this hides the fact that the song itself is not about Iraq at all. It's merely the navel-gazing of a celebrity who appears to have problems being satisfied despite all of her material wealth. I wonder if she was surprised that the hoi polloi was unable to related to her pain.

Perhaps she was, and decided to inflict some pain on her audience herself, by... gulp... rapping. Well, if that's what you want to call it. I think Rodney Dangerfield did a more respectable and authentic take on rap, but then again, that was novelty music, and this? Well, I think we can learn all we need to know about Madonna the rapper, or rather the composer of rap lyrics, by scanning the rhyme scheme: latte, shotty (?), body, Cooper, super-duper, trooper, Pilates, hotties, bodies, isotopes, dope, hope. I kid you not. If that's not bad enough, check out the next couplet, which I'm compelled to include in full:
I got a lawyer and a manager, an agent and a chef
Three nannies, an assistant and a driver and a jet
A trainer and a butler and a bodyguard or five
A gardener and a stylist, do you think I'm satisfied?

While Madonna happened to be going through a Monk-who-Sold-his-Ferrari phase of spiritual compensation for the emptiness of material goods, and while the Buddha himself found enlightenment only after years in the lap of luxury, I find it tough not to react to those lines with disgust. Disgust at Madonna's contempt for those less privileged than her.

Musically, it's a rather annoying mix of sqeaky synths and acoustic guitars, produced once again by Mirwais with diminishing returns. It's not overly funky or danceable, even though it was a #1 on the dance charts (it was much more of a bomb on the main pop charts, though). And Madonna herself clearly knew how much she'd overshot her target, too, as she gave the American Life album modest promotion before disappearing, and regrouping with the rather wonderful ABBA-sampling "Hung Up". Mirwais was nowhere to be seen. And neither was Madonna the rapper.

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