I've been listening to a God-awful amount of American Life this week - thanks in no small part to my new found obsession with the song "Nothing Fails." In fact, "Nothing Fails" has the dubious distinction of being my 20,000th song scrobbled on last.fm (and I admit, I did it kinda sorta on purpose but I have a feeling that, with as much as I'm listening to it these days, it had a pretty good chance of happening anyway.) In any event, American Life has been spinning on my iPod quite a bit the last few days - so I thought I'd take a few minutes to reflect on an album that divides many a Madge enthusiast.
When American Life came out back in 2003, Madonna was still riding the wave of Music (sorta) and another collaboration with Mirwais seemed to be pretty logical. There was a lot of net buzz - complete with the bogus (and infamous) "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" tracks on Kazaa that were masquerading as "American Life" the song. The song itself didn't really do much for me on first listen. And dear God, the rapping - may the heavens preserve us. Madonna certainly did not miss her calling as a rapper. But it was a good little song - if unconventional. It isn't really a typically structured song, and perhaps worst of all, it really lacks a bridge (which I think is what makes all good pop songs.)
Well, then the album dropped, and there was the hideous cover art with Madonna looking like Che Guevera. Really, the whole packaging was just bad idea all around, but I went with it. Madge has never (well, hardly ever - "This Used To Be My Playground" notwithstanding) let me down. And really, the album is not bad. It's not typical Madonna, that's for certain. But like I said, I went with it. It fit my mood at the time and so it spoke to me on some level.
Of course, the album debuted at number 1 on but then dropped like a rock because, well, it had no hit at radio and really, Madonna had long since passed her peak as a mainstream, relevant artist to the teenage crowd that were buying the albums. People like me are always going to buy her records, no matter what, but let's face it, it's what the kids are listening to that's popular. As of right now, it's Madonna's only album to NOT go platinum. And to think, Jeff and I thought she had reached her nadir when "Oh Father" missed the Top 20. Heaven forbid!
Looking back on it now from four years out, I can appreciate it more now than I initially thought I did. For most, this is Madonna at her most self-indulgent. I don't think that most people tune into a Madonna record to hear about her spiritual journey. But guess what? It's her record, she gets to do whatever the hell she wants. I truly think that American Life was the record she needed to make at that time - fans be damned. I have a feeling she approached the recording of this album much like she does touring - the fans have to come to me, damn it. It took me a while, but I think I'm there.
Of course, for me, "Nothing Fails" is the glorious centerpiece of the album. It evokes "Like A Prayer" in many ways, the most obvious of which being the gospel choir. But it is also one of Madonna's most confessional songs. While traditionally I've always been a bit suspect of Madonna's "price of fame" or "it sucks to be famous" songs, this one is probably the one where I started paying attention and really saw the sincerity behind it. I know that many still mock it and think it's yet anothe shrewd reinvention or calculated career move, but I think so much of that is reflected in her work now, and it gets tough to fake that after a while.
Another high point for me is "Mother & Father" - probably the closest the album gets to a "dance" track with it's stuttering "I've got to give it up/Find someone to love me." Again, it has an unfortunate rap and perhaps the single worst Madonna lyric ever in: "My father had to go to work/I used to think he was a jerk." It's amazing to me that Madonna is still writing songs about the death of her mother so far into her career, but I suppose, being a mother herself, that event has taken on a whole new meaning that it never carried prior to her becoming a parent. It's also amazing that rather than taking the form of a slow thoughtful ballad, it was an uptempo track complete with vocoder.
Is it a perfect Madonna record - no way, far from it. "I'm So Stupid" still is pretty stupid. I love "Love Profusion" - but it's the probably the worst example of Madonna's "chewing yous" - I've got chew under my skin - ooh, gross! And "Die Another Day", while good on its own, does not fit the album very well. It smacks very much of record company pressure to put it on the album so that the album shipped with an already identifiable hit. However, in the company of the other confessional songs on the album, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Confessional. It keeps coming back to that. Madonna claims she's not religious in "Nothing Fails." I have no doubt - for I know what she's talking about. I don't consider myself religious any longer, but that doesn't mean I'm not on a spiritual journey. And in a lot of ways, Madonna's going ahead of me - maybe not on the same road, but ahead just the same.
In my final analysis, American Life is a bit of a modern day Like A Prayer without the pop sensibility. The subject matter simply overpowered the music in many ways, two things that Like A Prayer combined effortlessly.