Madonna Albums reviewed: American Life
Madonna’s American Life immediately polarized critics and fans. Probably her most underappreciated and misunderstood album, American Life deserves more love than it gets. Certainly more than it got in the past and at the time of its release.
Anyone who knows me also knows that American Life is my fav Madonna album and here I’m going to try to defend my position whilst trying to be as objective as possible.
Madonna’s American Life: some data
American Life is the ninth studio album by Madonna.
Released on April 2003, Madonna’s American Life peaked at number one in fourteen countries. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and British Phonographic Industry (BPI) both certified it platinum.
American Life was the 32nd-best-selling album of 2003 and has sold over five million copies to date (source), not bad for a flop, surely. American Life was also nominated two Grammy Awards 2004 for Die Another Day.
Although it did debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, it also became the lowest-selling studio LP of Madonna’s career up to that point. The album reviews of American Life were mixed.
The album is a folk and folktronica album with an acoustic music influence.
American Life General Review
A well rounded album, and with its confessional commentary on the American Dream during the Bush era, American Life is one of Madonna’s best lyrical and musical jaunts.
From this perspective, it’s an insightful album which certainly bests most of her later works, including Rebel Heart, MDNA, and Hard Candy. Not so sure about 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. As per Madame X, I also think the lyrics are best achieved in American Life. Madame X could be considered American Life Part 2, however the lyrics, except in a couple of songs, are a little heavy-handed, plain, not witty, too obvious (don’t take me wrong, I love Madame X too —will write a review… some day).
A consistent musical vision, achieved as a result of working with only one producer for the entire album, (Mirwais Ahmadzaï)*, complements perfectly the robust lyrics, including Madonna’s subversive messages. Madonna and Mirwais also co-wrote 8 of the 11 tracks on American Life, which similarly helps the album achieve that cohesive feel. Musically, American Life takes the electronic and the acoustic vibe from previous albums and combines them to create a brand new sound in a way that only the Queen could, where you feel that her real intention would have been to make an album of just voice and guitar.
*although there was additional production by Mark “Spike” Spent on I’m So Stupid and Nothing Fails
Madonna’s American Life Detailed Review
Most people think this album is about the USA, specifically. I don’t think so. It’s about the Greco-Roman, Judaeo-Christian western civilisation way of life as we know it, as well as its cultural and economic form: capitalism.
This is the general theme of the album: with constant references to the American culture, American Liferefers to the American Dream as the flagship of the western civilization and materialism, however,as I said earlier, Madonnareally discusses, describes and mocks the typical Judaeo-Christian way of life, not to a country in particular.
In doing so, she rejects all that led to her reputation as “Material Girl” during 1980s.
The album’s anti-capitalist proposition is, to say the least, an interesting turn. American Life is the antithesis of what it means to be a Material Girl living the American Dream, or the British or the European… It seems that, after Ray Of Light and Music, Madonna is ready to apply and tell the world what she’s learned through all these past years: Materialism, capitalism, selfishness isn’t good for us.
But American Life is not only about politics. It’s a deeply personal, confessional, truthful, album.
Aside from that vision, the record revolves around romantic love —Madonna’s marriage (Love Profusion, Nothing Fails, Intervention)—, fraternal love (Mother and Father), self-discovery, her place in the world (American Life, Hollywood, I’m So Stupid) and within herself, self-awareness (Die Another Day, Easy Ride), God… Themes all that one can relate to, if one doesn’t pay too much attention to Madonna’s very unique experience of life:
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
Surely most of us can’t relate.
I also sense a mortality theme hovering American Life, although there’s no explicit sign of it. Perhaps it’s just my perception when I observe globally all these intelligent, sometimes brutally honest lyrics. Perhaps the idea that envelops American Life isn’t mortality but existentialism.
American Life Review Track by Track
I’m sure we all agree that Madonna achieved new artistic complexity with Ray of Light, to continue with great creative spirit in Music. For American Life, she remained in this adventurous mode and created a truly ambitious album which also signalled the end of a remarkable period of her career. Let’s see how Madonna achieved this reviewing track by track.
In the song American Life Madonna seems both introspective and cross. She reflects on her way of life (she’s fallen for the “American Dream”, just like everyone else), then she rebels against it and is pissed off that there’s so much selfishness in the world, starting with herself. While the western societies live comfortably (numb), the rest of the world agonises. We’re all hypocrites who turn a blind eye on other’s sufferings. What I love about the lyrics is that Madonna doesn’t say the above in so many words and most importantly, she doesn’t exclude herself.
Misunderstood, as usual. Here’s the censored video
This is not a song Madonna will be remembered by. But perhaps its rejection was caused by the negative, selfish, hypocrite image it exposed of the —let me insist on this— western culture. Yet again, people in the USA failed to understand Madonna, interpreting the song as an affront, personally (nationally) directed to them —YOUR OWN COUNTRY, how dare you, Madonna—. Aggrieved, disgruntled and resentful, they turned their back on her —again, yet again— and totally misunderstanding the video, —which in the end had to be withdrawn and replaced with the ‘light’ version.
For some other poorly equipped brains, she’s bragging her elite kind of American life, but let’s not waste our time with such incompetent detractors and move on.
It was a disappointment that the failure of American Life made it hard for the album to recover with the subsequent Hollywood, Nothing Fails and Love Profusion singles missing the Hot 100.
After trashing capitalism, the western culture way of life and everyone under their spell —including herself—, Madonna disparages the celebrities’ lifestyle she’s a part of. Hollywood is, hence, a logical extension of the first song on the album.
Clever, ironic and satirical lyrics reflect how shallow her elite world is. But will Madonna escape from it all? Probably never, but at least she admits it. That’s what the whole album is all about.
I’m So Stupid
A perfect follow-up to both previous songs on American Life.
Blinded by the westernised way of life, dazzled by the celebrities lifestyle, Madonna now concedes that she’s fallen for it stupidly. She realises that she’s been living “in a tiny bubble”, unconscious of what real life is for most people.
Some people think this song is about how stupid she was in believing that dreams do come true. I don’t think that’s the case. On the contrary, she still believes that dreams come true as long as you work hard enough for them. The song is about how she realises that, on getting there, she was sucked into a fuzzy existence of greed and success, blinded by the neon lights of fame and a golden throne, stupidified by glow and glitter and wealth and abundance.
Again, she re-examines the value of the material world: “Please don’t try to tempt me/It was just greed/And it won’t protect me”. The lyrics, though not as smart as in the two previous tracks —much simpler and straightforward, almost too basic— are nevertheless candid and telling. The instrumental is really great. Personally I love this song, being one of my favs on American Life.
A happy, positive song compared to the previous tracks, which finds Madonna at her most stereotypical self. Love Profusion is a classic upbeat Madonna song, although continuing the record’s theme, fusing it really well with the love theme. It reminds me a little of Dear Jessie cum Cherish. I find the Spanish guitar chords a bit tiring and repetitive but, all in all, I really like this track.
Nobody Knows Me
Yet more confessional lyrics on one of my favourite tracks from my favourite album, I see Nobody Knows Me as an attempt from Madonna to explain that she’s not going to explain herself to anybody, whilst staying on the American Life album theme, this time refusing to capitulate to “social disease”, and denouncing TV and magazines.
I’m not sure whether she means she’d rather not read whatever the tabloids say about her, or that TV and magazines exist only to delude our minds and manipulate us. I chose to think she means the latter because I think the same.
Love this track too. And designed a picture for my Twitter profile based on its lyrics that I’ve not changed, ever.
A departure from the overall theme of American Life, the simplicity of this symphony-song allows for Madonna’s vocals to bulge, letting you feel and hear raw, soothing emotion. It reaches its peak with a gospel choir, reminiscent of Like a Prayer. One of her most memorable ballads of late that transmits the idea of metamorphosis through love —and not through religion.
Quite possible one of the best songs on the album, that went overlooked —as it usually happens with many of her great tracks—. Great vocals and polished lyrics accompany what feels like a virgin, untouched, raw production. Lyrics don’t need to be complex to be good. These is simple, but honest and mature song writing.
A full acoustic track where her vocals and lyrics sound soothingly beautiful. X-Static Process is a beautiful ballad full of harmony and emotion. Perfect continuation for the previous track in American Life.
Is Madonna kind of asking for understanding? Or is she longing to be freed of influences that thwart her from fully being herself? (i.e.: her husband was being a great influence on Madonna at the time). Just one more thing: I think she’s talking to Ritchie, not to JC. Doesn’t really matter though. Great song.
Mother and Father
In Mother and Father Madonna continues to deal with issues close to her heart, as she’s done with the previous three tracks. This is the first time Madonna tackles both her parents in one song. Although not my favourite in American Life, I still love it to bits for its candidness. Madonna herself explains the track perfectly:
“Mother and Father is a way to free me from the pain caused by my mother’s death, but without putting myself a medal for finding my way in life without even asking for compassion just because I went through a hard time. Neither using it as an excuse, as: ‘I’m rebel because I suffered a hard time when I was a child’. All these excuses are rubbish because in the end you have to be responsible for your own actions.” —Madonna
Die Another Day
I always loved this track, although I somehow felt as if it didn’t belong here. Perhaps it should have been sequenced somewhere earlier in American Life?
Preceding the album release, Die Another Day, released as a single to promote the James Bond film, and the unofficial first offering from her then untitled ninth studio album, set an adequate appetizer for what was to come in American Life.
There’s an outstanding dramatic intro, but the end sets the tone and makes a great transition to Easy Ride. The production is flawless, the lyrics outstanding, the instrumental perfection, and the video, amazing (the second most expensive video of all time, just above the videos for Express Yourself and Bedtime Stories). Can’t ask for more, really. A bop.
Tongue-in-cheek lyrics accompanied by a great symphony and orchestral background. One of my all-time favourites.
Many people assure that this track is a strong, fantastic closer of American Life. Personally, I find it one of the weakest. Perhaps the lyrics are honest, even solemn (they reflect her work ethics, so what), but they are dull and boring in my opinion. ‘What I want is to work for it, Feel the blood and sweat on my fingertips, That’s what I want for me’??
Vocals are good and I see the point of those who find it great: the song tells us about Madonna’s ambitions and needs, which seem to be pretty similar to everyone else’s. I agree that it is a good wrapping up of the album, but not as good as it could have been. There’s one thing I love, though: those breaks in between the orchestra strings.
Lyrically, perhaps this album was one of her most raw and honest. Her vocals overall are strong and sonically, continuing with the Music adventurous experience, American Life feels even more daring. It’s a great record, maybe because it’s consistent, uncompromising, and REALLY unapologetic. It’s the sound of Madonna challenging herself and her audience.
American Life—which seems uncannily prophetic of the heavy-heartedness and despondency that would emerge during the Trump era—feels more like the impenitent Madonna of now than her most recent albums; not even Madame X feels as political and straightforwardly defiant.
The album presents itself as the product of a woman with a sense of artistic clarity and wisdom. Its only equal in her catalogue is 1998’s Ray of Light. American Life may not be the best album of her career, but the sales do not reflect its high quality either. Madonna went for something new, she was willing to continue to take risks as she did in Music and Ray Of Light but this time her efforts were misjudged and didn’t pay off. American Life was an intimate and eloquent testament of Madonna’s private challenges and triumphs, which, at the time, ranked as one of her weakest works, but those three albums form a trinity of flawlessness.
Although American Life has aged gorgeously, its unjust dismissal signalled the end of an era: Ray Of Light, Music and American Lifeare a collection in their own right and she has yet to challenge herself and her audience, as audaciously as she did on this trilogy. American Life stands as the last album where Madonna pushed the boundaries where it mattered. It’d be interesting to know what would have happened if American Life had been a success.
Even though, after this post, and coming from me, this is stating the obvious: American Life is highly underrated and absolutely wonderful.