Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address
Please accept the terms
‘American Life’: How Madonna Waged War On Critics’ Expectations
Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘American Life’: How Madonna Waged War On Critics’ Expectations

Madonna’s first album of the 21st century, ‘American Life’ was a leftfield turning point that heralded some of her best work yet.

Back

Reinvention had been routinely established as the currency of Madonna’s lengthy success by the arrival of her 2003 album, American Life. Yet, on this record – her ninth studio collection – she chose something arguably very different: deepening a musical partnership already nicely established.

Listen to ‘American Life’ here.

“I don’t want to keep singing about the same subject”

Released three years earlier, the Music album, marked Madonna’s transition away from the William Orbit-helmed Ray Of Light, with the British producer working on three of its tracks, alongside six from the new kid on the block: Mirwais. For American Life, the “Queen Of Pop” surprisingly went back to the maverick Frenchman’s drawing board, crafting a demanding and decidedly experimental collection that confounded critics at the time, but which today comfortably takes its place among the best Madonna albums.

Unlike previous career shocks, such as 1992’s Erotica, there was none of the calculated provocation (though American Life’s title track, issued as its lead single, was certainly pitched to raise eyebrows, until sensitivity about the US conflicts in the Middle East led to the video being pulled at the 11th hour). Instead, there was a growing confidence in studio experimentation that moved the singer-songwriter further away from her pop-dance base in a way that forced a reconsideration of what the best Madonna songs could achieve. Even the soft folk influences that had first appeared on Music were now increasingly bathed in kooky electronica, lending her new work a leftfield charm. And that was before anyone had spent any time deciphering the lyrics.

A caustic line on popular culture

“I don’t want to keep saying the same thing; singing about the same subject,” admitted Madonna at the time – and it certainly showed. Here was a restless, impatient narrative doused in the rhythm of rap and contemporary street culture. American Life’s title track may have set its sights on an anti-war message in the video treatment (in line with the revolutionary-styled artwork that provided a standout among Madonna’s album covers), but the song carries a caustic line on popular culture. With Madonna rapping over a sweet melody, it secured a No.2 placing in the UK charts.

Hollywood, the follow-up single, was a catchy glitterball stomper – with more than a passing resemblance to the work of acts such as Goldfrapp – that received a decent airing in the clubs. Undoubtedly, the warmer Love Profusion, picked as a later European single, was a safer bet, but one sensed Madonna was long past choosing the easy option at this stage of her career. The gorgeous Nothing Fails, a 21st-century companion to the majestic Like A Prayer single, is another track that should have been prioritised in American Life’s promotional push. It did get a belated US single release, but no promo video was made for it.

A vital departure, full of leftfield brilliance

On cuts such as the hook-heavy I’m So Stupid and the rousing Mother And Father, Madonna and Mirwais seem determined to wring every eccentricity out of their collaboration, and it’s left to more folk-oriented material, such as the lush Intervention or poignant closer Easy Ride, to allow the confessional honesty of Madonna’s lyrics to come through. Sometimes the production threatens to overwhelm the album, but no one would doubt the pair’s technique or the carefree optimism on show.

In 2003, Madonna was still measured by her hits and American Life’s companion cut – added to the track list for obvious commercial considerations – Die Another Day is the only major Madonna moment old-school fans would recognise. This electro-pop anomaly among James Bond theme songs was a huge hit globally, even in the US, where Bond themes don’t routinely chart big.

Following American Life’s release, on 21 April 2003 (it would appear a day later in the US), Madonna would embark on yet another quick-fire change, staging the Re-Invention World Tour throughout the summer of 2004, during which she packaged reimagined hits alongside material from the new record. A more radical reinterpretation of her sound, with generous nods back towards her glorious 80s prime, would lie ahead on 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor, but American Life was a vital departure, full of leftfield brilliance and some of the catchiest material Madonna has ever recorded.

‘American Life’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

American Life

For an artist not known for compromise – especially in the face of creative judgement – Madonna’s decision to heavily edit the video for American Life’s title (and launch) track remains an outlier in her lengthy career. The mauling that the then-named Dixie Chicks had received for their stance on the Iraq War had caused the band’s career real harm, so Madonna’s decision to retreat from the political debate was sensible enough if considered through that prism. Out went the filmed guns, blood and staged set-sequences in favour of a straight-to-camera performance. The song itself, however, broke new ground – featuring Madonna’s memorable first rap – and the jittery electro-country melody is a real earworm. Co-written with album collaborator Mirwais Ahmadzai, American Life peaked at No.2 in the UK on the strength of sales in a sharply declining CD singles market, and it peaked at No.1 on the US dance charts. This song about the privileges and challenges of living the American dream makes a still-relevant statement.  

Hollywood

The seam of satire running through American Life continues, with attention now focused on Western culture’s creative citadel. Hollywood offers a compulsive dance beat, and Mirwais’ madcap production flourishes enjoy full flight here, with twittering birdsong launching the track, vocoders a go-go and nifty electronica sitting behind one of the simpler melodies on this ambitious album. Hollywood was picked as American Life’s second single, with a No.2 peak in the UK. Its promo video reunited Madonna with Jean Baptiste-Mondino, who had worked on past successes such as Open Your Heart and Justify My Love. The clip stylishly frames the extremes of glamour, depravity and desperation that routinely characterise the entertainment capital’s culture. The song’s most memorable outing was at the 2003 MTV Music Video Awards, where it was performed as a medley with Like A Virgin and featured the infamous kiss between Madonna, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Two decades on from that earlier provocative hit, there was no doubting the “Queen Of Pop”’s ability to cause a stir. 

I’m So Stupid

The yearning rock angst of this album track cuts through the twirling electronica that threads across American Life. I’m So Stupid features some of Madonna’s rawest lyrics, and its intermittent stop-start hooks make it one of the album’s highlights. It was allegedly dropped from the setlist of her Re-Invention World Tour, but this guitar-anchored track would undoubtedly have lent itself well to the increasingly eclectic nature of Madonna’s live shows. The confrontational tone she took on other songs from this era sat at odds with this – apparently – self-deprecating cut, but how much was truly confessional was inevitably hard to glean from the enigmatic star.

Love Profusion

American Life’s most all-out pop moment is the charismatic, yearning Love Profusion. The sound of Madonna on safer ground, there were Spanish guitar flourishes and enough dance hooks to see the song successfully reinterpreted across a blistering set of remixes, which would – by now routinely – score Madonna another US dance chart-topper (her record-breaking run was celebrated in 2022 with the remix collection Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones). Cosmetics giant Estée Lauder liked it enough to use it in a marketing campaign for a fragrance, and Luc Beeson – famous for The Big Blue and The Fifth Element – was hired to shoot both the advert and the single’s promo video.

Nobody Knows Me

The electro vocoder stutter of Nobody Knows Me illustrates the genius pairing of Mirwais and the “Queen Of Pop”. Madonna’s strong vocals and the urgent electronica riffing blend brilliantly, and the song was a highlight on the MDNA Tour of 2012, when it featured in a powerful video segment that saw Madonna’s face morph into a series of others equally familiar – and sometimes infinitely more infamous. Nobody Knows Me remains one of the best of the dance-video segments that Madonna has made a trademark at her live shows in recent years.

Nothing Fails

The delicate number is one of Madonna’s strongest ballads. Writing credits for Jem Griffiths, who had UK hits as an artist with tracks such as They, and Guy Sigsworth, who had worked with Seal and Björk, join Madonna’s, and the song was issued in some European markets as American Life’s third single. Though it received no promo video, this almost gospel-influenced track is an album highlight, with echoes of the glorious Like A Prayer evident for even the most casual of listeners.

Intervention

The folk influences on American Life (and Madonna’s previous album, Music) are strongest on this midtempo cut. The Mirwais production tricks so evident on Madonna’s vocals elsewhere are stripped away, and this delicate performance feels intimate and authentic. Madonna has never performed Intervention live, but snippets of the song appeared on the Re-Invention World Tour in another of American Life’s tracks, Mother And Father.

X-Static Process

Producer Stuart Price is best known for working with Madonna on 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor, but X-Static Process marks their first recorded collaboration and couldn’t be more different from later disco bangers such as Hung Up. This unusual, stripped-back ballad, written by the pair but produced by Mirwais, was recorded as a duet with one set of Madonna’s vocals riffing against another. The “Queen Of Pop” later described the experience of the song as “testing the water” with Price, who had previously worked as her musical director on 2001’s Drowned World Tour. The temperature must have been just right, given the successful partnership they formed for her next album.

Mother And Father

Earworms rarely come more addictive than this, and the fact that Mother And Father pairs a raw, very personal lyric with a kooky, almost Deee-Lite-influenced hook-heavy melody is testament to Madonna’s appetite for experimentation and her confidence in the collaborative pairing with Mirwais. There’s no evidence of irony in this autobiographical piece on the 1963 death of her mother and the rage Madonna felt at her father as he tried to rebuild his life. It’s a jarring listening experience despite the catchiness of the song.

Die Another Day

Perhaps one of the most controversial Bond themes ever, anyone expecting Madonna to draw from her big-ballad biography when invited to record the title track for the final Pierce Brosnan outing as 007 should have thought harder about that too-obvious assumption. This jittery electroclash hit performed strongly when issued ahead of the American Life album at the end of 2002, hitting No.8 in the US (making it one of the biggest Bond singles ever in that market) and going all the way to No.3 in the UK. A huge club cut that topped the US dance listings, Die Another Day is certainly the Bond theme that carries the most identifiable stamp of its performer, and, though John Barry strings can be heard, this is about as musically distinct from Adele, Louis Armstrong and Shirley Bassey as you can imagine.

Easy Ride

The reflective, string-drenched Easy Ride closes an ambitious album that many consider to be Madonna’s most underrated. The song offers a fitting summary of the entire record (“I want the good life but I don’t want an easy ride”), given that there were certainly more obvious musical directions American Life could have followed – but it’s an appropriate metaphor for Madonna’s entire career, which can sometimes feel like a one-woman mission to change the world. Guitarist Monte Pittman, who has worked with Madonna for years on her live shows, co-wrote the song, and it was remixed by DJ Tracy Young to blistering effect.

Buy Madonna vinyl at the Dig! store.

Original article: 22 April 2021

Updated: 22 April 2023

More Like This

Tequila Sunrise: How Eagles Wrote Their First Truly Classic Song
In Depth

Tequila Sunrise: How Eagles Wrote Their First Truly Classic Song

The song that kick-started the Don Henley and Glenn Frey partnership, Tequila Sunrise ushered in a new dawn for Eagles’ core artistic force.

‘Caustic Love’: Behind Paolo Nutini’s Bold And Adventurous Third Album
In Depth

‘Caustic Love’: Behind Paolo Nutini’s Bold And Adventurous Third Album

Sharp-tongued and full of vigour, Paolo Nutini’s third album, ‘Caustic Love’, broke a four-year silence from the Scottish singer-songwriter.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up