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

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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.

Buy Madonna vinyl at the Dig! store.

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