Madonna’s ‘American Life’ Is An Underrated Gem
April has been a big month for Madonna fans. The Queen of Pop’s Hard Candy LP recently celebrated its 12th birthday, while American Life turns 17 today (April 21). Both albums have been relegated to the footnotes of M’s holy discography, which is an injustice — particularly in the case of American Life. Squeezed between the mega-successful Music and Confessions On A Dance Floor eras, the pop icon’s 9th album was a commercial disappointment… at least by her lofty standards. That’s no reflection, however, upon its quality.
My only gripe with American Life is the title track. A commentary on consumerism and the Bush administration, the song seethes with understandable rage. What could have been a watershed moment in pop culture was crippled by clumsy lyrics and a perplexing video. The tongue-in-cheek rap made it an easy target for media mockery, while the original visual, which found Madonna throwing a grenade at George W. Bush, was quickly scrapped after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Unfortunately, the resulting controversy derailed the whole era.
The gag is that “American Life” is very much an outlier on the album. Instead of politics, most of M9 is concerned with spiritual and personal growth. Take the simultaneously dreamy and dismayed “Love Profusion,” which is a brave profession of love in the face of an existential crisis (“I have lost my illusions, what I want is an explanation”). It’s an unusually adult pop song that contains some of Mirwais’ most intriguing production flourishes. It also boasts an achingly beautiful video — courtesy of director Luc Besson — and my favorite Madonna remix of all time (the Headcleanr Rock Mix from Remixed & Revisited).
Equally majestic is “Nothing Fails.” A stripped-back, gospel-tinged love song, this expresses the same sentiment as “Like A Prayer” — albeit through the lens of a woman with decades of life experience. Pop rarely verges on the profound, but this sure does. While “Love Profusion” and “Nothing Fails” find Madonna at her most introspective, she didn’t scrimp on bangers either. I know a lot of fans have mixed emotions about “Hollywood,” but I love it. Other notable floorfillers are the defiant “Nobody Knows Me” and completely bonkers “X-Static Process.”
When you throw in “Die Another Day” from the similarly-titled James Bond film and hidden gems like “Mother and Father,” you’re left with an incredibly solid album that deserves to be held in the same esteem as other offerings from Madonna’s early ’00s revival. In fact, it pushed the envelope about as far as pop could go at the time, which prompted the queen to take inspiration from the past (i.e. disco) on Confessions. To take in the full scope of the era by playing American Life followed by Remixed & Revisited. It’s a trip down memory lane well worth taking.
“American Life” (original, uncensored video):