Madonna sounds spent on this 'American Life'

April 20, 2003


Has the now-middle-aged Material Girl finally lost her edge? This is the question that hangs in the air as Madonna's new album, "American Life," arrives in stores Tuesday.

It's hard to cry for Ms. Ciccone, so ubiquitous has she been in and American pop culture ever since her self-titled debut 20 years ago, and so absurdly rich has she become via her relentless hot-topic button-pushing.

At age 44, Madonna is assured a place in musical history. She is second perhaps only to David Bowie as pop's greatest chameleon, uncannily adept at timing her reinventions and mainstream "appropriations" (some would say "ripoffs") of cutting-edge underground sounds.

What the heck is Madonna going on about in the lyrics for "American Life"?

Damned if I know, but maybe you can figure it out. Here is a sampling of some of her more lunkheaded lyrical utterances.

From "American Life":

"I'm drinking a Soy latte/I get a double shoté/It goes right through my body/And you know I'm satisfied/I drive my Mini Cooper/And I'm feeling super-dooper/Yo, they tell I'm a trooper/And you know I'm satisfied/I do yoga and Pilates/And the room is full of hotties/So I'm checking out the bodies/And you know I'm satisfied."

From "I'm So Stupid":

"Please don't try to tempt me/It was just greed/And it won't protect me/Don't want my dreams/Adding up to nothing/I was just looking for/Everybody's looking for something."

From "Love Profusion":

"There are too many questions/There is not one solution/There is no resurrection/There is so much confusion."

From "Mother and Father":

"There was a time I was happy in my life/There was time I believed I'd live forever/There was a time that I prayed to Jesus Christ/There was a time I had a mother/It was nice."

From "Nobody Knows Me":

"I've had so many lives/Since I was a child/And I realize/How many times I've died/I'm not that kind of guy/Sometimes I feel shy/I think I can fly/Closer to the sky."

Madonna is also unparalleled in her flair for media manipulation. Not even in his most cynical, ultra-arch moments could Pop Art guru Andy Warhol envision a Superstar who would become so universally famous simply because she was so very, very good at being famous.

Still, there's no denying that Maddy has had a tough haul of late.

Her last film--the desert-island romantic comedy "Swept Away"--may have been the biggest flop of her career, and that's saying something for the woman who made "Shanghai Surprise." (The one consolation is that the recent movie's tanking does not seem to have hurt her relationship with its director, her husband Guy Ritchie, the way the earlier film helped sour things with ex-hubby Sean Penn.)

Then the singer had planned to launch "American Life" with the usual tidal wave of promotional hype, starting with the video for the title track. But she was forced to pull the clip from circulation only days before it was set to premiere on MTV and VH1, and she wound up getting nothing but bad press.

Shot by director Jonas Akerlund (who has worked with the Smashing Pumpkins and the Prodigy) in February before the start of the Iraq war, the video was said to depict Madonna tromping along a fashion runway with dancers dressed in military fatigues. These scenes were intercut with images of war, and one of several alternate endings found the diva tossing a hand grenade at a President Bush look-alike.

The song has nothing to do with politics--ironically for the onetime Material Girl, it's a diatribe against materialism--but in a backpedaling statement released while other artists from R.E.M. to John Mellencamp were issuing poignant anti-war songs on the Net, Madonna said she decided it would be inappropriate to air the video out of respect for American troops.

That, and the fact that VH1, MTV and other mainstream video outlets had already made it clear that they would not run any anti-war videos. Oops!

Madonna has made and then pulled away from controversial videos before--there was the run-in with the Catholic Church over the clip for "Like a Prayer," and more recently, the contretemps over the video for "What It Feels Like for a Girl," a violent, suicidal fantasy directed by Ritchie as part "Thelma and Louise" and part "Crash."

But the latest incident is a rare example of a controversy working against Madonna, not for her. Could it be that she has lost her celebrated ability to read and profit from the pop-culture zeitgeist?

Finally--and most important here on the pop music desk--there is the album itself.

"American Life" is Madonna's 14th disc of all new material, and it finds her sounding more than a little bit tired, repetitive and all played out.

Madonna introduced her latest chameleonlike guise with 1998's "Ray of Light." There, she found inspiration in techno dance grooves and the underground rave scene, and William Orbit helped produce some of the best music of her career. Meanwhile, she took a lyrical turn toward new age mysticism, based on her then-recent discovery of kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism trendy in Hollywood.

Two years later, Madonna was still drawing heavily from the techno world on "Music," working with the French producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, but he introduced more of a lighthearted, kitschy vibe in the music (witness the wonderful retro-disco feel of the title track), while she ushered in a new sincerity in the lyrics (her relationship with Ritchie was still fresh at the time, and Maddy was glowing with the first blush of l-u-v.)

Ahmadzai is back at the helm on "American Life." But neither he nor Madonna is having nearly as much fun with the grooves this time out. The 11 tunes are more mid-tempo, less energizing and much less joyful. It's hard to imagine any of them get the blood pumping on the treadmill or at the aerobics class, much less making a spirited party mix tape.

Self-consciously hip and arty electronic beats, bleeps and burbles mix awkwardly with lame acoustic interludes a la "La Isla Bonita" or Madonna's remake of "American Pie."

Amazingly, after two decades in the business, the star still hasn't learned how to sing; she's abandoned the faux Broadway belting of her "Evita" period to return to the Chipmunks-on-helium chirp of her earlier career. Even worse, she tries rapping on several tunes, accomplishing nothing besides thoroughly embarrassing herself.

But the biggest problem is the lyrics.

It has always been a fool's game to look for undue meaning in Madonna's words--her music is supposed to be empty-headed dance-pop fun, after all--but "American Life" is mixed in a way that thrusts the singer's voice front and center, virtually screaming, "Pay attention to what I'm saying!" (especially during the aforementioned folkie-acoustic passages).

So what does Madonna have to say? Unfortunately, not a damn thing.

The new age navel gazing is far more obtrusive here than on her last two albums, and it's much more confusing and befuddled. "I'm not religious," the singer insists on "Nothing Fails." Yet Jesus Christ and Satan pop up in several songs, and there are more empty feel-good aphorisms dished out over the course of the disc than there are in a month's worth of "Oprah."

Maddy's rap against materialism in the title track is hard to accept, considering she has always celebrated vapid consumerism in the past, while her rant against the film industry in the song "Hollywood" is hypocritical coming from a star with a filmography like hers.

And we've already heard way too much about her troubled relationship with her dad and the loss she felt after the death of her mom.

It all adds up to a confused and confusing mess, and Madonna admits as much. "I don't know who I am. ... I don't know who I'm supposed to be," she croons in "X-Static Process."

This is a new twist from an artist who, while she has often contradicted herself, was at least generally pretty sure of who she was at any given moment, with little or no doubt about her goals and her belief in her own abilities.

What gives? Is Ms. Ciccone having a midlife crisis? Is suddenly she taking dopey pills? ("I'm so stupid," she sings on the song of the same name.) Or could it be that she's just as tired of Madonna as many of us are?

I first wrote about the notion of "Madonna Overdose" in the early '90s, when the level of hype accompanying her Sex book reached an all-time high, and we were forced to endure the infamous Evian bottle scene in "Truth or Dare" and the notorious interview with David Letterman where the singer spoke lewdly and carried a big cigar.

Back then, Madonna wisely withdrew from the pop arena after 1994's mediocre "Bedtime Stories" (a musical and thematic rehash of 1992's far superior "Erotica"), and she didn't return in earnest until "Ray of Light," by which point we were happy to have her back.

This time, she doesn't seem to be taking the hint. In addition to foisting "American Life" upon us, she has plans for an upcoming series of children's books and a box set celebrating her 20 years in the music biz, and she'll appear later in the year in "The Tulse Luper Suitcases" by director Peter Greenaway ("The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and His Lover"), who has excelled in controversy in his field almost as much as Madonna has in hers.

Really, Madonna: Don't you think a nice, long vacation is a little bit overdue at this point? You certainly seem to need the rest.