American Life: Madonna’s most intimate and purposeful album

I always get a little annoyed when I see Madonna’s ninth studio album, American Life, being remembered (and praised) by both press and reviewers as the Queen of pop’s most political record yet, even though I realize that’s mainly due to the imagery she chose and meant to promote it with, before having second thoughts and withdrawing the original video edited for the first single and title track (ahead of its TV world premiere) when the Iraq War broke out in March 2003.

Luckily enough, when Madonna’s team at Maverick delivered a veto to all the networks that had been sent advance promo copies of the American Life videoclip, local branches of the now defunct VIVA music channel in Germany, Switzerland and Poland didn’t get to read the mail in time and ended up airing the short film on March 31, 2003 (as originally scheduled). As a result, a TV rip from VIVA Poland, promptly leaked on the web by a meticulous viewer, offered Madonna’s fans the only chance to watch their icon’s most politically daring video, in full, throughout the following months.

Eleven years after those statements against George Bush Senior about hypocrisy underlying the whole 1992 ’family values’ election campaign, Madonna had a new Republican president to face and deal with. This time around, it was the warmonger George Bush Junior, just waiting for the key argument to legitimise his strikes all over Iraqi territories with, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack that took place in New York two years earlier.

Madonna’s video was indeed instrumental in getting a strong message through. It was her sarcastic effort to blame the restless spectacularization of death and war brutalities invading daily TV and newspapers to the point of getting ordinary people desensitized to violence, bloodshed and other atrocities. According to such purpose, the whole American Life withdrawn clip is set in the middle of a glamourous fashion show where models disguised as soldiers, Red Cross nurses, Middle Eastern kids and even mutilated victims take turns on the catwalk and entertain a kind of amused audience with mock military attacks. Then, Madonna and her chubby dancers in camouflage break through the runway on a Mini Cooper and the singer begins to rap by mentioning a string of benefits and luxuries she uses to rejoice in, finally asking listeners whether material wealth and prosperity equal true happiness. The original video version sent to TV stations, for the then cancelled premiere, ends with a George Bush double, among the parade guests, grabbing a mills bomb thrown by the diva against bystanders and using it as a random lighter for his cigar (which could easily be read as a display of smug attitude and abject disregard for the many casualties his aerial raids were causing).

Madonna on the American Life video set

The concept underpinning the album visual side (come to light during a very expensive photo session with Craig McDean and eventually developed by French duo M/M and their artistic visions) portrayed Madonna as some sort of graffitied female version of Che Guevara, whose infamous rebel heart and iconic picture turned out to be a good fit for the LP nonconformist nature. But labeling American Life just as a political record is truly, sadly, unfairly reductive. What Madonna released exactly 15 years ago is also a private diary turned into lyrics and warm melodies with the precious help of French producer Mirwais and his icy, start/stop folktronica, openly shared with the general public and widely influenced by Kabbalah teachings. For the first time ever since Nothing Really Matters (1998) and Nobody’s Perfect (2000), Madonna’s considerations on her past lives and stage personas become deeper and slightly contemptuous, without ever sounding too regretful. She finally unveils her weak spots and faults when singing about getting distracted by fame and fortune for many years, in order to chase the deceptive American Dream that trapped her mind into a bubble of stereotypes and fake ideals.

American Life is basically Madonna trying to open people’s eyes to hot topics like the ongoing mystification of reality operated by media and their bad influence upon today’s society (Nobody Knows Me), but also Madonna declaring her departure from the world of illusion par exellence with the disenchanted vocal harmonies, the guitar strums and the rubbery synths of Hollywood, a quite old song written in the ’90s about her conflicting relashionship with film industry that went through several variations before finding the right sonic outfit and placement (’This bird has flown’, she sings at one point on the track to imply something along the lines of ’Fuck off, dear acting career, watch me getting behind the camera in the near future’).

Madonna on the American Life video set

Despite her opinable rap skills, on the electro/disco stomper Mother And Father Madonna acknowledges her love/hate mixed feelings towards dad Silvio Ciccone, dating back to her mother’s tragic loss hard days. A more protective and tutelary side shines in its full glory on Intervention, the song she penned for her second baby Rocco (like her previous track Little Star from Ray Of Light was for her daughter Lola), whilst marital fidelity and romance are embraced and extolled to the utmost on a couple of folky tunes meant for her then beloved hubby, British movie director Guy Ritchie, who led the singer to neglect America for a while and try to morph into some sort of Lady Amber Leighton’s clone (his notoriously posh mother).

Based on such contents, it’s no wonder the overall intimacy and awareness marking this commercially not so lucky album has been (and is still) appreciated by most of La Ciccone’s fans.

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