There was something elegant -- at least for a pop star -- about the way Madonna approached middle age. Helmed by the brilliant producer William & Oslash;rbit, her album Ray of Light opened not only dance music, but Madonna herself, to a certain spiritual ecstasy. Music, her next album, was a delight -- intimate and infectious. Not only were the songs catchy and the lyrics surprising (when was the last time you heard the word "bourgeoisie" in a pop song?), but she and her producer Mirwais also displayed a thrilling slight of hand with the electronics at their disposal. However, on American Life, Mirwais has chosen the same tricks that he used in Music, which is a mistake. The material he's given is hardly interesting, and the result is an album that sounds tired and bad.
For that, we have only Madonna to blame. Unfortunately, she is under the impression that someone taught her how to play the guitar, and so on this album we're subjected to endlessly looped emo-style guitar. Armed with this instrument, Madonna wrote most of the songs herself, and describes them as "personal." The results are at their most embarrassing when, in the title track, she tries rapping about her life (the spelling is mine, the pronunciation Madonna's): "I'm drinkin' a soy latt & eacute; / I get a double shot-ay / It goes right through my bod-ay / And you know I'm satisfied." She sounds like Jar Jar Binks.
Writing this must have convinced her to try rhyming in other places in the album, like at the beginning of the song "Nobody Knows Me," where "guy," "shy," "fly" and "sky" are all grafted onto the ends of lines in an effort to create what Madonna would no doubt describe as a "poetic" effect. I kept wanting to "die."
And since Madonna says she wants to be taken seriously with this album -- and I ask why start now? -- I have to wonder: When did "American life" become "this modern life," which is what she sings through most of that song? "Modern" is when; "American" is where. The idea that modern means American is not only jingoistic, it's also culturally ignorant. It seems that the American star living in England is as unglobalized as the mindset that she's trying to sing about. And the worst part is: You can't even dance to it.
Publication date: 05/22/03