Soy lattes with double shot-ays would never be the same.
For the first couple decades of her career, Madonna took pride in never making the same album twice. This is an artist who, in the space of six years, pivoted from sexually-charged pop (Erotica) to seductive R&B (Bedtime Stories) to Broadway showtunes (Evita) to Earth Mother electronica (Ray of Light). The biggest surprise about 2003’s American Life, then, was that there were few surprises.
Three years earlier on Music, Madge further extended her Queen of Pop reign by aligning herself with Mirwais Ahmadzaï, then a relatively unknown Frenchman whose production style was built on swooping laser-like synths, finger-picked acoustic guitars and chopped-up rhythms that left you wondering whether your CD player had skipped.
This dream team was responsible for half of her hit 2000 album, including standouts Don’t Tell Me, Impressive Instant and Paradise (Not For Me). On this occasion, though, Madonna tasked Mirwais with co-producing the entire record.
While American Life’s sound failed to match its striking cover art – a graffiti portrait of Madonna cosplaying as Cuban rebel Che Guevara – its lyrics were a little more revolutionary. Reacting to the September 11 attacks and the impending Iraq War, the star posed all kinds of questions about the state of America, most notably its obsession with fame and fortune. No longer was Madonna the Material Girl.
Audiences appeared to be confused by this combination of the familiar and the radical, however. Although it topped the Billboard 200 in its first week, it moved 241,000 copies in its first week, compared to Music’s first-week total of 420,000, according to Luminate. It remained Madonna’s lowest-selling album until 2012’s MDNA. But does the record deserve a reevaluation two decades on? Twenty years after it first hit the shelves (April 21), here’s a ranking of its 11 tracks.
11. “X-Static Process”
While its title and the additional presence of co-writer Stuart Price would suggest some kind of ‘80s-tinged electric odyssey, X-Static Process is, in fact, a disappointingly bland campfire sing-along which has nothing in common with the dancefloor confessions that would soon follow. And even young readers of The English Roses – Madonna’s first children’s picture book which hit the shelves later that same year – would roll their eyes at cloying lines like “I always wished that I could find/Someone as beautiful as you/But in the process I forgot/I was special too.”
Not a cover of The Doors’ classic but an original co-penned with long-time guitarist Monte Pittman, Easy Ride closes the album in rather pedestrian style. Even Madonna sounds slightly bored as she tackles a theme — aging — that has constantly followed her career. No, the star doesn’t mention anything about releasing reggaeton versions of her biggest hits; instead, she finds comfort in the circle of life over the album’s folksy guitars and glitchy beats template before Mirwais wakes everyone up with a final whirlwind of bloops and bleeps.
9. “I’m So Stupid”
“But now I know for sure/That I was stupid/Stupider than stupid.” Madonna is in unusually self-flagellating mode here as she once again expresses disillusionment with the game called fame. (Admittedly, she later tars everyone else around her with the same brush). Unfortunately, the song’s slightly demo-ish quality and the rudimentary acoustic riffs detract from such bold statements.
8. “American Life”
The American Life campaign was derailed almost immediately when its title track’s video was pulled at the last minute. Deterred by the overblown response to Dixie Chicks’ criticism of George W. Bush, Madonna perhaps wisely acknowledged that a scene in which she throws a hand grenade at the 43rd might be one provocative step too far. Sadly, the drama surrounding the promo was more interesting than the song it accompanied. While most previous lead singles signaled an exciting new direction, the lackluster folktronica of American Life resembled an outtake from Music. Twenty years on, only the knowingly ridiculous “Mini Cooper/super duper” rhyme sticks in the memory.
Just as she did with Music, Madonna dedicates much of American Life to second husband Guy Ritchie. Although lines like “And I know that love will change us forever/And I know that love will keep us together” now sound rather unfortunate – the pair divorced five years later – this heartfelt declaration is nothing to be embarrassed about. Completing the trilogy of romantic songs that break up the album’s State of the Nation addresses, Intervention is one of those rare Madonna tracks that can be summed up as simplistic and sweet.
6. “Mother and Father”
Following in the footsteps of Promise to Try, Oh Father and Mer Girl, Madonna explores the devastation of losing her mom to breast cancer at the age of five. But instead of the usual somber ballad, Mother And Father harks back to the vibrant post-disco of her early days with some Nile Rodgers-esque guitar licks and a high-pitched vocal which channels Saturday Night Fever favorites Bee Gees. Madge even throws in a rap, albeit one seemingly penned with the aid of a rhyming dictionary (“My father had to go to work/I used to think he was a jerk”).
5. “Nobody Knows Me”
“I don’t watch TV/I don’t waste my time/Won’t read a magazine” a heavily Vocodered Madonna declares on the tabloid-rejecting Nobody Knows Me. Considering the press’ tepid response to American Life, and their downright hostile reaction to her recent starring role in the Ritchie-directed flop Swept Away, that’s probably a good thing. But this glitchy electro-funk number, not exactly a million miles away from her first collaboration with Mirwais, Music, is one of the record’s strongest uptempo offerings and a welcome reminder that Madonna could still cut it on the dancefloor.
Hollywood had the ignominy of becoming the first official Madonna single to miss the Hot 100 since Burning Up way back in 1983. Although hardly her crowning glory, it’s hard to see how American Life’s second release suffered such a fate. It’s packed with intriguing hooks, for one thing, from its sun-drenched acoustic riff and swooshing synths to the “push the button/change the channel” coda which twists Madonna’s voice beyond all recognition. Sure, its assertion that showbiz is a fickle mistress is hardly revelatory, but this would have made a far punchier introduction to the record than the title track. At the very least, it took center stage at the 2003 VMAs in a medley that found the Queen of Pop locking lips with would-be heirs to the throne Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
3. “Nothing Fails”
Co-written by future one-hit wonder Jem and Frou Frou’s Guy Sigsworth, Nothing Fails is considered by many fans to be the greatest lost Madonna single: the lack of a video meant that it became the album’s second to miss the Hot 100. It’s certainly one of her loveliest. A heartfelt ode to ‘the one,’ the album’s mid-point starts out in familiar fashion. But with additional producer Mark Stent on board, the folksy guitars and programmed beats are this time joined by a soaring gospel chorus, lending the track a hymnal quality that inevitably recalls career high Like A Prayer.
2. “Love Profusion”
It’s hard to listen to Love Profusion now without picturing supermodel Carolyn Murphy strutting down a sandy walkway surrounded by the ocean, red flowers and an abundance of fairies. But there’s more to the Estee Lauder favorite than its marketing power. American Life‘s final single is undoubtedly its most melodic: a loved-up but restrained Madonna gives her finest performance on the record, while Mirwais expands on his usual box of tricks with some gorgeous cooing backing vocals and kaleidoscopic synths. Tragically, this was blocked from the U.K. top 10 by a Christmas single from novelty act The Cheeky Girls.
1. “Die Another Day”
Die Another Day is undeniably considered the most divisive James Bond offering, picking up nominations at the Golden Globes, the Grammys and the Razzie Awards. But Madonna and Mirwais understood the assignment perfectly. The 007 template needed mixing up – Tina Turner, Sheryl Crow and Garbage had helped take the bombastic rock theme to its logical conclusion. And while Die Another Day retains their flair for drama (those piercing strings, the inspired clomping footsteps), its squelchy synths, glitchy electroclash beats and post-modern lyrics brought the Pierce Brosnan era kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Following the franchise’s recent trend for dreary, beatless ballads, perhaps Madonna should return for whoever replaces Daniel Craig.