Madonna Finally Grows Up
‘American Life’ Is More Mother Than Material GirlBy Rahul Sarathy
Released April 22
For the past twenty years, Madonna has been fueling the music industry with both her antics and her music. From her controversial escapades to her infamous book on sex, Madonna has constantly challenged the media and its conformist views. But, what happens when the Material Girl grows up? Gone are the tales of unbridled youth and sexual exploits, and in their places are stories told by a 44-year-old mother reflecting upon her past in her new album, American Life.
In her 10th album, Madonna takes creativity to the next level, expressing herself through musical modes varying from European Techno to Twangy Blues to Bubble-Gum Pop.
The album opens with a set of five songs, all modeled after the techno-pop that she experimented with during Ray of Light. Madonna herself calls the first three songs a trilogy, the later two being an extension of her first single, American Life. With veteran producer and co-writer Mirwais Ahmadzai, Madonna questions the very ideals upon which the American Dream is based. However, her lyrics are often weak and even contradictory.
The second track, “Hollywood,” is a bitter rant on the media industry and its moguls. Its chorus is based on a blues scale and serves as the thematic transition into “I’m So Stupid,” a reflective look at her first 20 years in the biz. Musically, the songs are almost catchy, using innovative production techniques, but they are also responsible for the ever present grimaces of her fans which appear as they listen to Madonna try to rap. To put it bluntly, her rapping is terrible.
The middle part of the album takes us into a mellow world full of reflection. Here, the techno edge is gone and we instead see the softer side of lyricism, made up of undistorted vocals, a guitar and drums, and the occasional, fleeting string accompaniment. Hearing such a diva sing plainly, in her mezzo/alto range, is quite liberating.
“Intervention” is quite possibly the best song Sheryl Crow never wrote and “X-Statio Process” sounds like a reincarnation of the Indigo Girls. These songs boast the most polished lyrics on the album and can at times be even folksy. They are raw, untouched by production, and sound great. One highlight is the beautifully placed entrance of a gospel choir in “Nothing Fails,” echoing the allure of “Like a Prayer.” This is a new, more mature Madonna, comfortable with her life, looking back and singing about what matters to her now. And it works.
The end of the album jumps around the previous themes visited in her journey through Americana; it does so without interrupting the flow of her album, yet without bothering to make itself memorable. “Die Another Day” is flawlessly produced, but is a shameless song written for mass appeal and to fuel the latest Bond movie. An interesting twist is that this version contains a new ending, which is quite intelligently written. It serves as a good transition into the albums final track, “Easy Ride,” which is just an experiment asking the age-old question: How terrible would it sound if strings played in a techno song?
Yes, critics do cry out that every few years Madonna simply reinvents herself and that alone allows her to stay on the Billboard charts and to keep tapping the proverbial cash cow. While they do have a point, nearly everyone will agree that her level of fame is unprecedented and unmatched. Madonna has become an icon in music; aspiring artists and their managers study her past to try to emulate her eclectic style and persona, modeling their careers upon Madonna’s. Her latest album, American Life, is certainly not the best of her career, but it is nothing to be ashamed of. She went for something new, and at times, it is absolutely wonderful.