Madonna once again pervades ‘American Life’

Even if you don’t really like her music, you have to respect Madonna. Armed with a wretched singing voice and a knack for writing the worst lyrics I’ve ever heard, she has still managed to own the pop music landscape for over two decades. She was the first artist to take full advantage of the late-20th century mass media explosion. While the media controls and sometimes destroys many mainstream artists (see Michael Jackson and most bands featured on VH1 Behind the Music), Madonna’s always been in the driver’s seat, shaping herself as an icon via all available media outlets (just like Eminem). Her music is catchy and sometimes pretty cool, but it’s always taken a backseat to her image – be it the streetwise sassy alley cat of “Papa Don’t Preach,” the glamorous fashion plate of “Material Girl,” the quasi-religious psychosexual goddess of “Like a Prayer” or the 50s revival cheesecake pinup of “Vogue.”

So who the hell is she now? Well, Madonna seems to be struggling with that issue herself. On her latest release, American Life, her intent is to reject the American entertainment system that she exploited for her own success, the system that places image, youth and money above all else. She decries the shallowness of both her past and present selves, as well as taking aim at middle-class American culture. Pretty stupid, right? Absolutely. And critics have responded in kind by bashing the album really hard. I’ve rarely read reviews this negative.

Of course, music critics know nil. So I listened to American Life to see what all the fuss was about. (And this is really the point; Madonna’s music may suck, but she knows that there’s no such thing as bad press, or too much press. She’s an artist of public relations, and a damn good one too). Here’s the deal: If American Life were serious; that is, if Madonna was really trying to express her feelings through music, then this is one of the most dimwitted albums ever. But if it’s a joke and Madonna is just playing around with her image as per usual, then American Life is brilliant and hilarious. Honestly, I can’t tell, and I don’t want to listen to the album another time to find out. But it probably doesn’t even matter; as Nigel Tufnel once noted, “There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

Either way, the music itself isn’t bad at all. Madonna is a poor vocalist, but she has a knack for crafting great pop hooks. And she has developed into a pretty good rhythm guitarist, too. The acoustic guitar is actually a dominant instrument on this record, along with the dirty house beats and throbbing Roland 808 bass lines of producer Mirwais. The result is a streamlined, well-produced dance sound that complements the melodies quite well. I’m actually impressed at the musical textures Madonna and Mirwais came up with – they keep the album from dragging.

The instrumental interludes on songs like “Nobody Knows Me” and “X-Static Process” are far and away the best parts of the album.

And the lyrics: Oh are they are stupid. I mean, really stupid. Check out the “rap” break in “American Life”: “I do yoga and pilates / And the room is full of hotties / So I’m checking out their bodies / And you know I’m satisfied / I’m diggin’ on the isotope / This metaphysics s—- is dope / And if all this can give me hope / You know I’m satisfied.” Now, read it again and imagine Madonna rapping these lines. Not exactly Rakim, is she? Elsewhere in the song we get the moving couplet “I’d like to express my extreme point of view / I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew.” Whoa! That is one EXTREME point of view you have there, Madonna! I swear I’m not making up these lyrics. Who the f— writes stuff like this? She can’t be serious.

That’s just the first song on the album. It goes downhill from there, which is too bad, because as I said, the actual compositions themselves are okay. It’s just that you can’t help but focus on the sub-mental-hospital poetry masquerading as song lyrics. The otherwise passable anti-Hollywood diatribe “Hollywood” is ruined by this line in the chorus: “Music stations always play the same songs / I’m bored with the concept of right and wrong.” This is a side of Madonna the chameleonic diva that we as an audience haven’t seen – the complete idiot. The chorus of the album closer “Easy Ride” is even dumber: “I go round and round just like a circle / I can see a clearer picture / When I touch the ground I come full circle / To my place and I am home.” She just rhymed “circle” with “circle.” Is a seven-year old schoolgirl with a tin foil helmet ghostwriting for Madonna these days? And I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer these powerful lines from “Mother and Father”: “All I did was sit and cry / I cried and cried and cried all day / Until the neighbors went away / They couldn’t take my loneliness / I couldn’t take their phoniness / My father had to go to work / I used to think he was a jerk.” Damn those insensitive, phony neighbors! Who did they think they were, not taking Madonna’s loneliness?

Seriously, I feel for Madonna. I mean, her dad went to work for chrissakes! It’s only natural that she would think he was a jerk. Folks, this is easily the worst abuse of the English language I’ve ever heard.

If you really want to buy the album, I’m not going to stop you, but be forewarned: it’s painful. Yet there is an outside chance that Madonna’s actually being ironic here; she’s done stuff like this in the past as a kind of performance art joke. In that case, she’s a bona fide genius and the joke’s on me and the rest of her critics, because no one could come up with lyrics this bad intentionally.

But I get the feeling that American Life is really the work of a popular artist in a mid-life identity crisis trying desperately to emotionally and sincerely connect with an audience for the first time, instead of making disposable, fun dance music. After years of hiding behind different costumes and masks, Madonna really wants to tell us who she is and what she feels. And the best she can do is to write whiny, self-centered lyrics at a 3rd grade reading level.