Madonna’s ‘American Life’ at 20

Andrew Martone
19 Min Read

I was just shy of 13 when Madonna released American Life, and it became the first Madonna album in my ever-growing music collection. I got my copy two weeks after it was released, for my 13th birthday, alongside The Very Best of Cher and a brand new 5-CD, 2-cassette stereo (which still works, by the way). I was a full-fledged VH1 junkie by this time, and had gotten a solid education in Madonna, her controversies, and the music she’d released over the half-decade leading up to American Life. My formal entry into Madonna’s albums had been years in the making.

I devoured American Life. I wouldn’t realize it until later, but it stands as one of Madonna’s most personal and vulnerable, not to mention cohesive bodies of work. It’s folktronica-tinged pop with deeply introspective lyrics. She not only provides critique on the American life and dream, but also does some significant reflecting on herself, career, love, motherhood, and loss. Listening to it today, with a matured ear and the glimmers of nostalgia sprinkled throughout the listening experience, American Life feels like brilliance in all its honesty.

“Do I have to change my name? Will it get me far?,” she considers on the eponymous opening cut. American Life marked yet another sharp turn for the ever-shape-shifting Madonna. After conquering techno and electronica and touching on country, Madonna found folktronica as she examined the American way of life and looked within herself to create her most introspective record to date. Celebrated by fans and dismissed by many critics, American Life remains a polarizing record from one of music’s biggest names.

At times, American Life looks and at times feels like a rebellion. The imagery of the album features Madonna, dressed militantly, wielding guns, and even imitating the famous shot of Che Guevera on the album’s cover. The entire packaging imitates redacted government documents and wielding an uzi. Yet for all the militant influences of the exterior, it’s actually more of a statement of brutal vulnerability. She juxtaposes her critiques and analyses of the American dream and experience with songs about love and reflection, touching on motherhood and the loss of her own mother.

Madonna crafted almost the entire album alongside Mirwais Ahmadzai, who she began working with on 2000’s Music. In leaning into the folk aesthetic of the album she even learned how to play guitar in the ramp up to the album’s release. And while she doesn’t appear to have performed any of the guitar parts on the album itself, she often played it during the album’s promotional appearances and subsequent tour, the Re-Invention Tour.

The title track also represented another notable moment in Madonna’s career. It’s one of the only times she didn’t push ahead with a controversial visual. The woman who had drawn attention to herself for everything from rolling around on stage in a wedding dress, rocking a cone bra, releasing a sex book, and cavorting with a Black Jesus elected to shelve the song’s music video due to the United States’ entry into war with Iraq.

Make no mistake, war was already raging in Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Madonna was aiming to make an anti-war statement, at one point even saying, “at any given moment there’s at least 30 wars going on in this world and I’m against all of them.” However, the entry into Iraq proved to be more significant enough to warrant reconsideration.On April 1 (of all days), Madonna made the following statement:

“I have decided not to release my new video. It was filmed before the war started and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.”

Talk about a significant move. Madonna never shied away from controversy. However, to get a fuller sense of what was happening at this time, not long before, The Dixie Chicks faced severe backlash in the face of critical comments of President George W. Bush and the war. Though the reshot video is more tame, it doesn’t detract from the messaging of the song.

“American Life” sets the tone for the album to come. It’s a touch flippant at moments, but delivers a crisp commentary on the American experience, interwoven with her own experiences. She recalls the numerous extremes she’s tried, yielding very mixed results. There’s also the revelatory case of the literal “fuck it”’s that she catches mid-record, which precedes the rap verse to end all rap verses. Is it absurd? Yes. But maybe it’s supposed to be. What better way to mock the American experience and dreams than to have a 40-something mother of two rapping about her soy latte, Mini Cooper, and yoga?

And if you didn’t think she had street cred after that, think again, and listen again. Better yet, spin the Missy Elliott remix, which laced Madonna with a dose of Virginia hip hop flavor. The verse actually lands much better over the rap-oriented beat, and Missy drops some fire herself in addition to her ever-underrated production contributions. Regardless of the rest of the verse, Madonna’s closing line in the rap, “I’m just living out the American dream, and I just realized that nothing is what it seems,” does have a certain resonance to it.

That bar also serves as a perfect precursor for the continued commentary on “Hollywood.” She offers a flippant take on the glamour and ghoulishness of the city of dreams. “There’s something in the air in Hollywood,” she muses. Even that can be interpreted two ways: either the air of opportunity and success, or the literal toxicity in the air that makes the LA environment infamous.

She encourages shining your light, but offers the reminder, “this time it’s got to be good… cause you’re in Hollywood.” She even offers a brief but searing commentary on the music industry, by complaining “music stations always play the same song.” The song serves as a warning, and at the end of the video, she simply unplugs the television responsible for the music and finds relief in the silence.

As she continues to critique the American dream, Madonna also offers commentary on herself. On the self-deprecating midtempo “I’m So Stupid,” she reflects on her own past mistakes and naïveté. The song, which begins with an acoustic introduction, gets pierced by an over-processed note that makes it hard to discern where Madonna ends and the computer begins.

Things take a notable turn after the album’s first three tracks, and Madonna points further inward. “Love Profusion”’s dismissive opening line, “There are too many questions,” is striking over strumming guitars, which expand into driving beat with electronic flourishes. She’s stuck, but still defiant as ever, making the first of a few Christian-dismissals with “There is is no resurrection.” However even that could be taken to simply be saying “you only live once.” Madonna has a knack for layering meaning within her lyrics.

She cleverly shrouds herself in Auto-Tune adjacent vocal effects on “Nobody Knows Me,” as she issues warnings of the world (which is “a setup”), and dismissals of people’s views (“I won’t let a stranger give me a social disease”). It makes for a striking, yet satisfying contrast.

“Nothing Fails,” which sits squarely in the middle of the album, is a tremendous love song and serves as the album’s glorious centerpiece. The song was written by Guy Sigsworth and Jem Griffiths, who produced a Dido-esque demo under the name “Silly Thing.” Listening to that demo against the final product showcases how Madonna’s small lyrical changes and the trio of Madonna, Mirwais and Mark “Spike” Stent on the boards transform the record into something fully her own. Against “Don’t Tell Me”-esque strumming Madonna declares “I’m not religious, but I feel so moved, makes me want to pray.” With a choir that follows, it’s a clear-cut nod to “Like A Prayer,” albeit a less cheeky version. Absent are the double entendres (and music video) that made it so controversial, and what remains establishes a deeper emotional connection.

On two back-to-back ballads, “Intervention” and “X-Static Process” she’s at her most vulnerable. She exudes uncertainty on both songs, but in different capacities. She’s conscious of the changes love will affect on “Intervention.” She’s in the throes of love at the tiny hands of her son Rocco, fully confident in love’s ability to ultimately solve and save everything. It’s a fantastically crafted pop song, with just enough percussion to tap your feet to, a chorus that’s catchy, and a hard-hitting bridge that opens with the gut-punching “In the blink of an eye, everything can change.”

She continues that vulnerability on “X-Static Process,” where she departs from pop sensibilities and instead leans into a poetic folk style for this confessional. She opens the song in front of acoustic guitars with a meek vocal. “I’m not myself when you’re around,” she confesses. The song is a rumination on her mistakes in previous relationships. The song ruminates on the consequences of giving too much power to men (and Jesus/organized religion). She gives men too much power, and in doing that finds herself in an existential crisis. It’s only through developing her own self awareness that she’s able to realize her errors and reaffirm herself.

Though the rapping on “American Life” is largely panned and mocked, Madonna dropped another rap verse on the deeply personal “Mother And Father.” That application proves much more effective in both delivery and content. The whimsical video game-sounding keyboard makes for a much better backdrop for a rap verse. While grappling with the magnitude of the loss, she bluntly describes how she “cried and cried all night and day” after her mother’s death when she was 5. “Oh mother, why aren’t you here with me? No one else saw the things that you could see,” she laments. When she focuses on her father, she concedes how she misconstrued his reaction to her mother’s death. What she initially interpreted as lack of emotion was really just his own processing of grief and enduring his broken heart.

The only significant misstep of American Life boils down to a sequencing decision. The penultimate cut is Madonna’s James Bond theme “Die Another Day,” which was released in late 2002. Though the song was a top 10 hit (making it the most successful on the album then and now; it’s the most-streamed track), and has a sonic profile that’s at home amongst some of these songs, it simply doesn’t fit thematically. It’s also sequenced amongst the album’s otherwise vulnerable and introspective second half, sandwiched ballads about parental grief and life. Though its sonic profile isn’t out of place on the album, the quick tempo and topic-matter don’t fit amidst Madonna’s. It’s a jarring disruption amidst a series of otherwise beautiful and honest expressions. It would have been more apt to simply flip it with the closing track and tack it on at the end and as a bonus track.

She quickly returns to that introspection on the album’s somber closing cut, “Easy Ride.” It serves as a perfect encapsulation for the album. It evolves from an acoustic record, into a trudgery of melancholic determination thanks to an orchestra and evolving complex beat, that at times is throbbing and at others hard and crackling. “I don’t want an easy ride,” she reveals. “What I want, is to work for it.” It’s a powerful statement that resonates differently when considering the commercial deficit that followed American Life. It also resonates when considering the extra work she put in in the weeks around the album’s release to create a new video for her lead single.

Despite scrapping the “American Life” video, Madonna did find a way to leap into some controversy before the American Life album cycle was over. Though it seems like a universe away, in the months following the album’s release, Madonna delivered an unforgettable performance on the MTV Video Music Awards stage, along with a cast of now-legendary women. Alongside Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Madonna and her then-GAP collaborator Missy Elliott performed a medley of “Like A Virgin” and “Work It” that was centered around “Hollywood.”

The performance, in which Spears and Aguilera dressed as brides akin to Madonna’s VMAs debut and Madonna dressed as the groom, led to what only needs to be recounted today as “the kiss.” It was one of the most talked-about moments in the show’s history, and today feels like child’s play on the spectrum of controversies. With some different editing, it also might have been an even bigger deal, if that’s possible. Between Madonna kissing Britney and Christina (who’s kiss got nearly forgotten), whoever was in charge of angles had a camera right on Britney’s ex Justin Timberlake. Were that shot not featured, the term might be “the kisses.”

In late 2003, Madonna expanded the album cycle further and released Remixed and Revisited. The 7-track EP compiles four remixes from American Life, an extended version of her GAP collaboration with Missy Elliott, and the aforementioned MTV VMAs performance, as well as a b-side from 1994’s Bedtime Stories.

Depending on who you ask and how you choose to examine the facts, American Life is either a massive flop or a massive triumph. From a chart perspective, it certainly leans towards the former. It marked the beginning of Madonna’s absence from the Hot 100’s summit, which still continues 20 years later. But even that data can be examined from another angle. All five of the album’s singles hit number one on Billboard’s Dance Charts, adding five more to Madonna’s record-setting now-50 number ones on the chart. That’s no easy feat.

Throughout the album, Madonna sounds more herself than ever before. Relying on sparse, folktronic productions, gives her the space to be more raw and honest than she’s ever been. And she shows that she’s still not afraid to stir up some controversy on her own terms, and question the American ideals and way of life.

American Life closed a chapter for Madonna. She’d been careening towards this level of introspection since Ray Of Light, and would go on to squarely abandon it two years later when she returned with the massively successful Confessions on A Dancefloor, led by the ABBA-sampling disco-pop fodder of “Hung Up.” Gone were the ballads and deep reflection, (and military garb and dark hair), and instead here danced Madonna, with red hair and pink leotard. Though she’s found herself in reflection since, nothing has ever matched the depths she reached on American Life.


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