Sunday, October 12, 2008

On "American Life"

Being a Madonna fan my age--and, relevancy be damned, there are many of us--is strange. We grew up and became musically aware in her era of Kabbalah and children, having completely missed her Material eighties days and too young at the time to understand the voguing, sex books, and dalliances with the likes of Warren Beatty and Dennis Rodman that defined her early-90s persona.

The earliest Madonna record I remember is 1998's Ray of Light. I gave the album standard middle-school treatment, listening to the singles on repeat while ignoring the other songs. (Frankly, they still don't impress me much, but that's another story.) I fell in love with the title track--its dizzying array of synthesizers and Eastern mysticism took my breath away--and learned the words to Nothing Really Matters and Power Of Goodbye by heart. My unequivocal favorite song, though, was Frozen, and as I play it now I'm reminded of the solemn, heartbreaking impression it left on me. It was the rawest I'd ever heard her; here was this legend, this musical icon of my time, sounding not just sad but hurt. It also spoke to me on a different level: "If I could melt your heart" became Madonna's personal plea to me, to shed the flimsy heterosexual skin I'd grown and finally reveal "the key." That sounds silly now, but back then, the ominous strings and stabbing synth lines sounded just as threatening as they were beautiful.

In 2000, Music came out, but it's an album I'd only come to appreciate years later. I was too busy getting into her older stuff, listening curiously to the untrained pluckiness of her Borderline-era voice and reveling in the naive lust found in songs like Into the Groove. I had no time for fake techno or brooding, careerist ruminations; if Madonna wanted to tell me what it felt like for a girl, it would have to wait.

I was also getting into--and it pains me to put it this way--indie music. I was just discovering bands like The Shins and Of Montreal, listening to the aching pleas of Morrissey like a student hearing an admirable, experienced professor, and pretending I understood the melancholic humor of Tigermilk. Madonna was falling out of my favor; her manufactured dance-pop held an increasingly small place in my ears and in my heart.

But then something happened. That something was American Life, Madonna's critically panned and commercially ignored album of dissent. Here was the most un-Madonna of Madonna albums; chopped guitars, introspective lyrics, and some of the catchiest tunes I'd ever heard (seriously, that into to "Mother And Father" gets me every time.)

And Madonna herself sounded more real than she did even on "Frozen." "There was a time I was happy in my life," the aforementioned "Mother And Father" begins, and she goes on to tell her father that "No one else I guess could hurt me like you did." I was intrigued, fascinated, and--most importantly--absolutely enamored. I listened to American Life almost exclusively for the next few months; it came out in April of 2003, and I was still listening to it every day on the daily bus rides to and from summer camp.

And how could I not? Madonna had indie-fied herself, willing to take artistic risks and truly open her heart (to me.) The album begins with self-doubt--"Do I have to change my name?"--and then that first synth line of the title track answers as an affirmative. Clipped guitars give way to melodramatic springs as Madonna condemns the modern American dream, and my fifteen-year-old self couldn't agree more. I was just beginning to directly address my homosexuality, but the world--or at least my central-New-Jersey world--didn't seem accepting of me at all. Yet, sadly, it was "the best thing I've seen" and "not just a dream."

"Hollywood" comes next on the album, and it's a fine song, only notable for Madonna's creepy vocal descent into husky masculinity in the track's final moments (thanks, postmodern production values!) The third song on the album, "I'm So Stupid," has only grown more relevant to me with time, and when Madonna says that she "wanted to be like all the pretty people," well, there's a basement of a club on the western edge of SoHo that I can't help but think of. But back in 2003, the "pretty pictures all around me" seemed to me to reference everyone I knew, happily going about their heterosexual business, excluding me without even--or despite--knowing it. And God, did I try to fit in, but even the baggiest of Abercrombie jeans couldn't hide my shame. "Stupider and stupid," indeed.

"Love Profusion" is just a gorgeous love song, and "Nobody Knows Me" is the kind of song I imaged I'd live by if I one day became famous. I could go on and on about this album, but I'll glide over most of the rest and just briefly mention a couple other songs. "Nothing Fails" isn't just, as some charge, a pale imitation of "Like a Prayer," it is like a prayer, only of a more tempered and world-weary sort; Madonna has traded her naivete for a red string bracelet, and wants to share her revelation with us. "Easy Ride" was my quiet anthem in high school. "What I want is to work for it," that "it" at the time being a host of things: college, acceptance, a boyfriend, getting out of East Brunswick.

Anyway, I could go on and on, but instead I'll kindly direct the rest of your attention to "X-Static Process," the eighth track on the album. It is beautiful. The only backing instruments are a quiet guitar, an occasional muffled piano note (a high C, if you're wondering), and Madonna's own harmonized voice. Sometimes, she sings two different verses at the same time, but rather than sounding cluttered it accomplishes just what the song wants to achieve: that loss of identity, that feeling of being "not myself," that dubiety of whether to even care. Eight songs in, and Madonna still doesn't know if she has to change her name. It is my favorite song off the album, and one of my favorite songs of all time (truthfully, I included "Love Profusion" on my top-20-songs list instead only because I figured it would be a more accessible introduction to the album.)

Back then, hearing someone else say that "I forgot that I was special too" meant the world to me. I needed someone else to acknowledge that feeling of hopelessness, of never knowing whether you could be true to yourself and others; Madonna not only did that, but she also offered salvation. Hard work, tears, and love would get me through my mess of an adolescence, and I eventually found those three things: I busted my ass to get As in high school, cried my way through lonely Saturday nights, and when I came out to my parents and realized they loved me just the same, I couldn't believe I'd ever doubted them. Stupider and stupid.

Most Madonna fans I know skip over this album; they don't sing its lyrics with the same passion they reserve for, say, Like a Prayer or even Confessions. Dear reader, I implore you: give this album another chance. I can honestly say that it changed my life, and it's still a great listen, tremendous relief from the matronly emptiness of Hard Candy and a touching reminder of Madonna's power, talent, and artistic concern. And if you've never heard it before, then buy (or download) it; while far from perfect, I promise that it's worth your money and time.



Anonymous said...

Oh, God, I can't believe I stumbled upon this post, because I've just recently been thinking this same thing, and just told my younger sister that (she's close to your age).

I was one that paid scant interest to the album at the time; I didn't hate it, but never really listened to the whole thing. I decided to add it to my library a few months ago and I've been liking it more and more to where I now regard it as one of my favorite M albums (I also feel that way about Erotica as a dance album, which was overlooked at the time as well).

American Life is damn near a folk album! Folk electronica, if there is such a thing. I love Madonna, and I find myself wanting to listen to this album more than any of her others right now. I'm glad to know there may be others who appreciate this album like I do. I know it gets a bad rap (excuse the pun) for her rap about soy lattes/Pilates in the title song- I admit that is kinda stupid.

Also, I actually really like the majority of Hard Candy, as just a fun dance album, but that may be because I grew up with Madonna (born 1980, and I worshiped her as a kid/tween) and when I first heard it I really thought it had an old-school 80's sound, reminding me of her music I loved when I was little. Cut us oldsters some slack ;).

Jess and Josh said...

You know, I have a feeling I'd like Erotica a lot more if I only gave it a fair chance. I just feel like part of that album's importance lies in its context, and since that context is before my time, I worry I may not appreciate it as much as I could. In other words, I wonder how timeless it is, if at all.

I love half of Hard Candy for that reason too; but after this, and okay even Confessions had deep moments, and especially since she's been getting more self-aware and introspective--usually with fantastic results--since, well for a while, but I'll say Music, I don't know...for her to put out frivolous dance-pop at this point just seems kind of lazy to me, and that sentiment diminishes my enjoyment of the album musically. Also I really think half of it is average at beast (sorry Madge.)

And hey, I would have LOVED to have been born in 1980. This sounds so cliche coming from an NYU student, but I sort of wish I'd grown up in the 80s; there was much to love in the 90s as well, but the 80s seemed to take it to a whole new level. And it would have been really cool, I bet, to see Madonna's star rise; I can't imagine a music world without her already a legend, and it would be an interesting perspective to go back.


LOLSAM said...

You forget that at the end of "X-Static Process" when she says "I was just as good as you" it sounds like she says "I was just as gay as you."

At least it does to me.

And it makes me smile every time.

Anonymous said...

"Easy Ride" is my anthem. I'm glad to hear that someone else loves it/knows it exists/(knows all the words?)

Anonymous said...

American Life is an amazing album. It's raw, honest, pure; there's no bullshit.
BTW, 'Mother and Father' was incredible on the Re-Invention tour!