Happy 15th Anniversary to Madonna’s ninth studio album American Life, originally released April 21, 2003.
For close to a decade dating back to 1994’s Bedtime Stories, Madonna gracefully held the music world in the palm of her hand. With two subsequent albums and an accomplished soundtrack to an even more accomplished film (1996’s Evita), Madonna had taken back the creative power misplaced with Erotica (1992). That record sought controversy over content as its lure and failed to find followers.
The anticipation for what Madonna would do next was palpable and “Die Another Day” was more than an adequate appetizer for what was to come. Unveiled in the fall of 2002, the kinetic single was both the theme song to the James Bond film of the same name and the unofficial first offering from her then untitled ninth studio album upon which it would also feature.
As winter gave way to spring, Madonna was now preparing to unleash American Life and its titular track as the set's “official” debut single. The accompanying music video, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, was fitted with all the trimmings of a controversy—a rarity for Madonna during this stretch of time when the focus was on her craft, not a random firestarter.
It was with that in mind that she unexpectedly pulled the plug on the original video—later subject to reshoots—and then issued the following statement on April 1st, 2003 in lieu of the burgeoning Iraq War: “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.”
Public perception toward Madonna's statement—or apology—was mixed. It was a glaring portent promising that American Life was to meet stormy waters on its April 21st, 2003 reveal date. But despite any of the difficulties that were to come for it, the record's roots were firmly planted in only the richest artistic soil, the same soil that had nurtured its preceding effort Music (2000).
Music had been eagerly tended to by Madonna and the French producer/instrumentalist Mirwais Ahmadzaï. Theirs was an enthusiastic and imaginative relationship, one with an exacting eye for detail and precision and this same work ethic carried over into the very early stages of the American Life sessions in late 2001. As the long player's form began to take shape, it received embellishments and contributions from fellow songwriters, producers and musicians such as Mark “Spike” Stent, Guy Sigsworth, Jem Griffiths, Monte Pittman and Stuart Price. However, it was Madonna and Ahmadzaï that kept the overall record on track to become what is was to be—an edgy, eclectic confessional tome.
Topically, everything is on the table here—Madonna's second marriage (“Love Profusion,” “Nothing Fails”), her relationship with her parents (“Mother and Father”), her place in the modern world (“American Life,” “I'm So Stupid”). Nothing was off limits. All of these lyrical battle studies regarding love, family, and self-discovery are intelligent, feeling and, sometimes, brutally candid.
Musically, Madonna delves further into her own niche experimentation with electronic and guitar-flecked pop that came to life on Music, the latter genre giving way to a folk base on American Life. The genres are suited to each other, managing to function independently (“Nobody Knows Me”) and collectively (“Love Profusion”). Could a few of these songs be labeled “danceable?” Certainly they could, but, Madonna didn't restrict them to that genre box alone. In fact, their surrounding production minutiae—samples, loops, live strings and acoustic guitar—suggested an emphasis for long term listening versus momentary consumption on any dance floor. And, in a classic Ciccone chess move going all the way back to “Crazy For You,” the ballad method is utilized stunningly to showcase Madonna as a top tier vocalist in her own right, as evidenced by “Intervention,” “Nothing Fails,” “X-Static Process,” and “Easy Ride.”
As a body of work, American Life presents itself as the product of a woman with a sense of artistic clarity and wisdom. Its only equal in Madonna's canon is Ray of Light (1998).
Upon its late April 2003 unveiling, the LP immediately polarized critics and fans. Either they praised or panned it, there was little to no middle ground. Its sales were devastatingly slow. Taking into account “Die Another Day,” American Life produced six singles in all, four commercial, two promotional—almost all of the positive traction they gained happened abroad, with “Die Another Day” as the lone domestic exception.
The rejection of American Life signaled the end of an era for Madonna, as she has yet to challenge herself, or her audience, as audaciously as she did on this collection. Yet, American Life has aged beautifully, the abundance of its vision to make Madonna's private challenges and triumphs into open-air personal politics that listeners could see themselves in was intimate and eloquent. It is, without question, the last album where Madonna pushed the envelope where it mattered—musically.
Editor’s Note: Read more about Harrison’s perspective on Madonna’s ‘American Life’ album in his forthcoming book, ‘Record Redux: Madonna,’ available August 2018. His current books ‘Record Redux: Spice Girls,’ ‘Record Redux: Carly Simon' and 'Record Redux: Donna Summer' are available physically and digitally now.