By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
First of all, you have to understand that a superstar can’t get a break. We build ’em up to bust ’em back down, and we delight in watching that fall. Madonna can’t win in the eyes of the critics — and she can’t lose in the minds of her fans. So, Madonna has put out her new American Life, which as of this writing has reached No. 1 on the SoundScan charts — her second No. 1 in a row, following Music in 2000 — and its utter putridity according to the pundits is as predictable as sunshine in L.A. Why? Because Madonna’s a superstar, and because her name is Madonna.
Perversely — you also have to realize that I thought Madonna’s version of Swept Away was just as good as the original movie, which never was all that great — I’ve always enjoyed getting contrary in this kind of situation: To slag Madonna, I figure, is so easy that her critics just have to be wrong, since they’re wrong about most everything about 90 percent of the time. Anyway, what’s clear is this: People like to hate Madonna because she’s successful, and because she’s a successful woman. Perhaps far worse, haters hate Madonna because she just does not have to give a shit what you all think.
Actually, everything Madonna does continues to be right, and that includes pulling from release her first video from American Life, which featured explosions, a runway show of high-fashion army fatigues and Madonna dancing in a military uniform; at the end of it, she threw a hand grenade into the lap of a President George W. Bush look-alike. (In the new version, she’s merely singing in front of a backdrop of different countries’ flags.) The backlash to her decision to pull the video included harsh words from the heavyweight political commentator Shakira, who called Madonna “spineless.” Maybe so, but the “controversy” over the video was typically perfect pre-release publicity for the new album.
“Do I have to change my name?” Madonna asks at the outset of American Life. No, Madonna, it’s too late, we know where you live. On the other hand, maybe she should change her name; that plus plastic surgery might allow her to get her music heard without the auto-wall of killjoy crap she’s got to climb every time she puts out a new record (or makes a movie, or walks her dog). For a fact, American Lifewouldn’t be getting slammed if it was by a 22-year-old newcomer named Desirée or Shaquina or XXXtina. In order to deal fairly with Madonna, or with any veteran artist, eventually you have to toss all of the baggage you carry about that artist’s past achievements or failures (and, as much as possible, your own) and try to look at the product as if it’s by someone you never heard of.
What it takes to appreciate Madonna is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of a 16-year-old girl. (I’ve tried it, must say it feels pretty good.) More than any big-struttin’ ho, Madonna was always and continues to be America’s older sister, someone the little girls understand and can receive some basic guidance from. That’s a level she aims at with even the more politicized tunes on American Life, such as the titular opening track. The anti-materialism lyrics of “American Life” are a decently stated put-things-in-perspective kind of thing: “I drive my Mini Cooper/And I’m feeling super-duper/Yo, they tell me I’m a trooper/And you know I’m satisfied/I do yoga and Pilates/And the room is full of hotties/So I’m checking out the bodies/And you know I’m satisfied.” Sure, coming from the very wealthy Material Girl, the above-stated sentiments might be a bit much to swallow. Seems to me, however, that she’d probably know the truth in those words better than anyone. In an electronically messed-with voice over semi-garagey electric-guitar strums and rudimentary pickings, “I’m So Stupid” warns on the perils of fame: “I wanted to be/pretty as the people around me/But now I know for sure that I was stupid.”
Her theme is, as you’d expect, finding her place in the world in the arms of her love, with all of the complications that entails. The ballad “Nothing Fails” finds Madonna fondling her acoustic guitar, gazing sensitively into the gauzy distance and thinkin’ about stuff. “When I get lost in space I can return to this place, ’cause . . . you’re the one . . . I’m not religious, but I feel so moved.” It’s been theorized that Madonna has lost her gift for tuning into the Zeitgeist, but in this unpretentious and well-sung number she displays an almost scientific approach to finding a “universal” message that Christians, Jews, Muslims and Shriners can all smile and nod to. But in “Static Process” — “When you’re around I don’t know who I am” — trouble brews as Madonna finds herself losing her self in her lover’s ego. She’s giving the little girls a word of caution: “Jesus Christ, will you look at me?” — domestic bliss ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Then again, as she says in “Love Profusion,” “Only you make me feel good.” Just look before you leap, ’kay, girls?