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American Heart 

Coming home to Madonna

Thursday, May 8 2003
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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 Life wouldn’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?

Aided by Music’s returning producer/co-writer, Mirwais Ahmadzai, American Life boasts a leaner and less glossily electronic approach than their previous collaborations, and is loaded with funky little ditties about simple joys and simple problems. Atop some fairly tasty electronic thumping twined with her own acoustic guitars and well-placed change-ups and modulations, the spunky (and ambiguous) “Hollywood” says, “I tried to leave it but I never could . . . Hollywood — how could it hurt you when it looks so good?” Then she complains a bit about L.A. radio stations always playing the same songs: “Push the button/change the channel.” Good idea.

Despite her excellent acting when making lyrical statements about the burdens of fame and fortune, Madonna seems impervious to the normal pressures that would’ve completely messed up other big stars. You get the sense that she feels obligated to address these serious issues, to answer her critics, but that none of it is all that upsetting. Her act compels her to deepen her “message,” such as it is. Not that we really expect our superstars to suffer or anything. We know it’s all about who’s got the best act, who’s going to represent all those emo-shuns we’ve heard about on TV — fear, loneliness, heartbreak, dreams pursued/hopes dashed. Even so, in “Nobody Knows Me,” featuring the Vocodered voice of Madonna atop de rigueur synth squishes and tightly gated drum-funk programs, one can imagine real feeling deeply ingrained in this particular icon. “Why should I care what the world thinks of me?” That is, yes, she does care what the world thinks of her. She says she’ll just withdraw from the public eye, ’cause who needs this, huh? “Intervention” (“I know that love will keep us together/I know that love will take us away from here”) harps again on escape — from fame, from false expectations, etc., with love as salvation. In “Mother and Father,” she finds she’s never left home, though she knows she must: “I got to give it up/find someone to love me.” She lapses back to her Diana Ross vocal chirps over a rudimentary urban old-school funk track, synths and squeaks and squawks and wocka-chocka electric guitar, and — uh-oh — she’s rapping pop psychology, she’s “A victim of a kind of rage.” As we all are, I’d wager.

Your cruise down to the last song is painless and crisp. On “Easy Ride,” pensive, minor-key chording details Madonna’s hopes for herself, her children and her husband. The arrangement is widescreen, string synths rolling counterpoint prettiness over Madonna’s full-circle route to what she’s been driving at all along: She wants a home, she’s looked so long, and now suspects that, for better or worse, she’s found one.

Mere actress though Madonna may be, it’s not even like she can or does feel scorn toward her detractors; interestingly, she’s at her most genuine and revealing with this endless shrugging at the perils of fame and the trap she’s set for herself. Meanwhile, you might be someone who wishes for something really foul to happen in Madonna’s life, to shake her up and out of her homey torpor. That’s because you’re not a sympathetic 16-year-old girl, or a fat kid, or a gay kid. You may be someone who’s more interested in tracking artists’ career arcs than in the more pertinent idea of watching them follow their muses. Whatever the case may be, to every frickin’ geek music expert who now feels compelled to dryly say, “John, it’s just that her music sucks,” my equally dumb but correct reply is: You just wouldn’t know.

MADONNA | American Life | (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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