Last week, I gave away a lot of my time and attention to Madonna. (Oops! I’ve done it again, with this column.) But then you, or someone you know, did too. She may not watch TV, or listen to the radio, as she says on American Life (Maverick/Warner Bros.), and maybe she doesn’t read any entertainment media, but she sure knows how to work them all. For many, particularly those of a straight male persuasion, every new Madonna vehicle works them into a foaming-at-the-mouth state as they ruthlessly savage her entire reason for existence. Perhaps she shouldn’t have served them up that soy latte. But among gay groupies, rarely is a critical word heard, with endlessly fawning reviews the norm. Friends of Madonna are as hopelessly devoted to their deity as Reaganites are to theirs. Soon enough there may even be a Reagan-styled movement to encourage every gay institution to somehow celebrate Madonna either through a name change or a plaque. Soon to appear at a gay bar near you: a toilet dedicated to the “Drowned World Tour.”
But before you Madonnarama llamas lob cigarette lighters disguised as grenades my way, before you turn on me as if I, a transplanted Midwesterner, had said, Dixie Chick-style, “I’m ashamed our number one diva is from the Midwest,” let me preempt you. Madonna’s latest release is a refreshingly decent output, a more consistent album than her Mirwais vs. William Orbit Music (Maverick/Warner Bros.), if not ultimately better.
I almost feel like chirping “fuck it,” as Madonna does in her album-only version of “American Life,” and give up. This is designed to be a dance-music column, but apparently there’s little to dance to in Madonna’s American life these days — though the retro electro vibe on the album makes you move even when it’s in folksy ballad form. Madonna is bitter at the state of the world, politically and culturally, and disturbed by her role in it. “I’m So Stupid” she ignobly titles one track.
Her strongest moments on the album, though, are when she rises above matters of the material world and goes metaphysical. “Nothing Fails” plays out as “Like a Prayer” revisited (in restrained, mature fashion). In nearly every way, she’s outdone herself here. The lyrics wax poetic about unending love: “You could take all this, take it away/I’d still have it all,” she sings. “‘Cause I’ve climbed the tree of life/And that is why, [I’m] no longer scared if I fall.” The music gradually swells to a full-on gospel choir climax in which the choir chants the slyly sacrilegious line, “I’m not religious, but it makes me wanna pray.”
Her parting song, “Easy Ride,” rises nicely from the ashes of the lush violins, dramatic flourishes and abrupt ending of the breathtakingly fierce “Die Another Day.” Madonna yearns in “Easy Ride” for the meaning of life, but she’s contented with what she’s already learned — that life is one giant circle. She hasn’t learned from all her mistakes, though. American Life adds up to be the modern-day Madonna equivalent of earlier Madonna’s noisy, bumbling, but not totally irredeemable Erotica (Maverick/Warner Bros.). There’s no “Ray of Light” to anchor this album and make it soar; no “What It Feels Like for A Girl” to lyrically provoke us with musical sweet-nothings; no “Music” to make us come together in glee. Instead, we get an abrasively whiny-pitched Madonna appreciating her parents on “Mother and Father,” complete with an even more unfortunate rap than that of the title track, featuring imbecilic gems like “My father had to go to work, I used to think he was a jerk.” Did she write that, or did her seven-year-old daughter?
And what’s with the inner artwork? I like the stark, Che Guevara look on the cover, but could she think of nothing more creative than to use her body to spell out the album title, as if it were an A-Teens album? She should have taken images from her original, angstful “American Life” video, especially since she canceled it. (Hopefully you’ll see it soon, since that video is on par with the music video queen’s best ever, just as its United Nations, flag-waving replacement is one of her worst.) The erstwhile Material Girl has effectively shirked that moniker for good by now. But sometimes she gets too close for comfort to becoming immaterial.
Madonna’s American Life CD Maxi-Single (Maverick/Warner Bros.) came out Tuesday, full of respectable remixes of this respectable yet a bit boring song. Missy Elliott does nimble work, adding her own comments to her remix — she sighs, appropriately, “Oh Madonna!” after Madonna raps, “I’d like to express my extreme point of view.” And Felix da Housecat does even better here than he did on “Die Another Day.” His is the only version to make Madonna’s rap sound almost natural, since he slows down her flow to match the pace of the beat. If only Rauhofer had done the same, or at least hadn’t tacked the rap to the very end of his otherwise dazzling “American Anthem Part 1” remix. I’m crying, that’s how hard I’m laughing. Do you think I’m satisfied?
Doug Rule can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.