After the success of Music, Madonna had her second child, Rocco, and married director Guy Ritchie. But something was stirring in her and it would result in American Life, her most misunderstood record to date. It merged the deep electronica of Music and some of its acoustic guitar roots and she stuck with Mirwais Ahmadzaï as a co-producer as a co-producer on every track, soaring into a ‘folktronica’ sound that cranked up the vocal manipulation to 11. It also found Madonna, like all of us, in a post-9/11 world and the singer turning her eye on politics, taking aim at President Bush in the highly controversial original video for “American Life.”
She once again battles her religious beliefs in multiple songs, and is more confrontational about them than in the past. The death of her mother is another continued motif as she still struggles with that loss but might be close to finding a way out of her grief. The emptiness of celebrity culture, including her own, takes up a lot of real estate on American Life, as she examines her own place in it and how she’s viewed. This type of pushback was met with critical and commercial pushback itself; Stylus magazine gave the album an F, record buyers gave Madonna her lowest-selling record to date. Which makes for a perfect time to revisit an album that deserved better than it got.
EA: This is going to be a strange but wild conversation, this album. We’ve talked about how much of Madonna’s personal life, past and present, makes up the lion’s share of her album content and American Life is no different in that regard, but Madonna feels very different here. It’s 2003 so we’re in a post-9/11 world and it’s where she started to pivot to more political content and it was definitely met with backlash, like the Dixie Chicks were given. They all spoke out against then President George W. Bush on entering a war that still goes on today (turns out they were right, go figure!) She also digs her heels in on her reflection on fame, something she’s talked about thematically many times. But this time is more…angry. It also feels like the album is split into three or four distinct sections (harking back to song order and placement). Kicking off with the title song, it gets dragged A LOT for that “I’m drinkin’ a soy latte, I get a double shotie” and I mean, it kind of deserved it. I think there was a disconnect between her and even her fanbase, talking about what ‘the American dream’ meant, one that she wasn’t expecting. I’ve come around to the song in a way that I wasn’t into back in 2003 though. Even though it’s a song about what she’s done and where she is it was at least something really new from her.
AN: Well, let’s get out of the way that American Life is my favorite Madonna album. It’s the Madonna album I feel is the most true to her essence. I guess that’s because for me, the thing that makes Madonna most interesting as an artist is the conflict inside her, between style and substance, artifice and truth. Looking at her career, we could probably think of countless other conflicts she explores: virgin and whore, blonde and brunette. Speaking of, Madonna fans know that when Madonna goes brunette for an album cycle, she’s serving us one of her most personal albums. It was true of Like a Prayer and Madame X, and very true for this one. Back to the idea of why this is the most quintessentially Madonna album to me. I think it’s because the album is about both the conflicts outside us – war, fame, greed – and about the conflicts within us. To me, this is a folk protest album that starts by looking outward before looking inward to examine the battle between rage and vulnerability that so many of us go through. What moves me is that the album very much comes out on the side of love saving the day, with some of her most moving songs. But we begin with the first single (unless you count “Die Another Day”). I love this song, but George W. Bush’s America was a tough time to release a song that not only asked its audience to question the American Dream, but also to have a sense of humor about it. Madonna’s sense of humor, which jumps out in the rap, is often misunderstood. It also made me sad that she pulled the original video for it, which was brilliant and in hindsight, made incredibly solid points. Is it the only time Madonna has ever backed away from controversy? I think so. But it just shows how spooky this time was for anyone who didn’t agree with the drums of war. From what I understand, Madonna and her family were receiving death threats, and then of course there was the less important threat of never being played on U.S. radio again. Anyway, I’m glad that with the passage of time, both the song and the album seem to have been re-examined. The fact that she played it at Pride and on the Madame X tour clearly shows that she still feels its message needs to be heard. Sadly, W’s America was just a warmup for the even more frightening America of Trump. But thankfully, Madonna stopped backing away from using her voice to speak truth to power. Fuck it.
EA: I’m with you on that; the re-examination of this album, her worst-selling at this point, is an important element in even talking about it. It deserved better than it got, she deserved better.
AN: This should have been a major hit for Madonna, but it didn’t even chart on the Hot 100. I guess after the “American Life” controversy, releasing a follow-up single that calls out radio stations for playing the same song before telling people to change the channel is a risky move. But who cares, ‘cause the track is brilliant. From the chirping birds to the modulations of her voice (as in Music, using technology to make herself sound both male and female, another duality she often plays with) to the incredible pop hook, it’s just classic Madonna. She’s always been fascinated by Hollywood – from her adulation of Marilyn and Marlene to her own moments of movie stardom – but in this song she really looks at the dark side of that fame. The Mondino video (so underrated) is like the anti-“Vogue” in a way. Whereas Vogue sees Old Hollywood as a gateway to a liberating escape, Hollywood styles Madonna in Harlow and Mae West drag in an exploration of stardom’s darker side. The images of Madonna receiving injections are incredibly powerful. What a statement from an icon of beauty aging before our eyes. Has she ever addressed aging more frankly than in this video? The song is probably best known for being performed alongside Missy, Britney, and Christina at the VMAs, and while that whole performance has been overshadowed by “the kiss,” I do feel like it was both a brilliant way to shine a light on queer rights while also drawing attention to aging in this industry. By performing alongside her successors, dressed like she was when she began her career, Madonna passes the torch and tells us she’s changing the channel.
EA: The Mondino video is flawless. It’s funny when she’s able to do so much with just herself in a room. The song itself is such a fascinating look at where and how Madonna feels home and comfortable. Again, in a post-9/11 world when she called New York City her home and the ability for that city to come together so quickly and so thoroughly made the artifice of Hollywood stand out even more for her. There is one thing, that we’ll talk about a lot later too I think, and that’s her repeating of certain lyrical motifs. Hitting radio stations for playing the same song is something that comes up in the future again on Turn Up the Radio. I think this comes directly into play with the “Push the button, change the channel” at the end. Like the opening of “Music,” her voice is manipulated to sound male and masculine, which feels like a direct call out to a future where her songs will get little to no airplay and that the road has always been easier for men in her industry, even as she sits at the top of it.
EA: This is third in the opening trilogy of this album and I think it’s the thing that kept so many people away. People, even her fans, have such a weird reaction to Madonna when she gets reflective about her fame as if she’s not allowed to speak on it even though every person with a pen or a keyboard is allowed to. But it’s not just about her, it’s about everybody. That turns the song into a reflection of the listener and sometimes people just aren’t ready for that.
AN: We’ve discussed track listing before and how great she is at it, but I really feel American Life might be her most powerful track listing. The songs tell a story. With the first two songs, she sets the scene of a world that makes her feel alienated. With “I’m So Stupid,” she calls out how mistaken she was in buying into what that world was selling. And after this song, she moves from the macro into the micro, as if calling out the world’s injustices has allowed her to look within. I love this track. The production and the melody are jarring in the best way, and her vocals are so raw, which might be another reason this album is my favorite. The conflicts of the album are often explored in the vocals, which go from synthetic to raw in the same song. I think we get some of her most powerful vocal performances as a result. On a personal note, I played this song in the car on the way to school once, and my kids, who were forbidden from saying the word stupid at school, were very jarred by it.
EA: What happened after that? Did it turn into a conversation about context?
AN: Well, yeah. We’ve had lots of discussions about context because of Madonna and other artists I expose them to. They’ve learned that there are words you can use in art, but not in life. My son really threw this in my face when I tried to forbid him from playing Fortnite, by explaining to me that he knows the difference between real violence and violence in art and video games. When did eight-year-olds get so smart? But seriously, I do believe in speaking to kids about self-expression in art early. And I get very annoyed when people try to school me on this. Someone I don’t even know wrote me when I posted a video of me and the kids dancing to Rebel Heart, letting me know there were songs they shouldn’t hear. and I’m like, thanks stranger, I can make decisions on what my kids can and can’t hear. Like, my conservative Iranian parents took me to The Virgin Tour and bought me the Sex book. Please. I’ve been in circles of parents telling me they think Frozen is too risqué for kids because of Elsa’s transformation, and meanwhile we’re watching The Girlie Show!
EA: Let Elsa be, dammit!
AN: Let Elsa be a lesbian, dammit!
AN: Remember how someone heard Madonna recording this song, and a rumor started that she was covering the standard “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Ha. But she clearly does call back to that song, which gives this one a timeless quality. I think it’s one of the best songs on the album. It’s a plea for a better world that never sounds cheesy. I also think the transition from the harshness of I’m So Stupid to the beauty of this is really powerful. I need to revisit the video. It’s not one I watch often. But the song is one I listen to a lot. The lyrics really get me. Once again, she asks profound questions about the confusion of the world, and the answer that comes back is love. It’s all there is to save us.
EA: What a pivot this song is as it takes us into the next section of the story of American Life. I lovvvvvvvvvvvvvve “Love Profusion.” So, so much. That stutter edit. That tear sound after “I’ve got you, under my skin.” But again, I’m feeling redundant, but this also feels completely borne out of 9/11 and the feeling of isolation and the needing of love. “There is so much destruction, what I want is a celebration” may seem like throwaway lyrics in a bubble gum pop song but to me they resonated. The video doesn’t need a revisit though, unless it’s to remake it.
EA: Strangely, “Nobody Knows Me” feels closer to the three opening tracks than it does to Love Profusion but for all of its potshots at stardom and celebrity worship she keeps it a weird little bop and not an angry diatribe. “I’m not that kind of guy” hits her constant gender flipping, “I’ve had so many lives” hits her continued religious journeys but there is real pain in “It’s no good when you’re misunderstood” because I think it happens to her a lot in her career.
AN: Probably my favorite song on the album, alongside Intervention. Top 5 Madonna song for me. It’s a song I blast when I’m heading to an important meeting. Also a song I blast when I’m doing cardio. Also a song I blast when I’m feeling frustrated and need an outlet. It’s just one of those songs that can serve so many purposes. It’s also been featured in two of my favorite Madonna tour moments. The performance of it on a treadmill in the Re-Invention tour is iconic. I still I imagine myself stalking the world on a treadmill every time I hear this song. And also, on the MDNA tour, the artist Johan Soderberg created an interlude video to this song that featured Madonna’s face morphing into other faces in a collage designed to question some pretty powerful people. It made some French fascists very angry, and really wowed me. I love the lyrics. The defiance in them is so raw, and yet at its heart, it’s a love song. “Nobody Knows Me,” like you know me, speaks to the importance of having someone out there who sees you for who you are in a world of distractions. But wow, the way she tears down those distractions in this song is incredible. The lyrics are cutting, and the way she delivers them underscores the angry fragmentation so many of us feel in the chaos of the modern world. Don’t want your social disease. It’s a setup, and I’m just fed up. And I realize how many times I’ve died. Whew. It’s a lot, in the best way. On a side note, her assertion that she doesn’t watch TV or read magazines is really something, coming from someone who has been “on the cover of a magazine” more than almost anyone. She’s really torching so much of her own persona on this album, and for me at least, it makes for her most thrilling work. Also, she revealed in her Quarantine Diaries that she watched Tiger King, so yeah, I guess she does watch TV sometimes.
EA: As the queen of reinventions, this is a huge one and one thing she’s always been in charge of are those reinventions. She’s not standing for anyone trying to do it for her, to pigeonhole her persona. It’s always been one of her greatest strengths as an artist, not letting others define her, so when she pens a song like this it’s to let them know they can’t.
AN: Probably should’ve been the first single, at least if chart placement is what they were chasing, which clearly wasn’t the priority in this era. From the plaintive lyrics to the soaring melody to the questioning of religion, this is the closest she’s ever come to recapturing the spirit of “Like a Prayer.” It’s just stunning, and so emotional. I can’t help but crack a little every time she sings, “I’m not religious but I feel so moved. Makes me wanna pray. Pray you’ll always be here.” As someone who isn’t religious but who does feel deep spiritual feelings toward my kids, my loved ones, and art, this song just gets me. On a side note, do you remember Jem, who co-wrote this song? She was part of an early millennium wave of emotional music that included Travis and Dido. Anyway, I was at an LA party a little before this album came out, and I remember meeting her. She was very unassuming and modestly started talking about a Madonna song she co-wrote. I, of course, lost my mind. And then when I heard the song, I quietly thanked Jem for creating something so unbearably gorgeous.
EA: I’ll echo virtually everything you said. This is a gorgeously contemplative song (and one that puts us into the Guy Ritchie love era) and the assertion of “I’m not religious” after “I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew” on “American Life” is really a huge moment for her. The “Like a Prayer” gospel call back makes it even more fascinating because she’s clearly still working through how and if religion fits in her life. I love that Jem story! I’m also fascinated by the one-off co-writers that have helped come up with some of Madonna’s best songs.
EA: I don’t think I can say enough great things about this song. It’s perfect to me. Which is funny, because it kind of sounds like “Beautiful Stranger,” which I’m not a fan of. It’s just a beautiful ballad that feels like “Love Profusion,” it’s speaking directly to Ritchie (at the time) and again, invokes religion (“that’s just Satan’s game”). But there’s something…almost sad about it, too. On the surface it’s a love song but there’s almost a desperation in it. She’s just three years into this marriage (with five more to go) but it’s already starting to feel tenuous.
AN: Someone on Instagram asked me my favorite Madonna ballad recently, and while I considered “Live to Tell,” “Bad Girl,” “Love Tried To Welcome Me,” and a few others, I ultimately chose this one. Has she ever sounded more vulnerable, more fragile, more connected to what she’s singing? It’s just so beautiful. I always read this song as being about Madonna as a parent, like a much more complicated “Little Star.” Here, she’s not just singing an ode to her children, she’s talking about how hard being a parent is, the struggle to shield them from the ills of the world and to save them. To me, it’s a song about the real feeling of fragility every parents feels every day. And once again, love is the answer. “And I know that love will keep us together” is one of my favorite moments, especially because it calls back to my favorite song, “Keep It Together.” Another ode to family, this time the one she created herself. And the bridge to the song – “Say hello to your life, now you’re living” – really does me in. I wish more people knew this song ‘cause it’s one of her best.
EA: I like this parent take! As a parent of young kids, I’m sure it speaks directly to you in that sense. It’s a song that allows the listener to plug in where and how they can relate to it quite easily. She’s definitely vulnerable and fragile on this but possibly even more on the very next song…
AN: Again, naked vulnerability on full display. The layering of the vocals is just stunning, and very Tori Amos to my ears. I wish Madonna would play with vocal layering more the way she does here. It creates such a haunting atmosphere. I love the Steven Klein art project that shares this song’s name, and I really, really love the lyrics. “In the process I forgot that I was special too.” Stunning.
EA: It’s pretty much impossible for me to listen to this and not cry. Every time. Right now as we do this. With so many songs that intentionally distort her voice, to have the raw nakedness of it on display with some of her most vulnerable lyrics ever…it’s just a masterpiece. For three minutes she’s questioning her very existence. “Don’t know who I’m supposed to be” feels like she’s taking that great strength of reinvention and turning it in on herself. She’s been so many people she’s lost who she actually is. I can’t tell you how much I relate to that in retrospect. In high school I was literally changing my hair and my looks every day. One morning I went to school with bright yellow hair and a friend said I should dye it blue. I lived two blocks from school so on the lunch break I went home, bleached it and dyed it blue and came back to school with a whole new look. At the time it was always about being able to subvert what people thought about me or what they could say but on reflection it also kept me from knowing who I really was and that I used those nonstop changes to keep people at a distance instead of bringing them in. Back to the song (!), I love that the end she can finally start to validate herself and it makes it a sister song to “I Deserve It.”
AN: I love when songs take on such personal meanings for us. Isn’t that the incredible power of music? Thank you for sharing this story. And yes, I agree it feels like a sister song to I Deserve It. In many ways, this album builds and deepens the world of Music.
EA: Absolutely. The transition from Music to American Life is a very clear one.
EA: Something interesting happens when Madonna takes a serious subject and subverts with a melody or a backbeat that doesn’t seem to fit. Even vocally, her voice feels like a young girl. And again, here comes Jesus Christ! American Life isn’t ever really regarded as delving into religion the way that Ray of Light is but she name checks him on this album more than any in her career. It’s wild to look at the through line of “Promise to Try” and “Mother and Father” in how she’s processing her mother’s death and life with her father after it. She’s moved on from speak-singing to speak-rapping in this and I love the clipped vocals in that section. But she’s finally starting to feel free.
AN: I love every song Madonna has written about the loss of her mother. And I love that when she explores the loss, she never repeats herself. She gave us the heartbreaking “Promise to Try.” And then she gave us the ethereal “Inside of Me.” This time, she creates a song that takes us into the anger she felt as that little girl, and also the way the loss alienated her from her father. I know people were turned off by the rapping, but if people don’t give this song a chance, they’re missing one of her most personal statements. And for anyone questioning some of the lyrics, I think the simplicity is meant to evoke the words of a little girl, almost as if child Madonna could’ve written some of this song. “I had a mother, it was nice.” “My father had to go to work, I used to think he was a jerk.” There’s a childlike naïveté that I personally find heartbreaking. In terms of the vocal and production, I love this too. The end is just mesmerizing, the way her voice soars. Her work with Mirwais often reminds me of Kate Bush’s most experimental work, and that’s really in evidence here.
AN: I’m a major, major Bond theme fan. And I’d put this near the top, alongside Shirley Bassey and Paul McCartney (and yes, I loved the recent Billie Eilish song). What I love most about this song besides the fact that it kicks ass is that it’s the last thing you’d expect from a Bond song. Madonna doesn’t ever follow the rules, and she’s not playing here. Anyone expecting a soaring ballad (like Elton John who called this the “worst Bond tune ever”, oh Elton) was probably very confused. Instead, they got an electro dance track that uses a Bond title to explore letting go of the ego to achieve enlightenment, and perhaps, immortality. And the video is fantastic. If the whole album is about exploring the conflict within each of us, the video is a literal exploration of that theme, with two Madonnas battling for dominance. Sigmund Freud, analyze this.
EA: Miss Elton still mad about losing the Globe to Madonna, sorry sis. I love “Die Another Day,” it’s so badass. It’s not a droopy ballad that wins Oscars, it’s more like a “Live and Let Die” and it’s a banger. It will never not irk me that she’s not been nominated though, this would have been an inspired choice. I love, love, love that the violin reminds me so much of “Papa Don’t Preach.” I love the duality of the killer music video. I love “Sigmund Freud, analyze this” and “I need to lay down.” Still, it’s kind of a strange song on this album the way that “Vogue” on I’m Breathless was. The production just sounds richer and deeper.
EA: Ahhh, what a closer! It’s a perfect reflection of everything that comes before it on the album and in so many ways acts as a centerpoint in her life and career. She’s understanding what is home for her, just like in “Drowned World” where she told us that Lola was her “new religion.” Her place win the world, her age, her career, will always be about her children. I love that it’s the longest song on the album too, it encapsulates elements of virtually every other song on this record, in style and mood and feeling. It’s operatic in its closure and really points to the album being a massive opera being told in multiple cycles.
AN: Interesting about the length. It’s such a phenomenal song that it never feels long to me. This feels like another version of the closing track from Music, but I find it even more moving than Gone. She clearly loves this song too, because she calls back to it on Madame X’s Extreme Occident, and considered it for the Madame X tour setlist (I’m so sad it didn’t make the cut). Have we not talked about Tears of a Clown, those small shows she did in Australia and Miami. Of the 15 songs she played, two were covers and four were from American Life. This was one of them. It feels so right that Madonna has revisited this song because it’s such a statement of purpose for the latter half of her career. This verse is, well, everything: “I want to know everything. Maybe someday I will. What I want is to find my place. Breathe the air and feel the sun on my children’s face. That’s what I want.” That’s it. That’s life as you get older. Searching for knowledge and clinging to love.
AMERICAN LIFE by the numbers
- Released on April 21, 2003
- Peaked at #1 on Billboard 200 chart May 10, 2003
- Length: 49:39
- 680K US / 5m worldwide
- Billboard Hot 100 hits: “American Life,” (#37), “Die Another Day” (#8)
- Grammy nominations: Best Short Form Video (“Die Another Day”), Best Dance Recording (“Die Another Day”)