Madonna, ‘American Life’ (Maverick/Warner Bros.)
Even if you dislike Madonna’s music, it’s hard to deny that she’d make as good a candidate as anyone for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. She’s world-renowned for her charisma and business savvy. Getting married, becoming a mother, reaching 44, and penning children’s books have upped her cred more than they’ve eroded her pinup status. As president, she’d render character issues irrelevant–no one who’s ever been photographed sucking a toe would commit perjury out of shame. And with her Italian roots, dual U.S.-U.K. citizenship, successful collaboration with the French and the Afghans (albeit in the same person, producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï ), half-Latina daughter, kabbalistic leanings, and Ashtanga yoga practice, she’s got a broad foreign policy in place. By titling her new album American Life, Madonna promises to examine the country’s mood, as anyone running a good campaign should. Glaring defiantly from the album cover like Patti Smith in a Patty Hearst beret, she seems poised to stir up controversy as never before–i.e., without taking off her clothes. The record inside, though, is less radical, a suite of faux-folkie electro that fuses the introspection of Ray of Light withMusic’s fast-food dance licks–autocratic words on top of democratic beats. If it feels unsettled and transitional, perhaps it reflects the state of the union all too well. Madonna spends much of American Life bemoaning the emptiness of celebrity culture.It’s a dramatic gesture from an artist who’s synonymous with American glamour, but instead of lashing out at the system that created her, she castigates herself. “I was stupid,” she sings.”Stupider than stupid.” Madge hasn’t made a truly populist statement since 1990’s “Keep It Together”–the deliberately bubble-headed “Music” doesn’t count–so her up-with-people chops are a little rusty. “Hollywood,” a bouncy folk-rock tune, means to attack SoCal’s hollow values but opts for diplomacy over shock and awe. Sarcasm still comes more naturally to Madonna than earnestness, most delightfully in the title song’s P. Diddy-ripoff rap, where she rants, “I’ve got…a trainer and a butler / And a bodyguard or five / A gardener and a stylist / Do you think I’m satisfied?” –and ends up raving, “Ahh, fuck it!” Meanwhile, producer Mirwais makes expensive studio equipment ping and bleep like the Ritchie family’s kiddie toys. Even simple acoustic guitar riffs–of which there are too many–get sampler-warped into complete plasticity. The album’s analog-funk high point, “Nobody Knows Me,” boogies like Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” while Madonna bitches about the price of fame–imagine Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon fed through an Xbox. The Feds reportedly hassled Mirwais when he tried to enter the U.S. to promote this album; they should have offered him honorary citizenship as a “talented alien.”American Life, in the pre-electoral tradition, pushes all the right issue buttons but never makes promises that can’t be rescinded quietly once President Madge is sworn in. The only war here is between Madonna and her conscience, a battle depicted in the “Die Another Day” video (in which the candidate gores herself with a fencing foil). That brilliant, melodramatic song may have originated as a James Bond theme, but here it sounds like a stoic response to a world gone mad. While a spooky orchestra scrapes away, Mirwais struggles to defuse a Moog-synthesizer bomb before it explodes, and Madonna declares, “It’s not my time to go.” Do not interrupt your daily routine, the song seems to whisper. Combat your fear of death with a shrug. Vote Madonna. Unless you really think we’d be better off with Gephardt.