Madonna Ciccone has done it again: The forty-four-year-old guitar player from London via Detroit has taken the pulse of the nation, if not the whole Women's Wear Daily-reading world. American Life, her tenth album, isn't much as a work of music — diluted Eurotechno from her producer Mirwais, built around acoustic-guitar vamps that are either her own or about on her level — but it is a certain marker in popular culture. Three albums into her journey of yoga and self-discovery, Madonna is ready to apply what she's learned to the outside world. Specifically: Materialism isn't good for us.
This is the general idea: Americans have lost their state-of-nature cheeriness, and for good. We are a contorted, self-conscious people now. Madonna has hardened. Strangers give her "social disease." There are no answers. We are vain and wasteful. The America of our grandparents is lost.
Having vacated the scene with a British husband, Madonna has entered her post-Horatio Alger phase. "I live the American dream," she sings provocatively on the album's title track. But back home, it has been widely reported that her window is closing. Sales are down. The "American Life" video backfired and didn't air. Obviously, she's going to adapt to this in front of an audience.
Essentially, she does what John Lennon did in 1970 on Plastic Ono Band: declare selflessness, unplug the TV, tighten up the nuclear family. With Mirwais, she has written a bunch of minor-key songs built on threadbare guitar figures, and except for "Die Another Day" (commissioned for a James Bond film, speaking of American consumerism: Yes, she contains multitudes, she can contradict herself), the production is artfully thin. You get the feeling that what she'd really like to do is make an album of voice and guitar. But her pickingisn't up to it, so she's bumming out and finding herself in the tweaky, skidding grooves of Mirwais' techno, songs that build up their little dots into big, rubbery synth tones that saturate your speakers.
The messages on American Life are dour indeed. Remember the old ecstatic catchphrases about reaching, about bliss? Getting into the groove, getting over the borderline, striking a pose, finding your lucky star, music making the people come together? Now there is only retreat and a halfhearted will to puzzle things out in public with a vocoder. And in the lyrics, these swipes from popular songs: "This bird has flown," "Everybody's looking for something," "I got you under my skin," "Love will keep us together." Perhaps the point is transcendence through detachment, but finally American Life comes across as defeatist more than anything else — as if to say, why bother writing new lyrics?
As she puts it, in "Love Profusion": "There are too many options/There is no consolation/I have lost my illusions/What I want is an explanation." She never says so explicitly, but you best believe American culture will not give her an explanation. So she has turned her back on American values, Madonna values. She has always had a contentious relationship with America — remember, "Material Girl" was tongue-in-cheek, and her entire career has been a war on our culture's attitudes toward sex. But you can't escape the feeling on American Life that she has finally abandoned the fella what brung her to the dance.
In the title track, she raps about her daily accouterments: soy latte, her Mini Cooper, her Pilates class, her trainer and her chef. Even if she's embracing it while criticizing it — which I believe she is — it is an embarrassment. But it's at least an honest way to embarrass yourself. (Ditto for "Mother and Father.") But the beatbox symphony "Nothing Fails" — which, in the manner of "Like a Prayer," reaches its peak with a gospel chorus — is much closer to what she's become good at: the idea of secular transfiguration through love. The difference in 2003 is that she doesn't have the ambition. "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."
One hopes it's a principle she applies to the work that lies ahead of her — which could be writing children's books or producing movies or running a record label. Making records, it seems, may not be her strong suit anymore. But who cares. Beatle John said it best: Love is all you need.