Madonna doesn’t just sing and dance. She transforms deeply relevant and insightful speech into art that transforms the listener. Today I wish her a happy 60th birthday with a reflection on one of her more underappreciated albums, American Life.
Many fans counted American Life among her worst, but I loved it. Maybe it’s because most pop music fans don’t care about politics, or at least don’t want to go beneath the surface. American Life was written and recorded in the years following 9/11 and released about the time GWB launched the war in Iraq. The album connected with my personal journey in a profound and indescribable way. That was 15 years ago.
In 2003, I didn’t have the vocabulary or the idea set that I have now, I didn’t really even know where to start. 80’s kids like me who came of age in the 90’s were raised at the height of broadcast media’s grip on the narrative, and it held our attention with sitcoms, game shows, and MTV. All I knew about the political system outside of public school civics came from brief glimpses of network news between channel changes, and its narrative was designed to reinforce cold war values and glorify America.
This was the psychological vulnerability that American Life spoke to. She spoke directly to the sense of contrived alienation, the manufactured distraction and her own role in the way pop culture had become a weapon. She spoke to how the values we cherish had become propaganda tools that we commodified as “rebellion” without anything resembling non-conformity whatsoever. She spoke to the plastic, false reality in which we were wrapped and from which we must awaken if we hope to break free.
Her video for the title track, American Life famously included a fashion show scene where US troops get their legs blown off and Iraqi children scream and run in terror while flashbulbs pop and Donatella herself sits in judgment as if this season’s couture is blood and soil and that’s OK. After storming the haus backstage in militant gear, in the final scene Madonna crashes onto the runway in an armored Mini Cooper, tosses her latté aside and drops the bomb – literally.
Watch the uncensored video here:
Ironically, after living through two decades of provocative imagery ranging from the now-tame-in-retrospect cone bras to cryptobeastiality, America drew the line at attacks on their patriotism. They weren’t ready to be told they were docile, uncritical consumers of a culture built to empower a bloodthirsty imperialist regime and that our own negligent complicity was the agent of the crimes committed in our name. For the first time in her career (and so far, the only) she caved to pressure and released a censored version of her work to MTV.
Maybe the public wasn’t ready, but I was. On my 28th birthday, I burned a leaked copy of the unreleased track off Napster and took it to the club and handed it to the DJ. The only two people in the room who had even heard it yet were me and one of my best friends at the time, a fellow Madonna fan. We screamed and ran out on the floor but as it played, not too many other people did. The climax of the song is a rap-like segment that culminates with these lines:
“I’d like to express my extreme point of view
I’m not a Christian and I’m not a jew
I’m just living out the American dream
And I just realized that nothing is what it seems”
This is the breakdown, that moment when you shake your ass the hardest, and we sure as fuck rocked that breakdown but the club and the DJ were aghast. You know that moment when there are basically two people on the floor going nuts and everyone else is staring at them like omg what are they on. Fuck ’em!! We were dancing for liberation, for consciousness-raising, to abandon the cultural cocoons of the old world and be transformed into the enlightened beings of the new.
The song American Life epitomizes the sense of the album as a social commentary, but there’s one more track I think you might like, this one connected profoundly to my personal awakening. “Nobody Knows Me” speaks to the sense of alienation and fear that characterizes life under a propaganda state where one can sense something wrong but can’t put their finger on it. It speaks to the illusion of agency and the way controlling the range of options to a narrow set of approved behaviors can create the illusion of choice and consent.
You can hear this entire song here:
“No one’s telling you how to live your life
But it’s a setup until you’re fed up
This world is not so kind
People trap your mind
It’s so hard to find
Someone to admire”
I listened to these lines over and over, and one of many things that came out of them over the years is that of the very few people I truly admire, Madonna is one of them. Her courage, brilliance, and defiance are traits I strive to embody and the intersection between culture, politics, and personality is the space I strive to inhabit with my work. Happy Birthday Madonna, there were moments in my life it seemed that all I had to hold on to was you, and in those moments that was enough.