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Remembering the Song That Nearly Ruined Madonna's Career

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Madonna started the '00s much as she started the '90s--on top. Her first album of the decade, Music, went triple-platinum, and the album's title track, a slick, slinky electro-funk anthem about the power of pop, gave Madonna her first number-one hit for a half-decade, and showed that she was capable as ever at adapting her sound to fit the changing pop landscape, while still sounding more like a leader than a follower. It was an impressive accomplishment for a woman who had been at the pop forefront for nearly two decades--and unfortunately for Madonna, it was everything that her next title track lead single, 2003's "American Life" would not be.

Released ten years ago today, "American Life" was a song that changed just about everything for Madonna, and not in a way she appreciated or likely anticipated. The song was created with good intentions, and seemed on paper to be a recipe for success--another collaboration with dance producer Miriwais, knob twiddler behind "Music" and its hit follow-up single "Don't Tell Me," and one that reflects on Madonna's former "Material Girl" persona with a critical eye. "[The song] was like a trip down memory lane, looking back at everything I've accomplished and all the things I once valued and all the things that were important to me," Madonna told MTV of "Life." "And I realized that a lot of things that last and the things that matter are none of those things."

However, the song was extremely clunky in its satire. From its very opening lines--"Do I have to change my name / Will it get me far / Should I lose some weight / Am I gonna be a star," delivered with a faux-supermodel accent that makes Madonna sound like Fashion Club president Sandi from Daria--the song offers up unimaginative images of typical American materialism and superficiality, without offering any actual commentary beyond "This American life is not for me / Not for free" or "Nothing is what it seems." There are some mildly interesting specific reflections on Madonna's life and career--the first verse's "I tried to be a boy / I tried to be a girl," the later "I'd like to express my extreme point-of-view / I'm not a Christian and I'm not a Jew"--but generally, the song attempts to comment on modern life just by making facile observations in a mocking voice, hoping that's enough to pass for legitimate insight.

Musically, the song wasn't much more interesting or creative. Built around a squelching, acidic synth hook--the kind that made the instrumental break to "Music" so exciting, but one which sounds more piercing and distracting than exhilarating here--and a skittering, choppy beat that goes soft and acoustic for the song's chorus, "American Life" is never (well, almost-never) actively off-putting or unlistenable, but it's a little shrill and there's not much of a hook (musical or lyrical) to speak of. It's certainly an idiosyncratic choice for a lead single, and without its mission-statement-type lyrics, the song would probably feel more like a second-side album filler track.

And then going back to the "actively off-putting or unlistenable" description, you can't talk about "American Life" without talking about its infamous rap breakdown section. Coming absolutely out of nowhere about three minutes into the song, Madonna breaks into an awkward scat about her modern life, beginning with the unforgettably uncomfortable couplet "I'm drinking a soy latte / I get a double shot-ay," and climaxes with her listing all the people she has at her beck and call--"Three nannies, an assistant and a driver and a jet / A trainer and a butler and a boyguard of five..."--supposedly bemoaning the meaningless of it all, but sounding more like one long-ass humble brag. The rap section tends to overshadow all that came before it, and again, not in a particularly good way.

The song was not a success. "American Life" peaked at an underwhelming #37 on the Hot 100, and received negative reviews from just about every corner, ending up a regular on "Worst" and "Most Embarrassing" pop music lists. This wasn't the first time that a Madonna single had underperformed--two singles off 1994's Bedtime Stories, the Bjork-penned "Bedtime Story" and the hip-hop-influenced "Human Nature," missed the top 40 altogether--but it was her first lead single to really disappoint, and certainly the first to be so openly scorned and derided, even by pop fans. Tellingly, the song's parent album ended up the lowest-selling of Madonna's career to that point, and none of the album's three follow-up singles even charted on the Hot 100 at all.

Not helping matters was the song's music video. Originally a messy-but-provocative clip (directed by longtime collaborator Jonas Akerlund) that turned the fashion runway into a war zone, with Madge throwing grenades (literal and figurative) at American culture and then-president George W. Bush, the video was pulled after the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003 and artists like the Dixie Chicks saw their career suffer for their anti-war comments. Instead, an innocuous edit of Madonna in performing in military leader getup performing the song in front of a series of different national flags was released as the song's video, with Madonna issuing a statement saying she did not want to "risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video"--a somewhat shocking sentiment from an artist who'd made her career risking offending people who might misinterpret her videos. The video was not a hit, and the impact of Madonna's intended statement with the song and video was further dulled by the compromise.

More devastating to what "American Life" did to Madonna's career in the short-term, though, was the way it changed the overall perception of her as a pop artist in the '00s. For the first time, Madonna seemed badly out of touch, not only with pop music at large, but with her own career and image--the complete lack of self-awareness on display throughout was shocking, and the idea of throwing in a late-song rap for no real reason (apparently at Mirwais' "You have to go and do a rap" suggestion, the 2003 equivalent of "We have to put a dubstep breakdown in here") was touristy and pandering in a way that even Madge's more blatantly trend-hopping hits had never been.

Madonna's career would mostly recover from "American Life," with her next album Confessions on a Dance Floor and its lead single "Hung Up," an ABBA-sampling, worldwide club smash that found Madonna in much more of her dance-pop sweet spot. But from then on, Madonna would no longer seem like a trendsetter in pop music, but someone who was always playing catch-up, following rather than leading--whether enlisting  the world-beating Timberlake and Timbaland dream team for Hard Candy's "4 Minutes," or bringing in Nicki Minaj, M.I.A. and, of course, a dubstep breakdown to modern up MDNA's "Give Me All Your Luvin'." She's still a legend, and she's still a pop artist worth getting excited about, but after "American Life," it was clear that the '00s were going to be the last decade she would enter on top.

Listening to the song a decade later, the one thing you can say for it is that it was one of the last truly interesting singles Madonna released. Whereas Madonna would basically play it safe with each of her next three lead singles, with modestly successful returns, "American Life" is a bizarre miscalculation, a misfire on nearly every level that at least stands as the last time Madonna would really take a chance with her music, to try something different and not entirely comfortable and have the confidence that she could pull it off. Given how much it backfired, it's not totally surprising she never did it again, but today, if I had the choice between listening to "American Life" or a watered-down, phoned-in dance-pop song like MDNA's "Girl Gone Wild"...well, I'd probably still pick "Girl Gone Wild," but I'd at least smile fondly at recollections of soy lattes and double shot-ays.

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