American Life is Madonna's ninth studio album that was released on April 21, 2003 by Maverick & Warner Bros. Records.
- American Life 4:57
- Hollywood 4:24
- I'm So Stupid 4:08
- Love Profusion 3:37
- Nobody Knows Me 4:39
- Nothing Fails 4:48
- Intervention 4:54
- X-Static Process 3:49
- Mother And Father 4:33
- Die Another Day 4:38
- Easy Ride 5:05
During the early 1990s, Madonna had focused on a number of provocative releases, like the erotic pictorial Sex book, the sadomasochist inspired album "Erotica" and the erotic thriller film, "Body of Evidence" all of which she deduced was due to "a lot of rage and anger" within herself.
However, by the beginning of the new millennium, Madonna was living a calmer, more introspective and wholesome life with her husband Guy Ritchie, their son Rocco and Madonna's daughter Lourdes from a previous relationship.
According to biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, the presence of Ritchie in Madonna's life had a calming effect on Madonna, making her more matured and easing her temper. Concentrating on her music career, she was busy throughout of 2001 on her Drowned World Tour.
On September 11, 2001, suicide bombers hijacked two jet airliners and crashed into the World Trade Center, resulting in the death of nearly 3,000 people. The event had a profound effect on American society, with the cultural mood being bleakness and paranoia. People (including Madonna) started asking questions about their culture and the American Dream, which had been a long-lasting ideal for many.
When Madonna began working on her ninth studio album, she wanted answers to her queries and an appropriate response to the 9/11 disaster and the ensuing Iraq war of 2003. She believed that the ensuing months with the war would lead to a politically charged atmosphere throughout the country, and wanted to express that in the record.
Like her 2000 studio album, Music, Madonna enlisted the help of French DJ and producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï. Always interested in adapting herself and her music to the contemporary compositions, she was inspired by the new Massive Attack and Lemon Jelly albums.
Madonna said: "We set out to put the two worlds of acoustic and electronic music together. It is another step on, but I've never wanted to repeat myself. I don't ever want to repeat myself or make the same record twice."
"American Life" became Madonna's final studio album with Maverick Records, and marked the end of an eleven-year recording history with the label.
In an interview with VH1 titled "Madonna Speaks," she discussed her 20 years in the music industry, and revealed her motivations behind "American Life", about "material things" being unimportant, saying: "I have lots of 'material' things and I've had lots of beliefs about things and what's important, and I look back at the 20 years behind me and I realized that a lot of things that I'd valued weren't important", she concluded.
Discussing her thoughts on the conception of the album, she told Q magazine that through her 20 years of being in the entertainment industry, she would have a correct opinion on fame and fortune and its perils, which would be the base of the album.
Recording & MixingEdit
"American Life" was mostly composed and entirely produced by Madonna and Ahmadzaï. Both had previously collaborated on Madonna's studio album "Music."
The recording sessions for "American Life" began in late 2001, then it was put on hold as Madonna filmed "Swept Away" in Malta and starred in the West End play "Up for Grabs."
She returned to the Olympic Recording Studios and Sarm West Studios in late 2002 and finished off the sessions in London and Los Angeles in early 2003.
For the instrumentation featured in some of the songs, Ahmadzaï played the guitars, and Stuart Price played the piano. Tom Hannen and Simon Changer; both of them worked as assistant engineer during the recording.
Unlike Music, Madonna had enlisted Ahmadzaï also as a songwriter on "American Life" hence what transpired was Madonna's wholesale adaptation of the producers style and sound.
He explained that there are some influences from his work, but Madonna mostly wanted a minimalist structure for the album; this was beneficial for him since he did not like working with a lot of people, and hence it became a close collaboration.
Since electronic music was already popular, Ahmadzaï felt it was necessary to go back to its underground roots and focus on the songwriting, rather than the technical aspects of recording and mixing.
Describing it as modified songwriting, he said that although the concept "might sound simple at first, even rough. But when you pay attention, there is a lot of technology underneath." This approach was an imperative for "American Life".
Recorded at three different studios using Ahmadzaï's own gear along with the studio's SSL mixing consoles, the album's recording process was often laborious but was sparse in the musical arrangements of the songs.
About the musical composition, Ahmadzaï told to Remix magazine that they "tried to under-produce many tracks to make them sound rougher than the average international pop production. We wanted to do something totally modern and futuristic but not very apparent. You have to be very minimalist and choose every sound very carefully. Some tracks were composed in the big studio; that can be very dangerous because you can lose perspective. But all initial directions of the tracks were made in my home studio."
The album is suffused with Ahmadzaï's characteristic production techniques, like stuttering instruments and vocals, oscillating loop tones recalling 1950s Sonar pulses, morphing vocals consisting of grunts and squeals and treatments that make the music freeze in between rhythms.
The producer hoped that using stuttering would become a rage in the future world of recording. He believed that people think it is not natural to skip and stutter the music. But he used it to create a new groove.
With the help of Pro Tools, he froze the audio at any point he wanted to change the rhythm of the tracks.
Madonna discussed the recording of the title track stating that Ahmadzaï had encouraged her to rap spontaneously, about all the materialistic objects that she herself had been using and doing.
They had an instrumental breakdown in "American Life", where the producer encouraged Madonna to add a rap about her everyday life. According to Madonna: "Because I was always drinking soy lattes in the studio, and I drive my Mini Cooper to the studio, I was just like, 'OK, let me just talk about the things that I like'. So I went and it was just total improv [sic] and obviously it was sloppy at first, but I got out all my thoughts and then I wrote everything down that I said and then I perfected the timing of it. So it was totally spontaneous."
For "Hollywood", he used a drum kit and percussion from an E-mu Emulator and also added extra drum sounds to give the song an old, disco vibe.
Wanting to have a loud bass synth sound, Ahmadzaï used a Nord Lead synthesizer with lot of filtering manipulations, but he faced issues with it, so he used a Yamaha O2R mixer. He did not want "Hollywood" to sound like the music being played at the nightclubs, so he recorded Madonna's vocals with heavy compression in her headphones.
Two machines were used for the vocal editing in "Hollywood." Madonna preferred the Antares Auto-Tune plug in, while Ahmadzaï chose an AMS pitch shifter.
Madonna wanted Auto-Tune because she wanted "Hollywood" to have a more dance-like feel to it, although Ahmadzaï was against it.
The track "I'm So Stupid" had gentle vocals, then the singing was frozen using a Roland VP-9000. When she sings "Aaaaaahhhhhh", the vocals freeze and the process sounds natural, but in reality is not.
When it came to adding the beats, he experimented by programming the drums in Logic Pro and changing the timing of the beats. The producer combines different samples of songs from his own collections and keeps on trying until something new is developed.
The mixing for the tracks was done by Mark "Spike" Stent at the Westlake Recording Studios at West Hollywood, California, while Tim Young did the mastering of the songs at Metropolis Studios in London.
Michael Colombier did the string arrangement with Geoff Foster acting as the strings engineer, conducting at AIR Studios.
Slant Magazine's Sal Cinquemani stated that "Madonna couldn't possibly have intended to make a pop album. American Life is a folk album in the purest definition of the term—and it's reflected right in the title."
Greg Kot from Chicago Tribune called the record an "electro-folk album" with electronic beats and synthetic burps.
Priya Elan of NME described the album as "folktronica."
"American Life" (the title track) is the first song on the record. Starting with Madonna's multi-tracked voice questioning, "Am I gonna be a star", "should I change my name", the lyrics then develop into what Rikky Rooksby of The Complete Guide to the Music of Madonna states as a complaint about modern-day life.
The lyrics accompany a "punchy octave synth figure" synchronized with a drum and bass beat. After three minutes of the song, Madonna performs a rap naming the people who were working for her.
The second track and single "Hollywood" is introduced with sounds of tweeting birds, before an acoustic guitar starts with a four chord sequence that has been compared to songs by the band Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The texture grows with addition of drums and synths, until after a minute the instrumental is pulled out, leaving just Madonna's vocals and the acoustic guitar accompaniment.
During the final sequence, Madonna raps, as is featured in the first song, with the repeated phrase "Push the button". Lyrically, like the first track, it discusses American culture and greed focusing on Hollywood, California, as a place of stars and illusory dreams.
The next track "I'm So Stupid" features an introduction with a two-chord electric guitar which leads to a minor drum beat, with the guitar later changing to a three-chord.
The composition throughout is generally minor, but at the 2:15 mark, different pitched synths change manically, and towards the end the synths become less prominent as the guitars become the main focus.
Lyrically, the song expresses disillusionment with Madonna singing "I used to live in a fuzzy dream" and "It was just greed", also proclaiming that once she was "stupider than stupid" before stating "Everybody's stupid" towards the end of the song.
The fourth track "Love Profusion" starts with another acoustic guitar introduction, with rhythm being produced by a bass drum with synth-strings added later in the song.
Vocally, the line "I got you under my skin" is repeated, while a male voice acts as the backing for the track as the final words, "feel good", are performed with no backing instrumental.
"Nobody Knows Me" is the fifth track, featuring vocoder treated vocals. The song is accompanied by bleeping synths and a heavy drum part. The title is repeated throughout the song as she references "social disease" which is also repeated.
A recurring theme of "American Life" is the acoustic guitar introduction to the songs, and is yet again featured in the sixth track "Nothing Fails."
The guitar is accompanied by a "light" drum section and low-pitched vocals from Madonna. The song also features a cello in the first part, and a church choir in the second part.
Lyrically, the song discusses a lover who is the one, and how their meeting was not just chance. A reference to the "tree of life" is made during the song as Madonna states "I'm not religious" but she wishes to pray.
Acoustic guitars introduces the seventh track, "Intervention." It begins with a three chord minor sequence which changes to a four chord one during the chorus section and a bass section starts at the end of the track.
Lyrically, the song is an optimistic track about how a relationship will last as Madonna says "the road looks lonely but that's just Satan's game".
"X-Static Process", the eighth track, starts once again with acoustic guitars and throughout there are vocal harmony lines in addition to an organ part. Lyrically, like the title track, it questions modern life as Madonna sings "Jesus Christ will you look at me, don't know who I'm supposed to be".
"Mother and Father" is the album's ninth track, with a drum and bass beat paired with an electric guitar present in the instrumental. Lyrically, the song reflects on Madonna's childhood including her mother's death and her father's reaction, and the effect on their relationship.
The tenth track is "Die Another Day", the theme to the James Bond film of the same name which featured dominating string and synth parts.
The eleventh and final track on the album, "Easy Ride", is a heavily string-oriented song. It addresses Madonna's feelings towards old age, wanting to live forever, and coming full circle to a point in her life where she could be comfortable.
By 2003, Madonna suggested that she was in a revolutionary mood, which led to journalistic discussions that another image makeover would take place for her.
Still recovering from the commercial disappointment of "Swept Away", Madonna changed her image completely to resemble that of a fighter, with inspirations from pictures of Argentinian guerrilla leader Che Guevara.
French design team M/M Paris (Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak) were responsible for the artwork of the album. The duo are best known for their collaborations with musicians and Madonna hired the duo after discussing the concept for just six minutes.
The photo shoot for the album was done by photographer Craig McDean in January 2003 at Los Angeles, and cost a reported $415,000.
McDean had already worked with Madonna for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine in October 2002; this shoot had a military theme, with Madonna posing in dark green and black clothes, combat boots, and guns.
As with 1989's album Like a Prayer, Madonna's hair was dyed dark brown to signify "seriousness", and on the cover of the album Madonna wore a beret, referencing Guerrillero Heroico, a famous image of Guevara.
In an interview with Veja magazine, she described Guevara as "an icon instantaneously identified with an revolution spirit. That goes for the whole album: the current moment, I feel a revolutionary state of mind."
Author Santiago Fouz-Hernández wrote in his book "Madonna's Drowned Worlds: New Approaches to Her Subcultural Transformations" that the inclusion of Guevara as an inspiration for the cover was one of the many instances of Madonna incorporating Hispanic identity and the Latino subculture in her work.
Because of the paramilitary theme, the dyed hair and the artistic composition, was compared with an infamous seventies photo of kidnapped newspaper heiress, Patty Hearst.
The cover also had military styled stenciled lettering. The word "American Life" is written in blood red color and has a punk-rock style.
Inside the CD booklet, she wielded an Uzi submachine gun, her body in various martial art poses, spelling out her name.
By late 2003, Madonna had wiped out the military image completely, and followed with another subtle toned-down image of that of a writer and philanthropist.
In an interview with Larry King in October 2002, she said that she wanted to give the album a Hebrew name. Madonna then considered Ein Sof, which means endlessness, as a possible title for the album.
However, as the months went on and the album became more of a meditation on the difficulty of leading a spiritual life in the glamour industry, the title was changed to Hollywood with Madonna saying that it was "a reflection of my state of mind and a view of the world right now." Still, she was not satisfied with the name, and finalized on "American Life."
"American Life" is Madonna's second album to bear a "Parental Advisory" label after "Erotica" due the profanity used in the title song.
The album was released in the United States on April 22, 2003 and eight months later, Warner Music France released a box set version containing both the album and the remix collection, Remixed & Revisited, in a cardboard sleeve entitled Édition Spéciale 2CDs: American Life + Remixed & Revisited.
"American Life" debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 with 241,000 copies sold during its first week. The sales were less than Madonna's previous album, "Music" (which debuted at #1 with 42,000 copies), but it was the only album that week to sell over 200,000 copies.
It was Madonna's second consecutive number-one album and her fifth number-one album overall in the United States.
The next week, the sales for "American Life" dropped by 62% to 91,000 copies, and the album slid from the top of the chart to #8. It continued to decrease in sales down the chart and fell off the Billboard 200.
On July 7, 2003, just months after the release, "American Life" was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), signifying shipment of one million copies in the US alone.
In September 2003, following Madonna's performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, the album saw a sales gain of 19%, but it didn't chart back.
On July 7, 2003, just months after the release, "American Life" was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), signifying shipment of one million copies in the US alone.
However, "American Life" became Madonna's third lowest-selling studio album (behind "MDNA" and "Rebel Heart") with sales of 680,000 copies as of October 2012 (according to Nielsen Soundscan). It ranked at #125 on Billboard's year-end ranking of the albums.
Overall, the album became the 32nd bestselling album of 2003 with 5 million copies sold worldwide.
"American Life" received mixed reviews from music critics, holding a score of 60/100 on music review website Metacritic, based on 17 professional reviews.
Billboard's Michael Paoletta noted the lyrical differences from past albums such as "Ray of Light" positively, saying: "American Life relies less on spiritual introspection and more on woman-in-the-mirror confrontation."
Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker generally responded well, saying that at its best, the album offers blunt, questing and decisive music but the weakest point was Madonna sounding like a girl who's grown content with her husband and kids and the ability to hire help to do her bidding.
Dimitri Ebrlich of Vibe magazine gave a positive review for American Life, saying that Madonna "stayed still" in the album, and commenting that "This may be the first time Madonna hasn't pushed herself to explore new ground, but at least she's chosen a good place to rest."
Sal Cinquemani from Slant Magazine gave the album a mixed review, stating that "American Life" is not a "masterpiece" compared to her 1992 album, "Erotica", saying: "It's frequently self-indulgent, misguided, unpleasant, difficult to listen to, silly and humorless, but it's also consistent, uncompromising and unapologetic."
Cinquemani opined, ending with the deduction that "American Life" stood for the last time Madonna made music without the primary objective of making a hit.
Giving the album three out of five stars, Ben Ratliff from Rolling Stone summarized that the messages on the album are dour, but complimented Madonna for talking about the then-current situation of the nation.
Johny Davis from NME gave the album a rating of seven out of ten, saying that technically the album sounds good, but overall it felt like an unnecessary sequel to Madonna's previous endeavors like "Ray of Light" and "Music."
Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine stated that the abum is better for what it promises than what it delivers, and that it is better in theory than practice.
Kelefa Sanneh from Blender awarded the album three stars out of five, saying: "Just as disjointed as Music and much more severe ... Without a compelling back story, her songs seem diminished".
Dorian Lynskey from Q magazine also rated it three out of five, stating "'Nothing Fails', the album's centerpiece, is as good a showstopper as 'Live to Tell' ... [but] it's no wonder that a record about feeling confused ends up sounding confused."
Jon Pareles from The New York Times felt that Madonna tried to be honest with the concept of American Dream in the album, but ended up producing songs akin to the "folkie psychobabble" of songwriters like Jewel.
James Hannaham from Spin compared the album's introspective themes to her previous albums "Ray of Light" and "Music." It also noted Madonna spends much of American Life bemoaning the emptiness of celebrity culture.
Alexis Petridis of The Guardian responded well to parts of the record saying "American Life's best tracks make a mockery of virtually all other current pop music." However, his conclusive point in the review was that there was not enough of good songs.
The Village Voice's Jessica Winter called Madonna's voice "redundant" and commented that "she ironizes 'the American dream' only to pitch woo at her English husband and articulate a vague yet fiery frustration with her outrageously privileged station in the world."
Ed Howard from Stylus Magazine gave the album a negative review calling the album "about Madonna" instead of American culture explaining, "it's Madonna who, surprisingly, has simply run out of things to say."
BBC's Ian Young also gave a negative review, saying that "the tunes are bland and weak, the lyrics are uninspired and self-absorbed and the semi-Ibiza backing music is bare and recycled—and we are convinced that she has lost it."
To begin marketing the album, Madonna embarked on a promotional tour across the United States and Europe.
One of these performances, presented at the Total Request Live studios in New York, was shown by MTV in a special named "Madonna on Stage & on the Record." Hosted by Carson Daly, she sang songs from the album and answered questions from the audience.
Madonna also performed at the HMV store on Oxford Street, London to 500 people. While in the United Kingdom, she performed "American Life" and "Hollywood" at BBC One's Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and Top of the Pops.
Another performance on Tower's Fourth Street in Manhattan was presented to around 400 people. A stage was built in preparation for the performances with long dark drapes and large speakers, and according to Billboard was so that over one thousand fans nearby could hear the performance.
Madonna also performed a private concert in Paris, France, at restaurant Cantine du Faubourg to people who won tickets on a promotion hosted by NRJ Radio, and also some of her French friends including designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, director Luc Besson and producer Ahmadzaï.
On August 27, 2003, Madonna opened the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards with American recording artists Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, performing a medley of "Like a Virgin" and "Hollywood". American rapper Missy Elliott also performed her song "Work It" halfway through the performance.
After "Hollywood" was performed by Madonna, she engaged in kissing with both Spears and Aguilera becoming an infamous moment for all three acts and in television history.
In 2003, Madonna planned to release a special commemorative box set to celebrate her 20th anniversary in the music business and the release of her first studio album "Madonna."
However, the plan for the box set was eventually cancelled and "Remixed & Revisited" was released in its place. The compilation contains remixed versions of four songs from American Life and a previously unreleased song called "Your Honesty."