-- by John Norris
It had been a couple of years since we'd had a good ol' fashioned Madonna controversy — and sure enough, she delivered one. Only this time, it played out differently than what we had come to expect from the damn-the-torpedoes iconoclast of the Reagan '80s.
It must have seemed like a good idea back in November, when war in Iraq was just an abstract notion: Together with in-your-face Swedish director Jonas Akerlund, Madonna conceived a video, or more accurately a mini-movie, for "American Life" that was anti-war and anti-fashion and pulled no punches — so much so that it was reportedly considered "very upsetting" even to some in Madonna's inner circle.
But as the U.N. impasse grew, war became more likely and finally became a reality — not only were punches pulled, through edits, but ultimately the video itself was pulled, before it even aired. Capitulation to a nation intolerant of protest and increasingly obsessed with being "patriotic"? Well, it's not exactly the sort of move that Like a Prayer-era Madonna would have made. Then again, she's a mother of two, probably not looking to make any more enemies, and, as she said in the official statement announcing the withdrawal of the video, she does "support and pray for" the men and women of the military fighting the war in Iraq.
If that sounds like a changed Madonna, well, it's a change that's at the very heart of her confessional new album, American Life. She's 44 years old and has spent 20 years in the music business, but this record is not so much midlife crisis as midlife reassessment, led off by three tracks ("American Life," "Hollywood," "I'm So Stupid") which renounce those things that once seemed important to the woman who will probably never live down the tag "Material Girl."
Madonna and I recently sat down to talk, and we began by discussing the album's title song — in which she sings (and raps) about modern life, values, stardom, soy lattes, yoga and pilates — just about everything, except for war. ...
Madonna: ["American Life"] 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. What is my perspective now? I've fought for so many things, I've tried so hard to be number one and to stay on top, to look good, to be the best. And I realized that a lot of things that last and the things that matter are none of those things.
This country is amazing, it's not like any other country, in that you can come from nowhere and have nothing and become the president of the United States, or do the things that I've accomplished, which I feel incredibly blessed to have done, and I'm sure I couldn't have done it anywhere else. That said, I feel like America has changed over the years and that a lot of our values seem to be materially oriented and so superficial. And we all seem to be obsessed with fame just for the sake of fame, no matter what — sell your soul to the devil if that's what it takes. And we're also completely obsessed with the way we look. And I bought into a lot of that, so a lot of the record, especially the first three songs are just like, "What was I thinking?"
"What was she thinking?" is how some listeners have reacted to the rap break in "American Life," a funny and self-deprecating rhyme. Just how did MC Ciccone come up with the idea?
Madonna: Basically, we had recorded the whole song and we had this instrumental thing at the end and Mirwais [Ahmadzai, producer] was like, "You know what, you have to go and do a rap." And I was like, "Get out of here, I don't rap." And he was like, "Yeah you do. Just go in there, just do it." He totally encouraged me. I had nothing planned, nothing written, and he just told me to do stream-of-consciousness, whatever I was thinking. 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 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.