August 1, 2019
(The Video begins with a section of "America at War" by CBS News)
Announcer: "It was just over 90 minutes beyond President Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq that US warships and planes launched the opening salvo of Operation Iraqi Freedom."
Todd: The year is 2003. America prepares for war.
(Cuts to various clips of interviews, press conferences, and protests all from that time period)
Todd (VO): President George W. Bush has declared that Iraq is building weapons of mass destruction with which to attack America, and that the only possible response is a preemptive invasion. The administration's case is transparently flimsy and dishonest, both on the evidence and the ethical justification. And though the country is still reeling in shock from 9/11, the anti-war movement manages to organize massive protests. Roughly 32 million people participate worldwide over the course of four months to no avail. America invades against all good judgment or reason. A tragic boondoggle that would eventually prove everyone's worst fears completely true and spark a new dark era of global politics. There is despair among the anti-war left, but they did have one silver lining. Not much of a silver lining in light of the historic crime unfolding, but a silver lining nonetheless. A silver lining I heard many, many people clinging to in those awful days.
Todd: "At least we're gonna get a lot of great music out of this."
(Cut to old footage of protesters getting tear-gassed from the sixties while "All Along The Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix plays in the background)
Todd (VO): "You know, like the 60s because the Vietnam War produced such great music. Surely it'll happen again!"
Todd: Yeah, no it did not.
(Cut to a live performance by a country artist*, the music video for "B.Y.O.B" by System of a Down, and "American Idiot" by Green Day, a music video by the Dixie Chicks, and a music video by Eminem)
*Editors note: I'm not familiar with all the clips used in the review, if anyone wants to help fill those in, I would appreciate it.
Todd (VO): Arguably the pro-war side's music was more emblematic of the times. The only anti-Bush music that got big was a couple System of a Down songs and American Idiot, which honestly, I don't think the political stuff is the strongest part of that album. And there were several others who tried, but they mostly sucked and didn't catch on so no, we did not get great music out of this.
Todd: And we should have seen it coming based on the first person to throw her hat in the ring.
(Cut to a Madonna Concert)
Madonna: What are you looking at?
Todd (VO): That would be Madonna - pop superstar, icon, provocateur.
Todd (VO): No stranger to controversy, she had been shocking and challenging audiences all her career; tackling sexuality, feminism, religion.
Todd: But never politics.
Todd (VO): That all changed with her 2003 album American Life. New ground for her but it felt like a natural progression to her career, which had steadily grown more thoughtful and mature. She always said she didn't want to be known as the Material Girl, and this was going to be a bold step forward for her and a humungous statement for the world to witness - the biggest pop star on earth putting the full weight of her fame and celebrity against the W. administration.
Todd: Wait 'til that...
Todd (VO): dimwitted, smirking warmonger in the White House hears this. "Bush, I'm Madonna!"
Todd: In case you don't know your history, Madonna did not stop the war.
Todd (VO): In fact, that desperately off-brand folktronica....
Todd: protest album(?)
Todd (VO): did less to end the war than it did to end the Madonna era of pop music. That record was as damaging to Madonna's reputation as the war was for America's. So let's take a look back at the costly and poorly planned disaster that brought the Material Girl Empire into permanent decline.
Todd: Madonna, don't preach! This is Trainwreckords.
(Cut to the "Trainwreckords" intro followed by the album cover for "American Life")
Todd (VO): The year is 2003. Madonna is still the biggest name in music. She proves it that summer at the MTV VMAs.
Todd (VO): This was a huge deal at the time. I remember watching it live. I also remembered that it began with Britney and Christina singing "Like a Virgin".
Todd (VO): I did not remember...
Todd: that Madonna also performed a song from her newest album.
Todd (VO):Yeah, that turned out to be not so memorable. That girl-on-girl kiss grabbed a lot of attention, but it turned out to be a kiss goodbye; the last truly iconic Madonna moment.
Todd: The concept of Trainwreckords is to highlight albums that ended careers. Now obviously Madonna kept going after this.
Todd (VO): You might have heard "Hung Up" a few times in '05, that Justin Timberlake duet was a big hit in '08, she did the Super Bowl in 2012 and she's still releasing records now, at least some of which have been pretty good.
Todd: And yet, American Life still represents a serious demarcation line in her discography.
Todd (VO): That record made Madonna the one thing she had avoided being her entire career:
Todd (VO): After American Life, for the first time in 20 years, you did not have to have an opinion about Madonna. She persists now in the same way the Rolling Stones existed in the 80s - entirely off the momentum from great songs she made decades earlier.
Todd: So how did we get here?
Todd (VO): Well, the album before this one was 2000's "Music". On that record, she continued down the Techno direction she going in, and she also learned to play guitar and began incorporating that into her music. It was a decently successful hit, but I do remember some critics saying that for the first time, she seemed like she was playing catch-up with the zeitgeist instead of leading it. It is a very year 2000 record.
Todd: The next couple years would be very different.
Todd (VO): By late 2002 the idea of "music making the people come together" and "get the rebel with the bourgeoisie", it seemed like a sad, naïve joke.
Todd: Clearly, an adjustment was necessary.
Todd (VO): So she made a big shift with American Life and she made her intentions very clear: an album cover that evokes some revolutionary iconography, a title that promises a sharp-edged critique of modern culture and most importantly, a trademark over-the-top Madonna video to kick it off. Yes, a glossy high budget spectacle, but this time aimed at the military-industrial complex.
Todd (VO): It is a video with really charged imagery of vapid superficiality contrasted with the horrible reality of American war.
Todd (VO): It is a video designed to shock you, to jar you out of complacency. It is the video...
Todd: that you never saw.
Madonna: They didn't think people wanted to be inundated with, you know, war footage that we'd use stuff.
Todd: Yeah, she cancelled the video.
Todd (VO): The official line is, you know, the point was to try and prevent the war. But by then the war had already started, so now it just seemed pointless
Todd: and insensitive, too, 'cause...
Todd (VO): it ends with an extremely upsetting sequence of troops getting limbs blown off, and I guess it seemed tasteless to show that on TV when it was actually about to start happening to people.
Todd: But this is Madonna! Madonna, scared to shock people?
Todd (VO): The woman who took pictures of herself getting banged by Vanilla Ice and sold copies of the book for 80 bucks?
Todd: Are we talking about the same woman here?
Todd (VO): Shocking people is what she does! She didn't even need a good reason most of the time, and this time she had one! This might be upsetting, but it's for the right reasons. I remember how amped people were to invade. Everyone needed a reminder that war is not fun. We're not sending men and women over there to be tickled.
Todd: Honestly, it seems like cowardice on Madonna's part.
Todd (VO): I doubt she suddenly learned good taste. More likely she was afraid of getting Dixie Chicks-d, because that had just happened. Either way, she blinked. She chickened out. She cobbled together a makeshift video with anything anyone could object to removed. Even the American flag is mixed in with a bunch of other flags. No one's offended now because it doesn't say...
Todd: or even imply a single thing.
Todd (VO): "Take that Estonia, Norway, Pakistan and Monaco! Micronesia had it coming!"
Todd: It was a bad move artistically and commercially.
Todd (VO): Some songs need videos. Image is substance. For Madonna it always has been. So removing all the imagery just crippled the album's release,
Todd: 'cause man, this is not a song you want to let stand on its own.
Madonna: Do I have to change my name?
Will it get me far?
Should I lose some weight?
Am I gonna be a star?"
Todd: Wha-what are we talking about?
Todd (VO): Now, let there be no mistake about this: "American Life" is Madonna's worst single. Worse than the American Pie cover, or the one about spanking.
Todd: The worst.
Todd (VO): If there's anything insensitive about the video, it's that it was tied to this piece-of-shit song. It has nothing to do with the war or even about American life.
Todd: I mean, I guess it is about an American life - her own!
Todd (VO): The idea behind the song and the album is that the American Dream is ultimately meaningless, and Madonna would know because she attained it and feels empty; that Madonna's famous "Blonde Ambition" has led her nowhere.
Todd: Okay, fine.
Todd (VO): Lots of great art has been made out of that,
Todd: but boy does it sound vapid coming out of Madonna's mouth.
Todd (VO): Like, Madonna deciding that she IS America, and if she feels bad then America must be bad. Jesus Christ, is she fucking serious!?
Todd: She's not exactly Bruce Springsteen. She's represented a lot of things in her life, but America is not one of them.
Todd (VO): Maybe she could have pulled it off if she were speaking more generally, but this is all specifically about her life in showbiz.
Todd (VO): The American Dream is not about becoming famous. Those are different things.
Todd: And arguably you can find a connection there, but the thread is real weak. Most Americans don't worry about picking a stage name!
Todd (VO): She's just writing observations about her tiny bubble and slapping the word "American" on it to try and make it sound deep.
Todd: Ow! Little piece of glass on the floor here this piece of glass is America! Damn you, America! How many more lies must we swallow?
Todd (VO): Of course, that's not the real problem - the problem is that it sounds like garbage.
Todd (VO): Introducing the album to the world with this song reminds me a lot of Taylor Swift's "Reputation" which also kicked off with a big giant grand spectacle that was so focused on sounding big that it forgot to sound good.
Todd (VO): It's such a miserable, dour slog and it does not have the depth to justify it, especially not towards the end.
Todd: And if you would know anything about this album, this is the moment you've all been waiting for. So let's get to it. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the American Life rap!
Todd: Oh snap!!
Todd (VO): Oh my God! Straight fire.
Todd: Eat that, Nicki and Cardi! There is a new queen of Hip-Hop!
Todd (VO): Okay so that was awful.
Todd: But if it was just bad rhymes, that'd be one thing.
Todd (VO): By the end of the decade, Gaga and Ke$ha would be doing similar piss-take raps, and it was somehow more endearing the worse it got because they were being fun.
Todd: But Madonna is deadly serious.
Todd (VO): The thesis of the song is that her world is shallow and meaningless
Todd: in that she surrounds herself with shallow luxuries like...
Todd (VO): soy lattes with double shot-ay's that do not, in fact, make her satisfied.
Todd (VO): Well you know what?
Todd: That's a pretty shallow critique of shallowness.
Todd (VO): It may as well be bragging. If she really wants to be critical of her world of privilege, she could say "I use several shady tax shelters" or "I bribe my kids' way into college," not...
Todd: "I have a chef." Fuck this noise.
Todd (VO): Okay, so "American Life" was roundly rejected. It barely cracked the Top 40.
Todd: Turns out, no one wants to hear a 1%er complain about having a personal staff.
Todd (VO): So the next single, "Hollywood," would be on the same theme, but more digestible.
Todd: Better lyrics, better hook, less personal focus.
Todd (VO): Madonna really, really wanted this to be a hit.
Todd: and it is the most pop friendly song on the album.
Todd (VO): If any song was going to be a hit, it was this.
Todd: And it wasn't.
Todd (VO): It became the first Madonna single in Madonna history to not chart at all!
Todd: I wasn't surprised.
Todd (VO): I mean, we've had so many songs about showbiz being a seductive lie,
Todd: and from Madonna it came across less as disillusionment and more an ex angry about being rejected.
Todd (VO): Because right before this album came out, Madonna starred in a movie so bad it ended her acting career permanently. So Madonna's like "You know what? Hollywood is bad anyway.
Todd: Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart? Not me!"
Madonna: "Push the button! Don't push the button!
"Turn the station! Change the channel!"
Todd: What am I supposed to do?
Madonna: "Push the button! Don't push the button!
Turn the station! Change the channel!"
Todd (VO): Yeah, Rage Against the Machine this is not.
Todd: "Flip the station" sounds like she's telling me to not listen to Madonna and people didn't.
Todd (VO): Like,you get the idea now, right? Madonna's life in pop music has left her unfulfilled, but she has always made superficial music. It's her brand!
Todd: How do you keep making songs when you regard your entire back catalogue as vapid and corrupt?
Todd (VO): Madonna decided the solution was to make her music critical of itself,
Todd: and what you get is pop music that makes you feel bad for listening to it.
Todd (VO): You may remember that Katy Perry tried to do the same thing for the same reasons and got the same results. No one wants this. That brings us to the third song and the hardest rocker on the album, "I'm So Stupid".
Todd: Speaking of sounding like Garbage.
Todd (VO): So yeah, I guess this is Madonna trying to be Shirley Manson.
Todd (VO): This is again more self-critique by Madonna. She's stupid because she clawed her way to the top and found nothing at the end.
Todd: She hammered this theme in the album's release.
Todd (VO): This is so much harder to enjoy than Shirley Manson. It just doesn't pop.
Todd: Like, this is a problem with the entire record.
Todd (VO): So much of Madonna's music from her early days to her more spiritual older self has been about joy and pleasure. Not here.
Todd (VO): There are techno beats, but you wouldn't really dance to it. The entire album is very minor key and dark and dour. There is no "Ray of Light" in it, it does not want you to get "Into the Groove" and you sure as shit aren't gonna "Vogue" to it!
Todd (VO): There were two other non-charting singles, "Nothing Fails" and "Love Profusion". They're not as harsh and ugly as the other tracks, but they are both minor key tracks with acoustic guitar and techno beats.
Todd (VO): They're both considered to be the strongest tracks on the album and you know, I guess that's true enough, but they both feel like album tracks, not singles. Like, that's the problem with this record: there's no hooks.
Todd (VO): Now, there have been defenses of this album that have popped up in hindsight. They call it "her most ambitious album", which you know, possibly true and also - this is interesting - "not a pop album". Like, Pitchfork once called this album "wildly underrated", which should tell you who's going to enjoy it.
Todd: I guess what they're saying is that you have to listen to it like you're listening to
Todd (VO): Bjork or Imogen Heap or someone like that.
Todd: Well, you know, I guess I found my limits as a critic, 'cause I just cannot get myself to do that.
Todd (VO): Madonna isn't Bjork and she's not Imogen Heap. She does not have the depth to pull that off and that's not why I listen to Madonna.
Todd: The American Life album was...
Todd (VO): produced by the French producer Mirwais. He also did the "Music" album and I'll tell you, I'm just not vibing with this guy.
Todd: His stuff is all glitchy-synth and (imitates synth bass pattern),
Todd (VO): robot vocal distortion and stuttering, stop-start beats.
Todd: I-I-I-I-It's just way too much.
Todd (VO): He lets Madonna play guitar a little too much, also. A better producer would have stopped her from rapping a second time.
Todd: A better producer would say "Hey, maybe don't address your daddy issues in a rap."
Todd (VO): And as the album goes on it just becomes a real slog. What is Madonna without her hits?
Todd: Well, there is in fact one hit single off this album.
Todd (VO): Not a huge one, but it did crack the Top 10 and you might recognize it and remember it.
Todd: Yeah, let's play the big hit off this record.
Todd (VO): That's right.
Todd: the Bond theme!
Todd (VO): You know, I remember this song being widely despised. I never really minded it. I thought it was okay.
Todd: If anything, I like it even more now,
Todd (VO): because it is 100% the best song on the album; the highlight of American Life without question is "Die Another Day".
Todd: Sigmund Freud, analyze that!
Todd (VO): And it's especially funny, because it has no business being on this album, it does not fit with the rest of the record. It was probably tacked on right at the end
Todd: just to prevent American Life from being the only Madonna record without a hit!
Todd (VO): And can I say something? Yes, I have spent a lot of time talking about how unsympathetic it is for a fabulously successful and to complain about being unfulfilled by fame and wealth
Todd: but I have seen rich artists pull this off.
Todd (VO): Kanye, Drake and even Mike Posner have done it.
Todd: Part of it is that they're not reliant on beats
Todd (VO): this stiff and robotic,
Todd: but part of it is also that they're all better writers.
Todd (VO): Madonna raps about a billion empty indulgences she has and not one second of it has the devastating emptiness of Posner spending his piles of cash on "girls and shoes". And Kanye even directly linked his own materialism to atrocities happening half a world away.
(Clip of Kanye West's "Diamonds From Sierra Leone")
Kanye: I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless
'Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless
Todd (VO): Madonna is just too self-centered to think that broadly.
Todd: There is almost no one on earth
Todd (VO): who could lose a "being down to earth" contest to Kanye West but Madonna is one of those elite few.
Todd: I mean, wasn't this supposed to be about the war?
Todd (VO): Yeah, if it's not clear yet American Life is not a protest album in any way shape or form. It has nothing to say about Bush or Iraq, and after the first couple tracks we mostly just give up on social critique entirely.
Todd (VO): Like, I guess it's about Madonna being isolated or spiritually struggling. Stuff about religion, that's maybe about Kabbalah. I don't know, I ended up tuning out most of it.
Todd: I don't even know if I would call this a bad album.
Todd (VO): Maybe a more patient listener can feel some of the religious angst and uplift that it's going for. I mean, if this was by someone I've never heard of and it didn't have the title track,
Todd: I'd just write it off as another boring Indie-Pop album that Pitchfork recommended that I didn't really feel.
Todd (VO): But all the baggage surrounding it, all the hype about "Madonna being political now", the buildup in the marketing and her Patty Hearst parade or Che Guevara album color, this all turned me right the fuck off.
Todd: Horseshit, all of it 100% horseshit.
Todd (VO): If the original video had been aired, you could see the soldiers on the fashion runway and at least try and connect the dots, but without it,
Todd: if I were in Iraq I'd be super insulted that this fabulously rich woman thinks her unhappiness has any connection to my situation at all.
Todd (VO): Like, remember last year when she tried to give a tribute to Aretha Franklin, and she mostly ended up rambling about herself? That's this album! Madonna has a reputation as a monstrous narcissist that she's been trying to shed since the mid-90s, but this album only reinforces it.
Todd (VO): Well, you're not getting it Madonna. There's this idea that the Glitterati have a responsibility to use their giant platforms for good,
Todd: and maybe they do, but so many of them are completely unequipped for that.
Todd (VO): Most of them didn't get there by being great people and many of them have no experience with what they're talking about. It's nice when they do, but don't be surprised when they don't. Madonna has always been able to use her image to make a statement, but she found its limits here.
Todd: You're not an activist and your music doesn't become deep
Todd (VO): just 'cause you put on some camo pants. "Strike a pose" works for dance...
Todd: not for activism.
Closing Song: Hollywood