Madonna’s American Life album put me on the path towards completing my very first screenplay, the title of which would go on to be the theme of every script I have written in the ten years since: Disillusion. The realization that I was fantasy-obsessed, and patterning my life after Madonna's career, was obvious to my loved ones ever since I poured all of my nine year old creative energies into that video tribute to "Vogue". But my own epiphany would not come about until the release of American Life, ten years ago today. I figured there would already be plenty of fellow SuperFans putting this album and its unprecedented commercial failure against the backdrop of the cultural climate that followed the horrors of 9/11 and preceded the horrors of The Iraq War. So instead of a sociopolitical context, I thought I'd do what I do best and put this album into the context of....Me.
Rather than a proper multimedia retrospective, I offer a random assembly of thoughts, linked by some of my favorite tracks from one of my favorite albums. It's me at my most honest and unstructured because American Life is Madonna at her most honest and unstructured. And who would I be if not someone who lives and breathes to pay tribute to Her? Whereas now I can say that as a tongue-in-cheek nod to my trademark penchant for idol worship, such a statement would have been a lot less ironic ten years ago. Up until “The American Life Era”, my devotion to Madonna could theoretically have been read as amusing, admirable, or pathetic. It was Madonna herself who not-so-subtly encouraged me to look deeper into myself and how I could contribute to the world with the same passion with which I contributed to her record sales. It was, specifically, a statement she made when performing before an audience of SuperFans at an HMV Record Store in London on May 9th, 2003.
"In the process I forgot....that I was special too."
It was the sort of promotion one would expect from an artist at the launch of their career, not the relaunch. Fans slept on the street to get into that ultra-exclusive, never-broadcast mini-concert. Yet while Madonna thanked them for their worship, she also encouraged them to put it towards their own betterment, not just hers. As she worded it herself that day:
“If you want to pay tribute to me, do something important with your life.”
Those three words rang through my head, for they gave me permission to love myself as much as I loved Madonna. Initially, “maximizing my own potential”, as a guru might put it, was the ultimate tribute to my idol. But in time (thanks to my impeccable taste in idols) the desire to do good had (roughly) as much to do with love for humanity as it did with worshipping a Goddess. Thanks to the impact that Madonna’s American Life had on my American life, today my devotion to Madonna is defined by self-respect and a commitment to my own growth as an artist and human being. It all began the summer after the album was released, when I sacrificed my busy social life to commit myself to the isolation I required in order to complete a screenplay. Whereas my life before American Life was dominated by watching movies, my life after American Life has been dominated by writing movies: nearly all of my film viewership since 2003 has, for better or worse, been a part of my own artistic process. And it was Madonna's "Life" which opened the creative floodgates.
Even though American Life continues the journey Madonna embarked upon with Ray of Light and subsequently Music, in many ways this is, in fact, a reboot of her career—hence those record store gigs on both sides of the pond. If Confessions On A Dancefloor was the 21st century reincarnation of her eponymous first album, then this was the debut record of the artist who Madonna was before she ever signed a recording contract, back when she shifted between rock and disco in New York clubs. Her guitar work on this album is apparently amateurish (I wouldn't know one way or another) but it's also as painfully honest as an adolescent love letter (which I can vouch for with more assurance). Ditto her youthful, almost child-like singing, a far cry from the post-Evita vocal training that impressed and divided listeners of Ray of Light and Music. For the "calculating" SuperDiva to have been so vulnerable and unpolished remains among the ballsiest moves Madonna ever made. It also defined the "screw the career, I'm finally happy" quality of both the album itself and how it was sold to the record-buying public.
The first televised performance of one of my all-time favorite songs.
I was convinced American Life would be a smash, though that didn't stop me from buying ten copies of the CD in its first week of release to help it debut at #1 in America—which it did, giving Madonna her first back-to-back #1 albums in the U.S. since the 80s. Alas, it was soon to tumble down the charts. Fearing my overspending was bad karma and lead to weak sales, I went on to buy another eighteen copies on CD, vinyl, and eventually digital download between 2003-2005. This meant a lot of people were gifted copies of American Life during the two and a half years when it was "the new Madonna album". I gave a copy to the security guard at my building. I handed out a few to fellow college stoners after passing around my old bong, “Veronica Electronica”, while not-so-subtly playing the full length album. (Cannabis has never diminished my ability to be a fascist host to my company.) I even mailed CDs to friends and relatives along with a wordy letter about how Madonna's new album was her best ever and yet was being totally ignored by radio stations and in turn record buyers. In fact, quite a few of those friends and relatives became bigger Madonna fans after they actually heard the album. I even gave a CD to one of the first guys I ever hooked up with on his way out my door. The encounter was lovely, but the greatest pleasure that came out of that afternoon was learning that the album made him a bigger Madonna fan, too.
"How could it hurt you when it looks so good?"
Like many fans, I often wonder where Madonna's career would have lead, or what completely new shape it might have taken, had American Life sold as many copies in America as did the two albums that preceded it. It could have been the political mood of the country. It could have been the hostile reaction to the panned performances Madonna gave onstage in Up For Grabs and on the big-screen in Swept Away and Die Another Day. Or maybe it was just the same good old-fashioned misogyny that made the life-after-forty years of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford an uphill battle against "you already made it, so now be quiet" ageism.
"Do I have to chaaaange?!"
Ultimately, American Life's commercial failure shaped the subsequent decade of Madonna's career. She began to embrace her "greatest hits" catalogue on The Re-Invention Tour, and returned to a full-on dance music album after American Life's commercial and promo-only remixes dominated the Billboard Dance/Club Play charts for two years. Like most fans, I thought Confessions On A Dancefloor was an even better album--in fact, it's my personal favorite of all time, and I imagine it always will be. But “Confessions” is not simply a great album: it is the perfect companion to the downtempo American Life, and I could never have loved "Confessions" if I had not first fallen in love with "Life". Personally, I have always regarded both as Disc 1 & Disc 2 of a haphazard Double LP sent from the Gods and Goddesses of Pop Utopia. You cannot fully appreciate the exquisite pleasures of one without the other, and you cannot deny that each takes the listener on a journey from hard thumping to pleasant release. (Feel free to view those words as an aural, lyrical, sexual, or spiritual reference: all four interpretations apply to both albums.) And so today I honor not only American Life, one of Madonna's best albums and one of my favorite works of art, but also the incomparable changes it lead to in my life. I cannot put into words just how grateful I am to Madonna for weathering an embarrassing commercial failure in the (X-static) process of inspiring countless artists like myself. And to think, it's only been ten years....I'm thrilled to imagine the influence that this truly timeless, ever-listenable album will continue to have on my life and millions of others in the decades to come.
"And the world can look so sad....only you make me feel good."