American Life (song)
|Single by Madonna|
|from the album American Life|
|B-side||"Die Another Day"|
|Released||April 8, 2003|
|Recorded||2002; Olympic Recording Studios
|Madonna singles chronology|
"American Life" is a song by American singer-songwriter Madonna. It is the title track from her ninth studio album American Life (2003), and was released digitally as the lead single from the album on April 8, 2003 by Maverick Records. It was written and produced by Madonna and Mirwais Ahmadzaï; the lyrics to "American Life" feature violent transitions and a political and religious view from Madonna. She questions the shallowness of modern life and the American dream under President George W. Bush's conservative administration. Towards the end of the song, Madonna raps, naming the people who were working for her.
"American Life" was panned by music critics, with Billboard criticizing Madonna's rapping, and Blender naming it as the ninth worst song of all time. Despite receiving mostly negative reviews from music commentators, "American Life" reached number one in Canada, Denmark, Italy, Japan and Switzerland, and the top ten in Australia, where the song was certified gold by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA). However, the song peaked at number 37 in the US Billboard Hot 100, staying in the chart for eight weeks, while it debuted and peaked at number two on the UK Singles Chart.
Two music videos were shot for the song, both directed by Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund. The first one featured Madonna at a military-themed fashion show, cavorting with a brigade of female soldiers and in the end, she throws a hand grenade at George W. Bush. Prior its release, it caused controversy regarding its political, racial, violence and religious views, leading Madonna to release a statement explaining its concept. After the invasion of Iraq started, Madonna cancelled the release of the original music video, because of the political climate of the country at the time, and released an alternative version, featuring her in front of a backdrop of flags from around the world. The song was performed during promotion for American Life in 2003 and on the Re-Invention World Tour (2004).
Background and release
"American Life" was written and produced by Madonna and Mirwais Ahmadzaï. "I could be having a guitar lesson and something will just come to me," the former observed. "Or Mirwais will send me over music – rough stuff that doesn't have an arrangement: basic chord progressions. 'American Life' itself came about like that." In April 2003, Madonna discussed her motivations behind "American Life" with VH1 while talking about her experience in the music industry. She stated "I look back at the 20 years behind me and I realized that a lot of things that I'd valued weren't important", in response to the non-materialistic themes of the record. Discussing the album, Madonna said about "American Life":
"[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. 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."
To counter illegal Internet downloads of the song both before and after the single's release, Madonna's associates created a number of false song files of similar length and size. Some of these files delivered a brief message from Madonna saying "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" followed by minutes of silence. However, the song leaked online one day before its official premiere. "American Life" premiered on March 25, 2003, through AOL. The song was released in the United States on April 8, 2003. "American Life" went on sale two days later, through digital services Liquid Audio, RioPort, and also through Madonna's website in MP3 format.
Composition and lyrics
A 29-second sample of the song's chorus, where Madonna can be heard questioning "Am I gonna be a star", "should I change my name", that is a complaint about modern-day life.
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Starting with Madonna's voice multi-tracked questioning – "Am I gonna be a star?", "Should I change my name?" – the lyrics develop into what Rikky Rooksby of The Complete Guide to the Music of Madonna states is a complaint about modern-day life. She also questions the shallowness of modern life and the "American dream." "I know it sounds clichéd," she admitted. "But I've had 20 years of fame and fortune, and I feel that I have the right to an opinion on what it is and isn't. All everyone is obsessed about now is being a celebrity. I'm saying that's bullshit, and who knows better than me? Before it happens, you have all kinds of notions about how wonderful celebrity is and how much joy it's going to bring you. Then you arrive... In America, more than any other place in the world, you have the freedom to be anything you want to be. Which is all well and good, but it only works if you have a value system – and we seem not to have one anymore. It's, 'Whatever it takes to get to the top, that's what you gotta do.' It's the allure of the beautiful life: 'Look like this, you're gonna be happy. Drive this car, you're gonna be popular. Wear these clothes and people are gonna want to fuck you.' It's a very powerful illusion and people are caught up in it, including myself. Or I was."
After three minutes, Madonna performs a rap naming the people who are working for her. Basically, we [she and Ahmadzaï] had recorded the whole song and we had this instrumental thing at the end," said Madonna, "and Mirwais 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."
The repeated acoustic guitar riff "adds a touch of pathos" to the song, according to biographer Carol Gnojewski. The lyrics accompany a "punchy octave synth figure" synchronized with a drum and bass beat. "American Life" is written in the time signature of common time with a moderate tempo of 102 beats per minute. It is composed in the key of F-sharp minor with Madonna's voice spanning from C3 to B4.
"American Life" was met with generally negative reception from music critics. Sal Cinquemani from Slant Magazine labeled it a "trite, self-aggrandizing and often awkward song about privilege" and a "dour and robotic" track. Stylus Magazine gave a negative review and said that when one of the world's richest women complains about commercialism and the emptiness of entertainment culture, it seems hypocritical rather than insightful. He also noted that in the song, she's raging against the life she herself is leading.
Chuck Taylor of Billboard gave a negative review for the song, criticizing Madonna's rapping and calling the song "a blurry snarl of style and composition that's sounds more like a disjointed medley than a song." Alexis Petridis from The Guardian was disappointed by the lyrics saying that "what on earth might her extreme point of view involve? That the world is ruled by a shadowy cabal of super-intelligent lizards?... Sadly not. Her extreme point of view turns out to be that money can't buy you happiness and that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be." He also panned the lyric "I like to express my extreme point of view", saying that it's difficult to hear that line without feeling a prickle of excitement.
Entertainment Weekly called the song a list of celeb perks: trainer, butler, assistant, three nannies, a bodyguard or five. It seems, at first, not like the clever self-twitting she clearly intended, but rather a facile confirmation of her haters' conviction: that the middle-aged Madonna does not have a worldview beyond her next Pilates appointment. In 2004, Blender magazine listed the song at number nine on the list of the 50 Worst Songs Ever, stating that Madonna "updates the 'Material Girl'-era satire of commercialism and spiritual emptiness... with what is hands-down the most embarrassing rap ever recorded. Nervous and choppy, she makes Debbie Harry sound as smooth as Jay-Z." The magazine also said that the worst moment of the song is when after rapping, Madonna sings 'Nothing is what it seems' with no profundity. Stephen Thompson of The A.V. Club considered the song to be "jittery, tuneless, and shallow to the point of self-parody".
"American Life" debuted at number 90 on the US Billboard Hot 100 on the week of April 5, 2003. A few weeks later on April 26, 2003, the song peaked at number 37, being the greatest gainer song of that week. In Canada, the song peaked at number one on the singles chart. In Australia, "American Life" debuted at its peak of number seven, during the week of April 24, 2003. In the following week, the song began its decline, and experienced a total chart trajectory of eight weeks. The song was certified Gold by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA). In the New Zealand, the song peaked at number 33, and remained on the chart for one week. On the UK Singles Chart, "American Life" debuted at its peak of number two on the week of April 26, 2003.
On April 27, 2003, "American Life" debuted at number seven on the Ö3 Austria Top 40 chart, spending a total of 11 weeks in the chart. The song achieved moderate chart positions in both the Flemish and Wallonian territories in Belgium, peaking at numbers 12 and 10, respectively. Making its debut at number 61, "American Life" charted for a total of 11 weeks in France and peaked at number 10, before falling out on July 6, 2003. The song was certified Silver by the Syndicat National de l'Édition Phonographique (SNEP). On the Dutch Top 40 chart, the song made its debut at number 34. The following week it rose to number 21 and peaked at number 4, before the ending of its eleven-week run. On April 24, 2003, "American Life" debuted at number three on the Swedish Singles Chart. Similarly in Switzerland, the song debuted at number one on the Swiss Singles Chart, spending 13 weeks on the chart. In Germany, the song peaked at number 10.
There are two different music videos for "American Life", the first of which was not released by Madonna. It was shot in the first week of February 2003 at Los Angeles Center Studios in Los Angeles, California by Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, who worked with Madonna in the videos for "Ray of Light" (1998) and "Music" (2000). Madonna had the idea for the music video in November 2002, then she and Åkerlund developed the idea to make an anti-war and anti-fashion mini-movie. With "American Life", she took her music videos to a different level by focusing on war, politics and, according to media interpretation, the then-upcoming invasion of Iraq. "It is an antiwar statement..." she subsequently clarified, "but it's not necessarily against this war. At any given moment there's at least 30 wars going on in this world and I'm against all of them." Shortly after it was filmed, Warner Bros. Records released a statement regarding the music video: "[The video] expresses a panoramic view of our culture and looming war through the view of a female superhero portrayed by Madonna. Starting as a runway show of couture army fatigues, the fashion show escalates into a mad frenzy depicting the catastrophic repercussions and horrors of war." An exclusive sneak peek of the video was available on VH1's program Backstage at the Grammys.
The video begins with several male and female models dressed up as soldiers on a fashion runway, wearing military garb and gas masks with one male model sports a shirt that reads "Fashion Victim" while it is inter-cut with scenes of Madonna singing in front of a black background. In the second chorus, middle-eastern children are seen walking on the runway, and being bullied by the soldier models. During the bridge, Madonna and her group prepare to enter the runway in a restroom, while she carves "Protect Me" on the partition of a stall and dances angrily with them to the song. The women also are seen dancing in front of surveillance cameras. When the rap section starts, Madonna is seen crashing into the show driving a Mini Cooper and pummel the photographers with an industrial-strength water hose, while rapping and dancing on top of the car with her gang. In the end of the video, Madonna frantically drives out of the runway into the amused audience, and pull a hand grenade with her teeth and then throws it to George W. Bush, and the video ends with him using it to light up his cigar.
Due to the political climate of the country at the time, on April 1, 2003, Madonna pulled the video and released a statement explaining why: "I have decided not to release my new video. It was filmed before the war started and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video." After pulling the original video, it was then released an edited version that premiered on April 16, 2003 on VH1, immediately after a special program called Madonna Speaks. This version features Madonna singing in front of a backdrop of ever-changing flags of different countries.
In 2005, a director cut of the video leaked onto the Internet. It shows heavier scenes, like wounded and maimed soldiers, war scenes, images of poverty and death. In 2010, Slant Magazine placed this alternate video on the nineteenth place of decade's fifty best music videos list, stating: "It isn't like either the video's message about viewing war as a form of popular entertainment or its striking, loaded images leave much room for misinterpretation. Prescient? Yes. Relevant? Surely. Subtle? Not so much." This version of the video ends with the tossed grenade landing on the catwalk and Madonna putting her hands on her ears.
To promote American Life, Madonna embarked on the American Life Promo Tour. A performance on Tower's Fourth Street in Manhattan was presented to around 400 people; the set started with Madonna, wearing black beret, polka-dot blouse, black trousers and heels, performing an acoustic performance of "American Life" followed by the track "X-Static Process". The promotional show also saw Madonna perform two other tracks from the album being "Mother and Father" and "Hollywood", before performing an "impromptu" performance of "Like a Virgin", and lastly performing the album version of "American Life". 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 the song at HMV store in Oxford to around 500 people. While in the United Kingdom, she performed "American Life" and "Hollywood" at BBC One's Top of the Pops.
The following year, "American Life" was included on her Re-Invention World Tour. It opened the Military-Army segment and started with the sound of a helicopter in the background as Madonna's backup dancers, dressed as soldiers, crawled on their bellies as though in the middle of battle, then hugged each other as if saying goodbye. Madonna appeared onstage, on top of a structure made up of TV sets, wearing camouflage pants, an olive army jacket and black beret. She started performing the song as war footage of death and destruction flashed on screens behind her. At the end of the song, it showed a George W. Bush look-alike lovingly resting his head on the shoulder of a Saddam Hussein look-alike, as though the pair were waiting for a marriage license. During the performance, Madonna ran down a lengthy V-shaped catwalk that descended from the ceiling and allowed her to reach the middle of the stadium. Toronto Sun's Jane Stevenson praised the performance, but called the background images "sober". The performance was included in the I'm Going to Tell You a Secret live album and documentary.
Track listings and formats
Credits and personnel
- Madonna – songwriter, producer
- Mirwais Ahmadzaï – producer, programming, guitar
- Mike "Spike" Stent – mixing
- Tim Young – mastering
- Tom Hannen – assistant engineer
- Simon Changer – assistant engineer
Credits and personnel adapted from American Life album liner notes.
*sales figures based on certification alone
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