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Madonna’s 'American Life': Obscene But Not Heard

madonnalicious readers Iain Christiansen and Jonathan Godfrey shares with our readers this article about Madonna's 2003 American Life album:

A friend and I got together to build an in-depth article that looks ten years back to 'American Life', Madonna’s worst-selling studio album. The polarizing concept album garnered a variety of negative headlines as the popstar departed from her traditional pop sensibilities and used a stripped-down acoustic voice to narrate her views on the state of America in 2003.
The article brings up some interesting points as to where she was musically and how the message of the album may resonate, even ten years later. It also compares the performance of the article to Erotica as both were highly underrated concept albums.

To read the article visit madonnalicious/madonnas-american-life-obscene-but-not-heard


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Rabbit Bunny

12 years later-AL-Madonna's most perplexing and misunderstood Detroit artwork and consequently, my least favorite Madonna record! Maybe it was the acoustic guitar that was a turnoff to me or maybe her mood had soured! The single choices-title cut, Hollywood and Nothing Fails were horrible. Record is redeemed only by centerpiece Nobody Knows Me and the last four chapters X-Static Process,
Mother/Father, sole chart hit after the fact Die Another Day and beautiful Kabbalah ballad Easy Ride. HAS SOME REDEEMING QUALITIES but not enough! It was an honest mistake on Madonna's part I CAN APPRECIATE THE RECORD BUT Madonna's CAREER HAS NOT BEEN THE SAME SINCE!


@ngl: yes, we both know who that person is LOL!

I also think that another reason why AL was not accepted - especially by Americans - was that M was living in London at he time and she has subsequently made it very clear in television interviews that, apart from being married to Ritchie (and remember, she had already been spending increasingly long periods in the UK from 1997ish onwards) was that - and I quote - "the Bush years were a good time to be out of the US". As such, it was seen as quite a personal, vitriolic attack. The irony, of course, is that when she released COADF, not only was she living in London, she declared that she loved New York, and Paris and London we can keep! :-)


I agree that 'Hollywood' is a great song & should have been the lead single from 'American Life'. I don't understand why 'Hollywood' & 'Love Profusion' weren't huge hit singles, & 'Nobody Knows Me' should have been released as a single too. AL does have some decent songs, just not enough & too many sound similar to tracks from her 'Music' LP released 3 years earlier.

IMHO 'AL' should have been called 'Modern Life'- she got US audiences immediately offside with this misleading title & she was branded UnAmerican etc- when the album was really more of a critique of modern 1st world life, with some love songs added in.


I actually thought AI was a daring album and loved many of its songs. To put the album in context, and suggest that some form of self-censorship may have been at play with the two video releases, you have to consider what happened to the Dixie Chicks at the same time. They were at the height of popularity but were critical of the Iraq War. They were savaged by their fans for their criticism. So I think Madonna did pull back a little -- which is what I thought at the time as well. It's a shame that "Hollywood" was not the first single, as it is one of my favorites from her. "Nobody Knows Me" and "Mother Father" are also really strong tracks, along with "Die Another Day." It may be more mellow and reflective than some albums but I listen to it more than Hard Candy and MDNA. The tour that followed was fantastic, and Madonna did not pull back at all when stagins these performances. To this day, I believe that her performance of "Express Yourself," with a bunch of guys brandishing guns in military fatigues, was her indictment of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays openly serving in the military. This was done years before Lady Gaga began championing this issue, and at a time when attitudes were less evolved.


@bristar- I agree with both you & your sister's sentiments RE 'American Life' album.

When reading the article I had to laugh when it stated, in reference to Madonna's 'RI Tour', that 'Finally she saw the value of her back catalogue...'- we both know & have discussed the real reasons behind Madonna's change of attitude towards her back catalogue!:)


I love the article. And thank you for posting it. I think Madonna would enjoyed it very much as much as I did.

Thank you and keep up the good work.


@greggyd: I could not have put it better myself! You have stated my own thoughts exactly!

One extra thing I would also personally add to the lack of success of "American Life" was Madonna's decision to continue deeper into the Mirwais territory. In many ways, musically, AL seemed a continuation of "Music"... only nowhere near as good. My sister, who is also a lifelong Madonna fan and has been to many of M's concerts with me, at the time of the release of AL said, "This album feels like a series of bad rejects from the 'Music' recording sessions". Interesting viewpoint, to me.

Thanks for you post - I really enjoyed reading it.


Reads like a very bad high school essay. Ok album terrible article.


Wow. This article is a lot of high-falutin thinking about a flawed but not-bad pop album. I'm sure Madonna would be pleased. But AMERICAN LIFE (and more recently, MDNA) was a low-seller because the lead single sucked, plain and simple. Horrible lyrics, bad sound, not catchy in the least. And this made people not want to look deeper into the album, which is a shame because there are some really good songs there. (NOTHING FAILS is one of my favorites ever.) The original A.L. video, if she'd let it get airplay, might have helped somewhat. Contrary to what another poster says here, she did not withdraw it because of "media pressure." Are you kidding me? The media eat this shit up. It gives them something to talk about. The juicier, the more outrage, the better. Withdrawing it was one of her rare missteps during her legendary music career. Since when was Madonna ever truly commercially punished for being "controversial"? If anything, she was celebrated for it. Think dancing in front of crosses in the LIKE A PRAYER video. Think naked with chains around her neck in EXPRESS YOURSELF. Think of the entire JUSTIFY MY LOVE video, a number one hit! And don't say EROTICA. That album spawned three top-ten singles, including the title track. The list goes on and on. I'm not saying that a great lead single would have made AMERICAN LIFE a big hit. Barring the two upticks of RAY OF LIGHT and MUSIC, her commercial viability had been waning for more than a decade by the time AMERICAN LIFE came out. So she would have needed a great single to launch the album and sell some more copies. See HUNG UP two years later. Big hit single, got CONFESSIONS running out of the gate, and the album was a success. It got some people outside the hardcore fan-base to pay attention and lay down some cash. But if there's not a great song with great radio airplay, it's just not going to work, at least for Madonna. It's different for lesser-known quantities who are still building audiences. But Madonna's been around thirty years, and she was around 20 by the time AMERICAN LIFE came out. That's long past the audience-building phase of a career. Everyone knows her and knows her work, or they think they do, so to get anyone outside the hardcore folks to listen, and thus sell more copies, you need a real wow factor. The lead single for AMERICAN LIFE was definitely not that, just as GIMME ALL YOUR LUVIN was not that for MDNA. And, unfortunately, at this stage of her life and career, you don't get a second chance to revive an album. So rather than blame the album's lackluster commercial showing on some moment in history (I think that's what the authors are's kind of hard to tell), blame it on the real culprit behind so many failures of this type: bad lead single and bad marketing.


Once I stumbled over the use of the non-word, "irregardless," I couldn't take it terribly seriously.

Justin Time

No matter how you spin it, American Life underperformed because it committed the very un-Madonna-like sin of being dull. American Life was and is a poor song and a poor choice for lead single. No "misunderstood genius" theories are required to figure out why the project misfired.

No exuberance, no palpable joy - just plodding beats paired with derivative and occasionally embarrassing lyrics. The album isn't really even about American Life, it's about her. It's Madonna at her Kabbalah preaching zenith. Rather than being experimental, the material reveals that her working relationship with Mirwais had already peaked on Music, with the tracks on American Life often feeling like less-enjoyable and less interesting retreads.

She wisely looked elsewhere and returned to making good pop with Stuart Price's Confessions, which, through pulsing songs like Hung Up and Sorry, was a tacit admission that American Life, while having some merit, simply wasn't good enough.


Agree with Sandy B. Practically no cohesion from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. If you do read through it, it presents nothing new.


AMERICAN LIFE is in my Top 3 albums - on some days, it's No. 1. Nothing Fails, Easy Ride, Intervention, X-Static Process, Mother & Father are such "rich" songs, all musically brilliant, and where appropriate, are wonderful LIVE songs too. Hollywood & Die Another Day are excellent, more upbeat songs with, again, complex and interesting musical composition.

It's a shame this album didn't get the love it deserved from the masses - but maybe that adds to why it's so special.

P.S. The article lost me a bit, too. I think it was trying to be a little too intellectual and what started out as a review of the album 10 year, ended with a fizzle as the author ignored the remainder of the album which is, in my opinion (i.e. from Track 6 onwards), brilliant.


Love the article!!! Can't believe it's already been 10 years since American Life. A great album and like Erotica grossly underestimated! I just put Erotica on my Ipod the other day! So love the songs!

Jesi Neri

Pointless and horribly written.


Thanks for the article, but her Madgesty actually stands five foot four and a half inches and not five foot two. Everyone can agree that 2.5 inches is a huge difference when it comes to height and appendages.

Sandy B

Article lost me sorry

Iain Christiansen

Yes, we are aware of the fact that she was channeling BOTH Che Guevara and Patty Hearst. We chose to focus on Che for the sake of this particular article.


Garth, she was channeling both. Since when has Madonna ever just "channeled" one source? She even said in an interview that Che was an influence. Which is sickening since he was a murderer, but I digress...


American Life is an amazing album. I still listen to it. The lyrics are strong and thoughtful. I hope that even though it was not popular in the pop culture that it remains popular to those of us who purchased the album and gave it a shot and discovered its place in our personal and cultural history. Yes, it had it's gimmick and pomp to sell the record, but that is par for the course. Great job Madonna!


Madonna was impersonating Patty Hearst because Patty honored (Tania)Tamara Bunke, an argentinian woman who fought along Che Guevara in a revolution in Bolivia against capitalism,where Che was killed, so madonna was ultimately channeling both Che Guevara and Patty, Jimmy Carter didn´t forgive her, just reduce her sentence, you should explain the information correctly Granth instead of state a personal opinion, Madonna was an will always be critique of the dark side of a nation, its society and its goverment and still being american, and for me the article is ridiculous, she censored her video because of the obvious presure of the american media in full control by the government, there is not real democracy in gringo country


excellent article! One small thing though, she was not channeling Che Guevara, she was channeling the kidnapped American Patty Hearst who was brainwashed by her captors, then later pardoned by the President. Look it up! Just google image Patty Hearst

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