Madge forgets a lot recently. On the opening title track of her new record, she forgets just why she worked so hard to get to where she is today. On song two she sings, “I lost my memory in Hollywood” (insert cheap joke about the movie career here). Scroll down to watch her tossing garlands at the director of Snatch, then one thorny rose: “In the process”—she means of falling in love, not, like, jury selection or something—”I forgot that I was special too.” We can only hope that she’s since remembered her raison d’être and her Golden Globe win and her specialness, but then again, amnesia can only be a friend to the pop-cult chameleon who don’t look back. (And to the pop-cult consumer: We will one day put her “rapping” behind us, dear reader, we will.) Madonna’s sole rival in the skin-shedding championships, David Bowie, confirmed his own irrelevance upon remembering his back catalog, which he set about re-remastering and re-repackaging with Olympic frequency. He too jumped the shark with a single about modernism, right around the time Madonna found her lucky star.
She evidently remembers her previous album, the vivacious polyglot Music, all too well, because right on the heels of Swept Away she delivers another misconceived quasi-remake. Last time around, Ray of Light swami William Orbit stuck around for a few furiously danceable sorceries, but here Madonna attempts to feed almost an entire LP by farming the narrow divot of Mirwais Ahmadzai’s tricks: taffy-pulling kraut thumps, torturing synths until they bleat and screech, and generally amplifying his client’s mechanoid properties (evident ever since she first donned that cone bra). Several songs begin with nothing more than voice and guitar; soon, brittle-boned riffs teeter on keyboard surface tension as electro clashes with strummy folk. The title pastiche is sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster and left to lurch about the lab unsupervised.
When Doctor Mirwais disappears into his toy box, his charge grows bored and plays with her voice. The vocoder gets more of a workout than those famously slender pipes, but Madonna channels a generic teen-pop chanteuse for “Hollywood” and borrows Pink’s insecurity complex for “I’m So Stupid”; all the while, she timidly extends finger in latex glove to touch Courtney’s celebrity skin. Elsewhere, she tries on the guise of the Mature Singer-Songwriter: She mimics Sheryl Crow’s hippie-slick textures and sun-dappled harmonics on “Intervention” and even muses on getting “lost in space” while parroting Aimee Mann’s nasal warble on “Nothing Fails,” a ballad-paced revisitation of “Like a Prayer” with the London Community Gospel Choir in tow. “Oh Father” is sped up and robotized for the dancefloor on “Mother and Father,” as Madonna raps about mourning and anger in the simple, primal terminology of the five-year-old she was when her mom died. And as a curmudgeonly critic said of confessional poetry, all one can possibly hear is the shattering glass of the mirror.
The anxiety of (self-)influence bespeaks a supposedly anxious record, pegged as her midlife-crisis testament. The problem is where the anxiety stems from. Madonna’s experiencing another I’m-a-bitch moment (remember the KISS MY ASS T-shirts?), but she can’t find much to bitch about. The title track’s having-it-all exhaustion, underscored by its bipolar sonics and start-stop rhythms, will endear her to the Allison Pearson crowd; a few other tunes will reinforce her fan base among fellow whiny celebrities. The assaultive “Nobody Knows Me,” less catchy than contagious, mutes slightly the slaphappy beats of Mirwais’s own club hit “Disco Science” to make vague digs at the press and defensively vow self-improvement. Madonna’s voice is mixed and diced into baby gurgles, which might have been cute if it weren’t so redundant. She does sneak in a line about “social disease,” but it’s a red herring—a faulty indicator that she’s read a paper lately.
And there’s the rub. A woman of demonstrated wit, intelligence, and appetite for controversy, perhaps the most famous of all, has released an album called American Life at a moment when people around the globe regard America under the Bush Doctrine as a terrifying rogue nation, specializing in external aggression and internal repression. But she ironizes “the American dream” only to pitch woo at her English husband and articulate a vague yet fiery frustration with her outrageously privileged station in the world. If blessed with an American life, she declares, you too can strike a fashion-forward pose on your album cover as the revolutionary leader of your choice. You can flaunt Patty Hearst chic, wielding a rifle like a daring accessory for summer. You can treat the sustained rape and destruction of a country and its citizens as fodder for an MTV publicity stunt, then backtrack like a loyal patriot actor and scoop up the headlines on your way out. You can view the cataclysms that befall people who live far away as a fecund spectator sport, a cultural garage sale—a looting, so to speak. You can take your corporate-backed global platform to say whatever you want to millions of people and torch it with a grenade-shaped lighter, like a budget surplus or a Dixie Chicks disc. You can, in short, behave exactly like an ugly American, loud and ignorant and hopelessly cocooned by good fortune. And you know she’s satisfied.