What’s the point of Madonna these days? NME only asks, because back in 1987, dear old Morrissey appeared on The South Bank Show to suggest that ultimately, the idea of popular culture must come to an end. Take Madonna, he said. The idea of a female pop singer who somehow tops Madonna was unimaginable. “The ashes are but around us now,” he said, doomily, waving his arms about, “If we could but see them.”
Well, 16 years later and popular culture is alive, though not, perhaps, especially kicking, and staggeringly, Madonna is not only still with us, she’s in exactly same position that Morrissey saw her – still the number one female star, still the biggest pop icon in the world. But if it seemed like there was little left for her to do in 1987, in 2003 we’re so blasé about her sex and drama, her controversial videos and funny photoshoots, we apparently get in a lather when she pops out to wash the Beamer.
‘American Life’ then, arrives in the usual waft of publicity – a controversial war video pulled to avoid controversy over the war (but not, of course, before it was shown on every news channel). Confusing. Indeed, what is Madonna trying to say this time round? She’s Che Guevara, she’s “living the American dream”, she’s “not anti-Bush or Blair, but pro-peace”? Eh? “I’ve taken the personal and made it universal,” she’s said, and personal philosophy is certainly a theme here. We discover that (a) love is all that matters (‘Love Profusion’, ‘X-Static Process’) (b) fame won’t make you happy (‘I’m So Stupid’) and (c) life – it’s a rum do, and no mistake (‘Easy Ride’, ‘Nobody Knows Me’).
Trouble is, it’s impossible to reconcile Madonna: The Altruistic Philosopher with Madonna: The Bloody Big Superstar – her attempts at English self-depriciation (the rap about “yoga and pilates” on ‘American Life’, the question on ‘Hollywood’ – “how could it hurt you when it looked so good?”) and self-analysis (another rap on ‘Mother & Father’ – “my father used to go to work/I used to think he was a jerk”) just come across as gauche. All this head-scratching isn’t helped by ‘American Life”s chipper pace – only ‘Nothing Fails’ and ‘Intervention’ dip beneath the frenetically poppy, with neither a ‘Ray Of Light’-style glitterball stomper, nor a big ballad to act as a breather. Instead, Mirwais keeps his palate simple: all the songs are built around a single guitar (usually acoustic) and his box of saucy French acid effects.
Once, on ‘Nothing Fails’ a choir pops up for a minute or so, and it’s such a shock to hear a new sound, you feel he must have stuck it in just because he had some cash left over at the end. In fact, you know the music by now. It’s album number three of Gallic Techno ‘Donna: all bleeps, beats and stutters, but it arrives with neither the thrill of the new of ‘Ray Of Light’, nor the world-trouncing tour of ‘Music’ behind it. All perfectly good stuff, technically excellent. But ‘American Life’ also feels like an unnecessary sequel, a ‘Men In Black II’, made because hell, if it ain’t broke…
And that’s just the trouble with Madonna these days. She’s simply done everything there is to do, done more than any other pop star will ever be able achieve, done it with bells on and knickers off. Surely that’s enough now?