American Life: lifeless

The pattern has been the same for years. First comes word of new Madonna music, and then, trailing at a safe distance behind the single, some lurid controversy designed to alert those on both sides of the aisle, the Maddie worshipers and the guardians of propriety who can be counted on for op-ed outrage, that the notorious, costume-changing pop czarina has new product in the pipeline.

This time, the manufactured scandal was a video for “American Life” that featured the inescapable icon tossing a live grenade to the commander-in-chief. It was in circulation for a minute, then, its shock-and-awe mission accomplished, was abruptly pulled.

In the old days, that kind of precision strike was all it took to launch the latest Madonna pose. Because the music, infernally hot dance-pop carrying melodies you could memorize in a nanosecond, was enough to hold one’s interest from there. Even when the whole presentation felt contrived, Madonna was the loud car wreck you couldn’t help looking at. And underneath, there was always at least one compelling shred of music, some tart refrain or gorgeous chord sequence, to keep you listening.

Not anymore. For the first time in a remarkable 20-year record-making career, Madonna pours that near-mythic knack for reinvention into a spectacularly stinky artistic black hole.

American Life, which arrived yesterday, is not only the most wretchedly empty thing she’s ever done, it’s also one of those big-budget projects that make sense only as megastar indulgence, a cloying mess of beats and noise and meaningless wounded-childhood outpourings. Among them: “There was a time I had a mother. It was nice.”

Alas, that’s one of the richer narrative moments.

You listen to her spew one list after another, and you think: Maybe Madonna has gone through so many reinventions, she’s lost contact with what’s real and what’s face paint.

It sure sounds that way on “X-Static Process,” one of maybe five indistinguishable confessionals that juxtapose relentless drum programming with gentle acoustic guitar, when she halfheartedly groans, “I’m not myself … I don’t know who I am.”

On one level, she’s doing what she’s always done, rummaging through the closet of her rich subconscious, trying on the leather bra and the soldier’s uniform in search of the audacious ensemble that screams for attention. But there’s something different about the charade this time: Beneath the fractured rhythms and recurring exhortations that pass for lyrics on American Life, there’s the distinct whiff of pop-star desperation.

Aware that her hold on the collective imagination is slipping, the 44-year-old star sounds psyched out by Britney, if not Gwen Stefani and Shakira, unsure whether to strike a sexy pose or a more Warholian one.

So she does the obvious thing: buys up super-slick beats and the latest vocorder jigglies from the seriously overrated Mirwais, and heads out to make something arty, meta, conceptual. And still she can’t quite figure out how to wedge herself back into the conversation.

She tries to present herself as a victim coming to terms with injustices of long ago, and sounds whiny. She tries to go heavy, with songs that aim for some kind of sociological commentary, and sounds like a wealthy matron lecturing a wayward urchin.

The opportunistic title is a good indication of what lies waiting for those who plunk down hard cash for these new therapy “songs” (10 fresh ones plus her droning non-hit 007 soundtrack offering “Die Another Day”). Just about every track is freighted with elaborate contrivance, burdened to the breaking point by the star’s determination to be emotionally forthright and artistically ahead of the curve.

The songs that talk about love have a brittle tone. The songs that express determination, such as “Nothing Fails,” offer platitudes that might have been cribbed from the Successories catalog. On that track and others, the words never fully sync up with the stop-start rhythmic currents, at times it sounds as if she pasted on these turgid “hooks” and pathetically underdeveloped refrains as an afterthought, on her way to that three-hour stretching class.

What’s sad about this is that not so long ago, on 1998’s Ray of Light, Madonna achieved something far deeper, and more musically significant, using the same basic tools. That album presented her as a restless, rave-attending seeker, someone who was using yogic introspection and electronica’s hypnotic power as divining paths, and slowly discovering what really matters.

American Life portrays her much more bluntly: Now she’s Want-More Madonna, hungrier and impatient for Hollywood adulation, a sensation junkie begging to be understood on her own highly specific terms.

When, in a tragic attempt at rap that closes the title track, she smugly says, “And you know I’m satisfied,” it’s impossible to feel anything but pity for a woman who once understood that extravagant media manipulation was only part of the package. One certainly hopes she’s deriving some satisfaction from the comforts “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” brought her. Because to rely exclusively on the dim songs of American Life would mean subsisting on mighty thin gruel.