American Life
I Used to Be Disgusted, Now I Try to Be Amused

I had this almost all written earlier in the week, and then the president came on TV and scared the crap out of me, and I knew I’d have to revise. But seriously, doesn’t his “America’s way right or wrong” deal frighten you all, too? Just a little?

King Bush II spoke this week from the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, ostensibly to call an end to the Iraq campaign and send the troops home. Among the scarier parts of the speech, Dubya again switched the motivation for the war. What was once about combating terrorism and then became about weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a tyrant and finally turned into liberating the Iraqi people has now reverted to continuing the war on terror. This despite no concrete evidence of Saddam Hussein’s giving weapons to terrorists, and in fact no evidence of such weapons at all in Iraq, either.

And it’s working. I had a conversation with a woman the other day who honestly believes, because she thinks the president told her so, that Hussein and the Iraqi people blew up the World Trade Center. Seriously. The harsh reality is that Bush used the deaths of September 11 to justify his private war, which, thanks to a massive rebuilding contract granted to his former company, Halliburton, will make Dick Cheney richer. But I’m sure this had nothing to do with protecting his buddies, especially those in the oil industry, right?

Anyway, Bush went on to deliver a stern warning to other countries that he sees as threats. Among his finger-wagging statements came this one: “Nothing these countries can do will alter their fates.” Wait, what? Nothing they can do? We saw this attitude in this campaign as well – even though Saddam Hussein cooperated with the U.N. inspectors, according to Hans Blix, and gave the U.S. everything it asked for (except the weapons it’s looking more and more likely that we made up), nothing he could do would alter his fate. I’d have been even more concerned about our single-mindedness at the time had I known it would become policy.

Also interestingly discouraging was the bit where Bush listed off characteristics of our “enemies” – or, as he likes to say, the “enemies of freedom.” Because the U.S. spreads freedom and utopia wherever it goes, establishing flourishing democracies in places like Kuwait and Panama and… oh, hang on. Anyway, apparently an enemy of freedom is now defined as a country with ties to terrorist organizations, one who assists terrorists with weapons and money, and one who stockpiles weapons of mass destruction. I find it utterly amazing that the administration doesn’t realize that they just described us. We fund terrorist organizations around the globe (although when we like them and they’re not blowing up our buildings we call them “freedom fighters”) and have the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction on the planet.

But this is typical, I’m finding, of an administration ready to exert its will upon anyone at any time. We started the Iraq campaign (before it became Operation Iraqi Freedom) because Bush and his puppet masters believed Hussein had given money, weapons and aid to anti-American terrorists. But look at it this way. The U.S. has given money, weapons and aid to the Israelis for years, which they have in turn used against the Palestinians. (Pre-“Road Map to Peace,” of course.) Under our current logic, wouldn’t the Palestinians be justified in declaring war on us? Forget, for a moment, the fact that we’d slaughter them. Wouldn’t that be a just war, from their perspective?

But the administration continues to paint in broad strokes, failing to see the nuances that must be taken into account when establishing foreign (and domestic) policies. We’ve kept it basically black and white – if you agree with us, you’re a Friend of Freedom. (And you get a membership card and a secret decoder ring…) If you disagree, you’re an evildoer. Period. The same Saturday morning cartoon logic applies to our domestic dealings as well, with law after law designed to separate the good guys from the bad based on their willingness to fall in line.

Which is all too ironic, since we’re ostensibly spreading freedom to the rest of the world. The proposed Partiot Act II (hot on the heels of the original Patriot Act, now law, which, among other things, makes it okay for the government to detain indefinitely, without proof or charge, anyone they suspect of terrorist activity) would effectively shatter the Bill of Rights, turning this into a much less free nation. The original Patriot Act came with an expiration date – at the end of 2005, it will disappear without congressional renewal. Which is why Orrin Hatch wants to make it permanent.

The us-against-them climate in America continues to spread, with those willing to exercise their American right to disagree being increasingly silenced through fear of recrimination. It’s not even necessary to veer too far from the entertainment and pop culture focus of this site to provide examples. In fact, in an address to the National Press Club this month, outspoken actor/director Tim Robbins pretty much laid it all out. The wave of hate is spreading, he says, and it’s hard to disagree.

Take this site, for example. They bill themselves as the “conservative alternative” to Ben and Jerry’s, offering up flavors like Nutty Environmentalist, Smaller Govern-Mint and (my favorite) I Hate the French Vanilla. Their stated objective is to offer a choice to those sick of supporting “whacko liberal causes” to get good ice cream. You know, like cleaning up the planet, or tightening child labor laws. Whacko causes like that. Star Spangled Ice Cream instead pledges a chunk of their profits to the U.S. military, which we all already pay for through our taxes, and whose funding has been exponentially increased in the past few years.

But what’s disheartening about Star Spangled Ice Cream is their assertion that “real Americans” agree with them. Worse, while their site is certainly funny, it’s also much more mean-spirited than their liberal counterpart, who promotes peace and love and doesn’t have a flavor condemning an entire country’s people. The simply stated message is that we real Americans hate and mock those who disagree with us. Oh, and we also like to make lots of money.

Try this one. This is a site maintained by a group of people who want Michael Moore stripped of his Oscar for Best Documentary for Bowling for Columbine. They offer as evidence the fact that Moore staged a couple of things and sneakily edited a couple of others, all of which is true enough. Moore should certainly be taken to task for a few of the things in Columbine, most especially Charlton Heston’s severely rearranged speech, but they do not make his work fiction, nor do they negate the points his film makes, points which, more than anything else, won him the Academy Award.

But again, what’s fascinating about this site is that the writers don’t seem to care about the alleged fabrications as much as they care about Moore’s politics, and how they disagree with party line. They don’t want Moore censured by the Academy for allegedly violating the rules of documentary filmmaking, they want him shamed before America for daring to disagree with King Bush II. Had Moore made a nice, gracious acceptance speech, this site would not exist. The amazing thing is that the site’s authors make no bones about it – the allegations are merely means to an end. It’s all very Ken Starr. (And they even get a shot in at the French.)

The worst part about all of this to me is that the right wing is trying (and in many cases, succeeding) in painting those who utilize their uniquely American freedom to speak out against policies with which they disagree as anti-American. With the rest of the world drawing parallels between Bush and Hitler and pointing out the similarities between our empire-building in the Middle East and the rise of Nazi Germany (and there are several, and they’re scary), it’s more important now than ever that those inclined to speak do so.

Yes, it is possible to support the troops and oppose the war. Yes, it is possible to support our country and rail against those leading it away from its most cherished principles. Yes, it is possible to be an anti-war activist and not be a terrorist. Things are not black and white, and freedom needs to be protected here before it can be doled out elsewhere. We need to raise voices now before it all goes away.

* * * * *

It is into this strange domestic political climate that Madonna has released her new album, called American Life. She’s a master ironist, so she surely appreciates the subversive nature of an American citizen living in the U.K. making an album called American Life with a French producer. She also must appreciate the oddity of the former Material Girl making an album almost entirely about the evils of materialism, the cancer at the heart of modern America, but here it is.

Some would take me to task for even mentioning Madonna in this column, claiming that if we’re discussing musical artists, her name shouldn’t be on the list. There are certainly arguments to be made in that direction, but in the past few years, Madonna has taken complete control of her career and driven it to places no one would have expected. She’s taken risks, jumped over cliffs and delivered some fairly revolutionary pop music in the bargain.

Still, her primary talent appears to be her uncanny ability to surround herself with the finest talent available, people who will make her sound more musically visionary than she actually is. In 1998, she released what is still her finest work, Ray of Light, a collaboration with British techno wizard William Orbit. This album fused her traditional pop tunes with the thumping, twittering electronics of the European club scene, showing that one didn’t have to overpower the other. It was a mature, radiant pop album that certainly, if nothing else, established Madonna as far more than some prepackaged marketing product.

In fact, much of Ray and its surprisingly downbeat follow-up, Music, was surprisingly non-commercial. It was on Music that Madonna hooked up with that French producer, Mirwais Ahmadzai, and they established the template for their shared sound on “Don’t Tell Me,” one of the album’s hits. It married a twittering beat to a fractured, digitally edited acoustic guitar, creating a form of dance-folk that, in Madonna’s world, qualifies as a major innovation.

That innovation makes up much of the sound on American Life, which, if not for Ahmadzai, would be the first acoustic folk album of Madonna’s career. It is almost painfully stripped down, and acutely, nay, embarrassingly confessional and honest. Not that there was ever much to begin with, but Madonna has completely removed the poetry from her lyrics, and with less emphasis on the musical ear candy side of her work (Ray of Light was like giving your ears an Easter basket), the lyrics come to the fore by default.

Kudos to Madonna for truly speaking her mind on this disc, however. She takes on her former materialistic life again and again, speaks out about her situation with her parents and how it might affect her ability as a mother, and embraces an even more overtly spiritual stance than she took on Ray. The record will make you flinch several times, though, because she does all this in the plainest language imaginable. “I’m So Stupid,” “Nobody Knows Me” and “Mother and Father,” just to name three, are so bluntly forthright that they almost inspire giggles. “X-Static Process,” where she details the moment she discovered she “was special too,” comes closer to full-on laughter.

But she’s so earnest that it’s almost cruel to laugh. And she does raise some interesting observations, mostly because they’re coming from Madonna, about the effects of greed and materialism on one’s soul. Here’s the thing, though: for someone who’s supposedly renounced the material world, she certainly spends a lot of time dwelling on it here. In the album’s title track, she even rattles off a list of amenities she’s bought for herself – personal trainers, etc. – that don’t satisfy her, but that, one senses, she won’t be giving up any time soon.

In fact, she may have hit upon the central paradox of modern American life, especially that of the liberal left. We decry greed and materialism, striving to help the less fortunate and increase our spiritual awareness, and at the same time we buy every piece of shiny, noisy crap we can get our hands on. American Life comes packaged (in a $25 limited edition) in a large box with posters, stickers and other things we really wouldn’t want if we believed the album’s message.

The irony continues: at track 10 of American Life is “Die Another Day,” the theme song from the latest James Bond flick. You know, that bastion of crass commercialism in which things blow up, girls show off their assets, and movie studio executives make tons of money? While we’re on the subject of tons of money, wouldn’t you bet that Madonna made bunches to write and sing the song? And here it is again, helping to sell her new album and make her bunches more. Its inclusion counters nearly all of the album’s main points, which may be a point in itself.

So is Madonna jerking us around? Who knows? I thought she was kidding when she married Guy Ritchie and wanted to be in a remake of Swept Away, but she did both, sweeping the Razzies in the process. Who can explain her motivations? This is a woman who, on “Nothing Fails,” enlisted a gospel choir to sing the line “I’m not religious” in glorious heavenward harmony. This is a woman who made a video for the title song in which she physically attacks a mock-up of George W., and then pulled it out of sensitivity for the political climate. Huh? When has Madonna ever been sensitive to the political (or social, or sexual) climate?

American Life is a mystery, albeit an enjoyable and increasingly mature one. It also confounds itself repeatedly. Take “Hollywood,” a nifty techno-acoustic romp that could easily be a hit. Problem is, pretty much every line ends with either “Hollywood” or “good.” The song runs out of ideas a minute in, and climaxes with a phase-shifted rap that should have been cut. These bad judgments surface all over the record, the first Madonna album that could be termed a “grower.” Repeated listens bring the subtleties in Ahmadzai’s production to the surface, but his self-limited sonic palate here grows wearying on first spin.

But damn, this is a risky record, and for that, I applaud her. It would be incredibly easy to just keep making bland hits, like Celine Dion, until someone gives you a lucrative Vegas show for three years. Madonna has consistently reinvented herself, both visually and musically, and that she occasionally stumbles just goes to show that she’s not some record company puppet. American Life has numerous rewards buried beneath its surface, not the least of which is its ironic approach to its subject matter, but in the end, even its silliest moments offer further proof that Madonna didn’t earn a 20-year career by being anyone’s fool but her own.

* * * * *

Scenes from the workplace: I just had to mention this. The plant where I work subscribes to this motivational poster service, through which they get a new inspirational platitude each month. The idea is by promoting a sense of belonging and togetherness among the employees, the company can make them all forget that they have a lousy job with lousy hours and lousy wages. Or something like that.

Anyway, April’s poster extolled the virtues of teamwork, and I must have walked by it every day and only this week realized what’s funny about it. The picture intended to illustrate how teamwork and hanging together makes us all achieve better things is of a five-member tandem skydiving team, free-falling in a circle with hands clasped about each other’s forearms. The caption says something about how it’s amazing what people can achieve by sticking together, or something like that.

But here’s the thing. If, at some point, those five people don’t stop hanging together, disengage and pull their ripcords, they’re all going to die. Sticking together will get them all killed. So it really doesn’t quite illustrate the point, I don’t think.

Anyway, made me laugh.

* * * * *

This week’s Buffy packed the same emotional wallop as the last episode did a physical one. The writers have been carefully and methodically setting their amazingly complex title character up for this fall all season, and in fact for several seasons. I’m getting the sense that this is all going to end tragically and beautifully. Only three to go…

Next week, probably Blur or Richard Thompson or Fleetwood Mac or the Violet Burning. Or maybe all of them.

See you in line Tuesday morning.