Madonna: Material girl’s pedestal doesn’t work as pulpit

Daily Herald Music Critic

Soccer moms of the world unite!

That’s the war cry of “American Life” (Maverick/Warner Bros.), Madonna’s tenth album, in stores this week. Now into her third album as a self-professed domestic goddess, the once naughty vixen who made America’s moral crusaders blush is now as threatening as Mama Celeste. Dressed in the utmost Patty Hearst/Che Guevara chic, Madonna is leading a global revolution against yuppiedom and its material girls. The title song is meant as some serious soul cleansing – in it, Madonna raps (yes, Madonna raps now) about how she can’t get no spiritual satisfaction from her drivers, butlers, five bodyguards, three nannies and ruthless trainers who won’t stop drilling her on those darn Pilates!

This just in: she’s serious.

Madonna has as much a right to enlightenment as the next pampered celebrity, but her mountaintop epiphanies on this album are hardly revelatory to anyone who doesn’t have Oprah’s home phone number. At 44, she remains an artist worth of watching. Yet for someone who always finds a new peg to sell a product, her sudden transformation into Ralph Nader is suspiciously convenient, especially following a slide in album sales and a failed movie career. Shunning consumer culture is admirable, but then again, this album retreads “Die Another Day,” Madonna’s contribution to the 007 movie franchise – hardly a note from the underground.

Paris-based producer Mirwais Ahmadzai co-writes, plays guitar and programs this album with super-glossed synthesizers, enhancing the disco folk he established on their 2000 collaboration, “Music.” The peak is “Hollywood,” a champion piece of dance pop fluff with its burping beats, chirping birds and acoustic strum. No song here is catchier.

One of Ahmadzai’s greatest feats is dipping Madonna’s vocals into the fountain of youth. Here, they are so finely tweaked, she ends up sounding like Britney Spears’ kid sister. The makeover only helps juice the sweetened dance beats with its spectrum of effects, and on “Nothing Fails,” the sudden swoon of a gospel choir.

But peek under the glaze and there are Madonna’s dark thoughts. She brags she doesn’t watch TV, discovers everybody’s stupid, and admits she misses her mother. Problem is, these aren’t rebel songs and Madonna isn’t Bob Marley. She better skewered America’s appetite for trash and rectitude when she wore the cone-shaped bras or partied with her girlfriends in the back of a limo. The life of “Life” is dim and lacks the fiendish bite that’s her strong suit. These days, with Eminem a role mode and Monica Lewinski a TV host, Madonna has good reason to tune up the piety. She just isn’t the person for the job.

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