- The Guardian, Friday 11 April 2003
There is something distinctly odd about the news that the video for Madonna's current single American Life has been withdrawn. The official line is that Madonna is worried about offending people - a novel concept from a woman whose fame has been based on provocation.
The notion that anybody would be offended by a video featuring a troupe of overweight dancers in military fatigues, and a George Bush lookalike lighting a cigar with a hand grenade, is faintly ridiculous.
Bearing in mind that Madonna made the video in February, when even the most hopeful anti-war campaigner must have realised that conflict was inevitable, her decision to withdraw the video seems disingenuous, another attempt to draw attention to herself.
The sense that a lot of fuss is being made over nothing is underlined by American Life itself. On the opening track of her first album for three years, Madonna announces, she would "like to express my extreme point of view". It's difficult to hear that line without feeling a prickle of excitement.
Madonna, after all, is not a woman noted for the subtlety of her approach. She felt the best way to encourage greater openness about sex was to publish a book featuring pictures of her hang-gliding in the nude. She tackled the subject of racism by making a video in which she snogged a black Christ and danced in a field full of burning crosses. That's Madonna being normal.
What on earth might her extreme point of view involve? That the world is ruled by a shadowy cabal of super-intelligent lizards?
Sadly not. Her extreme point of view turns out to be that money can't buy you happiness and that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Listeners reeling from this shock revelation are advised to press the pause button and compose themselves before track two, Hollywood, on which Madonna exclusively divulges that not everyone who wants to make it in the movies succeeds.
She sings the verses in a high-pitched little-girl voice. Presumably the idea is to underline the notion of innocence lost. In fact, it underlines the notion that a 44-year-old woman should never sing in a high-pitched little-girl voice, unless someone is forcing her to do so at gunpoint.
American Life calms down a bit after that, as Madonna stops singing like Bonnie Langford and her lyrics return to more familiar topics. There are songs about how great her kids are, what a tragedy her mother's early death was, and what an all-round credit to the human race Guy Ritchie is - the latter surely a more controversial suggestion than anything on the title track.
Finally, and most importantly, she starts coming up with the sort of sublime pop melodies that are noticeably absent from the first half of the album. Nothing Fails has a wonderful choral finale. Intervention marries a New Order-like ambience to a chorus that one of those Swedish pop factories would kill to come up with. The closing Easy Ride is fantastic.
And yet, there is something underwhelming about the sound of American Life, a sense of musical deja vu, of retreading old ground. In a weird way, you can't blame Madonna.
Over her 20-year career she has been visually original, a provocative stylist, an intelligent lyricist and a sublime melodist, but she has never been a ground-breaking musician. Blessed with a sharp set of ears and a perfect sense of timing, her skill has lain in repackaging the cutting-edge innovations of club music for a mass-market pop audience: the electro-funk of mid-1980s New York, house, trip-hop, trance and, most recently, the French disco of Daft Punk.
However, in the three years since she released Music, club music has become creatively moribund. There are no new cutting-edge innovations to borrow. Instead, she has called upon French producer Mirwais Ahmadzai to do his Poundstretcher Daft Punk routine once more. That is a mistake.
Even by dance producer standards, Ahmadzai is a one-trick cheval. He has two ideas, both already deployed on Music: putting Madonna's voice through an electronic effect called a Vocoder and cutting up acoustic-guitar patterns so they stutter. He sticks doggedly to this approach throughout American Life.
Eventually, you begin to wish that Madonna had spent less time worrying about the reaction her video might cause in the US, and had instead tried to curry favour with the American public by embarking on a one-woman French boycott.
However, when Madonna is on form, not even Ahmadzai's limitations can hold her back. American Life's best tracks make a mockery of virtually all other current pop music - but those highlights are outweighed by stuff that is indistinct and somehow beneath pop's unassailable queen.
The album's problem has nothing to do with controversy or extreme points of view. This time, there just aren't enough good songs.
· Read all of Alexis Petridis's reviews and features at guardian.co.uk/petridis