I'm not hating on Madonna. She knows how to play the media game and stay relevant. But sometimes that leads to faking the funk and it comes back to bite you.
Some groups simply won't welcome a pop star to declare herself the poster child for their movement.
Madonna had been working on her album and wrapping up the music itself. It was time to decide what the imagery for the album, videos, and promotions would be.
Now, Madonna is known for switching it up and trying to capture certain subcultures for each set of art they promote for each album. I mean, this was taken to the point where some guy named Tim Lawrence even wrote a book called Madonna's Drowned Worlds: New Approaches to Her Subcultural Transformations.
This content of this album was basically about her struggle to remain spiritually oriented while dealing with the glamour and hedonism of being wealthy and in the spotlight. So she started toying with art concepts. She thought at one point, "I'm all into Kabbalah, the Judaic mysticism, so I'll give the album a Hebrew title." It was almost called Ein Sof, meaning "endlessness."
My guess is someone in the marketing department put their foot down on that one, so she went back to the drawing board and came up with the super unique title Hollywood. It was also going to feature completely non-generic imagery like you see below:
In the end, she decided that, to be spiritual in her Hollywood culture, she had to be revolutionary. BOOM, she had her concept. She was going to jock Che Guevara, the Marxist guerilla revolutionary Argentine.
Cool, not a horrible choice. At this point, regardless of political or socio-economic stance, Che, despite being a horrible person, basically represents the concept of revolution and defending the common man from elite corruption. We can all get down with that concept at least, right?
Being ironic, Madonna settled on the album title American Life. With her cross-cultural imagery, she was suggesting that the people of the United States needed a revolutionary leader. So she donned some leather and a beret. Nobody cared, no jimmies were rustled.
Here's where the problem started. This was 2003, the early stages of the internet and file sharing and when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was getting into full force. We talked about this with the whole Parental Advisory corruption fiasco previously. The modern day folks were bucking at the system in a way Che Guevara never could have: hacking.
Madonna's team did what I think was a smart move at the wrong time. Before the album had a chance to leak or be uploaded to all of the Napster and Limewire style sites (old school torrent stuff), they created fake MP3's of the album. Each track matched the real length of the real songs, but only featured Madonna saying:
"What the f*** do you think you're doing?"
The rest of the tracks were silence.
Now think about this... this was back in the day when it took like 15 hours to download a single 3 MB song. They flooded the black market with these tracks so nobody could find the real ones. Smart, but the execution was snarky. Thus the backlash.
Very soon after, Madonna.com was hacked and defaced. The hacker got in and added a section to the homepage called:
"This is what the f*** I think I'm doing."
In that section was a link where anyone could download every song on the album for free right on her official website's homepage. Lulz.
The word spread pretty quickly and the site was shut down for about 15 hours while the webmasters cleaned it up and hunted for vulnerabilities. The record labels spokesperson assured the media that this was not a marketing ploy but was indeed a malicious hack.
The rumors and accusations spread until people were blaming this on Phrack, an online hacker magazine, largely because the defacing included a line that said "brought to you by the editor of phrack magazine." They quickly responded with an official statement saying they did not:
"have [any] link with this [hacker] guy in any way, and we don't even know his identity."
Whoever it was was on a real revolutionary mission to fight the DMCA (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) which is all about online piracy and the way companies were attempting to fight it (and ignoring why it was happening).
And, because you can't pull a stunt like this without clowning around a bit, they also included a marriage proposal to Morgan Webb, the host of The Screen Savers daily technology show.
In the end it went fine. It was a typical pop album. What can you expect. It scored 3 out of 5 stars in all of the big magazines, with a few giving it an F and a couple as high as a B-. All in all, it averaged out to a 6 out of 10, aka typical cookie cutter music backed by talent and money. The type of album that really doesn't need this level of defense.
For your displeasure, here's the video for the lead single and title track, American Life:
She's in full military uniform standing in front of a ton of flags. So edgy.