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Madonna's Infectious Life

Madonna is no stranger to controversy. Her publicity stunts are carefully planned and often result in great entertainment. The swirl of attention accompanying the release of her newest album, "American Life," is no different.

The middle-aged "Queen of Pop" bravely takes on one of the biggest taboos of all — scrutinizing America's role as the world's lone superpower. The timing is a publicist's dream with the U.S.-Iraqi war dividing world opinion and former allies questioning America's motives for going to war.

The original video for the album's title song featured a spoof on modern warfare, with military types marching up and down a catwalk and Madonna lobbing a grenade into the lap of a President Bush look-alike. Entertainment executives yanked the video in the U.S.

The famous photo of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara inspires the album's cover art. Madonna uses his image to illustrate her own "struggle" against the establishment, pushing some buttons along the way.

But it's difficult to accept Madonna as an oppressed artist. The same woman who once writhed onstage in a wedding dress and later posed completely nude for her infamous "Sex" book now wants us to accept her as a children's book author and accompany her on a spiritual journey sparked by motherhood.

Madonna pokes fun at the system that created her and reminds listeners that her true talent is not for making music but for the calculated way she uses controversy to create commercially viable entertainment.

"American Life" features the techno-drenched lyrical catharsis she started with 1998's groundbreaking "Ray of Light." With this new album, Madonna's autobiographical trilogy comes full circle, following 2000's "Music."

Regardless of the self-promotional hype, "American Life" is a well-crafted pop album that will likely have feet tapping to its infatuating choruses, dance beats and campfire ballads.

On "Life," Madonna continues her collaboration with French producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï, with whom she also co-produced most of the songs on "Music." Her electro sound has evolved even further, prioritizing a fusion of organic synth grooves and instrumental acoustics over fragmented hooks and techno gimmicks.

The album's theme culminates on the title track "American Life," a jolting tune that asserts she embodies the American dream. She wonders if the American life is as perfect as popular culture would have us believe.

The singer continues her spirited self-examination on the raw pop-rock song "I'm So Stupid," which chronicles her struggle with the dehumanizing elements of fame.

"Nobody Knows Me" is a pulsating club track on which she unambiguously scrutinizes her own career. "No one tells how you have to live your life," she croons. "Why should I care what the world thinks of me?"

Madonna also takes on one of the most pivotal episodes in her own life. On "Mother & Father," she revisits the death of her mother, a childhood trauma that still affects her.

The entertainer includes a number of acoustic guitar ballads, such as the nostalgic, heartfelt lullaby "X-Static Process."

A highlight is the elegant mid-tempo ballad "Intervention." The song "Love Profusion" will likely be a hot single candidate with its surprising '80s-inspired synth riff.

Preceded by a dramatic string intro reminiscent of 1998's "Frozen," Madonna concludes the album with a spiritual message on "Easy Ride."

The album also includes "Die Another Day," the singer's title song to the most recent James Bond movie.

At 44, Madonna still proves she knows how to entice the masses to join her on a pseudo-enlightening techno ride. Phony or not, the result is infectious and will likely be a summer favorite.

April 22, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Interview with Marc Almond of Soft Cell


After an absence of 18 years, synth-pop pioneers Soft Cell return to the music scene with the international release of their new album, "Cruelty Without Beauty." Even though Marc Almond and Dave Ball both enjoyed moderate commercial success as solo artists, they were never able to repeat the success of their earlier collaborations, including the chart-topping dance classic "Tainted Love."

The group debuted in 1981 and rocked the British music scene in the early '80s with Almond"s out-of-control, extravagant persona. More defining to some fans of the era was the duo"s illicit drug habits as they got sucked into the emerging Manhattan ecstacy club scene. Soft Cell's music gradually turned darker and edgier, reflecting their hardcore lifestyle and wild sexual experimentation. Before their final album "This Last Night in Sodom" arrived in 1984, the duo disbanded in a hazy, drugged out disarray.

Almost two decades later, the duo has matured, presenting a cleaner, harmonious sound on the latest release. With tight dance beats, ringtone-inspired synth hooks and Almond"s emotion-filled electro crooning, Soft Cell delivers a collection of tunes that provide hope and affection ("All Out Of Love," "On and Up," "Last Chance") and a heavy dose of social commentary ("Darker Times," "Monoculture," "Sensation Nation"). "Cruelty Without Beauty" also features some of the group"s unmistakable twisted taste for masochistic poetry, as portrayed on the grotesque "Le Grand Guignol" and "Caligula Syndrome."

Soft Cell's frontman Marc Almond took a break in advance of the tour to talk about the new CD with Arjan.

Arjan: Why did you reunite with Dave to record this new record?

Almond: We never planned for this to happen. In 1998, we got together just to write some songs together. When we were in the process of doing this, it actually felt very good. This was the right moment to record together. We didn"t want this good moment to go to waste.

Arjan: What is your chemistry with Dave?

Almond: It is hard to explain. In Soft Cell, he does the music and the production, and I do the vocals and lyrics. It is a very clear-cut and easy-going way of working with him. We also have a very similar twisted, dark and cynical type of humor. My writing is different with Soft Cell. For myself, I write more romantic and introspective songs, and for Soft Cell I really write for two people. I tend to write songs that incorporate social comments and elements of modern culture.

Arjan: Why did you choose "Monoculture" as the first single?

Almond: I think the first consideration when we choose a single is not so much to choose a song that has chart potential, but more a song that advertises and represents the album. "Monoculture" represents a theme that threads through the album. It is about the whole idea of globalization. People are loosing their identity. When you walk in every big city in the world, you see the same styles, the same stores. People listen to the same music on the same Walkman. The lack of identity is part of a lot of themes on the album. It is like questioning yourself -- "Am I hip, am I trendy?" The question is if you give in to it all or that you decide to retain your individuality. "Monoculture" sums it all up.

Arjan: You previously said that you have always felt like an outsider and that you are disgusted by the majority. Is the album a reflection of that state of mind?

Almond: I have never felt part of anything, quite honesty. When I was younger, I was never part of the music business and the social scene. I never wanted to be a celebrity or buy into it. Soft Cell in general has always been an oddity, and people still don't know what bag I'm in. They are not able to pigeonhole me. I guess I am quite happy to be an outsider.

Arjan: You have never been afraid to show off your sexuality or your fantasies. Did you intend to shock?

Almond: In the beginning I was never an out person. I was never politically minded. I"d like to think, though, that I have done my share in breaking down sexual barriers. It came naturally. I was rather subversive, which at that time was a shocker in Britain, which was very conservative. I truly experienced homophobia first-hand.

Arjan: Do you feel 100 percent gay, or are you just a very sexual person?

Almond: I am really a very sexual person. I"ve had experiences with both males and females. Don"t call me bisexual though; that is kind of a cop-out. You meet people, and you are turned on by them in different ways. That is how it works for me.

Arjan: Do you think the music industry has become more tolerant over the last 20 years?

Almond: Yes. I think it has become more tolerant. Certainly in Britain, even though there is still a very conservative undertone. People think it has become better, and they point to George Michael. The point of the matter is that George Michael"s record sales have plummeted after he was caught in a public toilet. Elton John is perhaps an exception. He is considered a national treasure more than anything else.

Arjan: Are you a pessimist or an optimist?
Almond: I guess I am more a romantic cynic nowadays. Ultimately, I am an optimist. I believe there is still beauty in the world. I am just a little jaded. I really am happy at the point of my life where I am right now. I haven"t done any drugs in two years and feel good.

Arjan: So has life become boring?

Almond: No, life is very unboring now. Life was boring when I was drinking and taking drugs every day. I wake up every day clear now, and I can experience new things. I have much more realistic expectations.

April 20, 2003 in Interviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

Adieu, Cher!

Cher once again emerges from her time capsule with another concert tour and greatest hits record. Viciously enduring and infectiously appealing, this gay icon simply seems indestructible.

Her fine sense for hit potential, provocative style and empowering persona have fascinated audiences for almost 40 years, despite plastic surgery, outrageous fashion and cheesy infomercials.

The 57-year-old diva is said to be finally ready to retire in peace and is on her "Farewell" stadium tour. She recently released "The Very Best of Cher" greatest hits compilation in conjunction with the tour.

The singer put together a collection of 21 songs that takes listeners through all phases of her career Ñ from pop folk singer in the '60s to rock vixen in the '80s, and from disco chick in the '70s to gay club diva in the '90s.

The compilation not only includes solo hits but also "The Beat Goes On," and

"I Got You Babe," two of her first and greatest hits with first husband, Sonny Bono, in the mid '60s.

While still married to Sonny, Cher struck gold as a solo artist in the late '60s and early '70s. Songs from that era include the cover of Bob Dylan's "All I Want To Do," "Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" and "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," which debuted at number one and marked the singer's artistic maturity just as the couple's TV show reigned supreme in the ratings.

Cher wasted no time after she broke off her personal and business partnership with Sonny in 1974 to pursue her own career in music, television and film. Her second number one smash "Half Breed" from 1973 is also featured on this CD.

"Half Breed" highlights Cher's trademark vocals and Snuff Garrett's rocky production. The singer's chart triumphs in the '70s continued with "Dark Lady," which also appears here.

The compilation album doesn't miss the singer's disco phase in the late '70s with the flaming "Take Me Home," which bears a slight resemblance to some of her big club hits in the '90s when it comes to melody and message.

In the early '80s, Cher continued her acting career on Broadway and in movies, which led to an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a lesbian in "Silkwood." She eventually received an Academy Award in 1987 for her role in "Moonstruck," a romantic comedy.

Cher resurfaced on the music scene with a string of pop rock hits in the '80s. She again redefined herself with hits like "I Found Someone,"

"If I Could Turn Back Time," "Save Up All Your Tears" and her duet with Peter Cetera on "After All."

She shunned the spotlight for a few years and made another miraculous comeback in the late '90s with her global sensation "Believe," which became the best-selling achievement of her career. Follow-up songs such as "Strong Enough" and party anthem "All or Nothing" are on the compilation as well.

As a bonus, the CD includes radio-friendly remixes of "One by One" (by gay DJ Junior Vasquez) and "A Different Kind Of Love Song," which is revamped by Rodney Jerkins into an infatuating techno tune.

What is disappointing is that Cher played it safe with this CD by not adding any unique material to make this song collection truly compelling. New tracks, or even live song versions from her tour, would have been more than appropriate to solidify her larger-than-life appeal and uniqueness as an entertainment icon.

The CD booklet includes full-color photos and detailed notes from famed Rolling Stone writer and MTV News host Kurt Loder, who concludes that the most attractive aspect of Cher's career is her "utter lack of naked show-biz ambition."

With "The Very Best of Cher," the diva presents her fans the ultimate swan song, a worthy summation of her diverse and remarkable music career.

April 3, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (5)