Twenty years ago — April 21, 2003 — Madonna released her ninth album, American Life. While it debuted at number one and earned two Grammy nominations, it’s probably better remembered for the live performances Madonna did to support it, including that infamous night at the MTV VMAs.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Madonna decided to get more serious on her next project and wrote songs about the changing values in America, and the country’s obsession with fame and materialism. She told MTV at the time, “I do think that we’ve become completely consumed with being rich and famous, our society has. And I just want to tell people, take it from me, I have all those things and none of them ever brought me one minute of happiness.”
Musically, American Life reunited Madonna with Mirwais, the producer she’d worked with on her 2000 album Music, and they came up with a sound dubbed “folktronica.” It received mixed reviews, and none of its four singles were big hits. The title track, which featured Madonna’s attempt at rapping, was the most successful, but only reached #37 on the Billboard Hot 100. Blender magazine ranked it #9 on its list of the Top 50 Worst Songs Ever.
In August, Madonna performed a medley of “Like a Virgin” and “Hollywood” to open the MTV Video Music Awards, but all anyone could talk about was her kissing her fellow performers — Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera — onstage.
In 2004, she promoted the album with her Re-Invention World Tour, which was a huge success: the top-grossing tour of the year, it raked in over $125 million.
Years after the album’s release, critics reevaluated American Life, and praised it for its political themes and adventurous sound. It eventually sold 5 million copies.