Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, the one with the mature new image, still admits to being a seductress in pain. In Los Angeles, Becky Johnson heard her out on rebellion, religion, and irreconcilable differences.
By now, if you’ve glanced at half the magazines recently gracing the newsstands, you’ve probably noticed that Madonna – the New Madonna – has commanded front and center spot on the shelves. She is everywhere. The New Madonna has long, dark, center-parted hair, she’s still as beautiful as the Old Madonna, but seems more approachable than the platinum-cropped, angular body-Nazi of recent past. British Vogue describes the New Madonna (who peers out in imperial splendor from the cover) as “stepping out of a Renaissance painting, a Mona Lisa… This is the emergence of a new woman, an image that suggests culture clashes and juxtapositions of old and new ideas.” Spin magazine (on whose cover she also appears) says, “The New Madonna has dispensed with denials of her true self. The peroxide is gone, as are the other approximations of kaleidoscopic glamour. What you see is what you get.” Rolling Stone (another cover) flatly states that she is “the world’s most famous woman.” Madonna herself says, “People have certain notions about me, and it is time for a change.”
The occasion which precipitated this flurry of words and magazine covers was the release of Madonna’s new album Like a Prayer. Simultaneous with its release was the highly publicized premiere of her sunny, upbeat Pepsi commercial and the unveiling on MTV of a dark, unsettling music video for the album’s title song. In it Madonna witnesses a murder, falls in love with the black man falsely accused of committing it, dances in front of burning crosses, bears stigmata, and undulates in mesmeric rapture while a gospel choir belts out the song behind her.
Reports of outrage and protests were wildly exaggerated in the press. The video was not banned in Italy. Religious groups took umbrage but launched no organized protest. “This video is only one little narrow piece of a big pie,” stated the Reverend Donald Wildmon, executive director of the American Family Association. “I’m not saying it’s not offensive. It is offensive. But we don’t plan on making a crusade of it.” Rumors circulated that Pepsi intended to pull its Madonna commercial to avoid being mistakenly affiliated with the video, but those also proved to be inaccurate. After much internal debate, Pepsi officials decided to reaffirm their support of Madonna support of Madonna and the advertising campaign. Aside from their reputation, the $5 million reputedly paid to the world’s most famous woman was at stake. In a world of happy endings, the controversy has been a godsend for everyone concerned. Publicity is the name of the game.
“Don’t ask Madonna questions about her image,” warns her publicist, Liz Rosenberg. “She hates that word.” One might logically ask why image-making is irrefutably a key ingredient in the phenomenal success story of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. Born thirty years ago in Bay City, Michigan, the daughter of devout, strict Catholics, she was by her own description an outsider.
“I saw myself as the quintessential Cinderella,” she once told Time magazine. At the age of seventeen, she left Michigan and headed to New York City, where she metamorphosed from scullery maid to princess of the grand ball. One could chart the rise of her immense star to the series of similar transformations which have guided it: from the early unkempt, crucifix-bedecked Boy Toy phase to the tongue-in-cheek Marilyn Material Girl phase to the svelte, silver-topped peep-shows chanteuse of “Open Your Heart.” The unifying element in each of those image changes was the high level of irony articulating the form. Madonna may embrace female stereotypes, but it’s more like a stranglehold than a caress. She seems always to be saying, “Don’t take it too seriously. I don’t.” Which might lead one to believe that these image changes are not merely calculated career moves but forms of self-protection.
Certainly few public figures have had to withstand the same relentless hounding by emotional ambulance chasers as she has. When she married Sean Penn three years ago, a swarm of helicopters buzzed over the ceremony with all the propriety arrogance of vultures. Every tiff and squabble in that volatile union was splashed in bold type on tabloid covers. In January of this year, Madonna filed for divorce from Penn amid more squawking and speculation about violence and abuse at their home in Malibu. Read any article on Madonna and there’s usually some paparazzo freak lurking in the bushes, some horde of inquiring minds waiting outside the door. Madonna is more than a rock star of movie star of cultural queen. She has became a kind of international open territory – everybody feels entitled to a piece of her. It would seem only natural that one way of keeping the wolves at bay would be to change identities and remain elusive, out of reach.
But on the flip side, a few public figures are such wizards at manipulating the press and cultivating publicity as Madonna is. She has always been a great tease with journalists, brash and outspoken when the occasion demanded it, recalcitrant and taciturn when it came time to pull back and slow down the striptease. Madonna is a self-created woman, no question, but it was not a virgin birth: her adroit handling of the press played a major part in the consummation. Publicity is the name of the game.
So, one might logically ask next, what is the New Madonna? Having a achieved a monumental superstardom, which is roughly equivalent to creating a monster, what new identity has she carved out for herself this time? The cynics among as will probably hiss and snort and roll their eyes when the optimists among us tell them that Madonna has grown up, that the New Madonna is in fact a conscious renunciation of all image-making. The cynics will probably say, “Oh, please. Self-revelation is just the nice way of saying self-promotion.”
Her new album, however, is the pudding in which to test the proof. Like a Prayer is an emotionally jarring collection of songs in which the focus turns consistently inward. Madonna emerges as a woman with battle scars, bewildered and saddened by personal losses of love, illusions, and the conviction that one can control all facets of one’s life. Many of the songs are not about Madonna getting what she wants, they’re about realizing she can’t have it. Granted, there are some typical up-tempo life is a fab party tunes, but even those are imbued with a pervasive melancholia. It may be a party, but it’s grueling real soon. Listening to the album, one is struck by how unprotected and vulnerable the world’s most famous woman seems.
After two weeks of Madonna’s having to schedule and then reschedule this interview, having to change dates and times and cancel at the last minute – all owing to the fact that she was busy preparing for her role in Warren Beatty’s new film, Dick Tracy – I finally received the word: “Madonna can see you this Sunday. Four o’clock. Her house.”
The house is perched high in the Hollywood Hills, and on first glance looks almost forbidding. There are no windows in the front. It feels like a fortress. I ring the doorbell. After a moment, Madonna answers the door. And lo and behold, it’s not the New Madonna anymore. It’s the Old Madonna, with a twist. Her hair has been bleached blond again. She’s wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt and slinky Brigitte Bardot sling-black pumps. She smiles warmly and says, “I’m sorry about all the scheduling mix-ups.” I think, well, this is the New Madonna after all. Then she turns on her heels, and as I follow her through the house she says, “But it wasn’t my fault.”
Becky Johnson: Maybe, we should begin this interview with a verbal shit list. What don’t you want to talk about?
Madonna: No four-letter words.