“The image gets in the way,” she answers, when asked why people don’t generally think of her as a songwriter. It’s an image she’s worked hard to establish in people’s minds, taking her from the Midwest to Manhattan and presently to a home high in Hollywood’s highest hills. As we speak, Madonna is more than famous: she’s gone from the musical to the mythic while still alive, as much a part of our collective awareness as were Marilyn Monroe, John Kennedy or the Beatles in their day.
It hasn’t happened by accident. She’s wise to the notion that it takes more than talent and charisma to shoot a star beyond all others into this pantheon; it takes controversy. “People are asleep,” she said, “and you’ve got to do what you can to wake them up.” She has awakened more than her share of sleepers in a variety of ways, from dancing before burning crosses and sporting stigmata on her hands in the video of “Like a Prayer” to visually fusing, in her “Open Your Heart” video, the madonna/whore dynamic inherent in all images since her first appearance wearing lingerie and crucifixes.
As soon as one controversy begins to fade, she launches a new one: As the “Like a Prayer” video started to shed its shock value, she released a video for “Express Yourself” in which she expressed herself nude and in chains. But what a lot of people still don’t understand about her is that beyond this rainbow of shifting images and calculated controversies is a serious songwriter who writes or co-writes the majority of her own material, from first singles like “Lucky Star,” which she wrote alone, to “Like a Prayer,” written with the enormously gifted Patrick Leonard. (Leonard, along with her old friend from Detroit, Stephen Bray, are her main collaborators.)
I spoke to Madonna on a typically bright Angelino afternoon; she was on break from the making of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. She seemed openly relieved to be asked questions about her songwriting as opposed to the usual ones about her recently broken marriage, and remembered clearly the exhilaration she experienced writing her first song.
Madonna: I don’t remember the name of my first song but I do remember the feeling that I had when I wrote it. And it just came out of me. I don’t know how. It was like somebody possessed me. It was like I wanted to run out in the street and go, “I wrote a song! I WROTE A SONG! I DID IT!” You know what I mean? I was so proud of myself. (laughs) And then after that, they just kind of gushed out of me. Because I always wrote poetry in free-form verse and kept journals and stuff, but to be able to put it to music, that was a whole different thing.
Interviewer: How old were you then?
Madonna: About twenty-one.
Interviewer: It’s interesting to learn you have written so many of your own songs. I don’t think people realize that you’re a songwriter as well as everything else you do–
Madonna: You mean they don’t realize I’m a songwriter as well as a slut? (laughs) It’s the image that gets in the way. What am I supposed to do? The information is on the label. If they don’t read it, that’s not my problem. I’m not going to put a sticker on the outside of the album that says, “Listen–I wrote these songs!” You know, they pay attention to what they want to pay attention to.
Interviewer: This album, Like a Prayer, seems to be the most honest album you’ve done. Do you agree?
Madonna: I didn’t try to candycoat anything or make it more palatable for mass consumption, I guess. I wrote what I felt.
Interviewer: Have you candycoated things in the past?
Madonna: It’s not that I candycoated it. I just chose to write in a certain vein. It’s like anything–it’s like movies: There are brutally honest, frightening movies and there are really slick, commercial films, and I like both of them as long as they’re well made.
Interviewer: In the past, were you writing more about a character than about yourself?
Madonna: A side of myself. And a character. I’m constantly inventing scenarios that are a combination of something I know and something I imagine. But it’s just a side of myself that I chose to show. I definitely have that slick, glamorous, manufactured side that I feel very comfortable with showing to the public. But there’s the other side to me, too.
Interviewer: Is it harder, in songs to reveal you inner self?
Madonna: No, it’s not harder. In the past I wrote a lot of songs like that, but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them. It just seemed like the time was right at this point. Because this was what was coming out of me.
Interviewer: When you say, “what’s coming out” of you, do you mean that you’re the kind of songwriter who is always working at it, or do you wait for inspiration?
Madonna: I wait for inspiration. I set out to record an album and that was my state of mind at the time.