Madonna feels she’s being punished. Punished for being honest, punished for talking about sex. As she prepares for the release of her new album this month, she invited us to her home in Miami to make her response clear: “I’m not sorry.”
“I have been forced to live a false life, and all the people I know, with the exception of a handful, have been affected by my being famous. People don’t relate to you as the person you are but to a myth they think you are, and the myth is always wrong. You are scorned or loved for mythic reasons that, once given a life, like zombies stalk you to the grave” – Marlon Brando
“That’s near Madonna’s house,” says the cabbie as I read out the Miami address. “It is Madonna’s house,” I reply, so impressed by this information that I’m unable to speak for the rest of the journey. We swing past Sylvester Stallone’s house – which, a sign announces, is called Casa Rocky – and then pull up in front of a smaller, more anonymous house. The only indication that someone famous lives here are the black cloths draped behind the gates to block the view from prying eyes, but everyone seems to know anyway. As I press the buzzer outside, a Jeep pulls up on the road. “Say hey to Madonna for me,” the driver yells cheerily as the gates swing, open on to a driveway flanked by a tall, straight avenue of palm trees leading up to a fountain lit up in the night air. At the gatehouse, a shadows, black-clad figure that I later learn is the caretaker, Albert, points me towards the house, and as I get there, another man in black jeans and T-shirt swings open the entrance grille. Madonna’s assistant isn’t here, he says, she won’t be long. I sink into an overstuffed sofa in the living room, and he disappears. I’m on my own in Madonna’s house.
Once the request for an interview has been granted, this had all been remarkably easy. There were no pre-conditions, no contracts to sign, no PR people trying to specify what could and could not be asked as is often the norm these days. A date was set first in Milan, then in Miami. When I arrived at my hotel, Madonna’s assistant, Caresse Henry, called to give me the address and phone number, then arranged a time for me to come over and listen to the new album. Now celebrities – let alone celebrities as big as Madonna – rarely let journalists into their homes. They prefer anonymous hotel suites, offices or restaurants. Nor do they generally hand out their phone numbers or invite you over to play with their stereo while they’re out. There was some debate about the pictures used to accompany this article, but it was nothing compared to, say, the torturous negotiations that pre-ceded the Kylie Minogue story in the June issue of this magazine. As Madonna is later to tell me, “I’m a big girl. If I don’t want to answer a question, I can just tell you. Most of those celebrities have difficulty expressing themselves to begin with, which is why there’s so much… carefulness going on.”
But that is later. For now, I’m still convinced that this is some sort of test, that I’m being watched. I start to feel ridiculous sitting so rigidly, and I have a look around. The house, decorated by Madonna’s younger brother Christopher, is beautiful in a simple, expensive yet unostentatious way. The arched doorways are picked out in fossilised local coral, the main ceiling is panelled wood. The furniture is tasteful, minimal and comfortable: big cream sofas sprinkled with fat cushions, church candles everywhere, dark wood in the 12-seater dining room. Downstairs is mainly open-plan, with a large, cool living room leading to a formal dining room at one end, an office/TV room at the other, and doors opening out into the garden. The house was featured in September’s issue of World Of Interiors, so I can tell you that there are six bedrooms, and that the art on the walls is mainly nineteenth century and by Charles Victoire Moench, Bouguereau and School of Tiepolo. The next day I got myself a drink, so I can also report that the kitchen is a gleaming white, the fridge well-stocked and that the two flickering surveillance monitors next to it were the only noticeable signs of heavy security. The impression is neat, ordered, free of clutter, but lived in too — this is no showcase home.
Finally, Caresse arrives, full of apologies, calling out until Madonna’s new puppy, Pepito, comes tumbling downstairs to join us. A handsome, playful, white pit bull terrier, he was a present for Madonna’s 36th birthday two weeks before, and is so intent on sniffing, licking and jumping that he has to be taken away again before I can listen to the record. It’s hard to judge music when you hear it once, at volume, through good speakers. What I heard sounded good. Some of it sounded great. It’s a more mature sound, based around a polished street soul/swingbeat drum and bass rather than house beats. There are songs here, not the dance-based doodles that formed the basis of “Erotica”. Instead, “Bedtime Stories” is a pop album, which is always what Madonna has done best — better than almost anyone. Four of the tracks are produced by Nellee Hooper, and one of these —”Bedtime Story”, the one most likely to become a club classic after a remix — was written by him with Bjork. Babyface wrote two more tracks, singing backing vocals on “Forbidden Love”. The rest were by R&B songwriter/producers Dallas Austin and Dave Hall. The theme is not sex but love, although the most striking lyrically are the defiant “Survival” and “Human Nature” — the latter the kind of track Prince would be making if he hadn’t lost the plot as well as his name. “Oops I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex / I’m not sorry,” goes the chorus. “You punished me for telling you my fan-tasies / I’m breaking all the rules I didn’t make / I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.” This time, it seems the negative press has hurt.
Later, as we wait for Albert to bring the Range Rover round and drive me back to my hotel, Caresse tells me that this is the smallest of Madonna’s three houses. The Los Angeles one is big, baronial, like a castle. The New York apartment is, well… very New York. The Miami one is special. “I like this one best,” she says. We talk about the new album. “Did you really like it?” she asks anxiously. “Maybe people will write something nice now. I just hope they’ll all go and pick on someone else for a change.”
The unease in the Madonna camp is unexpected, but understandable. These have not been an easy two years for Madonna. Since the release of In Bed With Madonna, it seems she can do little right. Proud of the film documenting her Blonde Ambition tour, she had granted more interviews than ever before, and familiarity bred contempt. Even more hype surrounded the release of her Sex book, followed by the the disappointing “Erotica” album and the critically-panned film Body Of Evidence, all of which were seen as signs of her decline. The box office success of Penny Marshall’s feelgood female baseball film A League Of Their Own, the hit singles “This Used To Be My Playground” and “I’ll Remember” (which is one of her best-selling singles ever, spending 24 weeks in the US charts), and the sell-out Girlie Show tour have all conveniently been forgotten. “Madonna a-gonna!” screamed the headlines when the tour came to Britain, and tabloid stories this year have often portrayed her as a sad, sagging figure resorting to lesbian affairs to hide her loneliness. In the US, a perhaps ill-judged appearance on David Letterman’s late-night talk show in which the word “f***” was uttered more than once led to a similar thrashing. Rather than relishing the controversy as he did when she appeared on his show with Sandra Bernhard and the two hinted that they were having an affair, this time the host pursed his lips and played the puritan.