As she nears 50, Madonna’s narrative is shifting. Yes, there’s another new super-pop album, Hard Candy, with Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. But there’s also Filth and Wisdom, the feature film she’s co-written, produced, and directed, and I Am Because We Are, her documentary on Malawi, the AIDS-ravaged country where she controversially adopted her third child. Whisked to L.A. for an intense prep session, followed by an almost two-hour interview, Rich Cohen explores the evolution of the Madonna myth as she harnesses her image-making genius to a cause, a philosophy, and the search for her true self.
The world is a series of rooms, which are arranged like concentric circles, or rooms within rooms, joined by courtyards and antechambers, and in the room at the center of all those rooms Madonna sits alone, in a white dress, dreaming of Africa.
To reach her, you must wait for a sign. When it comes, if you are pure of heart, you begin to move toward Madonna, and move fast. One moment you are in Connecticut, wondering if it will snow, the next moment you are swept up by a force greater than yourself. You’re in a car on the highway, flashing past sleepy towns, moving closer and closer to the center, which you approach deftly and humbly, in the manner of a pilgrim. Like a pilgrim, you set off before first light. Like a pilgrim, you remove your shoes–to pass through security at the airport. Like a pilgrim, you read and reread sacred texts: profiles and reviews, the first published in the early 1980s, the most recent published just a second ago, which constitute a kind of record, the good news, the Gospel of Madonna.
Taken together, these chronicle the career of Madonna, each different, but each telling the same story, which is so established and archetypal it verges on folklore: the girl from suburban Detroit, which can stand for anywhere other than here: the early years in Eden, memories of which Madonna describes as “grainy and beautiful,” when her mother was young and alive; then tragedy, the wound that never heals, the death of her mother from breast cancer when Madonna was six; empty days plagued by tormented dreams. “You’re aware of a sense of loss, and feel a sense of abandonment,” site told me. “Children always think they did something wrong when their parents disappear.” Then her father’s second marriage, the stepmother, the drudgery, because she was the oldest girl in a house filled with eight children and so was pressed into adult service, cleaning and wiping and changing, when she was still a child herself; secrets and desires, her life before the mirror, which has followed her everywhere; high school, where she was beautiful. but punky and strange. “I didn’t fit into the popular group,” she said. “I wasn’t a hippie or a stoner, so I ended up being the weirdo. I was interested in classical ballet and music, and the kids were quite mean if you were different. I was one of those people that people were mean to. When that happened, instead of being a doormat, I decided to emphasize my differences. I didn’t shave my legs. I had hair growing under my arms. I refused to wear makeup, or fit the ideal of what a conventionally pretty girl would look like. So of course I was tortured even more, and that further validated my superiority, and helped me to survive and say, ‘I’m getting out of here, and everyone is a heathen in this school–you don’t even know who Mahler is!'” She found refuge in dance class and went on to the University of Michigan to study dance, but for just a year, because then she was gone to New York.
Because this is mythology, a short struggle was followed by a quick ascent to stardom. When was it? Nineteen eighty-two? Nineteen eighty-four? The birth of the music video? “Borderline”? And just like that, every girl in every school is Madonna Ciccone, with her shitty magnificence and lacy driving gloves and bare midriff and spangles. Here is my favorite quote–it’s an editor at Billboard talking to Jay Cocks in 1985 for Time: “Cyndi Lauper will be around a long time. Madonna will be out of the business in six months.”
I felt the presence of Madonna as soon as I landed at LAX. It was as if she had been there a moment ago, and, in fact, while waiting for my luggage, I scanned a copy of the New York Post and came upon a picture taken the day before which showed Madonna, having come through customs, holding her two-and-a-half-year-old son, David, whom site had adopted in Malawi in 2006, the cameras an inch from her face. “The paparazzi are out of control,” she would later say. “I haven’t been to Los Angeles in quite a while, and I don’t watch television here or in England, and I was told there’s now a television show where the paparazzi are the stars of the show–is that true? That they film each other doing paparazzi jobs? Which gives them more fuel. I usually found that type kept their distance–they definitely do in England, because it’s illegal to photograph children. But that’s not how it is here. They get this close, and don’t care how much they scare your children. Being famous has changed a lot, because now there’s so many outlets, between magazines, TV shows, and the Internet, for people to stalk and follow you. We created the monster.”
I was rushed to Century City frosts the airport, to the towering, new office building of CAA, the talent agency that represents Madonna, and seated in an empty screening room, which was spooky in the same way an empty church is spooky. The lights went down, and for 90 minutes I watched a documentary Madonna has written and produced, I Am Because We Are, whirls is African folk wisdom that means something like “It takes a village.” It too is about community–about identity and how it’s rooted in place. The movie sings of Malawi, a landlocked little nation in sub-Saharan Africa, ravaged by AIDS, filled with orphans– a world without adults that has become, in her middle years, the great cause of Madonna’s life. With this movie, it seems, site hopes not only to raise awareness but also to explain her own obsession with the motherless children of Africa.
It opens with Madonna walking in a crowd of Africans. Then her voice, which is the voice of the upper Midwest painted in Oxford glaze: “People always ask me why I chose Malawi. And I tell them, I didn’t. It chose me. I got a phone call from a woman named Victoria Keelan. She was born and raised in Malawi. She told me that there were over one million children orphaned by AIDS. Site said there weren’t enough orphanages. And that the children were everywhere. Living on the streets. Sleeping under bridges. Hiding in abandoned buildings. Being abducted, kidnapped, raped. Site said it was a state of emergency. Site sounded exhausted and on the verge of tears. I asked her how I could help. She said, You’re a person with resources. People pay attention to what you say and do. I felt embarrassed. I told her I didn’t know where Malawi was. Site told me to look it up on a map, and then she hung up on me. I decided to investigate, and I ended up finding out much more than I bargained for, about Malawi, about myself, about humanity.”