Madonna has yet again triumphantly topped the pop charts with her glorious return to downtown club form, Confessions On A Dance Floor, but she still has the biggest questions on her mind.
Just what’s she like? It’s the simple, obvious question, isn’t it, the one I’ve been sent to the Essex House on Central Park South-where Madonna has alighted briefly to promote her smashingly successful new CD-to try and tease out on a fall afternoon. I’ve only just heard the record and am struck by how it comments, both musically and lyrically, on Madonnas past, present, and to come. Its most striking aspect is the way in which each cut segues fluidly into the next, wrapping you in a tonal atmosphere. You can almost see one of those rotating mirror balls shimmering from the ceiling, reflecting her energy off the walls, passing it on. The album is a return to her pre-enlightenment-seeking roots, but it also addresses her search for deeper meaning, if you’ve got the presence of mind to attend to the words-You know it won’t last long/ And all those lights, they will turn down-while your feet are being seduced by the music’s irresistible pulse.
All the same, the question falters, as it poses some insurmountable problems. For one thing, Madonna thrives on being enigmatic, on a catch-me-if-you-can toying with the viewer. Because she has from the start so skillfully appropriated the high-postmodernist, gay-influenced semiotics of camp, in which absolutely everything is bracketed in invisible quotation marks, it has always been hard to know whether she really is or was anything like the poses she has sttuck-the bohemian scamp on the make; the defiant, David Letterman-baiting rule breaker; her recent incarnation as a kabbalah-imbibing populist sage; or the Dorian Gray-like, boom box-humping, black fishnet-wearing vixen of today-or whether she’s just putting us on.
For another thing, she is supremely aware-in a way that many celebrities pretend not to be-of the internalized Madonna image bobbing in your brain. It’s in the amused tone of her voice, the flirtatious way she says hello when we’re introduced but doesn’t follow up with small talk. Early on she brings up a mutual acquaintance-Fredric Brandt, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist who has applied his Rembrandt-ian skills to both our faces (although I’ve only made two visits to Brandts office while Madonna has had him flown to Los Angeles or London solely in order to work on her}–in an effort, I take it, to establish a connection. And it would be an icebreaker coming from someone else-but with Madonna, everything takes on a slightly cheeky aspect, as if she were admitting to something naughty, something you might turn around and use against her. She is both very direct and very removed, not willing to engage beyond strict limits. She knows, after all, how good she is at assessing her audience, what they want from her. When I ask her how she has managed to bring successive waves of fans along with her through her many mutations, she says, “Kids are so curious and alive. The only way is to take them with you. They’ll be able to relate to something.”
Truth be told, there is something surreal about being thrust into the immediate space-time continuum that Madonna inhabits, even for die celebrity-inured. For starters-but isn’t it always die case with diese neon-Ht, single-name, globe-straddling types-she is smaller than I expected, narrower of frame, more, well, delicate, almost fragile, as if it is possible to survive more than two decades at the top of the heap, as she has done, and keep one’s inner Tinkerbell alive. What you notice right away are her eyes-a beautiful, lucid blue, set wide apart in her small but forceful face. Then there’s her skin, which has a poreless, almost airbrushed quality. She doesn’t look anywhere near her 47 years-but she doesn’t appear ridiculously or monstrously frozen in time, either, suspended as some women become in an alembic of cosmetic surgery and puffed-out trout lips. Her slight, rail-thin body is remarkably honed, heightening the impression of lightness and youth. The only discordant note in the angular contemporary impression she conveys is her hair, which is a rather lifeless beige, styled in a tetro Varga-girl flip that works against the strength of her jawline.