On the hidden life of Madonna: Her views and her philosophy are in deeds, not words. Her words give but an indication of where the dark stuff is stored.
Well, we can try to get into one or two small corners of Madonna’s mind, although the secret may be not to try too hard. It is going to be no easy exploration. Her views and her philosophy are in deeds, not words. Her words give but an indication of where the dark stuff is stored.
Probably it is most comfortable to start our trip in company with David Letterman. He offers the most certitude. She was on his program, Late Show with David Letterman, on March 31, and the results produced a two-day Kristallnacht in the media. Madonna, once again, was being called sick, sordid, depraved, unbalanced, out of control, offensive, outrageous, and stupid. So wrote all the boozers, cokeheads, and solid suburbanites who do the TV columns, and their language frothed with enough effervescence to bring in the wire services and even the respectable daily press. Madonna, having said f*ck thirteen times on the show, also had, with the aid of CBS’s precise workmanship, been bleeped every time, and that was enough to light up the media machine guns. Outraged propriety! Defense of home and flag! The first requirement of a news story, after all, is to excise everything that gets in the way of a dramatic judgment. Madonna was a slut.
Actually, she and Letterman had been perfect foils for each other. If Madonna shows a predominant vice, it is that she always stands for something. It is usually rich enough, or by her detractors’ estimate, gamy enough, to be on the very edge of the public’s digestive powers. Letterman, on the other hand, stands for nothing at all. It is his number-one asset in our parlous time. During periods of lassitude and confusion, it is reassuring to listen to someone who is absolutely at home in the idle sounds of drift. At 11:30, when his audience is ready for a mild pleasure before bed, Letterman serves as their Ovaltine—a little flavor, a lot of pablum—and the implicit promise that nothing serious is going to take place. He will not even be too funny. That could stir the blood and inspire thoughts of going out for a drink. Johnny Carson, mean as his own minted embodiment of Waspitude, used, at least, to give audiences his sharp sense — whether you agreed with him or not — of what constituted proper social deportment. Letterman, on an average night, would not be caught dead offering one indication of how to conduct your life. Keep it meaningless and we’ll all get along. To be meaningless in a meaningless time is to be the Buddha of the befuddled.
Well, you don’t attack Buddha for too little — as Madonna discovered. It is worth excerpting a few moments from their evening.
Madonna came out dressed in black, her hair dark, her manner demure — but for her combat boots, she looked like a socialite stepping out for a charity dinner. Unfortunately, Letterman, at the conclusion of his introduction, did remark that Madonna had “slept with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry,” to which his bandleader exclaimed in real or simulated horror, “she’s your guest!”
“Just relax,” said David. “Everything’s fine. We’re just trying to have fun.”
All the same, no visitor in the history of late-night television had ever received a comparable greeting. Soon enough, Madonna said, “Why are you so obsessed with my sex life?”
“Well,” said David, “I have none of my own,” to which Madonna would shortly reply, “David, you are a sick f*ck.”
The audience laughter was long. They had heard it. The rest of America would be bleeped, but they had waited on line to get tickets and they had heard Madonna say f*ck. “You realize this is being broadcast?” David asked. “Well,” he added, “you can’t go on talking like that.”
Madonna reminded him of a pair of her panties that were, presumably, in his desk drawer. “Aren’t you going to smell them?” she asked. He said to the audience: “I’ll tell you what — we’re going to do a commercial and we’re going to wash her mouth out with soap.”
MADONNA: And he’s going to smell my underwear….
DAVID: And we’ll be right back.
They broke for the commercial. When they came on again, Madonna was smoking a huge cigar.
MADONNA: You know, you’ve really changed since the last time I was on the show. . . . Life’s made you soft.
DAVID: You think so? … In what sense?
MADONNA: Because you kiss up to everybody on your show… . I see you kissing up to, like, all these movie stars that come on here — you used to give people a hard time.
DAVID: I can suspend that behavior tonight, if you like.
Heavy clapping followed. It inspired Letterman.
DAVID: You can’t — you can’t be coming on here — this is American television; you can’t talk like that.
DAVID: Because people don’t want that in their own homes at 11:30 at night.
Now there was long applause in support of his sentiment: Away with filth at 11:30 P.M.
MADONNA: Wait a minute, wait a minute — people don’t want to hear the word f*ck?
DAVID: Oh, stop it! Will you stop? Ladies and gentlemen, turn down your volume! Turn it down immediately! She can’t be stopped! There’s something wrong with her.
MADONNA: There’s definitely something wrong with me — I’m sitting here!
DAVID: I think you’re a decent, nice person, and happy you could come by tonight and gross us all out…
MADONNA: Did you know it’s good if you pee in the shower?
DAVID [to the audience]: I’m sorry…
MADONNA: Don’t f*ck with me… peeing in the shower is really good; it fights athlete’s foot. [Uneasy audience laughter] I’m serious. Urine is like an antiseptic. It all has to do with the enzymes in your body.
DAVID: Don’t you know a good pharmacist? Get yourself some Desenex…
The air went out of the bout. Right there. Buddha just blown his cool. He might have spent his workin hours dribbling on the brains of Americans, but he cauld not bear a little dithering over his toes. His voice was so petulant that it all became clear: David worked for the corporation; David believed that cures came in bottles.
If he was overseer to all that was meaningless, it was because he had no poetry. He did not believe in a god who would be witty enough to put the cure for athlete’s foot into the patient’s urine.
So begins our modest story. Norman Mailer had been sufficiently taken with the manner in which Madonna disposed of David Letterman to mention it to Liz Smith. Friends of twenty years’ standing, they were happy to talk to each other at parties, and only occasionally was he concerned that an indiscreet remark would slip into one of her columns.
On this occasion, however, he could not pretend that he was unhappy at being quoted. Stick it to Letterman, by all means! What he did not expect were the consequences. His agent was asked the next day whether Mailer would write a substantial piece on Madonna for Esquire. That gave him pause (for twenty-four hours) while Andrew Wylie, agent, and Ed Kosner, editor, came to terms. Nor could he pretend that he was overjoyed at the assignment: Madonna, on the face of it, had to have an ego even larger than his own.
Still, he had liked the woman who was on the Letterman show. What the news stories had failed to convey was how ladylike she had been all the while that she was setting network records at the number of times Outstanding Guest was being bleeped per minute. It is not easy to keep uttering f*ck with style to millions of Americans you cannot see.
Moreover, Mailer had a bit of prior interest. During the period after Warren Beatty’s liaison with Madonna, the author had spent four days interviewing the actor. Beatty, a Virginia gentleman when you scratched him, maintained a resolute rule not to speak intimately to writers about any of the women in his life; Norman Mailer, having his own hincty opinion of himself, did not care to ask such questions. Still, it was evident that if Warren had been tempted to talk about any of his women with so intelligent an audience as his four-day guest, it would have been Madonna. Given all Beatty knew about women, it was nonetheless obvious that he saw Madonna as a phenomenon and that he had had a relationship with her that was unlike relationships with other luminous ladies.
So, at the least, Mailer had that much interest. Moreover, Esquire had agreed to an offer too decent to refuse. Mailer was a great believer in taking on jobs that simultaneously satisfied both your best and worst motives; a challenging assignment on fields of green was always an inducement to opening that vault where the bullion of extra energy is stored. Since Madonna would obviously be witting to such a principle — had she done anything in her life that did not engage her best and worst sides at once? — they would have for commencement that much in common.
A few days later, he was asked most politely by the magazine whether he would consider being photographed in black tie with Madonna while she was in evening gown. It was the kind of request he usually took pleasure in rejecting: He hated abetting photographic stunts in magazines and had hated it with personal motive ever since Annie Leibovitz had captured him for Rolling Stone in 1975 wearing bathing trunks, his belly protruding, his hips in the water, his face hidden behind a giant face mask, belly and face mask considerably swollen by the use of a fish-eye lens — one gargoyle of asshole for all the world to see. Ever since, he had avoided photographers’ inspirations. (Like a horse at the glimpse of a snake did he rear at the sight of a wide-angle lens.)
On this occasion, however, he accepted. He would be going to a black-tie party that night, and the photographic session could be scheduled to take place an hour earlier. Photographer, Wayne Maser; place, a loft in SoHo. It might be more interesting to meet Madonna in such manner than to drop in at her apartment with a tape recorder.
Let us not, however, pretend that he saw it as a wholly happy solution to the magazine’s need to have a picture of the principals taken together. Mailer was now seventy-one years old and, in consequence of the shrinkage that visits a senior citizen, was not quite five feet seven inches tall. He weighed two hundred pounds. Since he pumped modest amounts of iron from time to time, he looked (at his best) like a barrel. How can a barrel find pleasure in having itself commemorated in a dinner jacket, even a good dinner jacket? He would look like a barrel wrapped in velvet.
The shoot, of course, turned all too quickly into a prepared scenario. Which is to say that Wayne Maser had his own ideas or instructions on where to go with it. Mailer had barely had time to say hello to Madonna, who was wearing a green evening dress and a black blindfold as she stood in front of a white canvas drop, before the blindfold was off and the photographer had stepped forward long enough to pull down the left strap of her gown, so exposing her breast, doing it, mind you, with about as much ceremony as a furniture mover flips a throw cloth off an armchair. Now we had portly Norman Mailer standing next to diminutive Madonna, in a green gown, one breast showing, a small nose ring in her left nostril. When she saw the stricken look with which he gazed upon her breast, she covered the gap in her gown with a dainty hand.
He had been stricken for the noblest reasons. Mailer, like many an upstart before him, maintained a secret gentleman in a closet — the nice part of himself, so to speak. This Edwardian was puffed with outrage by the imposition on Madonna. It was not that her breast had been exposed — Mailer along with much of America, had seen her bare breasts looking splendid more than a hundred times in film, video, magazines, and books. It was just that this was not the time for Madonna to be seen. If a man wished to present his naked genitals to the public, he would choose an occasion when his erection was noble. Much the same can be said of the female breast. It is full of moods. A breast can be as proud as the prow of a racing boat, or it can droop, pallid and sad Madonna, by this purview, was obviously depressed, or so said her poor breast, and our stout Edwardian was outraged that he should be assisting at such a dim revelation. They had been photographing her for hours before he arrived, of course, she was tired; of course her breasts would be the first part of her to express such physical discontent, even as any good fellow’s penis would shrivel when low in spirit. Still, how could her breast droop so at the sight of him!
Nonetheless, they were able to chat. She was easy to talk to. He looked, Madonna informed Mailer, like her former father-in-law, and after a moment, the connection was clear — she was referring to Sean Penn’s father. “Well,” he said, “that’s not surprising,” and went on to explain that on meeting Sean Penn two years ago, he had been struck with the actor’s resemblance to himself in his youth, except, of course, that Sean Penn was better looking. A reasonable exchange. Their only difficulty was that they wished to talk, not to take pictures, and Wayne Maser had his job and proceeded to pose them. Pretty soon, he had Madonna sitting on Norman Mailer’s lap. The evening strap was up in place over her shoulder again, and her waist certainly felt agreeable, but a shoulder strap that could go up could as easily come down again, and Mailer knew that Esquire, with all its new influx of editorial talent, could hardly keep from printing such a picture. He, Norman Mailer, would be famous for much too little: There would be Madonna — small, fine-toned, spirited yin to his meat-laden yang. She would hardly care whom she was photographed with or how the sad fellow would look. One more body in an assembly line of photographed bodies.
Moreover, Mailer was hardly comfortable at the thought of his own woman. He had a mate who was all too proficient at bringing up old scores for the thrice-weekly bickerfest. So he certainly didn’t want a photograph of himself sitting in a chair, girded in his black dinner jacket, while Madonna in a green gown was perched on his lap, one breast exposed.
It is interesting to note that ten years ago, Mailer would have said to himself, “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead — Madonna on my lap!” What we are witnessing is the action of female mind upon male flesh, otherwise known as the cumulative effect of being pussy-whipped over the course of twenty years of marriage by a strong, beautiful, redheaded wife.
So Mailer interrupted the proceedings. If he was going to be photographed, he told everyone, it would be side by side, standing up, head shots only. What a dim prospect for the photographer’s craft! Maser kept trying to reinstitute a stunt. Finally, Mailer said to him: “I respect your intelligence. Can’t you respect mine?”
Wayne Maser gave up. He could recognize a battle-scarred veteran of the photographic wars, and so a half-dozen more restrained shutter clicks ended the session. Madonna and Mailer agreed to meet a couple of times over the next few days for intensive interviews.
He was depressed by the place in which she lived. It was a duplex on Central Park West in a classic apartment house of the West Sixties. The ceilings were high, and the rooms were gloomy by afternoon. Central Park West speaks of upper-middle-class lives, the decorum of prescribed responses, slow, successful professions, and solid family life with few excesses of love. The stairwells in such buildings are as downhearted as slum tenements. Actors also live on Central Park West, but architecture is more powerful than personality, and all the stars of stage and screen whom Mailer had ever visited on Central Park West seemed to have succumbed to the gloom.
Madonna, if anything, had augmented it. The upstairs living room, in which they met for interviews, had white walls, a dark-maroon carpet, and but three massive, dark stuffed chairs without arms.
For two of the four walls, there was only a Picasso of Dora Maar and a Leger, a third wall had windows on the park, and to the rear, a full bar of mirrors, chromium, glass, and black trim—a for midably cold room.
One might find its equivalent in the best hotel suites of the most dictatorial countries in South America: Black brown, and white are hues to emphasize that power also has its color scheme. Mailer could not help but think that Mussolini would have been happy in a room like this.
Of course, he did catch a glimpse down a long hall of other rooms with hints of pink and rose, but not the upstairs living room! How it all contrasted with the fine, rich colors of her music videos!
Mailer had been greeted by Madonna’s assistant, Carisse, pronounced Careese, a small, jovial girl who escorted him up the spiral stairway, offered him a drink, and left. Fifteen minutes later, Madonna joined him. Not five minutes after, as if unrecorded preliminaries might waste good dialogue, he was invited to turn on his tape, and hours of questions and answers commenced.
If her apartment belonged to a dictatorial spirit, her candor in the interviews proved agreeable. Never had he met a celebrity who could speak so openly about herself.
He was not altogether surprised. When one is talented enough to become a phenomenon, that sensation that the psyche is divided into two halves (with which all of us are more or less familiar) becomes so pronounced that one lives with it as a condition of existence. One is world-famous, but one is still (and in only slightly decreasing degree) a little girl from a lower-middle-class family in Detroit. That little girl is there with every breath. She is the person whom people have to meet in order to encounter Madonna. It is as if she is secretary to herself.
MADONNA: When I’m onstage performing, or even when I was on the David Letterman show, I detach from myself. I have no control over that person. Though I know it’s connected to my psyche and my soul, there’s really nothing I can do about it.
MAILER: Well, the artist is a separate person from the one who does all the daily things. Each tells the other, “I will permit you, under these terms and conditions …” And the other side says, “Let me do my thing, and I won’t bother you most of the time.”
MADONNA: Exactly. That’s interesting.
MAILER: As one gets older, the halves come together.
MADONNA: Really? I’m looking forward to getting together with myself.
Even before Mailer came with his tape recorder, he had arrived at some sense of how to do his story. It would not be necessary to interview her family, her friends, or those who worked for her. They would understand her less well than she could comprehend herself. Besides, they were all on record. As part of the effort Madonna was always making to explore into the profound enigma of herself — how indeed had this girl from an ordinary street emerged as supernova of celebrity? — of course she would study herself. So had Picasso. Secretive as a bivalve in the mud about his private life, he nonetheless dated every drawing he made; if he did twenty drawings in a day, their sequence was numbered. It was a scientific matter as far as Picasso was concerned. By his own reckoning, he was a prodigious talent and so should be available for close study by the art critics and scientists of the future—nature might be expressing herself through him.
Similarly, Madonna was dedicated to examining herself. You could obtain insights from Madonna on every side. Toward the end of Truth or Dare, the documentary film that had taken the tour with Blonde Ambition, a concert safari through America, Canada, and Europe, one is offered a chorus of voice-overs from her dancers and crew.
WOMAN: Sometimes I feel like she really trusts me, and sometimes I think she’s not looking at me.
MAN: I don’t think that anybody is really honest with her except for maybe me.
WOMAN: She has a lot to do. She’s definitely in a race against time.
MALE DANCER: She can be very mean when she wants – I mean, we all can.
ANOTHER MALE DANCER: I love it when she’s mean.
ANOTHER MAN: I feel she’s a little girl lost in a storm…
The sequence reminds us: To interview a number of persons is to view the protagonist through 360 degrees; one rabulates around the outside circle.
Something of the same can be said concerning Madonna’s family. We will learn more about the diva by observing few of her relations to her father, which she considerately presents in the same documentary.
The camera shows her on a long-distance call from her hotel room in Toronto.
FATHER [voice-over]: Well…
MADONNA: Well, Dad, I’d love if you’d come to both shows, I don’t know — I mean, it’s pretty racy in some sections; don’t know if you could take it two nights in a row…
FATHER: You’re getting racy? .. .
MADONNA: Dad, I’m not getting racy — I’ve been racy…
FATHER: You can’t hold it down a little?
MADONNA: No. Would you? Because that would be compromising our artistic integrity.
FATHER: Of course… [Pause.] Do you undress in this performance?
MADONNA: Nooo! [Drawn out and loud.] Of course I don’t!
FATHER: Well, whatever you guys can get tickets for…
MADONNA: Dad, I can get you tickets for any night you want.
Madonna is onstage in Detroit. There is an ocean of applause as she comes out to speak after the show.
MADONNA: I said it last night and I’ll say it again: There’s no place like home! [Cheers, applause.] And there’s nobody like this man — there’s nobody like my father! [Applause as her father is called onstage and comes forward to take her hand. Cheers as the crowd cover the first part of her next sentence.] …And I worship the ground that he walks on. [She kneels down and as salaam, half in mockery; he is aghast and gestures to her to get up quickly.] And this is his birthday, and I thought maybe thirty thousand people could wish him a happy birthday… [Crowd goes wild, and so drowns out most of her next sentence.]… And I was wondering if you could sing it with me. [She starts “Happy Birthday,” and the crowd joins in.]
Madonna is in her dressing room — her father enters with her stepmother.
STEPMOTHER: …Never thought I’d see you kneel at his feet….
MADONNA: Never thought I would, either.
FATHER: I was honored. A little taken aback, but honored.
MADONNA: Well, I thought I had to make up for the fact that I didn’t go shopping for a birthday present.
[Father laughs.] Weren’t the sets beautiful?… Aren’t my dancers great?
FATHER: It was all great. A couple of little scenes there were a little—
FATHER: We could do without them —burlesque-
MADONNA [indignant]: Dad! You don’t understand, they all lead somewhere—
FATHER: It’s arty.
MADONNA: It’s got nothing to do with art. It’s the journey you take…. You can’t get to one place without going
through another place… Like growing up…
She was six years old when her mother died, and the void did not depart as the years went by, for her mother had died of cancer.
In a hotel room with Sandra Bernhard.
MADONNA: I had those dreams after my mother died; for a five-year period, that’s all I dreamed about, that people were jumping on me and strangling me, and I was constantly screaming for my father. But no sound would come out.
SANDRA: What happened when you woke up?
MADONNA: I’d just be sweating and afraid and I’d have to go sleep with my father.
SANDRA: Was that before he got remarried? [Madonna indicates yes.] And how was it when you slept with him?
MADONNA: Fine. I went right to sleep — after he f*cked me. [Close-up, biggrin.] No, just kidding.
MADONNA: I never think of my stepmother as my mother. Just as a woman who raised me, a dominant female figure in my life. I went through adolescence kind of ignoring her — as do most children with stepparents. I always consider myself an absolutely motherless child, and I’m sure that has something to do with my openness.
MAILER: You must have been a tough kid.
MADONNA: Well, I wasn’t actually the troublemaker in my family. I had a younger sister who was a real tomboy, and my two older brothers were always getting into fights. I went the other way.
MAILER: You were the bright kid?
MADONNA: I was obsessed with getting straight A’s. I was obsessed with impressing my father and manipulating my father, but in a very feminine way.
MAILER: And he adored you.
MADONNA: Well, I like to think that.
MAILER: Were you singing at an early age?
MADONNA: NO. Oh, no.
MAILER: So you had nothing to give you a sense you were going to be a singer.
MADONNA: Absolutely not. Had no particular sense I was going to be anything. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a professional dancer. That was my dream: to get into Alvin Ailey’s company.
MAILER: You did.
MADONNA: The junior company, not the main company. I got a scholarship to the school there, and dance just led to music and singing, but I did not grow up wanting to be a singer or thinking of myself that way. Someone taught me how to play a guitar, and I started writing music like I was possessed. Writing songs. It was the strangest thing. I didn’t know I was going to be a singer until I was twenty-four.
He could have dwelled a little longer on her development, but it interested him less than her state of mind today. He was bemused by the essential confidence of her speaking voice, for it contrasted with the subtle depression he had encountered on their first meeting, a depression, he felt, that was still present today, although he had no firm sense that it was anything more than a reaction to how she had been trashed over Letterman.
MADONNA: The funny thing is, David Letterman’s been asking me to do the show — forever. I kept saying, “I don’t have anything to promote; what’s the point?” And he said, Just come on the show and we’ll have a good time, just be silly and have fun.” And I said, “Oh, what the hell,” just the kind of mood I was in. Before I went on the show, all his writers were coming in my dressing room, giving me tons of stuff they wanted me to say, and it was all insulting. Rag on this, make fun of his hair, and this and that. They gave me a list of insults, basically. So in my mind, he knew that that’s what the game plan was, that we were going to f*ck with each other on TV. I told some of the writers I was going to swear, and they went, “Oh, great, do it, we’ll bleep it and it’ll be hysterical.” I just had the best time, and I actually thought he was having a good time, too. But he’s kind of like a yuppie version of Beavis and Butthead, you know, “Ooooooh, gross.” I don’t think he knew what he was getting into, but once he realized how the show went, the next day, instead of just saying, “We had a good time; it was all good fun and completely consensual,” maybe the networks freaked out and he didn’t want to fall from grace with them, so he went with the gestalt of the media and said, “Yeah, it was really disgusting and, yes, she really behaved badly,” and turned it into something to save face.
MAILER: And how do you feel about that?
MADONNA: I don’t think there’s anything someone could say that would hurt me or shock me. Everyone already thinks I’m insane.
MAILER: Well, my idea for this interview is to prove that if you have a fault, it’s that you’re so levelheaded.
MADONNA: Oh. Oh, dear.
MAILER: At least the half of yourself that you bring to this interview.
MADONNA: Well, I suppose I am. I’m extremely sort of regimented and anal in my thinking.
MAILER: Actually, if I didn’t know anything about you, I would think, “Well, she’s a lady …”
MADONNA: What do you mean by lady?
MAILER: One of the things I hate most about female liberationists is their expropriation of the language. Lady is a wonderful word. A lady is a woman who will do everything other women will do but with a little more style.
MADONNA: Okay, that’s nice.
MAILER: Yes. And the word is going out of existence.
MADONNA: That’s important. Having manners can be terribly important.
MAILER: Sometimes it’s the only way we can offer some warmth to another human being. There are a lot of people who are giving you the equivalent of love by expressing their good manners.
MADONNA: I agree.
MAILER: Anyway, if I saw you under those circumstances, I would say, “That’s a lonely lady”—
MADONNA: Why do you say I’m lonely?
MAILER: Just an air about you, an air of privacy.
MADONNA: But no one will believe that. They think I’ve revealed everything.
They were still talking, however, at arm’s length—marvelously polite, but he wished to push the interview.
MAILER: You’ve withstood attack. But now you’re living in a culture that is suffused with all the hatred that used to be funneled out into the cold war.
MADONNA: Right. We’ve turned it in on ourselves.
MAILER: And you go in and say, “F*ck you. I don’t care if you hate me.”
MADONNA: Well, I’ve certainly had enough time to think about the ins and outs of being famous and lots time to analyze people’s reactions to me. As a celebrity, or an unbelievably famous person, you are, in this country certainly, allowed to operate with everyone’s approval for a certain amount of time. People do live vicariously through you, and they have fantasies about being you and wanting to do what you do. But it can never last, because several things need to happen: You need to disappear, run out of steam, run out of ideas. You need to get married, have a lot of children, get fat or something. You need to have a drinking or a drug problem. You have to go in and out of rehabs so people can feel sorry for you. Or you need to kill yourself, basically. The fact is that none of those things have happened to me, and people go around making all these pronouncements. “Oh, her career’s over she’s finished now, she’s a failure.” It just sounds like so much wishful thinking.
MAILER: The people who have power in the media now there’s only one thing they really care about, other than obtaining a little more power. Its not money or sex or good food or pleasure, but their acumen. They are opinion makers. So their acumen is their hard-on. When they’re wrong it’s like they’re losing an erection. They hate you because you prove them wrong.
MADONNA: Since the David Letterman show, the news is that I’ve lost my mind.
MAILER: You’re also tilting with a huge social machine that no longer knows where it’s going and is afraid that it’s going to crash sometime in the next twenty or thirty years.
MADONNA: Yes. Its frightening.
There was only one way, he recognized, that he could take this interview further. He would have to sacrifice a bit of himself. Confessions — in good society — breed confessions.
MAILER: Certain people cannot live without promiscuity. There have been years of my life when I was young when that was absolutely true. I had this feeling that something was near death in me… that something was trapped, and it was symbolized by the word cancer. To break out of this trap, I had to take on many roles, because every time you make love with someone else, you are in a new role, you’re a new person.
When she was not immediately forthcoming, he changed the subject. He suggested that thirty years ago, his ego would have been on an elevator while talking to her. How was the Sex Queen of America relating to him? Up or down?
MADONNA: The Sex Queen of America — what a great title. [Laughs.] We couldn’t be talking about me.
MAILER: Well, there you are, and every time you feel empty inside, you say to yourself, “Sex Queen of America! Oh, brother, they should only know!”
MADONNA: Exactly. If they only knew.
MAILER: Yes, we pay a hell of a price for giving out, giving out…. Emptiness is the largest single factor in my life. I just work, work, work, and sometimes it’s all going out and nothing’s coming back.
MADONNA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you really feel that when you perform and there’s a hundred thousand people in a stadium, and they’re all there because of you, and the responsibility of entertaining that many people in two hours is daunting and exhausting — there’s no way to describe it, but that’s the only word I can come up with now. Then you go up to your hotel room, and you can’t go out because you’re too famous to go out without everyone following you and twenty bodyguards, so you sit in your room while everyone else has fun being anonymous, and you sit there and you go, “This is f*cked. There’s something wrong with this picture.” Because now you feel the most unbelievable loneliness. Yes, everyone adores you in a kind of mass-energy way, but then you’re absolutely separated from humanity. It’s the most bizarre irony, don’t you think? In Truth or Dare, for instance, we worked for six months and we went around the world, and I saw the world and I would sit in my room all the time while everybody else was out, the dancers, the musicians, the bodyguards, and using me to get laid — you know, “I work with Madonna,” that type of thing. I was aware of how that works. The little thing everyone wore around their neck, the backstage pass, the laminated thing they use in airports — everyone had one, and I was well aware that that was their calling card, and I thought it was sort of unfair, you know, because everyone else was out having fun but me.
He had learned how to listen with full attention. It was an indispensable virtue for a decent interview. But now there seemed a spot to the side of his vision, a flaw in his concentration. Then he realized what was causing it.
MAILER: This is just a personal question, but I am curious. I don’t understand nostril earrings.
MADONNA: It’s just another adornment.
MAILER: Don’t you have practical problems? Don’t you need special makeup for that little red spot where it’s pierced?
MADONNA: No. You take it out and your nose heals really quickly. So I’m not worried about that.
MAILER: On my stuffy side, I thought: If I had a ring in my nose, it would take me two minutes to get it all cleaned out.
MADONNA: It doesn’t take me two minutes. I just have to blow my nose carefully. It’s nice to have to think about something you take for granted.
MAILER: But in kissing, you could get injured—slightly, but enough to shift the given.
MADONNA: That’s the beauty of it. You have to be careful. It’s like, well, someone could hurt my nose. It’s like riding a motorcycle without a helmet. It’s just a risk. In the most simplistic way, it’s just another way to take a chance.
He had the feeling that the cork was now out of the bottle, that they could talk about more.
MAILER: In one of your shows, you had these huge cones for breasts—
MADONNA: The Blonde Ambition tour.
MAILER: And I saw them and I said, “Why?”
MADONNA: Don’t look too far for any meaning.
MAILER: They’re ugly.
MADONNA: Well, I didn’t think so. There’s something kind of medieval and interesting about them. I asked Gaultier, who’s a French clothes designer, to do the costumes for my tour, and he already had these designs in one of his collections, but now I had two male dancers coming out in them. It’s very camp. Women used to wear those cones on their heads, but now they’ve become like a bra. The idea is to take something meant for one part of the body and place it on another part. Also, they’re pointed. So there’s something slightly dangerous about them. If you bump into them, you’ll cut yourself. Plus the idea that the men were wearing them, not the women. I was singing “Like a Virgin,” lying on this red velvet bed, and I reversed the whole Playboy Bunny thing, just two Playboy Bunnies in some costume that pushes their bodies into some unnatural shape, but now it’s the men.
MAILER: A woman with her breasts undulating over a man is very close to loveliness. Those cones smash expectation.
MADONNA: The idea behind it is that breasts are these soft things that men rely on to some extent, so it’s a way of saying, “F*ck off”
MAILER: But if the women truly succeed in telling men to f*ck off and they truly do, then the human race is going to come to an end.
MADONNA [laughing]: No, not f*ck off forever and ever; just think of my breasts in another way, that’s all, not something soft you can fall into. Believe me, I love to have my breasts touched by a man that I care for — I wouldn’t want it any other way — but it’s really important to me — don’t ask me why — that people look at life a different way, seeing that women can seduce and women can have sexual fantasies. Imagine Hugh Hefner with two Playboy Bunnies. I was having an inverted fantasy of that in my show … just another way of getting people to look at it.
MAILER: What I would argue back is that women have become so obsessed with the idea of not being taken for granted that I think they are in danger of losing sight of their real power over men, which they have always had, an extraordinary power women have over men. What it comes down to is males know, no matter what they’ve done to women, no matter how they abuse them, no matter how they’ve tyrannized them, men know that they are not indispensable to human existence. If women ever take over everything, as they well may — now, you’re trying to keep from grinning at the thought —
MADONNA [laughs]: I think it’s inevitable, too. Every dog has his day, you know?
MAILER: But if they do take over, and you get the equivalent of a Stalin or a Hitler among the women (and having had some contact with a few of the early women’s liberationists, I can easily conceive of such a female), I can see a day when a hundred male slaves will be kept alive and milked every day and the stuff will be put in semen banks to keep the race going. No more than a hundred men will have to be maintained alive at any time. Men have a very deep fear of women as a result. It isn’t that men think, “Oh, there’s a breast, I’ll lay my head on it; it’ll cost me nothing.” Rather, what they know is that in that tender breast there are chill zones of feeling, icy areas, zones of detestation, and if they have any sense at all of women, they know that approaching a woman is quite equal to climbing a rock face.
MADONNA: Yes, but you’re an evolved man.
MAILER: Not everyone thinks the same way I think, but men feel it instinctively, I’d argue. You’re talking for all women, after all.
MADONNA: No, I’m not talking for all women. I’ve been accused for years and years, especially at the beginning of my career, of setting the women’s movement back because I was being sexual in a traditional way, with my corsets and push-up bras and garter belts and this and that, and feminists were beating the f*ck out of me: “What are you doing? You’re sending out all the wrong messages to young girls. They should be using their heads, not their tits and their asses.” My whole thing is you use all you have, all you have, your sexuality, your femininity, your — any testosterone you have inside of you, your intellect — use whatever you have and use bits and pieces wherever it’s good. I’m not saying you have to break down every last thing, but…
MAILER: Very well said. But in the name of what?
MADONNA: In the name of what?
MAILER: Well, you’re a revolutionary. What will this revolution be in the name of?
MADONNA: In the name of human beings relating to human beings. And treating each other with compassion.
MAILER: And for that, you feel that the stereotyped male notions of how to treat women have to be broken down.
MAILER: What about female attitudes about men?
MADONNA: That, too.
MAILER: But the female movement offers almost no compromise with men.
MADONNA: Well, that’s a problem, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
MAILER: I don’t argue with what you’re doing from your point of view, but I am saying you could come to a dead end: The women could win and have nothing.
MADONNA: I hope that doesn’t happen. Once you reach a certain amount of understanding, knowledge doesn’t end. There’s more to learn about everything.
MAILER: Don’t you feel a certain danger in the women’s movement? That the real desire is not for greater compassion and understanding of both sexes but for power over men?
MADONNA: I don’t know about the women’s movement — it’s not my goal, it’s not my intention. This is not about me being a woman but about me being a human being.
MAILER: So you wear pointed cones to remind men …
MADONNA: It’s to wake women up, too — there’s a lot of women oppressing other women; its not just men.
Of course, she had not really answered him. He just gave up on the pointed cones. He saw them as no better than ugly growths, a bad seed or two from the primal trauma of her mother’s death. He could recognize, even as he had earlier, that with her, one had to keep raising the ante.
MAILER: As you know, I’m not in love with your book, Sex.
MADONNA: I didn’t know.
MAILER: I told you the other day that I thought the metal covers were tacky, and the spiral binding kept jamming when you tried to open and close the thing.
MADONNA: You’re talking about the way it was packaged. I’m saying: Look beyond, read the text. You’re telling me you don’t like the book because it has metal covers.
MAILER: NO, I started to tell you …
MADONNA: And I rudely interrupted you…. Go on with your list. I’m curious.
MAILER: Well, let me begin with smaller things and work toward larger ones. I thought your text, while it was funny, was either too much or not enough. There could have been more, and that would have balanced the photographs. Or there should have been less. But the way it was, turned out arch and cute. Besides, the book was a misery to hold.
MADONNA: That’s part of it. It was meant to be a piece of pop art.
MAILER: Yes, but I have the idea — correct me if I’m wrong — that the idea of metal covers did not come from you.
MADONNA: It absolutely came from me. What we originally wanted was something completely encased in metal with a lock you couldn’t get into….
MAILER: Now, that’s an idea….
MADONNA: We couldn’t manufacture it because it was too costly. The best thing we could come up with as a cony promise was that.
MAILER: Well, there you go. Once you have to compromise an idea, maybe it’s better to do without it. I thought you were going to say, as you did in Sex, “I’m not interested in porno movies because everybody is ugly and faking it and it’s just silly,” and yet you were going to attempt to shock people, then you should have had a beaver shot yourself. Given the number of nude and seminude pictures of you in costume, I thought that was an evasion, as if you or your advisers were saying, “Beaver shots could hurt us comercially. What we want is soft porn.” So, the fact that Sex was designedly commercial got a lot of people’s backs up. They felt you were promoting yourself without large enough commitment. This sets up a dismissal of the reader.
MADONNA: Then why did everyone buy it?
MAILER: That’s not the measure. People bought it because of everything you’d done up to then. You were saying, “You’ve seen me in my music videos, you’ve seen me suggesting aspects of nudity, now you’re really going to see something.” But if Richard Avedon had ever been able to take a picture of Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet while they were all mooning and put it in book form, that would have sold out, too.
MADONNA [laughs]: I see your point.
MAILER: So I think the sales are irrelevant. But the way you pay for it is in the crap you’re running into now.
He had been married six times, and this was the first occasion on which he had won an argument with an intelligent lady. It was enough to contemplate becoming a Madonna fan.
MAILER: In Sex, you say, “Condoms are not only necessery but mandatory.” I really want to talk about that. The only thing you can depend on with condoms is that they will take 20 to 50 percent off your f*ck. Safe sex is part of the insanity of this country. We are always looking for one simple tool or program with which to solve a serious problem.
MADONNA: A Band-Aid. You don’t think they’re useful?
MAILER: They’re terrible.
MADONNA: I’ll agree with you, they feel terrible; but you don’t think their usefulness is valid in terms of preventing sexually transmitted diseases?
MAILER: That they keep some people from getting AIDS? Yes. But that’s the short haul. In the long term, sex is difficult enough for most people. Now, with the shadow of AIDS hanging over homosexuals, it’s horrendous.
MADONNA: The shadow of AIDS isn’t hanging just over homosexuals. It’s hanging over all of us. There are a lot of bisexual people in the world who don’t cop to their past. So it’s hard to say, “I’ll never sleep with anyone who’s gay.” You just never know.
MAILER: What the condom does is make you give up most of the joy of entrance. The insight you get into the other person is diminished. Maybe it would be better to give up instead the idea of penetration, and do all the things you can do without it. Then, if you really love that person, you might say f*ck it, I’ll take a chance. If I die, I die. I’ll die for love.”
MADONNA: If you love that person.
MAILER: But what condoms are saying is, “Never die for love or anything remotely resembling it.” Probably the single hardest thing emotionally is to distinguish between lust but has enough personal warmth to feel like love, and love itself. The two are very close, yet different for one’s karma. Also it helps if you don’t use a condom, because then at least you can say to yourself, “I lust so much for this person that I’ll dare death,” or, “I love this person enough to dare it.”
MADONNA: Yes, but as you said, most people have a hard time distinguishing between the two. So how do you know at the time if you’re lusting for death or loving?
MAILER: You don’t know. What you do know is the intensity of your feelings. Once your lust is pretty well satisfied, then you will know whether it’s love — or anger or power or all the things that go into lust. But at least you know more about yourself. What I hate about condoms is that you end up knowing less. And that aggravates one’s need for power. It’s like those cigarettes that have filters on them and contain less nicotine, and so people draw more deeply and take in the same amount of nicotine. People with condoms have more sexual contacts because they’re less satisfying.
MADONNA: Well, to a certain extent, I subscribe to what you’re saying. When you get to know somebody and you get to love them, you do say, “I’m willing to take a chance for this.” I’ve been there. I’m not going to sit here and say that from the time I found out about AIDS, I’ve always had intercourse with a man with a condom on. That would be a lie. And I do think you get to a point with a person that you say, “I love this person or care for them enough that I don’t give a f*ck what happens to me, I’m willing to take a chance.”
MAILER: And you say that’s happened to you.
MADONNA: Yes. Absolutely.
MAILER: And there might have been a chance of AIDS?
MADONNA: I didn’t even question that. I just said, “I instinctively know that this is the right thing to do.” But I would never do that in the beginning, not knowing somebody. And, yes, it is harder to know somebody when — in the physical sense, with a condom on — it’s a nightmare. But I guess there are other things you can do — you can meet someone and sleep with them for a month with condoms on, and it’s not great sex as far as intercourse is concerned, but then you go and get AIDS tests together. That’s happened to me, too. “Our tests are both negative, so let’s do it without a condom.” Now, we could find out in ten years we’re both sick and it didn’t come out in the test, so I guess that’s the chance you take.
MAILER: Well, condoms are one element in a vast, unconscious conspiracy to make everyone pan of the social machine. Then we lose whatever little private spirit we’ve kept.
MADONNA: On the flip side, couldn’t you say: If it makes everybody stop and question who they’re sleeping with, then isn’t that a good thing, too? You don’t just blindly and madly go ahead. Maybe it’s a way of getting people to think how much they care about this person they’re sleeping with. You know what I mean?
Later, it occurred to him that she had moved in one short discussion from what was virtually a public – service announcement about condoms to a real willingness to explore the subject. That was cheering — her mind might be even better than she thought it was.
MAILER: You see, I think sex has always been dangerous. In the Middle Ages, before modern medicine or contraception, a woman had to love a man, or feel huge lust, in order to have intercourse with him, because if she got pregnant, she could die. Very easy to die — something like one in ten women died in childbirth. That meant your lover could be your executioner. Maybe that’s the way it was meant to be. God’s intent: Take sex seriously. Don’t believe it’s there to be violated.
MADONNA: I’ve never thought of it that way.
MAILER: Well, in your work, you do daring things with sex and have fun with it, but you never mock the seriousness of it. What you’re saying to your audience is, “Look, you’re nervous because I’m taking more chances than you are. That’s why you hate me.”
In Truth or Dare, there is a moment when Warren Beatty upbraids Madonna: “She doesn’t want to live off-camera,” he says to the camera, and turns to her. “Why would you say something,” he asks, “if it’s off-camera? Tomorrow, if they’re not here, what’s the point of existing?”
Beatty had said it. Would she give of herself unless it could be recorded? Such a stance is repellent in elected officials, but that is because they offer the part of themselves that is good for their case. Madonna, however, offers all of herself to the occasion: her best, her worst, her middling whimsies, her snarls, her whines, even her fascination with evil. What had impressed Mailer almost as much as her music videos were her last two films. In Body of Evidence, she had been absolutely convincing as a murderess. In Dangerous Game, she had been equally believable as an actress who is playing a whimpering misery of a half-destroyed slut. It had been a bad, hysterical, messed-up film, but she had given a double characterization: She was an actress, and she was also the same actress playing the slut, two effective performances in the midst of much mess, considering that the story has her being abused by a pimp of a husband who puts her out to graze in home-video porn-and-orgy fields of cash. Then he beats her up with all the intensity of violence building on its own violence. (He doesn’t know whether he is enraged because his wife is a slut or because she wishes to cease being one.) For an actress, the role bore resemblance to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Madonna, was, then, a rarity, a world celebrity who did not select roles to buttress her status. If she would consent faster than any other star on earth to an existence in which every movement, every sigh, every sound of love, digestion, and sleep could be recorded, if she was as interesting to herself at her worst as at her best, that might be because she was captain of a ship she could barely control, despite her skills at navigation. So she always had to learn more about herself. Who could ever chart the secret passageways, holds, dungeons, torture chambers, spas, and oases on this mysterious ship – no, strike all metaphor — she was a six-year-old mouse from Detroit riding a billion-dollar elephant, and she had to know her reins were power-assisted, but who was providing the power other than the record moguls? Was she, then, part of high-roller capitalist society, or an outgrowth that would be excised as soon as the money wheel rolled on? With all she showed of herself, naked but for a cigarette, a black pocketbook, and high-heeled shoes as she was photographed hitchhiking on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, or displaying herself in all her black-leather predilections — which the home folks in Detroit, Brooklyn, Oakland, South Boston, South Philly, Pittsburgh, Omaha, and Butte were going to call dirty — still, with all we are offered of her fantasies, one basic fantasy is never expressed: There has not been a single photograph ever published of Madonna with her legs spread.
Ah! She draws the line. We may have to redefine our media universe. Is this the last barricade left in our leachedout TV society? Can celebrities get away with everything except giving the public a look at their genitals? Yes, is the answer: Gods always keep one last refuge.
MAILER: Let’s try an exam question: Is bisexuality a universal human trait?
MADONNA: I don’t know. I used to say yes, because there are times I really feel bisexual.
MAILER: I take it for granted that people are. We come from a mother and a father. And that mother could have been more male than the father, and the father’s male aspects could have come from his mother….
MAILER: So I’m more interested in the stance one assumes afterward. There are people, male and female, whose only real difference is that one has a phallus, the other a vagina, yet the structure of their lives is built around their genitals. For me, the question is to what degree are these structures oppressive?
MADONNA: I just think it’s important to f*ck what you want to f*ck and not feel shame about it.
MAILER: No, shame is a guide. Except you don’t agree, do you? You laugh while watching pornies.
MADONNA: I do. Every time I’ve seen a porn movie, I’ve just laughed my ass off. I think they’re funny because they always try to construct these thinly veiled excuses to f*ck.
MAILER: In a porny, when actors are bored and faking it, I agree, it’s deadly dull. But there are people who are stars at it, and while they’re not always much as actors, nonetheless they can get excited while a crew of people are watching them, and their life destiny is being shifted. Once a girl is photographed in a porny, it’s a point of no return. She’s become a professional.
MADONNA: It’s for life.
MAILER: Yes. They’re locked into that profession, and it’s not altogether agreeable. Where do they go afterward? Because female porno stars age very quickly.
MAILER: I’ve noticed it over and over again. Why are there no female porny stars whose careers last for even ten years? Porno stars get burned out. There’s something about it that is dangerous. Something in them gets killed early. So I look upon it as a cruel sport. But, nonetheless, when porny actresses get hot, they don’t necessarily come, but they’re excited, and you’re struck by the fact that something real is happening even while the director is probably saying, “Show us more ass, honey,” and telling the camera where to move. What you get then is the nature of modern reality, our double reality. I find that endlessly fascinating. And I would have thought that would be something to interest you.
MADONNA: Well, I didn’t get into it.
MAILER: All right.
MADONNA: I’m not dismissing what they do. It’s just how it affects me. Going to places like the Gaiety and watching men dance, that turns me on, men dancing naked.
MAILER: Can you conceive, if you had a different life, of ending up a porny queen?
MADONNA: That’s so hard to say. Isn’t it about intelligence? Not to say that porn stars are stupid, but where I am in my brain is what has brought me to where I am here, the explorations. I mean, maybe if I were a little smaller, I’d be a housewife in Michigan.
MAILER: With an unhappy husband.
MADONNA: People ask me all the time, “If your mother hadn’t died, do you think? …” And I can’t think that way because I am who I am.
MAILER: You can’t think “what if,” but you can use “as if.” While there are certain things a porno queen does that you didn’t do in Body of Evidence, nonetheless you were treated as if you had transgressed even further. And you certainly didn’t need that.
MADONNA: No. I wanted to make it.
MAILER: That’s my point. Something deep in you said it’s worth taking these chances.
MADONNA: In the sex scenes, I did feel that this must be what it feels like to make a porno movie. Like when we supposedly were having intercourse, Willem and I were absolutely faking it; there was no penetration or anything like that. But if you’re sitting on someone’s face, you are sitting on someone’s face. You can’t really fake it. I don’t know if I’m answering your question….
MAILER: You’re more than answering it. I think in effect you’re agreeing with me that you’ve had the experiences of a porny star, and so it comes back to what I said — you found it interesting in a lot of ways and finally stimulating, because you were entering a world that was forbidden, and you were maneuvering in it, living in it—
MAILER: And yet you were left with no curiosity about porny stars afterward?
MAILER: I’m trying to understand you. I’ve got to say that you’re self-centered.
MADONNA: I’ve been accused of that many times.
All the same, one of the reasons Sex had proved shocking to large portions of Madonna’s loyal audience was a particular full-page photograph of the lady with her nose poked between two cheeks.
MAILER: Either you are kissing him in the crack of his ass or you are biting him there. It’s hard to tell. There’s also a crucifix in the background. On his arm.
MADONNA: It’s his tattoo. That’s a coincidence.
MAILER: But the picture was chosen. You had several hundred pictures in the book, and I think I read in the advance publicity that there were twenty thousand contacts to choose from. So this photo was certainly… it’s a dangerous area.
MADONNA: Oh, yes, oh, yes.
MAILER: Still, religion and excretion are not all that separate. You eat your food, and whatever spirit was in the food is changed greatly. Then it’s excreted. It reaches the waters again—that’s like a passage into death. And organized religion is certainly concerned with preparedness for death. Did you choose that photograph because you felt a connection?
MADONNA: Maybe unconsciously.
MAILER: It shocks the hell out of people, and at the same time you’re saying something. Isn’t that your idea of intellectual heaven?
MADONNA: Yes, thank you for noticing. But also he happens to have a beautiful ass, and I was enjoying that.
MAILER: Isn’t that what we all work for?
MADONNA: Exactly [Laughs.] But I didn’t really answer the question. I do believe religion and eroticism are absolutely related. And I think my original feelings of sexuality and eroticism originated in going to church.
MAILER: I’m sure you’re right. I’m not a churchgoer, but if I were to join any conventional religion, I’d be a Catholic.
MADONNA: It’s very sensual, and it’s all about what you’re not supposed to do. Everything’s forbidden, and everything’s behind heavy stuff — the confessional, heavy green drapes and stained-glass windows, the rituals, the kneeling — there’s something very erotic about that. After all, its very sadomasochistic, Catholicism.
MAILER: It also enables you to drink the blood and eat the body of Christ.
MADONNA: Yes. Its carnivorous.
MAILER: Incredible taboos are gathered in and made life-giving… a considerable intellectual and spiritual achievement.
MADONNA: And when you’re – bad, you go into a little booth and ask God for forgiveness…
MAILER: And it works, to a degree…
MADONNA: And you get forgiven.
MAILER: You may go out and commit the same sin again, but the nature of it has been altered. Which is all a church can ever do for you. You know, when you’re raising children, you can never control them, merely alter the nature of their perception a little bit at a time. The confessional does something of the same, I would assume, but in a much more theatrical and awesome manner.
MADONNA: Yes, it’s very operatic.
MAILER: Can you ever see yourself going back to the church?
MADONNA: I go to church a lot just because a lot of Catholic churches are very beautiful architecturally. I love, especially right around Christmas, the smell, the candles, the incense, the ritual, as I said, and I find churches are probably one of the quietest places you can go. People somehow recognize respect when they go into a church, and you can go there and feel a real sense of tranquillity. But I can’t imagine becoming a practicing Catholic again, no.
MAILER: I was talking once to a very intelligent Catholic a priest who’s a friend of mine, and I said I could never become a Catholic, and he said, “Why? Because of the transubstantiation in the mass?” I said that didn’t bother me a bit. I can believe in ritual miracles. He said, “But you don’t believe in the Immaculate Conception?” I said, “I could never be a Catholic because I do not believe that God is all-powerful.” It fascinates me. The idea of a god who is not all-powerful. I wonder if you can believe in that or not.
MADONNA: A god who makes mistakes?
MAILER: A god who can fail, a god who is opposed by his equal, a devil….
MADONNA: Yes, that I would like to relate to.
MAILER: Then can you accept the next notion: that we have a god and a devil within us?
MADONNA: Yes, thank you for reading my mind.
MAILER: And they war with each other and sometimes one wins, sometimes the other. One can’t know. Because the very nature of the devil is to disseminate ambiguity.
MADONNA: Well, I like the idea that God is in all of us, but to me, the ultimate form of prayer, if God is in each of us is to be kind to one another, and that is a form of prayer.
MAILER: Surely there are certain people you’re not going to be kind to; it would be a grave mistake. You have to believe there’s evil in the world.
MADONNA: I believe there’s evil, but from my point of view, I don’t believe I’m an evil person.
MAILER: No, but you’ve got a good deal of evil in you. How could you not?
MADONNA: I’m not saying I’m not in conflict with good and bad and I don’t struggle with things inside of me, but I’m saying that the way we relate to one another is how we pray.
In Truth or Dare, before going onstage in Detroit, she is standing with her cast in prayer.
MADONNA: Dear Lord, it seems that every time I’m standing here in this circle before the show, I’m asking you for something extra special. Well, I’m here again, and I’m begging you to give me a voice to sing with this evening, and the girls, too. This is my hometown, so I’m extra nervous, and even though it’s not supposed to matter, it does matter what they think. And so I ask you to give me that little extra something special to show everybody that I did make something out of my life. Amen. Have a good show!
A week or two later in New York, a few ugly feuds have developed in her cast, and the prayer now is different.
Shot of Madonna. Again she is standing in a circle with her dancers and the crew.
MADONNA: What I am worried about, and what I do want to say a prayer about, is the way people have been behaving. I don’t care what you did with your lives before you came on this tour, I don’t care what you do afterward; but while you’re working with me and you’re doing this now, you will treat everyone in this group with kindness, compassion, and respect. I don’t want to hear about it anymore. There’s too much pain in the world, and I want you to treat yourselves with kindness and respect. A lot of crazy shit has been happening, and we have to start looking out for each other; we have to start protecting each other. And we have to start loving ourselves a little bit more and loving the person standing next to us a little bit more. [Her voice breaks.] Amen. ALL [quietly]: Amen.
We could take leave of her here, but do we have any sense of the poisonous spirit of the world she entered after she left Detroit? Madonna would have been a star even if Andy Warhol had never existed, yet Warhol is the clue to seeing Madonna in perspective. If we would look to grasp what she aspires to and what she encountered in New York, it is worth musing on Warhol’s command of one particular gift—divination of social disease.
By the late middle of the twentieth century, human contempt for itself reached epic proportions. The recognition had come that we might be a species ready to finish ourselves by way of nuclear apocalypse. It was possible. Even without the atom bomb, the Second World War had left as a legacy the shadow of the concentration camps, and that darkened all belief that humankind was evolving into a more humane future. Then the cold war proceeded to erode those institutions of marriage, family, and property that for two hundred years had kept society—or so society believed—relatively stable but for peculiar times of armed conflict. That happy view of humankind had washed out to sea by the late Fifties, and in the Sixties, nothing made more sense to the average young man or woman than a prodigious absorption in oneself. That usually meant: Explore sex. The search for meaning translated into a search for pleasure. For if death was likely to present itself as nuclear termination arriving without warning, death was therefore absurd: Everyone destroyed more or less simultaneously, no grave, no ancestors, no roots, no memories of oneself.
The intensification of criminal life that drug traffic would provide still lay several decades away, but down the bleak vista of the cold war (which may yet be seen as a spiritual plague more pervasive, although less quickly fatal, than AIDS), Warhol must have been the first to gain keen insight into the pervasiveness of this plague. If its first symptom (buried under every hypocrisy of patriotism) was lack of respect for the human condition, Warhol perceived that as a corollary, there was going to be boundless if subterranean lack of respect for art. A painter could get away with more now than ever before! So Warhol, a mediocre draftsman, a colorist without his own palette, moved into the void. The emptiness of others was the barren field he would seed for a cash crop. He was a magician.
By now, Warhol is seen as a great artist even by people who do not profit directly from such an evaluation. Yet to think of him as an immortal American painter is to inspire the yaws. One need merely compare such sentiments with the pride of the Spanish and the French in Picasso or Matisse. No, Warhol’s real claim to fame was not as an artist, but as the philosopher of voids and silences. Before anyone else, he comprehended the vacuum of Western culture in the second half of the twentieth century “Authority,” Warhol could easily have said, if he had been inclined to give his secret away — “authority imprinted upon emptiness is money!” And he was right. The history of the last half of the twentieth century can be seen as a study in authority, money, and emptiness. The spiritual diorama of our time is the triumph of high-rise corporate architecture in every major city of the world, the proliferation of plastic into food and flesh, the presence of the homeless, AIDS, drug life, and now, in the aftermath of the cold war, ethnic cleansing, that corrosive purgative that looks to cure all the other ills, the first worldwide hint of a time to come when upturned heads will wait for a messiah with an authoritative voice. “I am the emptiness,” Warhol could as well have said. “I am the emptiness that prepares you for the message to come.” He is the maggot genius of American culture.
Madonna, born in 1958, young enough to have been Warhol’s daughter, was nonetheless reacting to the same void. But in drastically different fashion. She was, after all, like her generation, part of the horde of walking wounded. If nuclear fission would be the mortician to preside over her last rites, then, indeed, she would explore sex, and with an instinctive rebellion against all large hypocrisies. One did not have to be political to sense the vast fraud of the cold war — we had all been adjured to triumph over an Evil Empire that had turned out to be no more than a Sad Morass, at least for the last twenty years, a giant Third World quagmire buried in inefficiencies, bereft of desire for world domination. Our political leaders had converted language into cant, and our young — particularly those with good ears — reacted to the false note.
Yet if Madonna spoke to her generation, she was still condemned to explore herself. The explorations were chilling to some. In all the multimillion-dollar crops of her popularity, she was still without that hyperbolic popularity Marilyn Monroe gained in her own lifetime. Madonna was admired, but she was not loved. Not like Marilyn.
Our love for Marilyn is not complex. She was our movie star of the Fifties, but Marilyn spoke of a simpler time, the Thirties. It was to the Thirties that she belonged. She was three and a half years old at the end of 1929, and a young adolescent by the time 1940 arrived. Her smile goes back to such archetypes in our sentimental loyalties as the songs of the Thirties — “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” She would be valiant and loyal through our sorrows — so said the sweet welcome of her face. Marilyn’s horrors were kept within, and we mourn her because she gave it all to us and sacrificed herself until she was ridden with inner lividities and died.
Madonna is not only a survivor but has chosen, perhaps out of the necessity to survive, to take her kinks to the public: “You want to be with me, then come along for the f*cking cure.” She offers no balm to sweet, sore places; she is the stern instructor who shows us how difficult it all is, especially sex in its consummation. Yet she gives us something Marilyn never could, something less attractive but equally valuable; she dramatizes for us how dangerous is any human’s truth once we dare to explore it; she reminds us that the joys of life bed down on broken glass. She is not a lapsed Catholic for too little. Inter faeces et urinam, nascimur, she is always telling us, even if she never heard of Saint Odo of Cluny, but indeed it is true. “Between piss and shit are we born,” as the good saint told us, and the road to heaven, if you would find it, lies, by implication, between the two. Madonna comes to us as a bastard descendant of the void that Andy Warhol enshrined in the ice of his technique, but how she seeks to fill that empty space with her work!
MAILER: Does anyone ever speak of music videos as bearing the same relation to feature films as poetry does to novels?
MADONNA: NO, I never heard that.
MAILER: While watching “Like a Virgin,” I was thinking that the more you look at it, the richer it’s going to get. Poetry is also montage. One evocative phrase is set next to another. If you read a poem enough times, it opens – slowly, if it’s a difficult one, but finally it opens. And then every time you read it, a little more comes in. Same with good music videos.
MADONNA: That’s interesting. Never thought of that.
The music videos she had made over the last ten years had employed the services of countless directors and cameramen, but just about all of them and particularly the best – known ones — “Like a Virgin,” “Like a Prayer,” “Justify My Love,” “Borderline,” “Material Girl,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “True Blue,” “Bad Girl,” “Rain,” “Erotica” — had belonged to Madonna. There had been an organizing principle, a discernment in the style, a characteristic irony, a sensuous sorrow, a wicked rebuttal of expectation, a hoydenish intimacy — one can go on with such a list; appreciations bear resemblance to the plucking of flower petals — but the summary fact was that watching Madonna on music video was to encounter a high intelligence in an artist. There could be no question. She not only made the best music videos of them all, but they transcended personality. She was the premier artist of music video, and it might be the only new popular art form in American life.
If one wished to measure her stature, it was interesting to compare her work with the videos of Michael Jackson. His productions were virtuoso — they depended on his person — a product of his physical gifts, his speed, his agility, his voice, his astonishing looks, whereas Madonna had transcended her own limitations to create visualizations in sound equal to fine poems; one could measure their worth by the resonance they offered. Her best videos would prove richer on each viewing; one could not perhaps say as much about Michael Jackson.
MAILER: I want to leave you with an idea. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are a great artist. [Madonna gasps slightly.] It’s on record now.
MAILER: That’s going to be the theme of this piece, that what we have among us is our greatest living female artist.
MADONNA: Thank you.
Most people, no matter how brilliant, are vessels. Once you come to the end of what is interesting in them, you can touch the side of the jar. There will be nothing afterward but repetition of what you have learned already. It might take a night, a year, or half a lifetime, but once you can reach the side of the vessel, a good part of the larger feeling is gone. And the clue to discovering that a masterwork of personality is naught but one more vessel is that you can never win an argument with a glass jar. A vessel is a vessel. Beyond is the void.
So it was agreeable talking to Madonna. She had not settled yet on any of her boundaries. Perhaps she never would.
MAILER: Did anyone ever say that you have a resemblance to Princess Diana?
MADONNA: Get out of here! No one has ever said that. That’s hysterical…. I guess I could do worse.
MAILER: A lot worse.
MADONNA: Poor Princess Diana.
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