From ‘Hell’ And Back, Madonna Lives To Tell
With mere hours until the release of her new album, Madonna sits behind a closed door in a suite at Interscope Records’ office near Times Square. A stylist darts into the room for a few touch-ups. “She wants to look good for you,” Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s longtime publicist, tells me. I pass a pair of security guards, then wait to be beckoned into the makeshift chamber. Not much has changed since 1984, when Madonna promised to “rule the world” and subsequently invented modern pop stardom. She is still the one to decide when, where and, most importantly, how we see her.
Over the past few months, however, a hacker challenged Madonna’s right to govern her own image. “Living hell” is how she describes the multiple Internet leaks that plagued her 13th studio album, “Rebel Heart.” For someone who approves every thread of her dancers’ costumes before a performance, this was Madonna losing control, the very thing that made her the star she is. So it makes sense that the singer, who did almost no press for her previous album because its release was sandwiched between a Super Bowl halftime show and a world tour, has been ubiquitous in her promotion of “Rebel Heart,” which was released March 10. The high priestess of reinvention maintains her relevance with the headline-making narratives that grow from each hit album, single, video, film and performance — distinct story lines that expand Madonna’s brand. Like the sexual dare of “Erotica,” the spiritual-enlightenment yarn of “Ray of Light” and the political racket of “American Life,” the new album now carries with it another chestnut to add to Madonna’s biography. It’s just not one she invited.
To create “Rebel Heart,” the 56-year-old collaborated with the likes of Diplo, Avicii, Kanye West, Nas, Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper, Mike Tyson, Toby Gad, DJ Dahi, Ariel Rechtshaid and Ryan Tedder over 18 months. Two days after Thanksgiving, a pair of demos leaked online. Then, a week after other journalists and I previewed 13 tracks one evening in early December, the full album leaked as well. What can the most exacting and famous pop icon on the planet do when hackers threaten her power? What she’s always done: reclaim control.
It’s not dissimilar from what I glean during our 30 minutes of face time, which Madonna begins by offering me a Red Vine. She may not know what questions she’ll be asked, but Madonna asserts herself simply by making it clear which ones she likes and which ones she does not. She’s cognizant that even professionals flinch in her presence. Coy smiles give way to skeptical frowns as the conversation unfolds, underscoring the art of Madonna’s protracted self-awareness.
In an age when pop stars feel like ephemera — Britney Spears turns into Katy Perry, John Mayer gives way to Ed Sheeran, Janet Jackson yields to Rihanna — Madonna is the only one to promote a persona that demands every move become another indelible page in the story she’s writing about herself. That’s tougher nowadays, when trends don’t last as long. So, as usual, Madonna concocts her own tale: She releases mastered versions of six leaked songs with no announcement, becomes the first major artist to premiere a video on Snapchat and runs a contest that allows fans to chat with her on Grindr. Just don’t think the leaks somehow benefited Madonna — she scowls when I imply there’s solace in their prompting her to stretch “Rebel Heart” from 13 tracks to 19, meaning she eliminated less from what at one point might have become a double album.
“It was really hard on everybody,” she says of the leaks. “Everybody became very paranoid. It was like, ‘Oh, it could be anybody. It’s got to be somebody close.’ I was worried it was an engineering assistant or somebody that had access to everything.” (It was a 39-year-old man from Israel. He has been arrested and indicted.)
Celebrity image control has evolved wildly since Sire Records president Seymour Stein signed Madonna after listening to her debut single, “Everybody,” from his hospital bed in 1982. That Madonna has molded herself for the Instagram era despite having cut her teeth before social media was conceivable is a chief source of the “she’s irrelevant” potshots her critics sling. Before she leapt onto the social-media bandwagon, which has served devotees-turned-counterparts like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift well, Madonna’s control was born in the music-video era, when performers molded their personas primarily through MTV rotations. In Kanye West’s eyes, for example, she is “the greatest visual musical artist that we’ve ever had.” Instagram, then, is another visual platform where Madonna can craft her career narratives.
I tell Madonna that West has paid her such a compliment and ask whether she agrees. She looks at the floor, chuckles knowingly and looks back at me. “That is a trick question,” she smirks. “Um. I think Kanye is a …” — and here she morphs into an exaggerated English accent — “… brilliant man. Brilliant, brilliant. He says some very pithy things sometimes.” (In an interview with the New York Daily News, Madonna tried her hand at pithiness, too: “Kanye is the black Madonna,” she said.)
Others say things Madonna doesn’t find quite so amusing. Case in point: Giorgio Armani. The designer fashioned the cape that led to her nasty tumble at last month’s Brit Awards. A week after Madonna took to Instagram to thank Armani for the costume, he told the Associated Press she is “very difficult to work with.”
“That was kind of disappointing because I don’t think I was difficult to work with,” she tells me. “I never blamed my cape for not being able to untie it. In fact, the day after it happened, I posted a drawing, a beautiful drawing, of the cape and thanked them for my costume. I didn’t blame what happened on anyone, so I don’t really know why they did that. I think that was a knee-jerk reaction on their part thinking they were going to get criticism, so they just had to make me the bad guy. Not very elegant, I don’t think.”