“I like challenge and controversy – I like to tick people off,” Madonna boasted, tossing her head and flashing a mischievous half-smile. The 27-year-old pop star was sipping a diet cola in a conference room at the New York offices of Warner Bros. Records. She appeared almost demure in a pink-and-blue flowered dress and a very short haircut inspired by the late-50’s gamine look of Jean Seberg, Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron. Gone along with most of her hair was the heavy makeup and jewelry that made last year’s Madonna resemble a contemporary street version of Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
“After awhile I got sick of wearing tons of jewelry – I wanted to clean myself off,” Madonna said flatly. “I see my new look as very innocent and feminine and unadorned. It makes me feel good. Growing up, I admired the kind of beautiful glamorous woman – from Brigitte Bardot to Grace Kelly – who doesn’t seem to be around much anymore. I think it’s time for that kind of glamour to come back.”
If Madonna’s new upscale look represents a dramatic swing away from the provocative sex symbol who wore lingerie as outerwear and crucifixes like diamonds, it does not signal an end to her courting of controversy. “Papa Don’t Preach,” the second single from her third album, “True Blue” (Sire 25442; LP, cassette, compact disk), is bound to rile some parents of teen-age girls. The protagonist of the song, which was written by Brian Elliot, is a pregnant adolescent who begs her father to bless her decision to keep the baby and marry her boyfriend. Madonna sings it in a passionate, bratty sob that makes the plea immediate and believable.
The song has also been turned into a compelling slice-of-life music video. Filmed on location in a working-class neighborhood of Staten Island, with Danny Aiello playing the father, it features a virtuoso performance by a waifish, saucer-eyed Madonna, who looks all of 15 as she quivers anxiously, awaiting her father’s response. Like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the song and its video have an iconographic resonance that could push Madonna’s career to an even higher plateau than the household-word status she attained last year with her 6 1/2-million-selling second album, “Like a Virgin.”
“‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is a message song that everyone is going to take the wrong way,” Madonna proudly predicted. “Immediately they’re going to say I am advising every young girl to go out and get pregnant. When I first heard the song, I thought it was silly. But then I thought, wait a minute, this song is really about a girl who is making a decision in her life. She has a very close relationship with her father and wants to maintain that closeness. To me it’s a celebration of life. It says, ‘I love you, father, and I love this man and this child that is growing inside me.’ Of course, who knows how it will end? But at least it starts off positive.”
“Papa Don’t Preach,” for which Madonna contributed a couple of minor lyrical revisions, is the only song on the album that Madonna didn’t have a strong hand in writing. The song was sent to her by Michael Ostin, the same Warner Bros. executive who discovered “Like a Virgin.” Most of the album’s eight other songs Madonna co-wrote with Patrick Leonard, the musical director for her 1985 tour, or with her sometime songwriting partner, Stephen Bray. The three also co-produced the LP.
While “True Blue” lacks the gleaming ultra-sleek aural surfaces of “Like a Virgin,” both its songs and Madonna’s singing show a lot more heart. “Live to Tell,” written for the soundtrack of “At Close Range,” the movie starring her husband, Sean Penn, was released in advance of the album and recently spent a week perched at No. 1 on the pop charts. It proves that vocally Madonna isn’t limited to catchy novelties and disco tunes – she can carry off a weightier ballad. The rest of the album consists of highly commercial dance-pop whose lyrics convey an upbeat message along with casual autobiographical references. “True Blue” takes its title from a favorite expression of Sean Penn, and is a tribute, according to Madonna, “to my husband’s very pure vision of love.” Musically, it also pays homage to Motown and to 60’s “girl-group” hits like “Chapel of Love” that are the direct antecedents of Madonna’s sound.
The happy, Latin-flavored “La Isla Bonita” is Madonna’s celebration of what she called “the beauty and mystery of Latin American people.” The itchy dance tune, “Jimmy Jimmy” commemorates her youthful fascination with James Dean. “I used to fantasize that we grew up in the same neighborhood and that he moved away and became a big star,” she admitted. “White Heat” is dedicated to another mythic rebel, James Cagney, whose voice opens the track in a snatch of dialogue from the movie of the same name. “Where’s the Party?” Madonna explained, “is my ultimate reminder to myself that I want to enjoy life and not let the press get to me, because every once in a while it does.” “Open Your Heart” is about “wanting to change somebody.” And the album’s final cut, “Love Makes the World Go Round,” preaches a cheerfully simplistic humanitarianism: “Don’t judge a man ’til you’ve been standin’ in his shoes/ You know that we’re all so quick to look away/ ‘Cause it’s the easy thing to do/ Make love not war.”
Obviously, Madonna is still much more significant as a pop culture symbol than as a songwriter or a singer. But the songs on “True Blue” are shrewdly crafted teen-age and pre-teen-age ditties that reveal Madonna’s unfailing commercial instincts. And her singing, which has been harshly criticized as a thin imitation of the 60’s girl-group sound, has strengthened.
“I grew up loving innocent child voices like Diana Ross, while she was with the Supremes, and Stevie Wonder, when he was young, and I practically swooned when I heard Frankie Lymon’s records,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I was always instinctively drawn to those voices. I don’t think I sing like a woman. I sing like a girl, and it’s a quality I never want to lose.”
But even more than a girlish voice, the quality that defines Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone is an instinct for rebellion that she traces to her parochial school girlhood in Pontiac, Mich.
“When you go to Catholic school, you have to wear uniforms, and everything is decided for you,” she recalled. “Since you have no choice but to wear your uniform, you go out of your way to do things that are different in order to stand out. All that rebellion carried over when I moved to New York eight years ago to become a dancer. At dance classes, all the ballerinas had their hair back in a bun, and so I chopped my hair off and ripped my leotard down the front and put little tiny safety pins all the way up just to provoke my teacher. After all, where is it written that in order to be a better dancer you have to wear a black leotard and pink tights and have your hair in a bun? Going out dancing with my girlfriends in New York clubs, we would dress for provocation. What I was wearing at the time I was signed to a record contract became my look.
“What kids see in me is another rebel kid who says what she wants and does what she wants and has a joy in life,” Madonna went on. “The girls that dressed like me all got the joke – it was their parents who didn’t. You didn’t see those girls going off and doing awful things because they bought my records. What I’ve learned from all the controversy is that you can’t expect everyone to get your sense of humor. But I’ve also learned that people eventually do catch on to what they didn’t get at first. It’s a nice surprise in the end when they, go, ‘Hey, well, you know… I like that.’ “
A disciplined, immensely self-confident woman who doesn’t eat meat, rarely touches liquor and rigorously trains her body every day, Madonna is a woman in charge of her life and career. She appeared to be uncowed by the voyeurism of a celebrity press that has dredged up vintage nude photos of her and made her recent marriage to Mr. Penn a running battle with the paparazzi. Madonna’s title role of a freewheeling bohemian vagabond in the Susan Seidelman film “Desperately Seeking Susan,” along with her music-videos, has established her as a natural screen presence, and a larger movie career seems inevitable. In her next film, “Shanghai Surprise,” she plays a staid young missionary from Massachusetts who falls in love with a petty swindler, played by Mr. Penn. The film, which is set in pre-Revolutionary China, was shot in Hong Kong and is scheduled to be released this fall.
“I always thought of myself as a star, though I never in my wildest dreams expected to become this big,” Madonna said bluntly. “But I knew I was born to it. I don’t know why. I think people are named names for certain reasons, and I feel that I was given a special name for a reason. In a way, maybe I wanted to live up to my name.”
© New York Times