There’s an approximate 100% probability that any living human over the age of, say, 25 has some sort of specific Madonna-related memory. Perhaps you slow danced to “Crazy for You” at a high school prom, memorized the “Vogue” choreography in your dorm room, warbled out “Express Yourself” at a bachelorette party, had a dancefloor epiphany to “Ray of Light”, or fumbled through some sexual experimentation with Erotica throbbing in the background. Perhaps, like me, you grew up worshipping at the altar of “Into the Groove”-era Madonna and quietly contemplated your own burgeoning sexuality after obsessively viewing Truth or Dare around five million times. Even if you aren’t a super fan—or even a fan at all—there’s no escaping Madonna. She is everywhere.
It is not hyperbole to say that Madonna profoundly influenced the ways in which an entire generation of young people thought about music, fashion, and—in particular—sex. She was one of the first celebrities of her time to advocate on behalf of gay people and speak openly about AIDS. She was a provocateur of the highest order, even when it wasn’t necessarily in her best interest. (Go back and watch some of the now quaint-seeming news coverage regarding the release of her 1992 Sex book just to have a laugh at how radically the cultural landscape has—and hasn’t—changed). She has also sold over 300 million records. These are all good reasons to talk about Madonna, but they still aren’t the most important reason: She essentially built the house that everyone else—Britney, Beyoncé, Nicki, Gaga, Sky, Rihanna, Katy, Ariana, even Kanye—all now get to call home. She devised the archetype of pop stardom as we know and understand it today. And, with the exception of Michael Jackson—the King of Pop to her Queen—Madonna’s enduring impact on popular culture remains pretty much unequaled.
But what does Madonna mean in 2015? And what does being Madonna mean in 2015? It’s not an easy subject to unpack. It’s also a question that Madonna herself seems to struggle with. On her forthcoming 13th studio album, Rebel Heart, the 56-year-old pop paragon chooses to re-examine rather than simply reinvent. As a result, the 19-track opus is, in many ways, the entire Madonna mythology writ large—a record that vacillates between empowerment anthems, romantic missives, and the now-requisite assertions of complete and total dominance (see: “Bitch I’m Madonna”), with stops along the way to revisit her lifelong obsessions with sex and Catholicism.
As usual, Madonna’s knack for choosing of-the-moment collaborators remains in full-effect, and this time around the long list includes Diplo, Kanye, Avicii, DJ Dahi, Blood Diamonds, Ryan Tedder, Ariel Rechtshaid, Nicki Minaj, Nas, Chance the Rapper, and Mike Tyson. While this roster of talent makes for what is arguably the most all-over-the-place thing Madonna has ever released, it doesn’t stop her from also getting surprisingly personal. Tracks like “Joan of Arc”—in which she examines just how much being Madonna has cost her—and the title track are some of the most vulnerable self-examinations she has ever committed to record. Elsewhere, she swaps life stories with Nas on “Veni Vidi Vici”—a song in which she recalls her time as a “baby on the street” running wild on New York City’s Lower East Side in the early ‘80s. For a record that is trying so hard to sound of-the-moment, Rebel Heart’s most interesting moments tend to be the ones where she drops the braggadocio and sex talk, and pauses to examine her own identity. For Madonna—an artist who has famously thrived on radical evolution—perhaps the most radical thing she can be at this point is herself.
Given her experience as one of the world’s most talked about human beings for the past 30 years or so, Madonna is—as one might imagine—a formidable interview subject. Sitting down to chat with her on a cold recent Friday night in Midtown Manhattan is both intimidating and surreal. It’s also really fun. Corseted, camera ready, and sporting a bejeweled Chanel whistle around her neck, Madonna is both friendly and forthcoming—just as happy to talk about art and poets like Anne Sexton and Mary Oliver as she is to talk about pop music. One might imagine that a sit-down with a celebrity of Madonna’s stature would involve a lot of preemptive stipulations, but the only real caveat I’m given regarding our discussion comes from Madonna herself. “If you ask me a question I think is stupid then you have to take a shot of this tequila,” she says, producing a bottle. “And if you ask me an amazing question, something that really sets me on fire, then I have to take a shot of tequila. Don’t worry though, this is really good tequila.” In the end, we both drink.
Pitchfork: You have worked in lots of different mediums—acting, directing, theater, philanthropy—but always come back to pop music as your primary means of expression.
Madonna: Yes, my home base—pop music and the Catholic Church.
Pitchfork: And sex.
M: [laughs] Yes. Why not? All three together, if possible.
Pitchfork: What makes pop music such a powerful medium for you?
M: It’s very primal. It’s also like poetry, when it’s good. I like that you have four minutes to zero in on something and evoke a specific feeling and take people on some sort of journey. When I discovered that I could write music, it felt like the most natural way for me to connect with people and tell my stories. I’ve always thought of that as what I do: I tell stories.
Pitchfork: I was really surprised by this new record. To be honest, I was also kind of relieved…
M: That you didn’t hate it? [laughs]
Pitchfork: Yes, actually. I mean, you never know…
M: Totally. That’s to be expected.
Pitchfork: This is your 13th studio album. Do you tend to go into the making of a record with a sense of what you want the record to be, or does that reveal itself as things unfold?
M: Generally I start by choosing producers to work with, which determines the direction the overall sound is going to go in. But this time around, my goal from the very beginning was just to write good songs that don’t require any production to be felt or understood. I wanted to be able to sit in a room with a guitar and play the song from beginning to end and have it be as impactful as if you heard the studio version with all the bells and whistles. In the beginning I was writing songs with Avicii, whom everyone associates with EDM, but I worked with his team of writers and everything was very simple—vocals and piano, vocals and guitar. It almost had a folk feeling to it.
It wasn’t until I got about halfway through the album that I started thinking about sounds, and that’s where Diplo came in. He started adding these monster beats and punch-you-in-the-stomach bass sounds and 808s like you’ve never heard before, and that pushed me in a certain direction. Then I looked at the songs I had that still didn’t have producers and started asking around for people I thought it would be fun to work with.
I wanted to work with a hip-hop producer, but not a conventional hip-hop producer, and DJ Dahi had worked on a Kendrick Lamar record that I really liked. Then [Diplo] brought Blood Diamonds into the picture, and I’d never heard of him before. It was like a train that started moving: Along the way, new people would get on while other people would get off for a while only to return again later. So not only was I the primary songwriter, but I was also the schedule keeper trying to manage the comings and goings of crazy DJs who all have ADD. [laughs]
Pitchfork: When I was listening to the record I started to make a division between the “party” songs and the “personal” songs—the party versus the personal…
M: Party versus funeral. [laughs]
Pitchfork: I found myself much more drawn to the personal songs.
M: Which song in particular?
Pitchfork: “Joan of Arc”, for example. Maybe it’s just because…
M: You feel like a martyred saint? [laughs]
Pitchfork: I was gonna say because I’m a 40-something gay dude—same thing. I was just drawn to the songs that seem to deal with getting older, making sense of things.
M: I can understand that.
Pitchfork: You’ve never been afraid to put yourself out there in terms of talking about provocative topics like sex or religion, but is it somehow scarier to talk about your personal, intimate feelings?
M: Hm. I think “scary” is probably the wrong word. You just have to be ready. You know, I just don’t ever want to sound like a victim, or like a person that is feeling sorry for themselves. However, I did want to share some aspects of my life experiences that were painful that I think people can relate to—especially in this age of social media where people can hide behind the Internet to say a lot of disparaging, hateful, discriminatory things to other people. It’s not that people got crazier or more hateful, it’s just that now people have the courage to say stuff without any fear. As much good as it does, social media can also encourage stupidity and degradation.
Do you know [‘60s poet] Anne Sexton? I worship her. She came up in a tough time, and she definitely wasn’t encouraged to be a poet or to speak her mind or reveal anything personal. When I made Truth or Dare, I got so much shit from people for everything, for allowing cameras to follow me around all the time. Can you imagine, in this day and age?
Pitchfork: Now everyone has a camera following them at all times.
M: When that movie came out I was constantly referencing this Anne Sexton poem called “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further”. She was given so much shit for being too personal in her work, but that poem is her way of saying, “Look, I don’t know how to do anything else.” That poem always gave me solace, especially at a time when everyone told me I was being crazy.
Pitchfork: I’ve talked to pop artists, like Miley or Sky Ferreira, who have clearly benefited from the doors that you opened during your career. But I’m always amazed by how many of the same battles you fought are still being fought by women in the music industry, whether it’s the shaming women receive from talking about their sexuality, or the lengths that critics will go to in order to not give women credit for their own work.
M: Sexism; you can’t be sexy and intelligent. It’s not allowed. Nothing has changed. I mean, it’s fine if you just wanna go out there and twerk, but the landscape is limited. If you try to embody too many different human aspects in your work, or if you have too many references, people get confused. I see a lot of people getting really pissed off at Miley because she kind of just acts like a dude—but if she were a dude, no one would say anything.
Pitchfork: The language people use is fascinating. For example, when people talk about your knack for collaborating with people at just the right time, it’s almost always described as “vampiric” or “calculated”. But if you were a man, they would just describe it is as “savvy.”
M: Oh yes. But if I were a man… oh, if I were a man. [laughs]
Pitchfork: “Veni Vidi Vici”—the new track with Nas—is also one of the most self-referential things you’ve recorded. How did that come to be?
M: Diplo was like, “You’ve had such a long career, you’ve been around so many decades, you should kind of do a rap—but not really rap—and talk about all of the things that you’ve done.” So I was like, “OK, good idea! I’ll try that.” Then I wanted to have a guest on the song, and I’ve always been a fan of Nas. I feel like he’s had a super interesting journey. Obviously, we have very different backgrounds—I’m from Michigan and he’s from Queens—but he’s survived a lot, too. I also just love the sound of his voice.
He was incredibly gracious when I asked him to do it. He just turned up one day all by himself—no bodyguards, no assistants, nothing—and listened to the track before saying, “Yes, I’m in. I’ll do it.” And now we’re friends and I really like him. He also came up at a time when I felt like rap music was peaking, back when the bulk of rappers were still talking about their real lives and reflecting on what was going on in society.
Pitchfork: It’s cool to hear you talk about your days in New York City in the early ‘80s on that song. I was thinking about you and that era when I saw a recent show of artist Greer Lankton’s work here in the city and there were these photos of people like David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring, all of these major downtown people.
M: All of whom are no longer with us. [sighs] Don’t even get me started…
Pitchfork: It’s interesting to see how often you pop up as part of that scene—in Danceteria flyers, in David Wojnarowicz’s biography, photos of you and Keith. Do you feel nostalgia for that time?
M: Yes, I do, especially now. I think about Keith coming over and saying, “I heard you are doing a show at the Paradise Garage, I want to paint a costume for you. What are you wearing? Can I just paint on it?” And I’m like “Yes! For sure!” Or then to have Basquiat and Warhol come to the show and then everyone goes out afterwards and just talks about art. Or to go to Basquiat’s gallery and see his work and talk about it. I can’t even explain what an amazing time that was for all of us. We were all excited about each other’s work and jealous of each other’s work and cheering each other on. It was the beginning of something truly amazing—and then suddenly everyone died. All these amazing people just wiped out almost all at once.
Now I think about how artists come up and, well, there is no community, really. There’s social networking, but it’s not real connection between people. It just feels like pop culture is very separate from the art world now, whereas before they used to be one and the same.
Pitchfork: You don’t strike me as someone who trades in nostalgia.
M: No, but it feels like the right time to look back. You know, I got to hang out with William Burroughs. It’s crazy. I got to meet some amazing people, and those kinds of characters—that kind of art—just don’t exist anymore. Well, I’m sure it does, but it just doesn’t seem to be a part of youth culture. When I think about popular culture now, I can’t help but think that we’re living in the age of loneliness. There’s this illusion that we all have instant access to each other, but we actually have no real connection. You’re just…
Pitchfork: …alone at home staring at your phone.
M: Yes! Just think about a time when you actually had to leave your house and go get on the train and see somebody in person to interact with them. You had to go to their studio. You had these visceral experiences with people that actually involved a certain amount of planning and physical interaction, and those interactions have so much to do with the building of one’s character. I fear that we are getting further and further away from that. Also, I have teenaged children and I’m really seeing the world through their eyes. I’m thinking, “What a drag that they don’t really get to experience that.”
Pitchfork: What has inspired you recently in the realm of pop music?
M: To be honest, pop music isn’t exciting me too much right now. I mean, do you consider James Blake pop music? I love his music, some of his songs just kill me. He’s a great songwriter. It’s the kind of thing that makes me jealous, like, “Oh! I wish I’d made that!”
Pitchfork: You’ve talked about how having kids is like the best A&R, because they keep you up to date on what’s happening in the world.
M: Oh yeah, they’ve certainly turned me on to lots of great music.
Pitchfork: Are they harsh critics as well?
M: Yes. They’re like, “Please, Mom, no. Please stop. Oh, here she goes again…” And then I say, “Shut up, this is paying the bills!” [laughs]
Pitchfork: Two of your children are from Malawi, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the work you continue to do there.
M: Yes. My work there gives me a sense of purpose that I never really had before—it gives me a lot of joy, and it would be wonderful to invite other people to get involved. You witness extreme suffering but also extreme joy. I know it’s a cliche, but it really puts everything else in perspective. You just have to pour yourself a great big glass of “shut the f*ck up” because you realize that you literally can’t complain about anything.
I love taking my kids there because not only does it stop them from ever complaining, it lets them become adults and takes them out of their comfort zone and they get to do this amazing work to help people. Being able to step outside of yourself in order to help someone else is why we’re all here, it’s what we should all be doing if we can. I don’t talk about this too much because I’m not in it so people can pat me on the back. Even when the former president there was trying to run me out of the country when we were trying to build schools and hospitals, it never stopped me, because I do this for love. It’s as important as anything I have ever done.
Pitchfork: You also really advocated for gay people—and talked openly about AIDS—at a time when not a lot of people were willing to do so.
Pitchfork: I appreciate that you’ve been so supportive of my people.
M: [laughs] Your people? My people.
Pitchfork: Are you surprised by how radically things have changed, particularly in respect to things like gay marriage?
M: Well, it’s about time. I’m not surprised really. There are too many powerful, intelligent voices in the gay community for things not to change. So, I’m happy and I’m relieved. I feel vindicated.
Pitchfork: In preparation for this interview, I spent a lot of time watching lots of YouTube videos of your past performances…
M: Oh god, you must be so sick of me.
Pitchfork: Are you still excited about being on stage in front of people?
M: Yeah. I like coming up with these spectacular extravaganzas that will, hopefully, totally blow people away. But I also like the intimacy of stopping it all and sitting at the edge of the stage and connecting with individual people in the audience. Actually, I quite like the idea doing a different kind of tour—and don’t get any ideas because this is not gonna happen right now—where I would sing songs and play guitar and just have maybe one other musician out there with me; it’s just me and a guitar and a good bottle of wine. I could talk in between each song and tell stories, or do some of my stand-up comedy, which I’m actually quite good at. I love it when I see a stand-up comedian have some amazing back-and-forth dealing with a heckler in the audience. I could really have a field day with something like that. I don’t think you understand how funny I am—I mean, maybe not right now, but in general. I do some of my best stand-up comedy during sound checks.
Pitchfork: I always thought it might be frustrating how big stadium shows don’t allow for much spontaneity.
M: I actually always try to have a moment in my show where I can just lay down on stage and talk to people for a little while. Also, I like to f*ck with people sometimes. [laughs] I might be responsible for as many gay marriages as I am for heterosexual divorces, because there have been circumstances where see couples in the audience and there is a husband sitting there with his arms crossed, looking bored out of his brain, while his wife is up on her feet dancing and having such a good time. I’ll stop the show and point them out and say, “Who’s that guy sitting down right now?” And she’ll reply, “Oh, he’s my husband.” And I say, “Divorce him—right now.” And then they do! Just kidding. I hope they don’t, really.
Pitchfork: Could you imagine a time when you wouldn’t want to tour or make records anymore?
M: This might be verging on a stupid question. [laughs] You might need to take a drink for that one. You know what, I’ll have a drink too. [pours tequila shots] Cheers! Here’s to a stupid question!
Pitchfork: Here’s to apparently never retiring!
M: Here’s to never retiring!