Knickers up, Madam. Cease and desist with your oaken thespianism. Curtail your wrist-strengthening publicatory activities. And while you’re at it, knock off the self-absorbed psycho-navel analysis. All we ever wanted Madonna to do was make great pop music. And talk sense. Well, now she has. And she is Interview by Paul Du Noyer.
Mmm. Now. Yeah. Let me see if I remember …
‘My love is a glorious, something, of song
A fabulous … extemporanea.
And love is a thing that can never go wrong …
And I am the Queen of Romania.’
“Ha! Ha! Oh I do love Dorothy Parker’s poems.
They’re so bitter. And so true …”
Her version of the words is not far out. But she is not the Queen of Romania. She is perhaps the world’s most famous woman, and her name is spelt on a golden necklace that rests upon her chest. “Madonna” it announces, dangling over what the French would term her “decolletage”, meaning that her outfit is very low-cut. And she flaunts a cleavage like the barmids all had when beer was tuppence a pint.
Madonna looks both older and younger than she does in the photos and the videos: a little more lined and possibly tired, but also less mature and grand. Her manner is quite teenaged, not femme fatale. She seems up for mischief, and yet quite conscious of her power. At the same time, her very frankness is almost innocent. These combinations are odd, and they give her the air of a prematurely wise child. Her current style is 1930s Hollywood meets early ’70s flash: Jean Harlow and Angie Bowie. She is not bewitching, but is certainly beautiful. She wears the nose stud that so troubled Norman Mailer in a recent interview. If you saw her in the street, you’d think she looks like a girl who looks a bit like Madonna.
She is receiving visitors in a suite at the Ritz Hotel, always favoured by Americans of means – and a place that Ernest Hemingway saw fit to get pissed in – here in the Place VendOme, in Paris. A gaggle of fans is standing outside the revolving doors. The room is down a dark, narrow corridor. Halfway along there sits an athletic young black man: he tenses at your approach, relaxes when you’re cleared. In the ante-room is a stack of PR photos in case you want one autographed, and copies of Madonna’s US press biography. (It begins, “We have been here before – on the cusp of discovery, the crux of delight, the crucible where true artistry and mass appeal entwine.” It ends, five pages later, with “We know her. We love her. And we will follow her anywhere.” You’re right. It’s a load of bollocks.)
The common observation that writers make after meeting Madonna is that she is small. (Just as they come back from Sting interviews reporting that, guess what, he’s not a complete wanker after all.) Rut actually, she isn’t tiny. So why this sense of dislocation?
It’s partly because she is not so steely and Amazonian as the pictures suggest – in fact, she seems rather delicate. But mostly it’s her global fame and reputation. It’s like the proverbial butterfly wing that displaces a little air in Peking, and triggers tidal waves the other side of the world. Madonna speaks and she causes explosions in outer space. All that, from this little person here?
And there is one more purzle, which we will shortly investigate. Why is she wearing Betty Boo’s clothes?
Just before the interview, Madonna puts something on the coffee table which she says will “inspire” her. It is a signed publicity photo of Tom Jones. So it happens that my opening moments of small-talk with Madonna are – at her instigation – on the subject of women removing their knickers.
Composure unravelling, just a touch. I remind her I’ve been asked to concentrate on her music.
“Oh, excellent.” she beams: then sighs, mock- ragically, “I so rarely talk about music.”
Mostly, of course, your press concerns the sinister way you’re plotting the downfall of Western civilisation.
“Exactly,” she nods, solemnly. “It’s all my fault.”
So then there’s some polite chat about her new album Bedtime Stories, which is the reason for this interview. A track I like especially is a smokey soul ballad called Forbidden Love. She is interested to hear this, and asks if I noticed the line that she whispers in the backing track. Yes, I respond confidently. In fact I’d meant to ask her about it: “Protection is the greatest aphrodisiac.”
“No!” She seems hurt. “I say rejection. Rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac …”
Oh, disaster. I groan inwardly at the gaffe.
“… which is not an original thought,” she goes on, now leaning forward, confidingly. “I believe it’s Proust. But it’s so true, wouldn’t you say?”
Do I think that rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac? By this point nestling comfortably somewhere in between blind panic and outright terror, I swiftly improvise some evasive, subject-changing answer.
“Well!” is all she’ll say. “I don’t know why you like the song, then!”
Early days yet, of course. But I’d say she was ahead. Anyway … all these softer songs, the mellower feel of the album, does that arise from your – um – private life?
“I been in an incredibly reflective state of mind. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching. and I just felt in a romantic mood when I was writing it. so that’s what I wrote about.”
Two of the less romantic songs are Survival and Human Nature, each a direct response to your detractors.
“They’re very specific. The other songs could be about anybody, but in these two quite obvious that I’m addressing the public. And they’re basically saying the same thing: Hey get offa my back; don’t hang all of your hang-ups on me.”
Madonna commends her record for its “woven-together” quality, despite the method she used of using various co-writers and producers. These, in the main. are US R&B figures, including Babyface, Dave Hall and Dallas Austin, but there is also Britain’s Nellee Hooper, whom she had come to admire through his work with Soul II Soul, Massive Attack and Bjork. (Hooper and Rjork, in fact, co-wrote Bedtime Stories title track.) Their different contributions are overlapped and blended quite successfully, and she credits Nellee Hooper as the biggest influence on the overall result. The most unlikely collaborator, though, is without doubt the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman. whose lines Madonna quotes on the track Sanctuary : “Surely whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow …”
Well, what music spoke to Madonna as a kid ? Was it Motown?
“That’s what was always on the radio; what my friends were listening to. Other people influenced me too. I was always listening to classical music at my ballet lessons, Mozart and Chopen and Vivaldi, Bach, so I knew that. And there was music my father always listened to which was Bennett, Henry Mancini, Harry Bellafonte.”
Q: Did you not hate that stuff on principle daughter ought?
“No, I loved it.”
Q: What about The Beatles?
“They were there. but I was more eager about the Supremes. I was really into girl groups. But my older brothers were playing them, so I’d say they weresubliminal influence on me.”
Q: What was the first record you bought?
“Young Girl by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap”
Q: In the civil war uniforms! Their follow-up to Lady Will Power, which was almost the same
[She sings it.) “Lady, willpower… It’s now or Never!”
Q: Your first concert?
“I think it was David Bowie. And he blew my mind. Ziggy Stardust in Detroit. What he did on stage was so inspiring, because he was so theatrical.
Q: Was that significant? The cliche about him, that he always changed identities …
“I’ve heard that. I respect him as, an artist, learn from his music. He really played with ideas, iconography and imagery. and his work was provocative. He’s a brilliant man. And a great man, too.”
Q: Who did you see in the clubs when you are in New York? Debbie Harry?
“I never saw her perform live with Blondie. One group I saw around that time who blew me away was Kraftwerk, they were amazing, John Lydon, too, with Public Image, the one time I’ve been to a concert where I thought I was to get crushed in the mob. Mm. who else did I see…
Q: Chrissie Hynde ?
“Yeah! I saw her play in Central Park: she’s amazing. The only woman I’d seen in performance where I thought, Yeah, she’s got balls, she’s awesome!”
Q: Did you think, There’s a woman there, I can’t do it too?
“No, I knew that I could do it: she didn’t give licence to think that I could do it. But it gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”
© Q Magazine