Show me a person who is uninterested in Madonna, and I’ll show you a liar. Even the most credentialed hipster cannot help but be intrigued by Ms. Ciccone. Oh, sure, a few years ago it became fashionable to say that “Madge,” as she is known in England, was over. Then she put out 1998’s quadruple-platinum Ray of Light, which garnered a Grammy and a slew of MTV Video Music Awards (handily beating out barely legals like Fiona Apple and Brandy).
It is fair to say that Madonna will always be perched on the cusp of pop culture — particularly after the release of Music, a potent distillation of Euro dance beats and her own restless energy. This time around, French electronica wizard Mirwais was at the boards, and the result is an edgier, funkier affair than William Orbit’s lush, ethereal Ray of Light.
Music is an exuberant whirl of French disco (the complex, swirling “Impressive Instant” will be a gargantuan club hit), giddy pop (Orbit’s “Amazing”) and an intriguing alloy of folk and electronica, best showcased on Mirwais’ favorite track, “I Deserve It,” a spare love song that features Madonna’s unadorned vocals against a backdrop of electronic squiggles. “She try a lot of things with her voice, but never the dry voice,” says Mirwais in his thick French accent. “I never touch reverb. The first time, she was afraid, honestly, of that. I think sometimes a lot of people are afraid of their own voice, you know? But it was amazing.”
The thirty-nine-year-old producer — who is all but unknown on these shores — got the Call last year, after Madonna heard his demo via her Maverick Records partner, Guy Oseary. Three weeks later, the two were in the studio together.
“She took a big risk with someone like me,” Mirwais says. “When you arrive at that kind of level of celebrity, you can just work in the mainstream and just stay there. Everything she do, for her is like a challenge, and I like this kind of personality.”
Orbit, who was back at the helm for three of the album’s tracks, was not at all offended that Madonna ran off with Mirwais this go-round. “No,” he says. “God, no. As long as she uses good people. And I love what Mirwais has done.” Orbit feels that Madonna doesn’t get the proper credit for her musical chops. “At the Grammys, it was a little implicit that there was a guy behind it all, and she’s the chick,” he says. “And it’s really far from that. The one with all the equipment is assumed to be pressing all the buttons. She presses all the buttons.” He is thoughtful for a second. “You know, she hasn’t shouted about her musical abilities, but she is the consummate songwriter,” he says. “She listens to classic musicals a lot. Not just the obvious ones, like Singin’ in the Rain, but the lesser ones. She loves them. I remember one time we all had dinner in Germany, and somebody brought up old musicals, and she was the one who knew all the verses.” He laughs. “Things your mums and dads watch — she’s into it all. Really solid, melodic stuff like that. And she writes really solid, melodic stuff like that.”
Why are we so fascinated with this fortyish Midwestern divorcée? Why do we still, relentlessly, care? After a long chat with her in Los Angeles, the answer became clear: She is interesting because she is interested — in books, music (right now, Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi), art (Brit avant-garde artist Tracey Emin is a current favorite) and movies (of late, a Visconti film called, ahem, Rocco and His Brothers).
We join Madonna in her office at Maverick Records in Los Angeles, which is scented with Votivo candles (don’t pretend you don’t want to hear these details, because you do). Moby’s album Play can be heard in another room. The walls are hung with an array of photos: Noel Coward, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a friend of Madonna’s from her New York days in the early Eighties. That was a halcyon time, says Debi Mazar, Madonna’s best friend and someone who “will tell her to go fuck herself” should the occasion arise. “Neither one of us had any money,” recalls the actress, who is in the ghetto-fabulous video for “Music,” along with longtime Madonna dancer Nikki Harris and British comedian Ali G. “We were just young girls trying to do interesting things in New York City. People weren’t dying yet of AIDS, and here was a small community of artists and musicians — Basquiat, Keith Haring — and everybody was together: black, white, Spanish, Chinese. It was the beginning of rap, and white people and black people were all together making music. … [Afrika] Bambaataa was sampling Kraftwerk. Madonna and I used to run around and go to the Roxy, go dancing and to art shows.” She laughs. “At the time, we both had a taste for, you know, Latin boys.”
Now Madonna is in love with British filmmaker Guy Ritchie. The thirty-one-year-old director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is the father of Madonna’s second child, Rocco. “She’s got a beautiful daughter,” says Mazar, “she’s in good shape, and she seems really in love — they seem to get along wonderfully. I don’t want to say she’s in a new place, because I hate it when people put her in a little box and say, ‘Madonna does this new record, and everything is so different and light and new! She must be in a great head!’ I mean, any day she could be in a good head or a bad head. But she is really happy and beautiful now, and seems very much in love.”
During our chat, Madonna is very pregnant with little Rocco, who will emerge via cesarean section shortly thereafter. Her claims of being a “fat whale” are not exactly accurate — even her pregnancy seems compact and well-designed. She wears loose black drawstring trousers, a white tank top underneath a white short-sleeved shirt, diamond Cartier hoop earrings and some hip Nike orange-and-white slides that are not available to the public yet. She has creamy skin, very light blue eyes and longish hair with blond streaks framing her face. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also has a firm handshake. She gives a quick tour of her sunny office, which includes a child-size desk for Lourdes and a silver-framed photo on her own desk of Ritchie (“This is my boyfriend,” she says, beaming).