The Mistress of manipulation
Madonna shows Dan Cairns all too clearly who is in control — of her life, her astonishing 27-year career, and their meeting
The British nerve centre for Madonna Inc is to be found in two adjoining townhouses in central London. The buildings are a home for the singer and her four children when they are in this country, plus offices and a personal gym. From the outside, the six-storey edifices are standard-issue London mansions — that is, way beyond the standards most of us are accustomed to. There is something impregnable about such streets: an air of discreet luxury pervades them. Litter seems not to blow or rattle down their immaculate expanses; no chewing gum or urgently expelled kebab encrusts their gleaming paving stones. You might glance up at Madonna’s perfect residential pair and admire their symmetry, the cleanness of their architectural lines. But you would be more likely, unless you were a lurking paparazzo, not even to notice them; they are merely two houses in a long, wide street of the things. Anonymous, ordered, well maintained and with a touch of class. Madonna wouldn’t have it any other way. “Where do you live?” she asks when we meet later. Dalston, I say. The name doesn’t register. Stoke Newington, I add as a pointer. “That’s not even in London,” she scoffs. And it isn’t, to be fair. Or not in this London, at any rate.
The evening before I walk down her street and ring the doorbell, I visit another imposing building near the singer’s home. A few days earlier, a leaflet had been thrust into my hand. “It’s a Sign: it read, and considering that it went on to invite the bearer to an introductory talk on kabbalah at the centre Madonna bought for the organisation six years ago, it seemed just that. The lecture offered an hour-long precis of what cynics would dismiss as woolly mumbo jumbo. One per cent of each of us is concerned with our corporal beings; concentrate on the remaining 99%, the speaker suggests, and we locate the key to a spiritually nourishing life. There is, however, an impression of calm, wellbeing, even complacency. And Madonna, as even a cursory knowledge of her questing, controversy-courting 27-year career will attest, needs calm. Because the opposite of calm, of control, is? “Chaos: she says later. “Pain, suffering.”
We are meeting to discuss Celebration, the two-disc, 36-track greatest-hits collection that marks Madonna’s final cons tractual obligation to her record label before she skips off into the $120m embrace of Live Nation, the American con-r! cert promoters. Conditions have been imposed: no questions it about adoption, about her divorce, about her love life, her faith; discussion is to be confined to her music. Refereeing ithe joust is the singer’s longtime American publicist, a fonni- x dable, don’t-mess-with-me powerhouse named Liz Rosenberg, whose manner, if not appearance, puts one instantly B and inescapably in mind of the character of Roz, the giant (1, snail in the film Monsters Inc, with her catch phrase: “I’m B watching you, Wazowski. Always watching.” She has worked for the singer pretty much from the moment, in 1982, when Madonna was first handed the keys to the candy store of stardom. “By the way,” Madonna says at one point, “my dream was always to work in a candy store. It was because of my obsession with candy; I don’t have it any more, now that my teeth are all rotten. I did go to a university for a year, as shocking as that might sound to people, and there was a candy shop that I used to go to all the time, an old-fashioned one where all the candy was in these big glass jars. I used to go in there and look at all the candy and think, `God, it would be really cool to work in here; I could have candy whenever I wanted.’ So I did want the keys to the candy store, but I had different keys: Confectionery’s loss, pop’s gain.
In Life with My Sister Madonna, Christopher Ciccone’s bitchy and embittered memoir, the singer’s brother recounts how every single minute of his sister’s day is planned and accounted for. Today, however, that schedule has gone awry. Seconds before I am due at her front door, a call comes through advising me to delay by 15 minutes. Which I duly do, only to be parked in the reception hall for a further quarter of an hour. It gives me a chance to take a look around. As I wait, Madonna appears briefly before descending to the basement, from winch various sounds drift up: a peal of throaty laughter; a burst of her new single; and the noise of a vacuum cleaner. Is she catching up on housework, geed up by one of her own songs on the stereo and skipping round, Dyson in hand? Unlikely, but it’s an appealing image. In the hall where I wait, a painting by the 17th-century Dutch baroque artist Gerrit Dou hangs on one of the walls, which are covered with blue brushed velvet. On another wall, a pair of circular canvases show a troupe of pierrots, rope-dancing. Scented Christian Dior candles fill the air in a space so dimly lit, it seems both slightly theatrical and quasi-religious. A huge telephone with multiple extensions bears labels such as M study, M dressing room, M bathroom, Laundry, Music Room, Kitchen, Mews. The picture is one of great wealth combined with logistical and organisational rigour. Discipline, control, precision. And that’s the definition of me?” Madonna says later, finishing my out-loud train of thought. “Yeah, but I don’t even think, when people write that, that they really believe it. I just think people are tapping into a zeitgeist and repeating things they’ve heard other people say; and it makes good copy.”
Our encounter finally gets under way in Madonna’s study, an all-grey room with a Frida Kahlo painting above the huge art-deco desk, glass shelves bearing art books and family photographs, and two semi-facing armchairs, on which we sit. In the flesh, in black trousers and a sleeveless shirt, the 51-year-old is tiny, even in heels, and pretty, her face somehow more animated and readable than you expect, her features forming into butter-wouldn’t-melt or knowingly ironic expressions as she talks. Her accent is noticeably clipped, with a Queen’s English clarity, a result of the amount of time she began to spend in this country following her marriage to Guy Ritchie. For a good 10 minutes, her discomfort is visible, a hand covering her face as she answers. And when, during this initial awkwardness, I lean into the space between us to emphasise a point, I sense without any room for doubt that I have crossed an invisible line.
You begin to understand why people are so in awe of her: you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of her frosty glares. Does that mean, I ask at one point, that we have stopped treating her as a mere mortal? “A lot of people are just really confused by me,” she says. “They don’t know what to think of me, so they try to compartmentalise me or diminish me. Maybe they just feel unsafe. But any time you have an overtly emotional or irrational, negative reaction to something, you’re fearing something that it’s bringing up in you.” She pauses and looks over at Rosenberg. “Let’s all call our shrinks right now and have that discussion. Liz?”
When, last year, an American magazine writer profiled Madonna and wrote “Think back on her career. It’s not songs you remember, or not primarily”, you knew what he meant. Videos, film roles, marriages, haircuts, children, charity work: all carry visual freight that has often seemed to overshadow Madonna’s original claim to fame. But doesn’t Celebration, I suggest, indicate that the songs figured in there somewhere, too? That writer, Rosenberg barks suddenly from behind the desk, “is an arsehole”. “Those are harsh words,” Madonna chides, unable to suppress a laugh. “I don’t know, I guess it depends on what side of the fence you’re on. Some people don’t appreciate my music, so they’re not going to think of me as a musician or songwriter. They like to think of me as a sort of cultural phenomenon.” So people listen to her songs and react visually, more than emotionally or musically? “Right — ‘That’s when she had the cone bra on’, ‘That’s the burning-crosses song. That kind of stuff. I suppose that’s partly my fault.” And when we sift through the milestones of her career, we look for, what? Motivation, irony? “Manipulation, provocation: she says.
Another commentator wrote that Madonna’s “ability to absorb and incorporate knowledge keeps her one step ahead”. Certainly, her instincts about music, fashion and future cultural trends have proved uncanny. But doesn’t this concentration on her skill for assimilation overlook what she herself does with that knowledge? “Well, yeah,” she replies. “We can all take in information. It’s how we regurgitate it that makes us different. Right?” And might concentrating on the absorption remove her own subsequent input from the equation? “Well, it’s an undermining thing to do, isn’t it?” She laughs. “Isn’t that the point of the exercise?”
I ask her about her early days in New York in the late 1970s, where she arrived, penniless and a university dropout, to pursue a career as a dancer. And where she earned a reputation as a stop-at-nothing, manipulative, sexually promiscuous wannabe, discarding managers, bandmates and boyfriends on a whim.
Five years of hard graft, thrift, ruthlessness and opportunism paid off when she signed a record contract in 1982. But they also marked her, indelibly, as an artist; indeed, from the way she talks about the period, you get the sense that, no matter the rumoured L300m fortune, the art collection, the toy boy, the record-breaking tours (her most recent, Sticky & Sweet, grossed a staggering $408m), there is a part of Madonna that is still motivated by the cross-fertilisation and experimentalism of early-1980s New York.
Physically, she left it long ago. Artistically, she’s still there, in her own imagination at least: zooming around taking on influences and collaborators, draining them dry, moving on, a cultural magpie. The budgets, and the headlines, have got bigger; the spirit, she argues, remains. “The city will never be the same,” she says. “It was an amazing time, an amazing convergence of pop culture and art. To think I used to have dinner on a regular basis with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. That was like an everyday thing. It
was a much more informative part of my life than most of the parts people choose to focus on. I got to do gigs at places like CBGB before I got put underneath the microscope, and that was helpful to me, as an artist, and also to give me a sense of confidence about myself — regardless of the subsequent beatings I would take.”
Madonna contra mundum? It’s a condition you find in many artists, a willed psychological state that pumps them up before they rescale the heights with each successive album or tour. The affirmation of album sales — Madonna is the most successful female recording artist of all time — cannot shake such people from a sense of victimhood, of being misunderstood or under-appreciated. Possibly, this is rooted in the belief that what they create is ineffably trivial. That might explain why some, especially the intellectually curious (or insecure), dabble in a multitude of other arts disciplines or gather around them the appurtenances of cultural refinement and significance. (How revealing, after all, is that “I did go to a university fora year, as shocking as that might sound to people”?)
Madonna is surely better placed than most to resist such doubts. Her recent releases may have been patchy — you’d need to go back to 1998, and Ray of Light, to find her last bona-fide classic — but Celebration offers indisputable affirmation of her pop genius. Vogue, Cherish, Into the Groove, Borderline, Like a Prayer, Material Girl, Frozen: the hits rattle by, potent reminders of what we — and Madonna, too — have lost by drowning in the froth of celebrity, rather than being swept along by the music. “The song comes first,” Madonna agrees. “And all of those other things that people remember, the imagistic things, are secondary, or certainly not as important.” She wants us, she implies, to get back to the music. But surely she doesn’t care, by now, what people think? “I do too,” she zaps back. “But I think I’ve become pretty good at sussing out when people’s opinions of my work are coming from what they think of me personally. You just have to do your thing and then let it go out into the world. The rest, you’re not in control. So there goes that theory that I’m a control freak. I can make all the music, do all the shows that I want, make all the films I want, but I can’t control people’s reactions — at all. They’re going to think what they want to think, and feel what they want to feel. I can only control myself —and sometimes I can’t do that very well” Her reputation for ruthlessness is, she argues, confused with simple self-discipline, although she concedes: “Sometimes I will stop at nothing.”
Again, it was New York that fine-tooled that drive into the unstoppable force it still is today. “That was when I knew,” she says, “that that’s what I was going to do — be a singer and a songwriter and an entertainer, and I don’t care if I have to starve, and live in a room with five guys, and wash in a sink; this is what I’m going to do. And because I lived a pretty dismal life and I didn’t care, well, if you’re living a dismal life and you don’t care and you’re enjoying it, then that must be proof that you’ve committed to something.”
The 36 songs on Celebration document the succession of skilfully selected producers and writers —John “Jellybean” Benitez, Steve Bray, Pat Leonard, William Orbit, Mirwais, Stuart Price — Madonna has worked with during her career. Other collaborations — with Prince, with Michael Jackson — either went off like a damp squib or failed entirely. Of the Jackson collaboration, she says: “We spent a chunk of time together, and became friends, but it never happened. I wrote a bunch of words and presented them to him, and he didn’t want to go want to be provocative. And I said, `Well, why come to me?’ I mean, that’s like asking Quentin Tarantino to not put any violence in his films. I felt like he was too inhibited, too shy. Well, I’m shy too. When you’re writing with somebody, you immediately become shy, because, unless you’re already good friends, you can’t be honest and say, ‘That’s the shittest thing I’ve ever heard: You’re afraid to say that you don’t like something because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, or you’re afraid your ideas are shit; and if you reveal those cards, they’re not going to want to work with you.” Surely any musician in the world, I think, would kill to work with her. But of course that’s not the point. Madonna needs to want to work with them. It’s never the other way around.
“The first thing that came into my head,” she continues, referring now to Jackson’s death, “was the word ‘abandoned. I feel like we all abandoned him and put him in a box and labelled him as a strange person. And it used to pain me to see people go write such horrible things about him, accuse him of being a child molester, and all these things that nobody had any proof of — because, you know, I’ve had plenty of things I’ve been accused of. When I adopted David, I was accused of kidnapping him, for God’s sakes; and it’s very hurtful, and people love to jump on bandwagons. The lynch-mob mentality is pretty scary.”
As Madonna said in her tribute to Jackson at last week’s MTV awards, she lost her mother at six, and he lost his childhood. Both engaged in a long search for something to fill those gaps. Madonna is still looking, but alive. Something armoured her on that journey that was missing in Jackson. What advice would she give to her 24-year-old self, about to release her first single and blast into the limelight? “Don’t take it personally,” she answers without a pause.
Listening back to the tape later, I’m struck by how un-uptight she sounds, but also how tired. Perhaps that’s because she still had a few shows left before her world tour finally wound up. But there is, in her voice, the beginning of a sense f weariness, even as she recites self-motivating mantras such as: “I’m still curious and still hungry. I want more knowledge, I want more information, I want more experience.” Her enthusiasm for London, for music, for success, is both audible and visible, especially when she laughs, which she does often. But there are moments when you can’t help but wonder if she doesn’t dream of jumping off the carousel. And, however circumscribed the line of questioning, it is nothing like as controlled as Madonna’s candour, which seems nonetheless designed to brook neither argument nor deeper inquiry. She is open to an extent, but determinedly crease-free.
A growl from Rosenberg indicates that my time is up. And with that, Madonna looks at the watch hanging from a chain around her neck, rises from her chair and says, “Ooh, bathtime.” And is gone. Off to a room that doubtless has its own telephone extension. In a pristine household where everything runs (almost) like clockwork. You look back at the career Celebration marks, at how much could have gone so horribly wrong, and suddenly that craving for order, for security, for predictability, begins to make a lot of sense. Perhaps that’s what it’s all been about, at heart. “Pain, suffering,” she called it. At a young age, Madonna resolved not to experience that again. How much of her has succeeded in that avoidance strategy, only she can know. But that’s probably the only percentage that counts.
© Sunday Times Culture