Madonna’s bold new album Rebel Heart shows that for the Queen of ReInvention, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
On a recent evening in New York city, the singer Madonna was camped out at the headquarters of the famed auction house Sotheby’s. In recent years, many masterpieces have passed through its walls – Edvard Munch’s The Scream sold there for $119.9 million in 2012, setting a world record-but with an estimated wealth of $800 million, Madonna is probably the most valuable icon to take up temporary residence there. She’s definitely the most famous. And at 56, she’s also one of the youngest. These days, it’s not often that Madonna is the youngest artist anywhere.
That hasn’t slowed her down. In a flatteringly lit studio, she’s already set out a bottle of tequila and shot glasses to play a drinking game with reporters. (The rules: You take a shot if you ask a question she thinks is bad. She takes a shot if she gives a bad answer – but she’s the judge of that.)
She’s staged her very own art exhibition here for a day of interviews. The space is crowded with works of art by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, many from her personal collection.
“This is a Keith Haring,” she says, pointing at a painting over her shoulder. “He made it for me.” Surely those pieces must have traveled by armored truck, flanked by bodyguards? She cocks her head. “No,” she says. “I just brought them in my car.”
It’s classic Madonna: fireworks set off with a “who, me?” nonchalance. But giving interviews in a space filled with priceless works created by her friends – some of the most famous artists of the 20th century – may also be a sly way of asserting her dominance. It reminds the world that while Lady Gaga pals around with Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic, and Miley Cyrus exhibits sculptures at Art Basel, there is only one pop star still at work who rolled with Warhol.
Madonna’s new album Rebel Heart, out March 10, offers a lot of reminders of her extraordinary legacy. After two scattershot albums – the urban-leaning Hard Candy in 2008 and MDNA’s trendy dancepop in 2012 – Rebel Heart marks a return to form; it’s her best album in a decade. The in-demand hitmaker Diplo, who has produced songs for Beyonce and Pharrell Williams, worked extensively on Rebel Heart. After clocking many hours in the studio with Madonna, Diplo remains reverent.
“No one stands this long,” he says. “All the women start with Madonna. No matter where you come from, no matter what you’re doing now – if you’re a powerful woman, the genesis is Madonna.”
Her power is palpable, but in person, she is friendlier than you might expect – there’s a warmth to her magnetism. To her, she’s an artist among artists, talking expansively about other performers and producers, both on and off her album. Likewise, the pieces she’s displaying at Sotheby’s aren’t just trophies; they’re a part of her personal history.
“The beginning of my career in New York was the convergence of graffiti art and pop culture, hip-hop and breakdancing,” she says. “Warhol and Haring and Basquiat, we all hung out together. We all supported each other. We used to have Friday-night dinners at these Japanese restaurants on the Lower East Side. Decades later, I say, ‘Where are my peers?’ Even though we’re under the illusion that we’re brought together by the Internet and social networking, we don’t have that community where artists are supporting one another.”
She’s fired up. “All art has become more commoditized. Everything has become generic and homogenized. If the majority of artists follow a formula, who’s pushing the envelope? Who’s trailblazing? Who’s being revolutionary in their thinking?” She settles back in her seat. “That’s what art is supposed to do.” After 32 years, that’s still what Madonna is trying to do too.