Madonna and Child
Living in a wilderness of mirrors and media glare, Madonna has fun through every image in the pop-culture canon-from rebel to tart, icon, and glamour queen – over the past 15 years. Since the birth of Lourdes, in 1996, she seems to be trying to learn about life beyond the lens. Listening to the rhythmns of Madonna’s world and of her extraordinary new CD, Ray of Light, Ingrid Sischy hears a woman on the verge of becoming herself.
I was The Bell Jar. – Madonna
Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out of the way town for nineteen years … and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself…. I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo. – The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.
“From the minute I arrived in New York,” Madonna tells me, “it was ‘This is where I am, this is where I’m staying.’ I knew I was going to suffer. I knew it was going to be hard. But I was not going back, and that’s how it was, period.
“I used to go and sit at the fountain at Lincoln Center and watch all the people and cry,” she continues. “I’d write in my journal, ‘Will I ever know anybody?’ It was pathetic,” she says. “It was a scene from a bad movie. But I always say, If you can’t say ‘I’ll die if I don’t do it,’ you should not do it”.
The setting is the entertainer’s Central Park duples, where, in Madonna’s 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare, Warren Beauty accused her of not wanting to live off camera. Now Madonna — who has been lying relatively low since the birth of her daughter, Lourdes, in October 1996, and the release of Evita a few months after — is trying to learn about life beyond the lens. Daily yoga sessions keep her focused and relaxed. It’s the 90s, and the woman appears more spiritial than material. Again, she is right on the Zeitgeist; after all, she is Madonna. She says, “I think people are turning inwards, going, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?'”
This could sound high-and-mighty. But Madonna I found didn’t act as if she had all the answers. “She’s not like a saint,” a close friend says. “She’s not always logical. Or always sweet. She is a human being.” Warner senior vice president Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s longtime press adviser, reports: “She’s 39, a little bit older. She’s evolved, grown up, matured, and she’s not so mad.”
My first encounter for this profile came earlier at the Versace town house in Manhattan, where a few people gathered for dinner with Donatella Versace. I arrived around dessert time. There were bodyguards outside; in the dining room was a paparazzo’s dream. Beneath Frank Moore’s very American paintings — which Gianni Versace commissioned — were Donatella and her husband, Paul Beck; Michael Stipe; Courtney Love and daughter, Frances Bean; Lori Goldstein; Madonna herself; Ingrid Casares, co-owner of Miami’s Liquid nightclub; and Madonna’s brother Christopher Ciccone, a designer and artist. The first thing Madonna said to me was “Oh, you just missed the baby.” I notice her huge eyes and dark, Sally Bowles nail polish.
“Madonna and Courtney together are like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and it’s hard to tell who’s who.” one of the guest whispered later, after we had moved to the living room, where Picassos surround shimmering Italian glass. After much ringing of cellulars, some of the guests decided to move on to the Spy bar. Madonna headed home. I never took the chance to discuss our work; there was too much voltage. Later, on the phone, I began, “I’m sorry we didn’t talk. I got shy, I guess.” Madonna replied,”Well, in that room, someone had to be shy.”
Upon my arrival at her apartment, Madonna and Lourdes — whom her mother calls Lola — greet me, hand in hand. The baby, her hair pulled back in two perfect knobs, wears plaid. Madonna’s dark outfit, however is immaculately understated. These days, the hair, engineered by the great minds of the International Follicle Set, is nonplatinum and running toward the Pre-Raphaelite. It says: “Don’t notice me.”
Madonna and daughter are in New York after spending Thanksgiving in Miami, where Madonna has a place in Coconut Grove and a boat called Baby Pumpkin, from which she feeds the dolphins. Though she has been spotted house-hunting everywhere from Nyack, New York, to London, she now lives mostly in Los Angelos — “because there’s a yard,” she says, adding that she feels the drift back East, where she wants Lourdes to be educated.
Madonna’s California home is a comfortable but inconspicuous place in Los Feliz, a hip neighborhood between Hollywood and downtown L.A. It was purchased in the hectic days just before Lourdes was born, when her mother was struggling to complete Evita and the remix on the soundtrack album. Madonna, it was said, was determined to avoid bringing the baby back to her old L.A. residence, a grand, high-in-the-Hollywood-Hills, and very visable lair where she was harassed by a particulary zealous stalker.
The baby is no shut-in. Lourdes turns up to her mom’s photo sessions and was a presence in the studio during the creation of Madonna’s new CD, Ray of Light. It looks like the singer has decided no to exile the child from her work world. Stylists with memories of dodging flying dresses enjoy watching the two make goo-goo noises and exchange funny faces. When I ask if she’s worried about protection Lourdes la madre replies, “It’s the other way around. She protects me.
After Lourdes departs with her nanny, we move to the living room, designed by her brother Christopher in French Deco style inspired by Eugene Printz. Madonna joins me on the floor. Legers Les Deux Bicyclettes hang over the fireplace. In Madonna’s childhood home in Michigan, where she lived with the memory of her mother, she shared a room with her two sisters. She tells me that on her side of the wall she had posters featuring dancers and “dorky sunsets”. One of the latter, she says, included the message “Let your love like the sunset surround me.”
I ask who she was then. “I see a very lonely girl who was searching for something,” she begins, “looking for a mother figure. I wasn’t rebellious in a conventional way: I cared about being good at something. I didn’t shave under my arms and I didn’t wear makeup. But I studied hard and got good grades. Rarely smoked pot,” she claims, smiling conspiratorially, “though I’m sure I did from time to time. I was a paradox, an outsider and rebel who wanted to please my father and get straight A’s. I wanted to be somebody.
And boy is she. But — as she demanded in “Justify My Love” — now what? After years of scavenging from Marilyn, Mapplethorpe, and the rest, after her era of shifting images and postmodern voguing through identities borrowed from show business and contemporary culture, Madonna seems ready to ditch the trappings. Her lyrics, which have alternated between pop exuberance and what I call “confessions,” are more personal than ever. Always hesitant about acknowledging the sensitive feelings she writes about as her own, she says she likes “intimacy and anonymity.” But, on her new CD, Madonna seems to have less need to hide behind old boundaries.
Madonna doesn’t offer the biggest natural voice, and her lyrics sometimes sound like a schoolgirl’s diaries. What makes her music compelling, besides her way with sassy hooks and state-of-the-art sound, is the personality underlying the songs, the passion and necessity behind the emotional journey upon which she is embarked. Like a heroine in a serial, Madonna seduces us with the drama of her evolution and her life force. And frequently it’s riveting pop art.
“I’m trying to affect people in a quieter way,” she says of Ray of Light. “I set out to be honest about where I am now. I was only trying to deal with my truth right now.”
In “Drowned World (Substitute for Love),” Madonna ruefully assess the landscape of fame — it’s one-night stands and far-off lands — as if it were an old lover whose every breath and gesture she knows by heart. She steps up to the plate and starts singing, and she does not pretend that nothing has changed or that she is still a kid or that she is out to slay the world:
I traded fame for love
Without a second thought
It all became a silly game
Some things cannot be bought
Got exactly what I asked for
Wanted it so badly
Running, rushing back for more
I suffered foold
And now I find
I’ve changed my mind
When director/screenwriter Alek Keshishian, who launched his career with Truth or Dare, heard the song, he got the change: “She’s finally begun sharing the kinds of things you feel when you’re with her privately,” says her close friend. “I think Madonna’s been of the opinion that it’s self-indulgent to admit sadness and loneliness. Before, it was always ‘I have no regrets.'” says Keshishian. “This time it’s ‘And now I’ve changed my mind.’ That, to me, takes a great amount of courage.
“She seems the intrinsic deficiences of fame.” Keshishian adds. “At a party in Los Angelos, this well-known singer came over and said something like ‘Oh God, my album sold 300,000 copies this week, I’m really happy. How many have yours been selling?’ Madonna just went. ‘Oh God, I have to leave here, I can’t deal with this.'”
For a long time, Madonna has lived inside her dream of stardom, creating personae — from gamine waif with a pack on her back to sexual provocateur — suitable for public consumption. A human identity seems to have sometimes been sacrificed. She and her constant circle of friends have shared a fierce loyalty, but many who know Madonna well say that intimacy hasn’t always come naturally. Her one marriage — to actor Sean Penn, who filled her childhood fantasy of a passionate “cowboy poet” — ended hard. Other men — sometimes famous, sometimes decidedly not — have followed. Most, since Penn, have appeared easily controllable, but Carlos Leon may not have been as malleable as he looked. Now her relationship with Lourdes’s father is over, and her references to him are careful. “He is ever present in Lola’s life and we are friends,” she tells me. “And I’m very happy. It took a while for us to get to this place.”
On the professional front, Madonna has loyalists who’ve worked with her through the years, but you notice the number of acquaintances who speak of her lack of warmth, her need to always be the girl with the right answer, and her habit of jettisoning those whose purpose has been served. Yet she arouses sympathetic reactions, too, from those who descrive the little girl — always determined, sometimes bossy, sometimes touching — behind the woman obsessed with getting everything right. They mention the personal phone calls when she’s running late or forced to break appointments, cite her basic decency, her private acts of support, and her wry humor. (At a restaurant, when I drag my sleeve of my best interview sweater across a place of olive oil, she assures me, “Don’t worry, Miuccia Prada strikes me as an olive-oil-on-your-sweater type of girl.”)
But she’s got her moods. Other stars bring Madonna’s tendency to denigrate those she feels threatened by, and dwell on her rudeness and lack of interest in others. Someone who has known her well since the early 80s says, “Sometimes I wonder if there is a real heart beating in there.”
I think there is. But she’s a master at swallowing feelings of pain and loss. She tells me, during our discussion of a song, how she hates saying good-bye, isn’t good at it, and — characteristically — avoids doing it.
You get the feeling that she’s been more than aware of her seeming lack of feeling, and that she’s paid. “Open your heart” Madonna pleaded — perhaps to herself — in her 1986 singles, and by 1994 she was going further, “Love tried to welcome me but my soul drew back.” she wrote. In “Frozen,” Ray of Light’s first single, Madonna sings, “You’re broken when your heart’s not open.”
“Some of the lyrical sentiment in ‘Frozen’ was drawn from my own personal experience,” Madonna tells me. But she says that, ironically, the song’s visual images were inspired by the movie The English Patient, specifically scenes where Ralph Fiennes’s character makes his way across the desert to get help for the woman he loves. “I know it sounds dorky,” she says, “But it really moved me. I wept, and I can’t even tell you why. For me, it was just — oh, to be loved in that way; oh, to love someone that way.”
Remembering the look I saw on her face when Lourdes was with us, I say, “Don’t you have someone like that? What about Lourdes? You obviously love her unconditionally.”
“It’s what it feels like to have her in my arms. I knew that having a child would be an incredible healing experience … because I didn’t have a mother. I just knew my Karma was to have a girl, and I instinctively had a longing for her. But I didn’t know what it was going to be like.”
Wonder if she thinks that motherhood is the only way to experience these feelings, I bring up my cat and she smiles, nodding her head. “A companion is a companion,” she tells me.
Newspaper accounts notwithstanding, she doesn’t appear to be looking to further her single parenthood. “I would love to have another child. But I’d like to be in a stable relationship. Sometimes you want to look over at somebody and say, ‘What do you think we should do?'”
As we all know, Madonna hasn’t always been blessed with restraint. After all, this is the person she treated the world to the following and worse in her 1992 book, Sex: “I love my pussy, it is the complete summation of my life …. My pussy is the temple of learning.”
Who am I to say that it isn’t? But it wasn’t the site of the great, revolutionary work of art that the Sex hype promised. And it led to a broad question of its author’s much-bally-hooed ability to intuit the public’s desire. Sex felt like pure titillation, a calculated matter, a rp-off of those who had genuinely put themselves on the line to fight AIDS-era repression. She served that task better, more vitally and authentically, in her music.
No one has ever known what sort of explosions Sex set off within the Ciccone family. I ask Madonna about her father’s reaction. “My father keeps expecting to shoe up and see a production of Little Bo-Peep,” she replies. “He talked to me about Sex in an indirect way. He said something like ‘Why did you feel the need to do that? I didn’t answer. But he never came out and said he disapproved. That’s not my father’s style.”
I wonder how madonna, in hindsight, regards the project. “It was my own personal rebellion against my father,” she tells me, “against the way I was raised, against the culture, against society, against everything. It was just a huge, massive act of rebellion — and it was also about having fun.”
Sex distracted attention from Madonna’s good Erotica album — which came out as the book was released. Not long after, her disastrous movie Body of Evidence was a third strike against her. Together, these events led to what Madonna describes as “the rock bottome” and nicked her confidence, one of the primary sources of her magnetism. “What was happening on the outside was happening on the inside,” she says. It had to do with the things you go through. When you get famous, and everyone says nice things, you buy into it. Everything you are becomes founded on what people say. And when people say horrible things, you start sucking. Then you wake up and realize it’s all bullshit and you’ve taken away your own power.” But it was the beginning of an awakening of sorts, and the sexual experimentation — including her flirtations with bisexuality and S&M — which Sex appears to have grown from, may have been a necessary chapter.
She set out to get the power back. For instance, she set out to improve her voice. “The hardest thing,” she says, “has been letting go of the idea that I didn’t have a good singing voice. Even if you don’t want to believe the things that they write, they sink into your subconscious. You think maybe it’s true.
“I ate the microphone,” she says of the Ray of Light sessions. Listen to her first albums and the contrast with her old infectious Minnie Mouse inflections is actually amazing. Not a lot of people begin singing lessons at 35, certainly not many pop stars with a wall of gold records. But Madonna headed off for vocal coaching before Evita. And the rewards of the work are more apparent now that she’s returned ot her own style of music.
Besides her voice, she pumped up her business life. Upon completeing a project, most musical artists have to worry about what support their record companies will provide. Madonna’s records, however, are distributed by her own label, Maverick, a company formed in 1992 with Freddy DeMann, then her manager. After a sluggish debut, Maverick has established itself as one of the few artist-invovled entities in the business to have moved into big-league status. Madonna, with her usual candor, isn’t shy about what she and DeMann faced. “Quite frankly,” she says, “I didn’t know how to do it. It was a lot of trial and error. We wasted time and energy. We wasted money. We made mistakes.”
Yet in 1995, the company scored huge with 21-year-old Alanis Morissette, whose blockbuster first album, Jagged Little Pill, has sold more than 25 million copies. Last July Maverick made big noise again when the new CD from Prodigy — an English group it faced tough competition to sign — debuted at No. 1 on the charts.
Although all new artists signed at Maverick must be approved by Madonna and DeMann, both Morissette and Prodigy were brought aboard by Guy Oseary, a 25-year-old Israeli who, at the age of 14, had the chutzpah to use a fake address to gain admission to Beverly Hills High School (he knew he’d make contacts) and who, last year, became the third member of Maverick’s ruling troika.
Oseary, who now also has the power to approve artists signed, gives Madonna a great deal of credit. He emphasizes, as many do, her “inspiring work ethic,” explaining her involvement in every aspect of her music. “Madonna’s in the studio for every part of the process — when they master the record, mix it, everything. She’s involved in a way that I’ve never seen, and she will give anyone a chance if she believes in them. She doesn’t need the whole industry to tell her that this guy or that girl can do it.” (Madonna’s current co-manager, Caresse Norman — who had previously been her personal assistant — is another example of this.)
Madonna doesn’t mince words about the difficulties of combining all the aspects of her career. “I’m always running,” she says. “I’m like a chicken with my head cut off. I’m making my record, planning videos, doing photo shoots. I’m doing interviews. I’m trying to take care of my daughter. I’m reading scripts for movies, and Guy’s calling me up, going, ‘You’ve got to listen to this and make a decision by tomorrow morning.’ And I’m like ‘O.K. I have no free time.”
She may soon have even less. Maverick is forming two new divisions — Mad Guy Television and Mad Guy Films — to be headed by Madonna and Oseary.
“With the movie business,” Madonna concedes, “you can’t get attached to any thing. You have to say, ‘If it happens, it happens.'” Evita wasn’t the all-around critical and Oscar smash she might have hoped for, but it was a step up for her as a screen performer, and she proved that she could go out and sell a big movie pretty much all by herself. She stormed talk shows, even popping up on the couch of Oprah Winfrey, a woman whom Madonna described in Truth or Dare as “one reason for not wanting to live in Chicago.”
That city will probably ber her next onscreen home. She’s enthusiastic about her upcoming outing as Velma Kelly to Goldie Hawn’s Roxie Hart in the film version of the late Bob Fosse’s musical Chicago, now in revival on Broadway. “I can do ’em in my sleep,” she says of the Fosse-style dances. The project looks like a go. “I think it’s happening,” she says. “It’s just been a really long process of finding the right director, and I think pretty much we’ve found somebody, but it’s not a hundred percent sure.” (Director Nicholas Hynter, whose credits include The Madness of King George and The Crucible, is reportedly the candidate.)
The Madonna Corporation does not go on vacation,” says Alek Keshishian. That’s an understatement. For ages, Madonna has been her own best nun, and sternest, most unforgiving taskmaster. “Madonna has been on an artist treadmill, do you know what I mean?” asks Keshishian. “She is a stickler for organization, almost to the point where sometimes, as a friend, I want to shake her and go, ‘Stop making the lists, and who cares that between two and three o’clock you’ve got to make the following 12 phone calls?’ You understand why — she’s a huge corporation.
Apparently, not friends, nor enemies, nor bumps along the way have the power to get Madonna to abandon her daily work and exercise rituals. As mentioned, her new thing is yoga. Ingri Casares, who met Madonna around Sex time and who remains an all-around cohort, sometimes attends yoga classes with her pal. It’s not always a Zen paradise. “There we are, about 15 people in the calss, and everything seem fine, when suddenly I hear M whispering, ‘Ingrid, switch places! Look behind you.’ I turn around, and sure enough, there’s a huge crowd of people gathered around the window, staring. But she doesn’t want this to interrupt the class, so she takes my spot behind a column, where she can’t be spied, and we keep going.” No distractions allowed.
What is it that Madonna has — or doesn’t have — that makes her so dogged? I ask Liz Rosenberg about times when her client couldn’t keep up her daily regimen, or occasions when she was too overwhelmed to stay on track. Rosenberg says that if Madonna has had these moments she’s never seen them. “Sometimes Madonna would say to me, ‘Don’t you think I get depressed? I’m on the treadmill dying.’ But the fact is that she’s on the treadmill.”
Keshishian says, “With Madonna, there’s nothing that’s going to cancel her day. She has teh same discipline where she’s well or unwell. Whether she’s had a disastrous phone call or the worst night, she is at yoga every morning. There is almost no self-destructiveness in this woman.”
I point out that it seems to be in the natures of creative people to self-distruct or develop problems with food, drugs, alcohol. “What she’s got is structure,” Keshishian answers. “It’s her way of making sure she doesn’t go into a place that’s dark and negative.” Ingrid Casares adds, “She acts out by being constructive.” She’s addicted to her discipline.
One thing demolishes Madonna’s willpower: candy. (Her father must have tried to limit her consumption.) “She loves Hot Tamales, Chuckles, all kinds of Starburts, any kind of bubble gum, Twizzlers, white chocolate,” says Casares. “I see the way she looks while she’s eating it, and she loves it.”
She doesn’t like to see her friends self-destruct — and she won’t watch it. “When I was going through a drug phase,” says Casares, “Madonna was not going to tolerate my being self-destructive, and didn’t speak to me until I was ready to get help — and then she was the person I called.” After Casares got sober, the friendship grew.
This Puritan strictness doesn’t exactly jibe with the image Madonna projects about breaking rules. But she can take the leaps because seh doesn’t have to worry about going over the cliff: she’s got the structure to keep her from free fall. And the discipline comes from the places which also sparked her rebellion.
Echoing Madonna, who points out her father’s emphasis on discipline and doing things well, Christopher Ciccone says, “I think our father, who is the son of immigrants, spend most of his time preparing us for the rest of our lives. I don’t think he taught us things that we couldn’t use. The things I learned from him were honor, loyalty, and the value of the truth: all the things that surround the ideas of love and affection, but not love and affection themselves. Our father’s concern was our survival. He taught us discipline.”
Chris doesn’t give spin, which is probably one of the reasons his sister has wanted him around. They’ve fought the same battles. “Most of our aesthetic is rebellion against what we grew up with, American, or Colonial — I mean the 70s version of Colonial, the spindle-back chairs, the fake spinning wheel in the corner, the wooden icebox that held records. We went to church all the time. We went to Sunday school, we went to catechism, and during Lent we went to church every day. Our sense of art, drama, and decadence all came from this. So did our sense of the power of secrets that lie in all the dark corners. All of that came from church.”
Dark corners have always drawn Madonna. Maybe because she has carried some of their secrets for a long time. She has ofter spoken about the impact of her mother’s death when she was five years old, and has told of always keeping a picture of her mother by her bed. She has written songs about always feeling the loss of her mother inside her.
It’s not hard to picture the young Madonna and her family trying to deal with a situation that represents many of our worst fears. When her mother died of breast cancer, the disease was still treated by almost everyone as an unspeakable horror. Madonna understood little about what was happening except that her mother was gone. There was no good-bye, and perhaps she was left with feelings so big that they had to be buried, run away from.
There was guilt, as we know from things Madonna has said in the past. For instance, she has described giving her sick mother a pounding on her back when she wanted to play and did not understand why her mother couldn’t join in. Madonna, who says on Ray of Light that her mother still “haunts” her, has named the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton as her favorite writers during her teenage years, and when I read the story of the incident described above, I thoght of these lines from Sexton’s poem, “The Double Image”:
On the first of September she looked at me
and said I gave her cancer.
They carved her sweet hills out
and still I couldn’t answer.
When her mother died, Madonna had an extra sort of burden to carry which made her feel especially hurt and especially selected: she had been christened with her mother’s name, which they shared with the Virgin Mary.
I ask Madonna what she knew about her mother. “I was told that my mother was very musical,” she says, “and that she loved to dance, and that was that. She was into being a mother, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an artistic soul. I’m sure she did, but not in any ambitious way.”
Madonna, incredibly, remembers no music as being significant to her during her childhood. And there aren’t that many movies which she recalls. But there is one which she says was important: To Kill a Mockingbird. “I just completely related to Scout,” she says. “Basically she was this little girl who was surrounded by all this insanity, from Boo Radley hiding behind the door to the sadness and violence all around. She was always asking her father questions. I wanted my father to be Gregory Peck.”
Needless to say, her father wasn’t Gregory Peck. And, unlike Peck’s character, Atticus Finch, Madonna’s father remarried. In Truth or Dare, when he and Madonna’s stepmother come backstage, one senses the years of tension. And in watching that film, one can also become exhausted by the way Madonna runs and runs, driving herself forward. Clearly that started a long time ago. Early on, one might have spotted many of the traits that have been present in her personality as a star. For example, her artistic determination was evident when she began dance classes. She’d hated the music lessons that her father pushed on all the kids. “I coudln’t sit still during piano lessons,” she tells me. “I wanted to flail my limbs and I had to beg and cajole to go to dance class, and eventually I got to go. Ballet classes, jazz, tap, modern, and all that. But whereever these classes were in the area, I found a way to get there.”
“I don’t think anybody in that household encouraged Madonna,” says Keshishian. “The will of somebody who comes from that big a family and does what she’s done is remarkable. She became, I think, like the worst stage mother could have been.”
I remember hearing about Madonna in the early 80s. She was part of the downtown scene and had hung out at clubs like Danceteria and the Paradise Garage. She was friends with quite a few of the people whom I knew, as well as a number of emerging artists whose work was a big part of what I was covering in Artforum magazine, which I edited. They included people such as Futura 2000, Fab Five Freddy, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Madonna was Basquiat’s girlfriend for a while. But it didn’t last, and she tells me that when they broke up Basquiat made her return the paintings he had given her. He let her keep one, which she now describes as her most prised possesion.
It’s a little surprising when you consider how quickly this loner fro mteh burbs of Detroit — a creature who, to this day, uses “dorky” as an adjective — fit into the world of these intensely urban bohemians. You might call it her first transformation. But this was clearly where she wanted to be, having spent her life in a state of admiration of painters, writers, and poets. It’s not clear, even now, whether it is the actual work of these creative people which fuels Madonna, or whether it is the actual work of these creative people that fuels Madonna, or whether it is her self-presentation and passion which compel her. She does not seem to have been born with the classic self-destructive artistic personality; she feeds her drive with Catholic self-denial and then rebels publicly in ways that don’t appear to threaten her solid core. This charged-up ambition was off-putting to some of the coller creative types she met in the early days.
Recording executives, however, loved it. When an acquaintance named Michael Rosenblatt, an executive at Sire Records, talked Madonna up to his boss, company chief Seymour Stein, she didn’t delay her approach; Liz Rosenberg recalls that although Stein was in the hospital with a heart infection, “Madonna just barreled into his room, and Seymour fell in love with her and signed her.”
Rosenberg will always remember her first meeting with Madonna. “You felt her fearlessness, but she didn’t have two cents. We used to give her cab money. She probably pocketed it all and took the train. She looked like a little doll with her stockings, and the schmatte, and the bow, and the rubber bracelets. I loved the belief she had in herself.”
At first, executives at Sire — and at Warner Records, its parent company — weren’t gung-ho about putting their weight behind her. Rosenberg remembers people saying, “Oh, don’t let her go one the road. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’ll embarrass the company.” But it wasn’t only the road tours that would set Warner on its ear. The notorious episodes that attended Madonna’s climb to fame must have had corporate honchos regretting that bomb shelters were no longer a part of American life. Yet, whatever the controversies, no up-and-comer ever grabbed the ball like Madonna. She made herself into a major celebrity with heart-stopping style — defying the expectations of those who saw her as a flash in the pan. Still, she took some getting used to. Rosenberg invited a male friend along to the rehearsal for the first MTV Video Music Awards, in 1984. Madonna, rolling around the floor of the stage in a wedding dress, gave a preview of her showstopping performance, and Rosenberg’s pal predicted, “Her career is over before it started.”
Her refrain has been uttered as often as Madonna has repeated some of her songs’ signature motifs — such as one of her most frequently recurring images: running. But she has shown that she can take the heat. When Playboy and Penthouse obtained nude photographs of the star, her response was: “So what? I’m not ashamed.” When the Vatican tried to censor her Blonde Ambition tour, she refused to bow. And after Sex, she came out slugging. On Bedtime Stories, the CD that gollowed, she included a song called “Human Nature.” “I’m not your bitch,” Madonna declared in its chorus, “don’t hang your shit on me.”
It’s fearlessness that makes her a star. “I cannot imagine walking into a room and feeling like this girl did,” recalls Liz Rosenberg. Few of us can — and that’s what makes Madonna. But she has to keep stoking her own flame.
Madonna’s metamorphoses have become legend as she has shuffled through our culture’s fat deck of accumulated images. She’s snapped up poses, postures, and attitudes, sometimes dropping them quickly (rapper’s silver tooth cap), sometimes incorporating them more permanently (platinum Hollywood hair). And transformation is part of Madonna off-camera too. Talk to her and you’ll notice the faling into and out of accents and lingoes: on a busy day, you can hear the sound of Michigan, the in phrases of Manhattan gay boys and and street kids, inflections worthy of the Queen Mother. Lately, in her elegant mode, she sometimes relies on the kind of Great Lady diction they taught at MGM.
Like photographer Cindy Sherman — whose early work was recently seen at the Museum of Modern Art in a Madonna-sponsored exhibition — Miss Ciccone has been acting out a spectrum of women’s roles, which could be interpreted as a search for self. Or if one wants to get postmodern about it, she’s mirroring the culture’s own fixation with celebrity. I think Madonna’s chameleon act is rooted in something more primal. She’s been searching for self-realization and to be seen and recognized for who she really is.
What makes a person feel so invisible that he or she fashions a life in which the cameras click whenever he or she is spied? It has something to do with being seen, a necessity if one feels that his or her true self has never been recognized. When lonely Narcissus stared at his reflection, he was not only gazing at his beauty but also making certain that he existed. Madonna was not seen by her mother; she had to imagine her there. Her father’s vision of his daughter was, one might specualte, likely clouded by his late wife’s memory and his Catholic idea of what Madonnas are. His daughter was hidden behind her own name.
Throughout Ray of Light she searches for a way to fill all the voids. Truth or Dare showed us Madonna going to her mother’s grave and putting her head on the tombstone. The moment evokes loss, but it’s picturesque, like a sad postcard. She doesn’t five us the kind of detail that would make it visceral. She wasn’t ready to go there. Now she is. “Mer Girl” goes right into the hidden tears and fears she’s run from. (“Mer” refers to mermaid and is French for the sea.) She wrote the song when she visited Michigan recently for a family gathering on the occasion of her grandmother’s 85th birthday.
“I started writing it,” she tells me, “when I was at my father’s house. I went running and it started to rain, so I went to the cemetery near where my mother and I grew up. It’s not the cemetery where she is buried, but I used to go there a lot. The rain kept coming down. There was the blackest sky you’ve ever seen. I went against the instinct to run away, and just stayed there as the rain got to the leaves, and everything became heavy and muddy.
“When I got back home, I was feeling this incredible sense of melancholy. Everybody had left the house, and I was happy to have the silence. That’s when I wrote ‘Mer Girl.’ It was only six lines at the time. Later I heard teh music that William Orbit had written to go with it. I was back in L.A., and just laid on my bed playing the music over and writing and singing and redoing the song until I got it right. Then I went into the studio and did it.”
Madonna’s previous songs about her mother — “Inside of Me” and “Promise to Try” — are all preambles to “Mer Girl.” Here Madonna faces the death, and faces what it has done to her:
And I smelt her burning flesh
Her rotting bones
I ran and I ran
I’m still running away
Lourdes seems to have allowed Madonna to feel something that she started looking for years ago, when she began trying to fill the vacancy left by her mother’s death. Having a baby gave her, at the very least, what she calls “a moment of stillness” when she was forced to allow herself to slow down, step away, and surrender.
In “Swim,” the second song on Ray of Light, she sings:
I can’t carry these sins on my back
Don’t wanna carry any more
I’m gonna carry this train off the track
…Gonna swim to the ocean floor
She is definately moving on, leaving behind the past, including the enormous burden of the myths she accumulated during the first phase of her career. She may no longer be the person her fans stereotype. “My relationship with my fans is always changing,” she says, “because I am.”
Will the new record work? Although female singers such as Jewel and Sarah McLachlan have been making the news, it’s been an uncertain year for female stars at Madonna’s level. And Madonna has always seperated herself from the female balladeers whose soaring love songs are selling big. “Oh God,” she told Keshishian. “It’s so hard for me and my father to understand each other. I mean, his favorite female artist is Celine Dion.”
Several years ago, when the Hubble telescope was first used to photograph previously unseen galaxies, the romance of the unknown hit art and fashin. Images of the cosmos have become ubiquitous. With its techno productions evoking intergalactic sights and spiritual insights, Ray of Light is completely of the moment. Madonna’s ability to hear what’s up, make it pop, and take it mainstream is still unfailing. She doesn’t miss a thing. (Ingrid Casares sometimes has to go out to her car to make personal phone calls because Madonna’s hearing is so sharp.) People talk about Madonna’s visual sophistication, but I believe it is her ear for sound of what’s new and the arrangements that transform her words into vital, breathing images which have allowed her to become such a superstar.
During my interview with Casares, Tommy Mottola — the chief of Sony Music and the arch-rival of Madonna’s friends at Warner’s — stopped by our table at Moomba to declare, “‘Frozen’ is nothing less than a smash hit.” At a party, I heard Gwyneth Paltrow praising “Drowned World.” The new Madonna is definately generating word of mouth. Recently, Madonna and Casares decided to test some remixes at the anniversay party for Liquid in Miami. “It was midnight,” Casares tells me. “There was a big cake and fire-eaters, drag queens, people on stilts — you name it. The crown was totally mixed: straight, gay, Latin, Cuban, black, white. Then, all of a sudden, you heard the very beginning of Ray of Light. Once people realized it was her, they went really crazy. Even the mayor of Miami started dancing. At six o’clock in the morning, I was still pushing people out.”
“Maybe I’ll pick up some new interest,” Madonna tells me flatly, clearly subduing her expectations for the CD. It is six P.M. The nany has brought the baby home, and her mother has calls to return. Before i know it, she’s left the room.
And she does not say good-bye.
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