by Rich Cohen – May 2008
As she nears 50, Madonna’s narrative is shifting. Yes, there’s another new super-pop album, Hard Candy, with Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. But there’s also Filth and Wisdom, the feature film she’s co-written, produced, and directed, and I Am Because We Are, her documentary on Malawi, the aids-ravaged country where she controversially adopted her third child. Whisked to L.A. for an intense prep session, followed by an almost two-hour interview, the author explores the evolution of the Madonna myth as she harnesses her image-making genius to a cause, a philosophy, and the search for her true self.
The world is a series of rooms, which are arranged like concentric circles, or rooms within rooms, joined by courtyards and antechambers, and in the room at the center of all those rooms Madonna sits alone, in a white dress, dreaming of Africa.
To reach her, you must wait for a sign. When it comes, if you are pure of heart, you begin to move toward Madonna, and move fast. One moment you are in Connecticut, wondering if it will snow, the next moment you are swept up by a force greater than yourself. You’re in a car on the highway, flashing past sleepy towns, moving closer and closer to the center, which you approach deftly and humbly, in the manner of a pilgrim. Like a pilgrim, you set off before first light. Like a pilgrim, you remove your shoes–to pass through security at the airport. Like a pilgrim, you read and reread sacred texts: profiles and reviews, the first published in the early 1980s, the most recent published just a second ago, which constitute a kind of record, the good news, the Gospel of Madonna.
Taken together, these chronicle the career of Madonna, each different, but each telling the same story, which is so established and archetypal it verges on folklore: the girl from suburban Detroit, which can stand for anywhere other than here; the early years in Eden, memories of which Madonna describes as “grainy and beautiful,” when her mother was young and alive; then tragedy, the wound that never heals, the death of her mother from breast cancer when Madonna was six; empty days plagued by tormented dreams. “You’re aware of a sense of loss, and feel a sense of abandonment,” she told me. “Children always think they did something wrong when their parents disappear.” Then her father’s second marriage, the stepmother, the drudgery, because she was the oldest girl in a house filled with eight children and so was pressed into adult service, cleaning and wiping and changing, when she was still a child herself; secrets and desires, her life before the mirror, which has followed her everywhere; high school, where she was beautiful, but punky and strange. “I didn’t fit into the popular group,” she said. “I wasn’t a hippie or a stoner, so I ended up being the weirdo. I was interested in classical ballet and music, and the kids were quite mean if you were different. I was one of those people that people were mean to. When that happened, instead of being a doormat, I decided to emphasize my differences. I didn’t shave my legs. I had hair growing under my arms. I refused to wear makeup, or fit the ideal of what a conventionally pretty girl would look like. So of course I was tortured even more, and that further validated my superiority, and helped me to survive and say, ‘I’m getting out of here, and everyone is a heathen in this school–you don’t even know who Mahler is!’?” She found refuge in dance class and went on to the University of Michigan to study dance, but for just a year, because then she was gone to New York.
Because this is mythology, a short struggle was followed by a quick ascent to stardom. When was it? Nineteen eighty-two? Nineteen eighty-four? The birth of the music video? “Borderline”? And just like that, every girl in every school is Madonna Ciccone, with her slutty magnificence and lacy driving gloves and bare midriff and spangles.
Here is my favorite quote–it’s an editor at Billboard talking to Jay Cocks in 1985 for Time: “Cyndi Lauper will be around a long time. Madonna will be out of the business in six months.”