The Big Read – Madonna: ”People pick on me. That’s just the way it is”
Controversy has followed Madonna through her entire career. Too loud, too outrageous, too provocative, too everything. But if you ever thought she’d slow down, think again. Her latest reincarnation, Madame X, is an eye-patch-wearing alter-ego bent on saying the unsayable, pushing the boundaries and cha-cha-cha-ing her way to pop glory. NME Editor Charlotte Gunn has an audience with the Queen Of Pop in London.
It’s 11PM in a low-key Marylebone hotel and, in the bar, a small cabal of journalists wait for an audience with an icon, each one slightly sick with nerves, some drinking to steady them, others silently reading through their notes.
Down a corridor and inside a large suite, a quite-perfect figure sits on the couch. Dressed in a polka-dot, flamenco-style dress, fitted black military jacket and – most notably – wearing an elaborate eyepatch which we now know to be synonymous with the latest era of her career, there, right there, is Madonna.
“Je suis fatigué,” she says, with movie-star drama. It’s been a long day.
Now, if there’s one way for a major music icon to disarm an already-flustered journalist, it’s by dressing like a pirate. Do I mention the eyepatch? Do I not? I decide it’s unwise and spend the 30 minutes that follow trying desperately not to stare. Turns out, the eyewear is the signature garb of Madame X, a multi-faceted persona the world will become familiar with in the coming weeks, thanks not least to a controversial appearance at Eurovision in Tel Aviv, but, at the time of our meeting, is having her first semi-public outing. I should have guessed there was more to it – Madonna doesn’t get pink eye.
Earlier that day, NME is summoned to Universal’s offices in London to hear Madonna’s very-very-strictly-under-lock-and-key 14th studio album, ‘Madame X’. The record, out today (June 14), is not a one-listen beast: a brilliant, surprising and, at points, utterly baffling collection of songs inspired by Madonna’s move to Lisbon to become a “soccer mom” in 2017, and the eclectic music scene she found herself immersed in after upping sticks.
Madonna’s third child (of six), 13-year-old David Banda, has aspirations of being a professional footballer, and with Lisbon home to some of the best football academies in the world, and Madonna taking a liking to the “charming” city, they decided to move the family out there. When we meet, Madame X, the mother, is feeling homesick: “David has a week off from school right now but he has a tournament so he couldn’t be here. I call him up, like: ‘I’m really sorry, I miss you so much, I love you so much’ and he’s like, ‘Mom! I love it, stop apologising, it’s great.’”
But David is not the only one to benefit from the move to Portugal. The culture has been key in shaping this phase of Madonna’s sound, with Latinate flavours accenting a broadly political record (with some epic Madge party bangers on there too in the shape of ‘Faz Gostoso’, ‘Medellin’ and ‘Bitch, I’m Loca’).
“I didn’t make a Latin record intentionally” Madonna explains. “It just sort of happened because I was living there. The first group of friends I met were all musicians but they were from all over the world, not just Portugal. It was a melting point of so many different cultures and musical genres which started percolating in my brain. I wanted to take the folk music I was listening to but make it more modern sounding, something you could dance to. I was first inspired by it, then I turned it into a challenge.”
Challenging herself is something Madonna has done at every point of her career. Whether it was her days hustling for fame in New York, the game-changing Blond Ambition tour 30 years ago, which set the bar for pop performers with its ambitious (and hella raunchy) stage show, or simply every time she’s reinvented herself, Madonna’s boundary-pushing approach to her art is just one of the things that has helped her outsell Whitney, Beyoncé, Mariah and Rihanna to be the biggest solo female recording artist of all time.
Alongside peers such as Michael Jackson and Prince, Madonna was – and is still – one of the most famous people on the planet. In a world obsessed with fame, how does a person begin to handle that?
“It has its pluses and minuses,” she says. “The great thing about being famous is that you have a voice and you can spread messages and fight for people who don’t have the ability to fight for themselves, and share your wealth with people who need help.”
Along with a back catalogue including many of the world’s most brilliant pop songs, Madonna’s legacy – and a core trait of the Madame X alter-ego – is about fighting for change. Being an early advocate of the LGBTQ community, Madonna’s support for equal rights dates back decades, but gained particular notoriety when highlighting the plight of the gay community during the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York. Madonna lost two close friends to the syndrome: ballet teacher and mentor Christopher Flynn and her friend Keith Haring, the celebrated artist. The backlash to fighting for equality at that time was harsh.
“During the AIDS epidemic, I was getting involved with a lot of groups and speaking up and I was enraged by how I saw people being treated. I came to the LGBTQ community and put my arms around them. While everyone else was running away from them, I was running towards them.”
But Madonna’s association with the community, combined with an ignorance about the disease, led to rumours in the press that she herself had been diagnosed with HIV. She remembers this as a particularly upsetting time.
“It was so crazy. For months I was going around saying I wasn’t HIV positive but then I thought, What if I was? Does that make me a bad person? And are you going to treat me differently? It was a crazy time and it really hurt me a lot. That’s just one circumstance where people – ‘scuse me for swearing – really tried to fuck with me.”
Do people still try and fuck with you?
“Yes. People pick on me. That’s just the way it is. People like to pick on me. I don’t take it as personally as I used to, or it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. But if you have an opinion in this day and age, you have to be prepared to take a beating.”
Madonna and the press have had a long, tumultuous relationship. In the weeks since our meeting, an article is published which focuses heavily on her most recent milestone. Now 60, the star is battling ageism as well as sexism, and it rightly infuriates her. She called out the journalist’s focus, saying it “wouldn’t happen if she was a man.” A valid objection, and likely true, but it’s the turn of phrase – Madonna says she feels “raped” by the piece (“and yes I’m allowed to use that analogy having been raped at the age of 19”) which fuels even more controversy. The media fires are stoked. Twitter is offended. The cycle continues.
But true to form, Madonna carries on regardless, never silenced, always outspoken. On ‘Madame X’ the album, produced largely by French producer Mirwais (with whom she co-produced the whole of ‘American Life’ – the pair last worked together on ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor’) she tackles issues of sexism, gun control, freedom of speech, racism and gay rights.
“A lot of the music I make with Mirwais ends up being political because we have very similar minds and we think about what’s going on in the world a lot,” Madonna says. “He’s very philosophical. We get into debates about what’s right and what’s wrong and somehow, it just sparks things inside of us.”
Controversy does seem to follow Madge around, and by no coincidence, but on the track ‘Killers Who Are Partying’ she reels off a list of persecuted minorities, suggesting an affinity with each and every one. The intention is good – Madame X in freedom fighter mode – but as a white woman of privilege, can she really claim to know what it’s like to be African, Palestinian, a gay man or Native American?
“But I’m a human being,” she responds sharply. “And they’re human beings. And I’ve always fought for the rights of marginalised people so it’s not like I woke up one day and decided I was going to be the voice of a certain minority. I consider myself a marginalised person, I feel like I’ve been discriminated against my whole life because of the fact that I’m a female and now I am discriminated against because of my age. I am saying ‘no, we belong together’ and it’s a song about unifying the soul of all humans. And I have the right to say that I want to do that.”
There’s no denying the sentiment is one of love and unity, which is more than can be said for a lot of people in the world today; namely, one Donald Trump who is reverting on LGBTQ rights at an alarming rate.
“I’m horrified, for all the things we fought for and won and now it does seem like everything is turning back to where we were in the ‘50s. It’s quite disturbing but we haven’t lost the war yet. We do need a new president, though.”
In the run-up to the release of the record, mysterious social media trailers have tease Madonna’s enigmatic eye-patched alter-ego, somewhere between Eva Peron, a Romany gypsy and a radical general. In the run-up to the album, fans heard five songs, among them the cha-cha-cha-ing ‘Medellin’, the Stanley Kubrick and Joan of Arc-inspired ‘Dark Ballet’ and the trap-heavy ‘Crave’ and ‘Future’.”
Madame X has set out her stall from the off: she is described as a “secret agent, travelling around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom, bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer, a professor, a head of state, a housekeeper, an equestrian, a prisoner, a student, a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint, a whore.” Sounds exhausting, but perhaps being the most famous woman in the world does leave you with quite a lot to do.
We talk about what it was like for Madonna starting out, as the kid from Michigan, moving to New York with no money but a lot of determination and a dream of being a star. It was her dance teacher who first gave her the name Madame X, for she looked different every time she came to class – an ’80s Madge, often not living up to the school’s ideas of how their students should present themselves.
‘Madame X’ the record is reflective, almost nostalgic at points, for that time when all of this was still ahead of her, when she wasn’t constantly fighting to dispel that “other version” of Madonna: the one “that’s out in the world that has nothing to do with who you are.” The Madonna with a naivety that manifests itself as fearlessness. For all the talk about how the music industry is yet to catch up with #MeToo, it’s come a long way since the ’80s when things were impossibly tough for young female artists.
“I would say there were plenty of situations where men were wanting to abuse their power. I was the starting-out artist begging for help and I would go to people who ran labels or influential DJs saying: ‘Can you help me out? Can you listen to this song? Can you hook me up?’ Can you sign me to your record label?’ and, a lot of people said: ‘Yeah, if you’ll do this,’ and usually it was a sexual favour.”
“Oh yeah, for sure. And there was one time where I was so broke and I was so sick of being broke I thought, ‘Wait, could I do it?’ But I didn’t do it in the end. I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I knew I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I did, so I just kept going on as I had, being a starving artist and waiting for my ship to come in and – ironically – I was signed by a gay man who didn’t want anything to do with me in that way and he just really appreciated my music.”
Madonna, then. Nothing if not principled. On that birthday milestone that we won’t dwell on, earlier in the year, which she spent in Morocco with those closest to her, she gave a speech: “Women have a life span and at a certain age they’re expected to go away. I’m not interested in that.”
Observing the resilient, intimidating, brilliantly-talented woman who sits on the fancy sofa in front of me – one eye looking right at me – I consider how easy it would have been for her to bow out, having already achieved more in one fraction of her career than anyone could hope to in a lifetime, but how incredibly dull a world without Madonna would be.
“The pressure to be silenced comes and goes,” she muses. “Let’s see what happens when my record comes out.”
And with that, it’s nearly midnight and our time is up. It’s hard to imagine what the rest of Madonna’s evening involves, all dressed up for our benefit, but tired – or fatigué, as she had it – and missing her boy. Bed and a cup of camomile? A night cha-cha-ing her way around London?
Earlier, Madonna spoke about the preconceived notions about her. This latest incarnation seems, perhaps, more intentionally unknowable than any version of the original superstar we’ve seen before. The eyepatch is armour, the name a defence. I leave feeling as flustered as when I arrived, but clearer on Madame X’s message: empowerment, righteousness, multiculturalism, voicing the voiceless. Madonna’s always been fearless. Madame X is fearsome, too. Long live the queen.