Madonna in the lotus position
A slave to fame. That role, above all others, has defined Madonna, the singer-actress-video-queen who has relentlessly chased the spotlight since her first No. 1 hit, “Like a Virgin,” in 1984. And yet, after an infinite variety of poses and controversies, there’s a new Madonna in our midst – a Madonna into yoga, meditation, motherhood, and peace of mind. It’s a rite of passage shared by many of her 39-year-old peers, one many Madonna watchers thought they would never see.
“I now realize that fame is not as important as I thought it was,” Madonna says from her home in New York.
Fame, as she sings on her new album, “Ray of Light,” is a “substitute for love.” Fame is that “feeling of where you keep waiting to be fulfilled, but you never will if you’re looking for it in that area,” she adds during an hourlong conversation.
Madonna’s new album just entered the Billboard charts at No. 2 and includes the 31st Top 10 hit of her career in “Frozen” (only Elvis Presley with 38 and the Beatles with 34 have more). But this album is a true watershed record for Madonna, who also sings that “when I was very young, nothing really mattered to me but making myself happy. … Now everything’s changed, I’ll never be the same.”
“I totally feel like I’m starting over,” Madonna says. “I feel like I’ve grown so much in the past couple of years. It’s been an incredible journey. It’s like a light just got turned on, which is one of the reasons I call the album `Ray of Light.’
“I look at everything I’ve done in the past and just say, `Wow, I accomplished a lot, and there was goodness there and I could see the struggle in my search.’ But I just feel like I’m looking at life differently now.
“Yoga has definitely changed my outlook on life,” says Madonna, who started doing yoga postures two years ago when she was seven months pregnant with her now-17-month-old daughter, Lourdes. She’s since been unable to return to her previous gym workouts. “Suddenly I couldn’t walk inside a gym,” she says. “I was horrified by it. I had reached a burnout level or something. It felt wrong emotionally and mentally, and it felt wrong physically.”
After giving birth, Madonna enlisted Los Angeles-based yoga teacher Denise Kaufman for private lessons in Ashtanga yoga, a very physical brand of yoga known for its flowing postures.
“It was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, but it was really focused and there was a great simplicity to it as well,” says Madonna. “I’m a total perfectionist who beats up on myself when I don’t get things right. And so I had to learn to a) not judge myself; and b) to let go of the idea that I had to accomplish this and master it in one day. Because you can’t do that in yoga. So it taught me patience and judgment. It also taught me that you have to earn things, that just because you want to conquer something doesn’t mean you’re going to.
“Now I feel that yoga is a total metaphor for life,” she says. “I had this notion that it was going to be easy, but it wasn’t. And I also got really infuriated with my teacher because she would only teach me a little bit every time. And that was a huge lesson for me. I’d only get to learn the sun salutes, then the next day I could only learn one position. If you’re in a hurry, you can’t embrace or enjoy yoga. So that was another lesson for me – to enjoy the stillness of it.”
Madonna now takes Ashtanga yoga classes in New York – and “I love how anonymous I feel when I go to the class. And I love how everybody’s in one room … and no one’s judging anyone. It’s a wonderful feeling – and very inspiring.”
Madonna has not been to India, where Ashtanga yoga started, but “I’m going to go when my daughter is a little bit older,” she says.
She insists that her yoga pursuit is genuine and is distressed by a few reviews of the “Ray of Light” album that question her purpose (most of the reviews have been raves).
“I read one review that said, `Oh, that’s all we need is one more celebrity complaining about how awful it is to be famous.’ But [the reviewer] didn’t listen to the record. That’s not what I was saying at all. There’s no bitterness in the record, period. For me it’s all about acceptance and letting go.”
New respect for life
Yoga isn’t the only change in Madonna’s life.
“There have been other things as well. The birth of my daughter has been a huge influence. It’s quite different to look at life through the eyes of your child, and suddenly you have a whole new respect for life and you kind of get your innocence back,” says Madonna, who laughs that little Lourdes has lately been doing typical kid things like “stuffing dolls and toys into the VCR.”
Another major change came from making “Evita,” in which Madonna starred as Argentinian icon Eva Peron. Many skeptics criticized her for even trying.
“I went through a real metamorphosis when I did that movie,” she notes. “People were constantly attacking me and misunderstanding me and using me as their whipping girl in the press. I’d become this target, and I was feeling really sorry for myself. And suddenly, when I started playing [Eva] in the movie, I could get outside of myself and I realized that I wasn’t a victim at all. To a certain extent, I had invited a lot of things. I hadn’t really taken responsibility for my role in the whole thing. So I let go of a lot of bitterness.
“I thought of all the people who were upset at me for playing Evita and why they would have been upset and how their feelings were all intertwined with what she actually did in their country. And I suddenly saw how people could get confused. And then I had more compassion for everybody. It helped me have a whole new outlook.
“You have to work through the layers. That’s what the whole creative process is. If where you’re at is anger and rage, then that’s what comes out of you. That’s what informs everything you do. It might provoke people and get them to have discussions, and it might turn a few people’s heads, but I don’t know if it inspires anyone.”
While Madonna now talks openly about her search for enlightenment, she adds that she’s not about to get sucked into any destructive cults. “I don’t want to be a member of any group or anything. I’d like to go on my own spiritual journey,” she says. “When you start calling someone a guru, and everybody flocks to them and worships them, they are only going to fall, because they are human beings. They’re not divine avatars.”
Madonna’s search even led her to sing in Sanskrit on one song on “Ray of Light.” She took a crash course in Sanskrit – four hours a day for a week – and found it fascinating. “The thing is, you don’t speak it, you chant it. And I like that musical quality of it. I have a very good ear for languages anyway, so I really liked it.”
Musically, the new album is Madonna’s latest foray into the world of electronica, which started on her last album, “Bedtime Stories,” when she worked with producer Nellie Hooper. The new record has a few pulsing dance tracks sure to be embraced by her original pop-disco fans, but also haunting, ambient soundscapes created by co-producer William Orbit, a techno pioneer.
“I have always admired his work and have given him lots of records to remix, but I had never met him until now,” says Madonna. “I knew that he kind of worked like a hermit in his studio in London, that he never really has produced anything but his own records and that he never really collaborated with anyone before.”
An executive at Madonna’s label, Maverick Records, recommended Orbit, who then sent a sketchbook of musical ideas, which Madonna loved. “He is very open and very flexible, and he’s spiritual in his own way,” she says. “And he was very supportive of everything that I wanted to do. Every lyric, every idea, he was right there with me, never doubting, kind of carrying me on in a way.”
Madonna is thrilled with the sales of “Ray of Light” so far (“I’m surprised, because some people told me they didn’t think it was commercial”), but she has no plans to tour behind it. She likely won’t tour until next year, because she first wants to make a couple of movies she’s been dying to do. One is “50 Violins,” based on a true story of a New Yorker who teaches violin to children in inner-city schools. The other is the musical “Chicago,” in which she’ll star with Goldie Hawn.
“I’ve got a lot on my plate right now,” she says. “But I’m not complaining. It’s a good problem to have.”
© Boston Globe