The three of us sit on a bench. I try to talk to her about writing songs, which I expect to be fairly safe ground, but she shows little interest. She giggles at one point and refers to this meeting as “damage control.” Whatever my sins, they are clearly not forgiven. I tell her I read the book she mentioned. Motherless Daughters. She seems unimpressed. On one of her new songs, “Sanctuary,” she recites a line from a Walt Whitman poem: “Surely whoever speaks to me in right voice, him or her I shall follow.” She agrees she spotted the extract in Motherless Daughters. But in the book, the poem is used as a warning, advising the author not to fall in love again and again with men who have a seductive, smooth patter. Yet in Madonna’s song, the lines are quoted with total sincerity, as though exactly what Madonna desires is for someone to speak to her in the right voice. She shrugs as if to say So what? But considering the weight it has in the book – at the center of a discussion of why motherless daughters are sometimes systematically drawn to the wrong men – isn’t that a little weird?
“Oh well,” says Madonna. “I’m weird like that.”
Eventually we talk about the events of 1992. Even Madonna concedes that it was probably a mistake for everything to appear the same season – her Sex book, the Erotica album, the Body of Evidence film. It seemed like a calculated Madonna sexathon; for a few weeks, every time you thought it was her it was hard not to think: Here she comes with her clothes off, wanting to talk dirty.
At first, when I ask her why in retrospect she did the book, she merely retorts, sullenly, “Because I wanted to.” Eventually I cajole her to elaborate. “Because I felt our culture is inundated with sexual fantasies, and I wanted to do something from a female point of view. I knew everybody would buy the book to see naked pictures of me, but I thought the people would read the test and understand the irony in a lot of it, and try to see life from a different perspective.”
The two negative points of view which she seems most familiar with are either “Ughh! She’s got her clothes off! How shocking!” or “Is that all? How very tame.” I point out that there were more sophisticated criticisms: for instance, that there might actually be something less than liberating in using homosexuality merely as something to add spice to a heterosexual fantasy.
“These are my fantasies!” she exclaims. “The idea of two men together turns me on! If that upsets some gay men?” – she harrumphs, then slightly changes tack – “There are people who say I raped the gay community by introducing voguing to the world. I mean, everybody’s got a complaint. If I’m involved in the gay community and I see things around me and it turns me on, then I’m going to say it.”
I try to make the point once more: that the danger is of portraying gayness as something exciting because it is freaky.
“I don’t consider it something freaky, and I never have,” she snaps. And I leave it there. Madonna’s willingness to discuss such subjects seems to be much overrated. For one thing, she seems to have a simple opinion – I am going to challenge these conservative values with this melodramatic gesture – and anyone who wants to discuss more subtle nuances is seen as enemy, not an interested observer. For another thing, I think she simply has had enough of boudoir chat. Two years ago, she seemed to take pride in revealing herself as much as she could, but maybe she just ended up feeling exposed. She seemed horrified at our first meeting when I referred to her as the American woman who has told the world the most about her tastes in oral sex. First she demanded to know what her supposed opinion was (that she prefers to receive rather than give). Then she demanded to know when she had shared this opinion (most fully in a 1991 conversation with Carrie Fisher, which appeared as a magazine cover story). That I had answers to these questions infuriated her. I felt bad for having brought up the subject, though I also thought something else: that you can’t open your home up to the public, and charge admission, then act horrified when you find strangers in your bedroom.
I try out other subjects for conversation, uncontroversial ones, but she doesn’t seem interested. Soon Liz Rosenberg announces that she has had enough of the mice scuttling near our feet, though that may not be all that she has enough of. Madonna says goodbye once more. I tell her I wish we could have talked some more.
“Well,” she says, walking away as she speaks, “you should have asked me a lot less of those other questions that don’t mean anything – the dumb ones.” Halfway across the street, she stops. She curtsies, blows me a sardonic half-kiss, and sashays off into her building. It is a great exit, though not quite so great when you are the one being left behind. I assume that this is the last I will ever hear from her.
That evening I am sitting on my hotel bed, depressed, watching Melrose Place, wondering how to square the joy and sensitivity I have always adored in Madonna’s music with the defensive, stern woman I had met, and blaming myself for failing to make closer contact. The telephone rings.
“It’s Madonna,” she says.
I know immediately that it is really her and not some tease-happy friend. I know because she sounds so edgy, so unhappy, and so angry. For the first few minutes I can’t get a word in, as it all pours out. “I have a bad taste in my mouth,” she begins. She feels that she spends all her interviews commenting on things she has done before. “I feel like I’m doing a Q&A with The National Enquirer: Do I like sleeping with men or women? Did I really go out with Warren Beatty? I never get to talk about what I do. I have a really good record. Why am I not answering questions about my art?” Instead, she complains, people like me want to pick at her weak spots. Everybody has problems,” she blates despairingly. “Can’t you just understand me? As an evolved, sensitive person? You know I’m not stupid.”
We trade recriminations. I tell her I had never imagined she would be so defensive, and seem so harried. I tell her I’m puzzled. If you hated my questions so much, why answer them? “I should say “You’re a c*nt – get out of here?” she asks. And we both laugh at that.
She says I should have made her feel more at ease. “It’s like a lover. It’s all seduction,” she says. (It strikes me afterward that she is maybe a little one-sided in this demanded. In two and a half hours of talking with her at her house, she never once asked whether I wanted a drink. It’s not that I was thirsty, but seduction takes two.) Madonna explains something to Me: “When I come into an interview, I have boxing gloves on. I have to feel: Is this person going to be fair to me?” The she adds, her voice breaking – and I couldn’t say for certain that she was crying, but this is certainly the voice one has when one is in tears – “When you left my house, I felt like I had been raped.”
This is a grotesque thing to be told and I tell her that, but she in now way modifies her opinion. She means it. Naturally I apologize, and somehow her statement breaks down a barrier. It is as though she has said the one thing she really thought needed to be said, and now perhaps we can communicate. I already know, despite all the nasty words, that I like Madonna much better. This one I can talk to.
After about twenty minutes, the storm subsides. She tells me she’s going to Florida tomorrow, but that she’ll call me. “I’ve got to go,” she says. “I’ve got friends waiting.”
There is a party at Industria tonight to launch Jean Paul Gaultier’s new perfume. That is where Madonna is going. I see Madonna’s pictures in the papers the next day, all laughter and all smiles. I look at that laughter, examine these smiles, and I wonder.
Two days later, she calls. She is sitting in the living room of her Miami house. Papito is wedged between her chair and ottoman. This voice is different: soft, calm and playful. There is only the briefest reference to what has gone on before: “My attitude used to be: I’ll consider you my friend until you prove otherwise. Now it is the other way around. Now you are loathsome and untrustworthy until you prove otherwise. And there can be this horrible domino effect, and I end up with a mess, but you can always go back and mend things – if you are as honest as possible, and appeal to people’s humanity.”
There are other ways in which the weight of past theatrics may now hang heavier than she ever imagined. Her new record is a neat side step away from the expectation that each new Madonna project will be an explosive event. It is a record concerned with emotion and romanticism and unrequited love. Not to say that I don’t want to deal with sexuality anymore, but I felt that subject distracted everyone.”
Bedtime Stories takes its name from a song, “Bedtime Story,” that Bjork wrote for her. Madonna liked the implications: an album of tales being told, of words you teach to children. It was only later that she realized that, once again, people were going to see innuendo and artifice where none was intended; that people might imagine the title meant songs for before you have sex. “I thought I’d better change it,” she says, “because everyone’s going to start accusing me of being a slut again. Then I thought, F*ck it, It’s a beautiful title.”
Anyway she says, people always assume that she plans these things far more than she ever has. People think she planned the Letterman debacle, but she swears she didn’t. People think that in the early days she knew that people would dress like her.
And, I point out, people thought that you slept with people merely to get yourself to where you wanted to be.
“Mm-hmm,” she laughs, throatily. “If only it were that easy?”