Madonna has yet again triumphantly topped the pop charts with her glorious return to downtown club form, Confessions On A Dance Floor, but she still has the biggest questions on her mind.
Just what’s she like? It’s the simple, obvious question, isn’t it, the one I’ve been sent to the Essex House on Central Park South-where Madonna has alighted briefly to promote her smashingly successful new CD-to try and tease out on a fall afternoon. I’ve only just heard the record and am struck by how it comments, both musically and lyrically, on Madonnas past, present, and to come. Its most striking aspect is the way in which each cut segues fluidly into the next, wrapping you in a tonal atmosphere. You can almost see one of those rotating mirror balls shimmering from the ceiling, reflecting her energy off the walls, passing it on. The album is a return to her pre-enlightenment-seeking roots, but it also addresses her search for deeper meaning, if you’ve got the presence of mind to attend to the words-You know it won’t last long/ And all those lights, they will turn down-while your feet are being seduced by the music’s irresistible pulse.
All the same, the question falters, as it poses some insurmountable problems. For one thing, Madonna thrives on being enigmatic, on a catch-me-if-you-can toying with the viewer. Because she has from the start so skillfully appropriated the high-postmodernist, gay-influenced semiotics of camp, in which absolutely everything is bracketed in invisible quotation marks, it has always been hard to know whether she really is or was anything like the poses she has sttuck-the bohemian scamp on the make; the defiant, David Letterman-baiting rule breaker; her recent incarnation as a kabbalah-imbibing populist sage; or the Dorian Gray-like, boom box-humping, black fishnet-wearing vixen of today-or wherher she’s just putting us on.
For anothet thing, she is supremely aware-in a way that many celebrities pretend not to be-of the internalized Madonna image bobbing in your brain. It’s in the amused tone of her voice, the flirtatious way she says hello when we’re introduced but dien doesn’t follow up with small talk. Early on she brings up a mutual acquaintance-Fredric Brandt, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist who has applied his Rembrandt-ian skills to both our faces (although I’ve only made two visits to Brandts office while Madonna has had him flown to Los Angeles or London solely in order to work on her}–in an effort, I take it, to establish a connection. And it would be an icebreaker coming from someone else-but with Madonna, everything takes on a slightly cheeky aspect, as if she were admitting to something naughty, something you might turn around and use against her. She is both very direct and very removed, not willing to engage beyond strict limits. She knows, after all, how good she is at assessing her audience, what they want from her. When I ask her how she has managed to bring successive waves of fans along with her through her many mutations, she says, “Kids are so curious and alive. The only way is to take them with you. They’ll be able to relate to something.”
Truth be told, there is something surreal about being thrust into the immediate space-time continuum that Madonna inhabits, even for die celebrity-inured. For starters-but isn’t it always die case with diese neon-Ht, single-name, globe-straddling types-she is smaller dian I expected, narrower of frame, more, well, delicate, almost fragile, as if it is possible to survive more than two decades at the top of the heap, as she has done, and keep one’s inner Tinkerbell alive. What you notice right away are her eyes-a beautiful, lucid blue, set wide apart in her small but forceful face. Then there’s her skin, which has a poreless, almost airbrushed quality. She doesn’t look anywhere near her 47 years-but she doesn’t appear ridiculously or monstrously frozen in time, either, suspended as some women become in an alembic of cosmetic surgery and puffed-out trout lips. Her slight, rail-thin body is remarkably honed, heightening the impression of lightness and youth. The only discordant note in the angular contemporary impression she conveys is her hair, which is a rather lifeless beige, styled in a tetro Varga-girl flip that works against the strength of her jawline.
Then again, it could be diat this look is intentionally subversive, a clue to Madonna’s ongoing process of self-invention. How else would this street-smart college dropout from Pontiac, Michigan, ever have morphed into the reigning pop diva of our age, her life freighted with the stuff of myth-het mother’s death when she was five; the remote Republican papa Ciccone, who instilled in her an unshakable work ethic; her cockroach-infested beginnings in New York City’s downtown club scene, followed by epochal success; and finally, marriage and mother-hood, all while retaining the exquisitely tight inner thighs of a 15-year-old cheerleader-if not by first visualizing herself in character and then willing this transformation into being?
Consider the video for “Hung Up,” the first single from Confessions, which debuted at the top of the charts. The clip definitively revives Madonnas old strut-your-stuff club-queen persona as she bumps and grinds her lithe, scantily clad body with foxy relish among a bunch of barely grown subway-riding kids. Yet the Stepford-wife hairdo she sports bespeaks a different Madonna-the one we’ve glimpsed in magazine spreads, where she floats around large aristocratic rooms, dressed in demure garden-party dresses and making like a traditional blue blood. Madonna has always been a shape-shifter let loose in the wardrobe closet, picking and choosing from an array of female costumes-such as the clothes she’s wearing today, which artfully pick up on contradictory signifiers. She is dressed halfway between a desperately sought Susan and an upper-cmst schoolgirl in a formfitting top tucked into a taupe corduroy skirt that stops primly at her knees-an effect that is immediately winked at by a gold lame belt, opaque brown kneesocks, and a pair of gold pumps (“My Wizard of Oz shoes,” she calls them).
The thing is, it’s hard to interact with Madonna. She’s so in the habit of leaving you wanting more, guessing at her next step, that it seems like second nature. I think of it as her signature coyness, but thete is also something less rehearsed and more instinctive about it, almost fearful. Beneath her recendy acquired lady-of-the-manse, Mitford-sister good manners (“I’m happy it’s being well received,” she says demurely of her album), the gracious smile, and a wavering British cadence to her voice, Madonna seems very wary-not cold, exacdy, but enotmously conscious of boundaries, of her effect on others, of die vast, always unspoken, perhaps ungulfable distance between herself and us. One gets the sense that in those fleeting moments when she’s not being photographed or recorded in some way, there is sometiiing isolated about her that goes beyond the narcissistic britdeness that her sort of celebrity often imparts. She seems protected from any experience that she can’t foresee, much less control. “You keep your expectations low,” she explains. “You don’t want to get attached to anything.”
All of which is not to say that Madonna is without human attachment–she speaks very fondly of her two children, seems to put a lot of effort into her marriage, and is very warm when we speak on the phone two weeks after we first meet. But she’s also been known to drop people when she’s had her fill of them. When I mention her tendency not to look back, Madonna says simply, “The mistakes we make are as important as our successes. You can’t regret it if you look back and diink, What can I learn from this?”
Of course, we all know what a demanding perfectionist-all right, control freak-Madonna is. She is, without a doubt, bossy, a grown-up version of Linus’ autocratic older sister, Lucy, in die Peanuts comic strip. She has a tendency to speak at you-and once when I heedlessly cut in as she is saying some-diing, she pauses, frowning. “I haven’r finished,” she imperiously observes. (I shudder to drink what it was like to be on her bad side in high .school.) Madonna is not about to be blindsided by anything, including laic-nor if she can help it. She is famously prompt (alter we later arrange to talk on the phone, an assistant calk-twice- to apologize for Madonnas being 15 minutes behind schedule), and we’ve all heard about her self-discipline, her commitment to her daily yoga routine, and her healthy, abstemious diet.
But here’s the surprising and pleasingly paradoxical part, which more than anything else makes Madonna seem less of a comet in the sky, makes het-what can I say?-very likable: Underneath her meticulous planning, her air of remove, and her quintessential “been rliere, done that” image, she is abidingly curious. You feel how unjaded she is about where she gets her stimuli and how constantly, keenly available she is to new input. (She is a survivor not least, I think, because she is so receptive to what you might bring to the rable.) When I muse about whether her openness to new Influences is a sign of pathology or of enviable plasticity of character, for instance, she listens carefully, then asks me the meaning of a word I’ve used–fungible.
We go on to talk about the poetry of Anne Sexton and how leading fuels the soul. “Other peoples words keep me alive,” she says. “I don’r get how people get through life wirhout reading. I can’t really take that in.” We discuss her compelling need to keep in shape: “I wish I were comfortable enough to look zahig,” she blurts out unexpectedly. “But I choose men who like cai”ved-our women, the can-you-run-for-thc-bus kind of guy.” And we touch on die psychological origins of her choice of a “very masculine man” in Guy Ritchie-a bloke who, on the evidence of the recent MTV documentary about Madonna’s last lour, I’m doing to Tell You a Secret, prefers hanging out in the pub wirh his mates to looking deeply into his wife’s limpid eyes. “I’m naturally inclined toward men like thai,” she explains with what seems to be a degree of therapized self-awareness, although she i.s dismissive ol I’Veud (“He didn’t dig women-if you have a problem with God or women, that leaves a lot out”) and she doesn’t seem like the naturally introspective sort. “My father doesn’t get too excited about anything,” she adds. “A good pan of my life was spent trying ro wow him, to get his approval.”
Talking with her, I have the sense that all of it-people, ideas, het recent interest in the esoteric Jewish text known as the Zohar-is just more grist for her mill. There is one noticeable exception, which is all die more striking coming from a woman who has relied on a savvy media-genic appeal to propel herself forward: “My information doesn’t come from television,” Madonna declares. “I’m informed by art, books, old films, photography.”
Inevitably, given my Orthodox Jewish back-ground and Madonnas current absorption in a mystical branch of Judaism that appears to satisfy her intensified wish for a transcendent vision of the world even as she negotiates that world at its most seductively secular and brutally of-the-moment-her wish, as she puts it, to “reconcile science and spirituality, Adam and Eve and superstring theory”-we eventually get around to the subject of religion. She asks me if 1 believe in death, and I say that, sadly, I do. She admits she has trouble with the concept-“The thought of eternal lire appeals to me,” she says with an endearing lack of bravado. She has found refuge in the notion of re incarnation as espoused by the Kabbalah Centre. “1 don’t think peoples energy j list disappears,” she says. It’s not clear whether she is entirely persuaded or is still in the process of convincing herself that a divinely ordained script actually exists. “I hope by the time it’s my moment to leave this world physically,” she adds, “I’ll have gotten my head around the idea that life is an endless cycle.” When she suffered a serious fall from a horse on her English estate lasr year and was rendered helpless, immobilized by numerous broken bones, she says, she realized she isn’r Super-woman-and saw how vulnerable we really are. “Sooner or later, you’ve got to learn your lessons,” she says when I inquire further about the appeal of reincarnation. “And you might as well learn them now as later.” I wonder aloud why she hasn’t sruck with Catholicism, which at least seriously entertains the idea of an afterlife. “There’s nothing consoling about being Catholic,” she almost snaps in reply. “They’re all just laws and prohibitions.”
It feels strange-in a good way-to be discussing Last Things with the Material Girl, who would seem to be the very incarnation of everything vital and physical and heterodox. It occurs to me that there is a foicc field around her that is difficult to attribute to any one thing, an intensity of purpose that is hard to resist and that suggests a hunger for something greater than record sales, greater even than the adtdarion of billions of fans. I don’t know whether I totally believe her when she scoffs at her own fame, insisting that “in the big picture, it means very little. At the end of my life, God doesn’t give a shit,” but I know that only Madonna could put references to the sacred and the profane together in the same sentence and make it sound like the most defiant son of mantra. Perhaps this woman who fears attachments also fears endings-and the final disconnection-even more than the rest of us. And well she should, given how hard she has worked to leave her mark.
© Elle Magazine