Then again, it could be that 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-her 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 that 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, exactly, but enormously conscious of boundaries, of her effect on others, of die vast, always unspoken, perhaps unarguable 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 something isolated about her that goes beyond the narcissistic brittleness 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 somethiing, she pauses, frowning. “I haven’t 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.