The last time I spoke with Madonna—and believe me, I never partic- ularly set out to be someone who has chatted with the biggest living pop star in the history of the world more than once, to have taken her small, bony, birdlike hand in my own on multiple occasions—was just be- fore the release of her film W.E. It was a roundtable interview at the Wal- dorf Astoria with mostly gay media outlets—there was one very handsome straight guy from Spain who, if I remember correctly, Madonna paid particular attention to. This was fall 2011, a couple months before her 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, and on top of that and the film pro- motion, she was also busy prepping her last album, MDNA. To say she had a lot on her plate is definitely an understatement.
So, Madonna was late. Like, two hours late.
When she finally arrived, her long-time publicist Liz Rosenberg re- minded her that this was a room full of gay guys. She seemed to sigh with relief. “So, we’ll end the day with some levity.”
At some point, she apologized for keeping us waiting. “You know, Mar- ilyn Monroe was always late,” an older gay journalist told her.
“Was she?” Madonna asked, unimpressed and maybe even a little an- noyed by the reference to one of her purported early idols.
We’d been talking for the past 30 minutes or so about the ways that history and popular culture rewrite women’s stories, distorting their lives with sensational gossip, one of W.E.’s major themes. Women like the film’s heroine, Wallis Simpson—and Marilyn Monroe. “Maybe that’s another woman whose story has been distorted,” I said.
Madonna turned to me across the huge round table. She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Yeah.”
I tell people that story all the time because—well, because it’s an awesome story. But it’s an awesome story because it felt like we connected at that moment in this way that isn’t usually possible at press junkets. It was like she was saying to me, Yeah, you get it. And, while I probably wouldn’t have admitted this a few weeks ago, if I’m being completely hon- est, part of me was kind of hoping for a similar interaction earlier this month when I came face-to-face with the self-anointed queen of Pop for the second time.
In his 2008 Vanity Fair cover story, Rich Cohen compared the hoops he had to jump through in order to sit down for a one-on-one with Madonna to being brainwashed by a cult. This isn’t anything like that. The atmos- phere is relatively relaxed in the dimly lit room at Interscope Records where journalists from various online media outlets are hanging out, waiting for their audience with Madonna. There’s a bowl of mini chocolate bars and crudité and cheese on the table. A nice lady from Liz Rosenberg’s office keeps encouraging us all to drink more wine, and some of us do.
What does a room full of gay bloggers talk about while waiting to meet Madonna? Mostly how excited they are. Every now and then some- one who’s just finished up an interview returns to collect his coat, trem- bling with residual adrenaline, clearly trying with every once of professional dignity he can summon not to jump up and down and squeal like a pre- teen fangirl.
“I’m glad she’s being really frank about the ageism stuff. That needed to happen,” someone says, referring to comments Madonna made in Rolling Stone earlier this month comparing the criticism she gets as a 56-year-old pop star to racism and homophobia.
We talk about her gay fans and gay fandom in general, why it’s so in- tense and why some gay fans feel the need to imagine rivalries between pop stars. Why do some Madonna fans, for example, feel the need to be so hyper critical of Lady Gaga, and vice versa? One woman gets a text from her dad, who took her to her first Madonna concert when she was in mid- dle school and is as excited about the interview as she is. We discuss which Madonna songs everyone’s dads like, and I remember my dad watching the Blonde Ambition Tour on HBO when I was really little. And at some point the conversation takes an extremely random turn and, no joke, we’re all dis- cussing Sex and the City.
There’s plenty of time to chat after all. Because Madonna is, well, I wouldn’t say late exactly; more like running a little behind schedule.
It must be after 9pm when Liz Rosenberg finally summons the six of us to a room just down the hall where Madonna is waiting.
What is Madonna like in person? She’s smaller than you’d expect, but then all celebrities are in person. She wears fingerless lace gloves and more statement rings than she has fingers, possibly to hide her hands, possibly just because she likes them. Her famously blond hair is braided to the side and spills loose over her right shoulder. There’s a slight oddness to her dic- tion, as if she’s got a lozenge tucked inside her cheek. But that’s probably just the grille she’s wearing—an odd choice for an evening when she’ll be answering questions.
She definitely doesn’t look like she does in photos. She resembles nei-ther the ageless mannequin that appears in her album art nor the woman in red carpet photos and paparazzi candids whose oddly puffy and creased features get picked apart online. In reality, she just looks like a well-preserved 56-year-old rich lady. But then, that doesn’t do her justice either. You could describe any Bravo Housewife that way, and there’s definitely something singularly captivating about Madonna. She was never simply pretty, but even now she’s sternly beautiful, like a statue or the face of a mountain. She’s impressive. She radiates power; never for a minute does she let you think you’re her equal.
“I don’t like people at my back,” she says almost immediately when someone tries to take a seat behind her. “Come over here. It’s better if we all can look each other in the eyes. I’m Italian. I don’t like anyone behind me.” We’re on her turf, and she controls the seating arrangements in this room.
At the same time there’s an adolescent impishness about her; she relishes provocation for provocation’s sake. Someone asks her about the gauzy black dress she’s wearing. It’s by “a young designer that you’ve never heard of. No one famous,” she says. “Let me take it off and look inside!”
Her favorite kind of questions, she says, are rapid-fire, short answer questions, and with six journalists who could potentially take the conversation in any direction with each question, those are the kinds that work best in this setting:
What are you reading right now?
“I’m trying to get through two different books. One is The Goldfinch and the other is a Bob Fosse biography.”
Do your kids have a favorite song of yours?
“They really love ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna.’ Yeah. That’s my teenagers’ favorite song. My son David, he plays guitar and he likes ‘Devil Pray.’ That’s his favorite.”
At this stage in your career, what still frightens you?
What do you love the most about pop music?
“I love how accessible it is.”
Did you have to set up a Grindr profile for that Grindr chat you’re supposed to be doing?
“We joked about it, but I don’t think it’s actually happened.”
Still, at certain points, Madonna does seem like she might be interested in engaging a bit more.
“Have you guys ever met anybody on Grindr?” she asks. “Like, somebody decent?” Oddly, most of us have. And in a normal conversation I’d have a story to tell. All of us probably would. But we have 20 minutes with Madonna, and all six of us probably have a page each of questions to ask her. Our time with her is precious; no one here can afford to have a real conversation, no matter how tempting it is to answer the questions Madonna just asked us.
Obviously, what we all want to talk about is the new album. We’ve all heard Rebel Heart in its entirety at this point, including the five bonus tracks on the deluxe edition. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales, despite leaks in December and February that forced Madonna to release essentially the first half of the album ahead of schedule. At the time, she was criticized for comparing the leak to rape and terrorism, and her rhetoric hasn’t exactly softened over the past few months, particularly toward the hacker who released those early demos to the world. He’s in jail in Israel now, she says. “What he’s done is considered a white collar crime, so I don’t even know what’s going to happen to him. I hope he goes to jail for a long time.”
The leak changed more than just the album’s release schedule. According to Madonna, “It changed everything.”
To hear her talk about it, if those initial demos hadn’t leaked, Rebel Heart could have been a very different album. “It made me second-guess everything,” she says. “There were some demos that I actually liked the demo version of, and I thought, ‘Well they heard the demo, now they’re going to be expecting other things.’ It kept making me think, should I change it, or should I just leave it how it was? Then it started making me think, I don’t even know what version I should be putting out. ”Decisions she would normally have made with her producers and songwriting teams before anyone else ever heard the songs were now being informed by her fans’ opinions of the demos. “Some people were like ‘Ooh, I love it! I love it!’ and I was like, ‘No, don’t love it, because that’s not the thing!”
There were other unexpected factors that shaped the album. I counted at least 13 different producers in the album’s liner notes, but it was never Madonna’s intention to work with so many different people on the album. The same health concerns that forced Avicii to cancel his tour in September also threw a wrench into his work on Rebel Heart. Madonna was forced to find other producers to work with on many of the songs they’d started writing together. Meanwhile, Diplo’s touring schedule and other projects meant that his time was limited as well.
“I ended up working with a lot of DJs—young DJs—and I naively didn’t think it through. Oh, it’s summertime, it’s the festivals, and they’re on tour, and I’ll be lucky if I get them for three days, so a lot of that had to factor in. OK, I can’t wait for three months for this dude to come back. I have to find somebody else.”
Of course, art never gets made in a vacuum, something Madonna knows and accepts. “I had to bend my knees and ride the waves.”
The result is an album that, at first, seems all over the map. But it’s tough to judge an album by an artist like Madonna after just one listen. Even if you’re only familiar with her hits, those past gems loom large in comparison to the new material. You’re listening for her next step and at the same time hoping she’ll retain whatever lighting in a bottle quality her early hits had. On first listen, Rebel Heart has its moments, sure. But it’s not until a week after hearing the full album, when I find myself humming “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Ghosttown” on the subway, that it really feels like the album clicks into place. Will anyone but diehard Madonna fans—and that’s not an insignificant demographic within her fanbase—listen to the whole album, start to finish, more than once or twice? Probably not. But I’m not sure that matters. Every pop album has to include some forgettable filler tracks—although with the way we consume music these days a la carte, who knows how much longer that model will last. But even at a whopping 19 tracks—23, plus two “Living for Love” remixes on the Super Deluxe edition—there’s not much fat to trim on Rebel Heart. As a whole, it’s probably Madonna’s most listenable since Confessions on a Dance Floor.
“I didn’t set out to write certain kinds of songs. I just set out to write good songs,” she says. There are dark turns on the album, also a bit of soul searching. And the ballads are particularly strong. Apparently, Madonna set out to write songs that, stripped of all their production, could also work on an acoustic level. “When we run out of oil and we don’t have electricity, I can just light a candle and strum my guitar and sing you a song.”
That’s not going to happen tonight though. Our time with Madonna is almost up. There are a few minutes left for some quick photos. “You may touch the queen,” she says as a gay blogger puts his arm around her, and it’s not entirely obvious if she’s being ironic.
I’m one of the first to head out of the room. “Have a nice life!” she chirps as the door closes behind me.