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.