The most celebrated and ridiculed woman in the world sips delicately from a teacup. We have already talked of art, life, Courtney, the Devil, Oasis, Elvis. rape, misogyny and fellatio. Now we’re on to the benefits and drawbacks of international superstardom — something she could be said to know a little bit about. After all, this particular woman is Madonna.
Do you feel that you have been dehumanised, turned into a thing?
“Yes,” she replies, her stiff tone belying the mischief in her True Blue eyes. “But then… most icons are.”
In Madonna’s New York sitting room, gothic grandeur and homely comfort merge to disconcerting effect, as if it had been deemed with both Roman Polanski and the Partridge Family in mind. On one wall there is a signed photograph of the young and beautiful Muhammad Ali, standing victoriously over a defeated, anonymous opponent. On the other walls there are paintings, one of which is probably a Picasso – who else had a habit of painting women with their noses on backwards?
“I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Madonna is standing in the doorway. Obviously getting in the mood for her forthcoming starring role in the movie of the musical Evita, she is wearing a fitted black dress with a whiskery neckline and has her hair scraped back into a slightly askew chignon. If it weren’t for the fact that she is grinning infectiously, the effect would be that of a young Deborah Kerr attending the reading of a movie will.
Madonna stands still and erect for a few seconds, then glides into the room as if on casters and proffers her hand. In poseur circles this is commonly known as ‘making an entrance’, and she’s clearly very good at it. Her appearance is surprising. I’d expected her to be short, muscular and rounded, but, in person, Madonna is as heartbreakingly delicate as a bird embryo. When she shakes my hand I can feel little crushable bones. Her face, which is small like a child’s, is dominated by big eyes that throw off a weird deep heat. Only her arms look earthy and aerobicized. They have so much definition that, in some lights they resemble one of those human biology diagrams that show the body’s muscles under the skin.
Madonna’s latest album, ‘Something To Remember’, is a collection of ballads old (‘Live To Tell’, ‘Oh Father’, ‘Take A Bow’) and new (‘You’ll See’, ‘One More Chance’ and the Massive Attack collaboration ‘I Want You’), with a cover of ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ which Madonna sings in the manner of a demented bison with its tail trapped in Tina Turner’s car door. Apart from that, it is fine stuff – subtle, bittersweet and reflective.
Of course, the softly twisted and knowing creature who produces these ballads is lust one of a veritable army of Madonnas. Tomboy, whore, glamourpuss, dominatrix, clown, heartbreaker, rebel without her drawers, dancefloor show-off, convent f*** up, spunky Everywoman… Over 5 the years, Madonna has been all of these people and more besides. A singing, dancing multiple personality disorder, with all of the separate entities sharing a common obsession with sex and the groove.
But Madonna The Musical Artist cannot be dismissed as a cynical, crotch-grabbing shape-changer. Her Greatest Hits compilation ‘The Immaculate Collection’ is one of the best pop albums of all time – its power to compel the terminally nonrhythmic into displaying their ‘dance skills’ is frightening. Moreover, Madonna’s songs, though whiplash tight and seamless, are rarely straightforward Feel Good/Feel Bad/Feel Each Other Up exercises. Where Madonna is concerned, there is nearly always a subtext which nearly always gets overlooked.
Does she think that her songs are underestimated?
She shrugs. “People who listen to them properly don’t underestimate them. Unfortunately, there’s so much about my career and me that distracts people from the actual content of most of my songs.”
Is ‘You’ll See’ about revenge?
“No, It’s about empowering yourself. As much as I like a song like ‘Take A Bow’, lyrically it only reflects one side of my personality. I have that side which in completely masochistic and willing to, literally, do anything for love. But there’s another side too which is – ‘Don’t f*** with me, I don’t need anybody. I can do what I want’ and ‘You’ll See’ reflects that.”
Are you getting harder as you get older?
“No, just wiser. I’ve read a couple of reviews that say I’m getting harder in my old age but I don’t think that’s true at all. I think that you can’t help but become a little cynical about life and love but I’m still a romantic, I’m still an idealist. I fall in love quite easily so I don’t think I’ve gotten harder at all. It’s just another thing for people to mention when they want to undermine who I am and what I say. Some people have a really hard time resisting thinking in a one-dimensional way in general.”
For a woman whose first hit was a song about holidays, Madonna implies that she is singularly bad at taking them.
“I despise anyone who looks at me and my lifestyle and thinks – ‘Oh God! Her life is so easy!’ Like I was born into it and it happened overnight. Bullshit! I work so f**ing hard.”
Nor is she deluded about her commercial ranking. Though still one of the most famous women in the world – most people have forgotten more about Madonna than they achieve in their entire lives – her record sales don’t always reflect this.
“I’ve gone from having a huge fan base to losing a huge fan base to having a kind of fluctuating fan base. I’ve always had a core of fans who’ve stuck by me but, depending on the kind of music I do, I end up appealing to certain groups of people and alienating others.”
Does this bother you?
“No. I may not be as popular as I once was but people are starting to pay attention to my music and respect me as an artist more.”
Have you lost your nerve at any point over the years?
“Absolutely!” she laughs. “I panic every time I put out a record. I think every artist does. Every time you have a Number One record you think., ‘Well. that great but I’ll probably never be able to do it again’. It’s never-ending.”
An automatic thing?
“Self-doubt? Yeah, for me it is.”
Apart from music, there’s the movie career (which, so far, can be most politely described as chequered, although Evita may change all that) and her record company Maverick, which, she insists, strives to maintain autonomy from its parent company Warners. This latter venture, she frankly admits, is only just beginning to prosper.
“We’ve wasted a let of money,” she says, rolling her eyes, “but that’s the way it goes, you learn from your mistakes.”
The Maverick acts Madonna seems most proud of are Alanis Morissette and R&B chanteuse Me’Shelle NdegeOcello. But since its inception Maverick has fought and lost big bucks bidding wars, and failed to lure the likes of Hole, Rage Against The Machine and, most recently, Echobelly.
You seem quite interested in British acts.
She smiles “Well, most of the artists I really like are British. Like… Well, Bjork’s not British but that where she emerged.
She’s an original, completely unique, adorable. I can’t put my finger on what she’s got and that’s probably a good thing. She’s just one of a kind, incredible. I love PJ Harvey, too, I think her lyrics are brilliant. She’s real tortured and I’m drawn to people who are tortured. I’m a huge fan of hers and of Sinead’s. I’m a big fan of all tortured female artists.”
Part of Madonna’s notoriety springs from the fact that, unusually for a mainstream pop star, she has a big ‘rock’ mouth. Personality-wise, she has far more in common with ballsy, outspoken rock women like Christie Hynde, Janis Joplin and Patti Smith than the gutless, homogenised likes of Whitney and Mariah. While this is due, in part, to her desire to stand out (she is the archetypal attention junkie, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Madonna stood up to be counted on many Issues (sexual empowerment/the Church/AIDS) long before Middle America slapped on a red ribbon and stopped pretending it had a headache every bedtime.
Not least, Madonna has made fag haggery something of a political statement. The world asks – is she really a bisexual? But far more interesting is the fact that, even if she isn’t, she openly delights in her icon status, despite the fact that this is still tantamount to career suicide in many areas of the States. No wonder most gays worth their salt would commit hari-kari on the points of her coned bras if she asked them to.
Why don’t other successful women in pop – the Whitneys and Mariahs – speak out for the things they believe in?
“Well, pop is short for popular and to remain popular you can’t have a point of view or be outspoken. To remain popular you can’t go against the grain. Janis Joplin, at this time, in this world would not be a popular artist. Chrissie Hynde does not sell as many records as somebody like Mariah Carey. And that’s because Manah Carey and Whitney Houston don’t have a f**ing point of view.”
Whitney had one about you, didn’t she – she said that she’d kill her children if they turned out like you.
Madonna arches her brows coolly. “I’ve never heard either of them say anything horrible about me. But if they have, it’s completely transparent why. It would be based on jealousy of the fact that I have a point of view. I think that its an artist’s responsibility to have a point of view. Society takes its cue from popular art. People need something to look to, something to provoke them into questioning whether they completely hate something or completely love something. Perhaps somebody like Mariah Carey wishes she could make that happen. On the other hand,” she smiles nastily, “if you’re not terribly bright I suppose that you don’t really give a damn.”
You’ve said that certain of the next generation of female artists, in particular Courtney Love. have denounced you only because. “they want their independence… like a child does from a parent”. Why should they see you as this Big Bad Momma figure?
“Because I paved the way for them, I absolutely paved the way for people like Courtney Love and Liz Phair. Just as Debbie Harry paved the way for me.”
Did you ever denounce Debbie Hurry?
“No. But I’m not a drug addict and I don’t hate myself.”
Madonna sighs. “At that particular time the whole alternative scene, the Generation X scene was saying. ‘F*** success, f*** the ’80s, f*** people who are making money, f*** the establishment! But in the end it’s completely false. Courtney is not anti-establishment at all. She’s got her Charles Jourdin shoes on, she goes shopping at Prada. Its all bullshit but it sounds good.”
One would have thought that Courtney of all people would have felt some kind of empathy with you?
“Yeah, but Courtney is such a miserable person. When I met her, when I was trying to sign her, she spent the whole tame slagging off her husband. She was saying, ‘Oh. Hole are so much better than Nirvana’ and just going off on a tangent. She just loves to hear herself talk. She doesn’t even mean half the things she says, she’s just incredibly competitive with people and anybody who’s successful she’s going to slag off. That’s all there is to it.”
Were you irritated by her comments about you being a vampire who would bleed her dry?
“Absolutely! Because she was the one who was calling me up at 3am going off on all these tangents about how women have to stick together and how she really admired and respected me for all I’d been through. Then she turns around and says all these things and I’m like, ‘My God! This woman is completely Insane!'”
Have you any sympathy for the way things have gone for her?
Madonna ponders for a moment. “Do I have sympathy for Courtney?… I suppose I feel bad that she’s lost somebody that she obviously loved, but it’s not like it was a great surprise to anybody. When you take that many drugs it’s only a matter of time, you know what I mean? And let’s face it, she’s where she a because she put herself there. She’s not a victim. Everything that’s happening to her she’s brought on herself. So, it’s quite difficult for me to feel sorry for her.”
You feel that she could have carried herself with a bit more…
“Dignity? Yeah I do. But once again I feel that her judgement is clouded by the fact that she’s f**ed up all the time. It’s hard for her… but you can’t go around saying. ‘Oh I didn’t really mean to do that, I was high.’ I’ve subsequently had conversations with her about what she said about me and she’s been like, ‘Oh, I was really f**ed up when I said that, I didn’t mean it, y’know’. And that’s bullshit. You can justify any kind of bad behaviour if you always have that for an excuse.”
Had she not said those things about you, would you have been there for her when things fell apart?
“Yeah,” she smiles ruefully, “I’m very maternal and I’m completely a caretaker. I’ve had my share of drug-addict boyfriends. I would have been there for her. But I would probably have gotten sickly intertwined in her life and tried to intervene and in the end you can’t do that. People have to help themselves.”
Would you care to speculate how things might work out for her?
“I have no idea. I don’t know what her karma is, I don’t know what her future is. I’ve said this before – I think she’s really talented but she’s got to find something to hang on to and she’s got to find happiness. If she doesn’t, then I don’t know what will become of her. That goes for everybody.”
Do you prefer the newer breed of female artists who are coming through now – Elastica, for instinct, are defiantly unnihilistic?
“Yeah, I like that attitude. Alanis has it too. It’s not like, ‘Life sucks, why bother?’ The fatalism has gone, the negativity has gone. It’s more hopeful. It’s about strength and courage. I think you can be defiant and rebellious and still be strong and positive.”
Do you have genuine musical passion?
Madonna starts, indignant, “Of course!”
How do you know?
“I just do. It’s like an adrenaline rush, like a drug. When you’re writing something and you know it’s good, you get flushed, you can feel the blood coursing through your veins, you feel alive, all your nerve endings stand up, something just clicks…”
“And if I listen to other artists, artists who bare their soul, I get the same feeling and it really moves me. I think that’s why people love music so insanely. It does, as they say, soothe the savage beast. It reaches you in a primal way that can’t be explained, much more than literature or movies or anything.”
At the start of the interview Madonna expressed surprise that I had travelled to New York to talk to her; until that week, she had spent two months in Britain recording the soundtrack for Evita. Despite her fears that the tabloid press would “torture” her, Madonna ended up enjoying herself, making friends and chilling out “away from the business”. One of the few things she didn’t relish was appearing on Top Of The Pops with ‘You’ll See’.
“But I’m not a big fan of doing any TV shows… It’s like ‘NEXT!’ Like going to a hooker or something… But London was great. I like London now but it’s not a city that embraces you. It’s a hard nut you have to crack.”
What did you mean when you said that Americans were more puritanical than the English?
“Did I say that? I think I said that Americans were more puritanical than the Europeans, not necessarily the English. I think English people have a whole different kind of repression going on. They’re so civil but there’s this whole other dark side as well. They’re actually very kinky and very perverted and…” she breaks off, grinning naughtily, “I quite like that.”
You’re thinking of our politicians.
“No. I’m thinking about a lot of people.”
Do you think our royalty are a bit of a joke?
“I don’t know enough about them to make a judgement. I think a bit about Princess Diana and I think a bit about Prince Charles and I think what depressing lives they must lead. They can never live up to the expectations people have of them, and…” Madonna spreads her hands, wonderingly, “What do they do exactly? I cone from a lower middle-class background. I have a work ethic. I can’t bear the idea of people sitting around and doing nothing and going to charity events all the time. It sounds so boring.”
In America entertainment stars are the royalty. Could you be a candidate for Queen Of America?
Madonna raises an eyebrow.
“Are you kidding? I could never be Queen Of America. I’ve pissed off too many people. I’ve got the queens of America on my side but other than that…”
Your single came out at a time when Britain was engrossed in the chart war between Blur and Oasis. Were you aware of all that?
“No. All I know about Blur is that they exist. I’ve listened to the Oasis CD but it doesn’t appeal to me. I know everyone’s into them in Britain but everyone listens to Mariah Carey here and I’m not into that either.”
Weren’t you supposed to go and see Oasis at Earls Court?
“I was invited to the show but I said, ‘I’m not going to go just because they’re a big deal. I have to like their music’. So they gave me a CD, and I listened to it, and I wasn’t interested “
Did the rock-based aspect put you off?
“Yeah, I just can’t relate to it. I have a hard time relating to male artists anyway… unless it’s the blues, R&B, that kind of stuff. Rock seems to me to be a lifestyle kind of stance, hiding behind this whole macho thing. It just doesn’t touch me. I listen to Oasis and I don’t know what the f*** they’re singing about and I don’t care.”
One of the Gallagher brothers, Noel, was quoted as saying that he was looking forward to meeting you and would only be too pleased to help you to have a baby.
Madonna starts. “REALLY?…”
He was only joking, he wasn’t being offensive.
“No, no, no…” she smiles, obviously tickled pink, “that’s very sweet! What do they look like? I haven’t a clue. On the album cover you can only see the backs of their heads. Are they cute?”
Cute?… Actually. you might think so. At a stretch, they’re a bit Italian looking.
“Italian looking? Oh, that’s nice.”
She sighs regretfully, unaware that it may have been a little imaginative to relocate the Gallaghers in downtown Milan.
“I feel terrible about the things I said. I hope they don’t feel too insulted when they read this interview I can’t help it, y’know, I’m just not into rock music. I was never even into The Beatles, can you Imagine?” she grins over at me, minxishly, “Is that sacrilegious to say?”
As if she cares. Controversy and Madonna are long-time bedfellows. Indeed, around her Sex book and ‘Erotica’, controversy could have been named as the third party in the break up of her on-off love affair with the world. But Madonna seems weary of her reputation as an arch media manipulator, recognising that it reduces her overall profile to that of a calculating businesswoman in corsets.
“They’ve managed to take every aspect of my life and say, ‘Oh, she did that on purpose, she manufactured that, she manipulated that…. It’s so boring. It’s just a way of making people feel safe about the fact that I’m walking around on this earth doing exactly what I want to do and enjoying it.”
It’s important to note that Madonna’s urge to provoke does not limit itself to inspiring admiration. One only has to see what she allowed to remain in her rivetting and excruciating In Bed… on-tour movie to realise that she’s not at all afraid of appearing unlikable. She’d rather the world hated her than pitied her.
But there’s a price to pay for this independent mentality, this refusal to pander to the ghoulish ambulance chaser in us all to see celebrities f**** up. drop a stitch, go on the rehab merry-go-round, and plead for public understanding in the aftermath. Strong, naughty and unapologetic, Madonna might have the globe’s attention but she doesn’t have its sympathy.
Indeed, at times during the conversation, Madonna exhibits the strained, philosophical demeanour of somebody who realises that no-one’s going to look out for her but herself. Furthermore, far from being paranoid, she is absolutely correct to feel that a large proportion of the world is against her. Most of the criticism aimed at Madonna is far from constructive and frequently ridiculously sexist. More than arty mainstream female performer ever, she has become a global target, an international dartboard, for misogyny.
Some people might argue that she’s asked for everything she’s got; she calls it ‘artistic expression’, they call it ‘masturbating onstage’ (Different strokes for different folks?). She calls it ‘A book to provoke debate about secuality’, they call it ‘porn’. She calls it ‘paving the way’, they call it the strange and terrible sight of ‘that nice girl Kyle Minogue’ nervously pushing male dancers into her crotch at Wembley Arena… Or, worse, Wendy James.
The negative side of your legacy could be that you’ve ‘inspired’ a lot of misguided wannabes to enter the pop arena. In the belief that flashing their underwear is all it takes. Do you accept responsibility for these characters?
“No!” says Madonna emphatically.
“These people made a presumption that they shouldn’t have made. This idea that all I did was prance around in my underpants and that’s why I’m a success. Sure, having my pictures taken in the nude and doing things that I did got me in the door but it didn’t keep me in the room. To have lasted as long as I’ve lasted, obviously, I have to have something more going for me.”
Do you feel that your exhibitionism, your love of performance, has been used against you, turned into this dirty, shameful thing?
“Yes, and they do that to take my strength away. There isn’t a performer on earth that isn’t an exhibitionist. There isn’t any point in being in this business if you’re not an exhibitionist. And, by the way, you can be an exhibitionist and be very shy as well.”
“I can be… extremely shy.”
But you’re also a bit of a troublemaker?
She grins madly. “Of course I am. I’m absolutely wicked!… But there’s that other side of me that’s sweet and like a little girl. But nobody knows that, and how could they? Nobody could know that unless they know me”
You’re a huge fan of Elvis Presley’s. Do you think he would he have liked you?
“Absolutely, don’t you?”
No, I think he may have disapproved.
“Excuse me! Why would Elvis have disapproved of me?”
The Sex book, the crotch-stroking, all that…
“Well what about his career – people wouldn’t film him from the waist down on television for 20 years!”
But underneath it all, he seemed really old school and sexist. And two-faced, he was friendly to The Beatles but then told the FBI that they were delinquent dope smokers and should be arrested.
“Hahaha!… Meanwhile he’s a big drug addict!”
Exactly. And he made Priscilla sweat it out beneath a bouffant in his honour.
Madonna sighs dreamily. “Oh well, maybe he was a total sexist pig and a rotten husband, probably a rotten father, too… But he had an amazing voice and he was incredibly sexy. I can admire him from that point of view. Maybe he wouldn’t have liked me but who knows?… If he hadn’t died he might have had some sort of cataclysmic experience, been born again and become very spiritual and accepting and open-minded and embraced all I stood for…” She breaks off, honking with laughter.
“I doubt it!… Oh well, I suppose a person can dream.”
Do you think men…?
“Are dogs? Yes!”
Madonna collapses into another hysterical giggling fit. Finally, she composes herself. “Proceed!”
Do you think men, in general, disapprove of you – are you a target for misogyny?
“Absolutely… Powerful women are a threat in any society which is why I am such a target. Even other women are threatened by me. It’s disturbing but at the some time it’s inspiring because it makes me want to destroy all that. end it.”
Do you know instinctively if a man is a misogynist?
It’s an aura?
“Yeah, a big, black cloud they carry around with them. But, y’know, you have to have a few words with them to make sure.” she breaks off, suddenly arch, “conversation is always good… But you can always tell misogynists. Especially if they’re misogynistic through their work. If they’re artists – what they create, if they’re politicians – the things that they say… and so on.”
Is it significant that there isn’t an equivalent word for women who hate men?
“It’s extremely significant and there never will be because we live in a patriarchal society. Men are allowed to hate women but women aren’t allowed to hate men.”
Is a misogynist the worst thing a men can be ?
Plenty of talented, interesting men have been misogynists: Elvis, JFK, Hemingway, Marvin Gaye…
“Picasso…” Madonna adds thoughtfully.
Exactly. So, should this one characteristic be considered the measure of a man?
She ponders for a long moment. “Yes… in a way. Because If you’re not comfortable with a strong woman you’re not comfortable with your own feminine instincts. You’re not comfortable, period. You’re going to be threatened by everything that’s not exactly like you are… and that is the measure any man.”
We move on to Madonna’s use of religious symbolism in her work, most notably the black saint/Christ figure in ‘Like A Prayer’ who was, let’s face it, rather more attractive than the wimpy, hippy figure we’re usually presented with. Over the years Madonna has made her religion look sexy, ambiguous, interesting. One could even argue that she is to Catholicism what McDonald’s is to the hamburger. Next to her, the Pope lust comes across as an Irate employee; the sullen guy who serves up the fries.
Does she agree that she’s done more to popularise Catholicism than the Pope?
Madonna grimaces. “I’ve brought a lot of attention to it but I certainly haven’t made myself popular by doing so. I’ve pissed off a lot of people. But maybe I’ve gotten a few people unconsciously interested in it …”
You made me wish that I was a f***ed-up Catholic.
“Well, thank you,” she drawls sarcastically, “that’s flattering!… It can f****d you up but it’s good too. It gave me a love of structure in my life, it absolutely shaped me in that respect… I would have been a totally different person if I hadn’t been a Catholic.
“It’s such a dramatic religion, like going to the f***ing opera, y’know? There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance and ritual and punishment and the music is amazing and there’s beautiful stained-glass windows and when you’ve sinned you go to a dark curtained booth and get on your knees and you tell the priest all the bad things you’ve done and it’s all so… kinky!”
Can we safely assume that your God isn’t the same God that Billy Graham plays golf with?
“I think we all have the same God. In the beginning of time it was all one religion but then people got frightened and elitist and they had to say, ‘This is my God, this is my religion’… But my relationship with God is not that He is up there and we arc down here. I don’t believe in that I believe that God is in all of as and that we are all capable of being gods and goddesses. That’s my brand of Catholic mysticism. Throw some Buddhism in there and you’ve got my religion.”
If you believe in God, you must believe in the Devil, too?
“It’s not that I believe in the Devil – I believe in evil and the Devil represents evil.”
Your work is strewn with religious symbolism but no devils. Why not – isn’t evil sexy?
Madonna looks appalled “I don’t think evil is sexy! I don’t think being cruel and mean and hurting other people is sexy!… Although,” she grins. “I have been quite attracted to some very bad boys!”
Is it that the Devil’s too rock’n’roll for a pop girl like you?
“How do you mean?”
The Devil is part of rock’n’roll mythology, isn’t it? Bands meet the Devil at the crossroads, sign their souls away and then become Led Zeppelin.
Madonna sneers, unconvinced. “I certainly never thought of it that way… In fact, saying that rock’n’roll is the Devil’s music gives rock’n’roll a whole lot of depth and meaning it doesn’t actually have. So, let’s not get carried away here.
“I have got those sides to me,” she adds, “but I think it’s better to give people something to aspire to… Besides,” she grins sardonically, “some people would say that I offered up that side of myself with my Sex book and ‘Erotica’.”
The release of Sex and ‘Erotica’ is seized upon gleefully by Madonna’s detractors as the point when the chart-busting jezebel gat her comeuppance. In their view, she had French-kissed, groped and f***ed the world to the point where she herself ended up (commercially) screwed. Certainly, ‘Erotica’ was not popular with the public, although this could be attributed to the fact that it is actually one of her weakest musical ventures. But where Sex is concerned, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about.
Only the terminally sheltered or very young could possibly be ‘shocked’ by the photographs – which are mainly concerned with somewhat hackneyed bondage/bisexual fantasies. Indeed, Norman Mailer told Madonna that he didn’t think it was dirty enough and that she should have included a ‘beaver shot’. But this probably says more about Mailer than it does about Madonna.
The only real shock in Sex is in seeing a millionairess pop star cavorting about totally starkers and obviously having a giggle about it. The quasi-S&M text is also very funny – not that most people got as far as reading it. Madonna’s only real mistake could be that, at the time, she panicked and argued that Sex was not porn but erotica. Sex is not porn – although it does have the same darkly comedic effect of naming most male heterosexual readers into dribbling imbeciles. But nor is it erotica – which, after all, is just porn with a library card. Sex is more a collection of snapshots and Post-It notes from one woman’s ‘dirty mind’. Madonna’s tongue might get everywhere in the interim but, spiritually, it’s resting firmly in her cheek… as it were. Even if Sex doesn’t turn you on, it’s difficult to see just why it turned the world off so dramatically.
For her part, Madonna is characteristically defiant.
“Everyone went out and bought Sex, it was sold out in two seconds. And then everybody slagged me off. That, to me is a statement of the hypocrisy of the world that we live in. The fact that everybody is so interested in sex but won’t admit it,” she pouts mock-petulantly. “I made my point completely and people know I made my point and that’s why they’re so pissed off at me.”
Not everyone. A lot of people thought that the S&M passages in particular were very funny.
“Really?” she drawls, “I didn’t hear from them.”
“Y’know,” she continues, “that’s it, it’s supposed to be funny. I do think that you need to bring humour to it and that’s what I was trying to do with the Sex book. But no one got the subtlety, no one got the humour. What I wrote about S&M was supposed to be amusing. It was never meant to be this incredibly hot, arousing, erotic piece of porn. In face I was poking fun at everybody’s prejudices about other people’s sexualities and their own sexuality.”
You’ve long been accused of pandering to male fantasies. But you told Carrie Fisher in Rolling Stone that you hate giving head and won’t do it. With that kind of attitude you wouldn’t last a minute in most men’s fantasies?
Madonna laughs. “Oh, that wasn’t true… Of course I give head, it was a joke! We were just sitting around being smart asses in a conversation.”
It looked true written down.
“Everything looks true written down. What you read in National Enquirer and News Of The World looks true written down.”
Do you pander to male fantasy?
She sighs. “Maybe I do – who cares? I certainly pander to my own fantasies. I always serve up fantasy with a twist, we talked about this in the beginning with my songs. There’s always subtext going on. And I’m sure that lots of men were completely offended by all those pictures in my Sex book of two men getting it off. There’s probably a lot of men out there who really aren’t quite sure what to think of me.”
The one really unsettling image in Sex is the ‘rape fantasy’ in the gym. Were you aware that you had to handle it very carefully, or was it just another photograph?
Madonna looks at me questioningly:
“Where the two schoolboys are attacking me and I’m wearing my Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform?… It was just another fantasy of mine, being overpowered. I have been raped and it’s not an experience I would ever glamourise. But I know that there are a lot of women who have that fantasy where they are overpowered by two men or a group of men.”
The term ‘rape fantasy’ is an oxymoron anyway. Rape means to take by force. against somebody’s will.
“Exactly. In my photograph it’s obviously completely consensual. Everybody wants to do it. I have a smile on my face because I am having a good tone, I suppose it’s not really a rape fantasy if the woman wants to do it. It’s just a case of pretending not to be interested when you really are.”
I didn’t know that you’d been raped.
“You’re the first person I’ve ever told.”
Was it a date rape situation, someone you knew?
“No… a complete stranger.”
Did you get help afterwards?
“No. I was very young and I didn’t know anybody. I’d just moved to New York and… It was a very educational experience.”
Madonna grimaces and falls silent.
Would you rather stop talking about this?
“I don’t want to talk about it only in that…” she pauses, choosing her words carefully, “I don’t want to get into this Oprah Winfrey/Sinead O’Connor thing of, ‘Oh, everybody, all these horrible things have happened to me!’ I don’t want to make it an issue. I think that I’ve had what a lot of people would consider to be horrific experiences in my life. But I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because I don’t.
“It happened a long time ago so over the years I’ve come to terms with it. In a way it was a real eye-openning experience. I’d only lived in Now York for a year and I was very young, very trusting of people. I came from the mid-West and I was walking around New York City like everyone was my friend. That experience completely turned me round in terms of becoming much more street smart and much more savvy. It’s that old expression, y’know, everything than doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I was very disturbed about it afterwards but I knew that I couldn’t go back home. There was just no way that I was going back home.”
How could you bear to turn that experience into art? Surely touched a nerve in you?
“No, because in the photograph it isn’t me being raped. As I said, it was something I wanted. I’m playing the coquette, the virgin or whatever, and they are the bad boys. They take me but only because I give them the opportunity to.”
Madonna stares at me pointedly to nuke sure that I understand and then prepares to close the subject.
“The thing about what happened to me is that.. although it was devastating at the time, I know that is made me a much stronger person in retrospect. It forced me to be a survivor. That’s all there is to it”
Such is the dehumanisation of Madonna that some people may deduce she is capable of using even this experience as a means to produce more column inches. Not that she cares, she’s more than used to it.
“Some people out there think everything I do is a publicity stunt,” she points out, wearily, “they think when I go to the bathroom it’s a publicity stunt.”
One thing is evident. Madonna isn’t bullshiting when she says that she’s a survivor. This mindset is there in everything she says and does. You might see Madonna misbehaving on Lettarnan, or acting like a spoiled control freak in the In Bed… movie, but you’ll never catch her whingeing. You’ll never spot Madonna on her knees, begging the world to look after her, or taking out the trash in the Betty Ford clinic. Nor is she ever likely to ‘apologise’.
One role the thespian-minded Madonna unit never hanker after is that of celebrity victim. Some people will never forgive her for that.
As for her fame, it is obvious that, despite its drawbacks. this particular tabloid whipping post is far more comfortable with superstardom than she would have been with a lesser degree of celebrity. Madonna is, after all, a woman who wanted it all and got far more than she ever dreamed of.
Nor does she seem ready to hang up her coned bra yet. Apart from the great songs, wicked quotability and chameleon good looks, Madonna has that something which sets the real artists apart from the pretenders. Madonna will never be finished because she has a very real sense of unfinished business. She’ll probably still be dancing and kicking and screaming as they lower her coffin into the ground.
What is is that turns a celebrity into an icon?
She thinks for a moment. “That happens when people start identifying with you in an even more unrealistic way. All of a sudden you become the fulfilment of everyone’s dreams, this dehumanised figure that people become obsessed with. When you display a human characteristic you get knocked off your pedestal and that’s when the slagging off begins. That’s when I’m dismissed as this ambitious monster, this tart, this thing without talent.”
Will history exonerate you of all charges?
The Medusa of MOR smiles, clutching her hands together ‘melodramatically’.
“Yeah, when I’m dead… When I’m dead and no longer the thread. My comfort is that all the great artists since the beginning of time have always been completely misunderstood and never fully appreciated until they were dead. They didn’t understand Van Gogh and they crucified Jesus Christ…”
She breaks off giggling: “So there you go, that’s my solace.”