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.”