Heck! Who’s that girl ? It can’t possibly be Madonna! ‘Cos the most fabulous famous female superstar in the history of pop wouldn’t be seen dead wearing a blanker… or talking about ‘spiritual enlightenment’… or singing a track from her new album, ‘Ray Of Light’, entirely in Sanskrit, er, would she?!! Mads for it: Sylvia Patterson (words)
“You’ll have to excuse me, I’m wearing my blanket.”
The most fabulous female superstar in the history of popular music strolls, smiling, into the vast, antique drawing room known as The Piano Suite, Room 312, in London’s Claridges Hotel, swathed in what appears to be a lenght of carpet; a huge, thick and shapeless persian rug, perhaps, in shades of pink and gold and blue-
It could well be some priceless, rehal robe hewn from the diamond spindle of a Siamese countess in 1812, but the description “blanket” accurately reflects the mind-set of the person engulfed beneath it. The hair is unwashed and black-rooted, an oily centre-parting pulled severely into two strawberry-blonde milk-maid’s pleats tied at the ends with elastic bands. She is wearing no male-up. Her eyebrows are thin, as are the lips. She looks every one of her 39 years.
From within the fabric’s folds, bare legs and arms poke out, whitely, from a kneee-lenght black skirt and a sleeveless, clingy, black top. And her hands are splattered all over with the burnt-orange stains of one who has, surely, been tilling the earth. She does not shimmer with celebrity stardust and she does not smell of anything at all. This is Madonna, most fabulous female superstar in the history of pop music, in 1998. And she looks like a casualty newly staggered down from the Glastonbury healing fields at 7am after a three-day acid trip bender wrapped in a purchase from Joe bananas’ blanket emporium. NME, who bought a new super-thick mascara and polished its boots for the occasion and everything, feels, in comparison, like an over made-up tart. And is in a catatonic state contemplating the ignominy of it all… she cannot be a hippy, not Madonna, not Pop’s Big Sister, not she who is Pop Culture Itself… impostor! When Madonna begins to speak, it is in a calm, deliberate, almost British-tinged, far less nasal voice than the one we’ve known for a lifetime.
“What does your necklace say?” she says, lowering herself into a super-flumped backless sofa-seat and folding her arms in a matronly way.
Er, it’s my name in Arabic.
“And what is your name in Arabic?”
Urm… can’t pronounce it. Siffi or something.
“Oh. Well, that’s nice. Where are you from?”
(Becoming hysterical with the surrealness of it all) Never mind about me! You don’t look anything like ‘you’!
“Hmmmn,” says Madonna and nods, patiently, breaking into the legendary gap-toothed grin of cheek and profound good cheer whereby you realise, yes, it’s really, really her alright.
Does that sound like a really weird thing to say ?
“Yes, it does.”
What do people see when they look at you ?
“When people look at me,” says Madonna, evenly, “they see themselves.”
And with that, the hotel fire alarm pierces through the walls for 20 deafening seconds.
Princess Diana was, as Madonna said herself, “the only person who had it worse than me”. In the two weeks immediately after Diana’s death Madonna could walk, unharassed, through Central Park with her beloved baby: “More freedom than I’d had in ten years.” Today, in Britain, where once, like Diana, she’d be ‘hunted’ through Hyde Park by tabloid reporters on her mandatory morning jog, there are 20 politely curious fans below her Mayfair hotel window, three policemen and one overexcited pop fan reporter from NME.
Madonna’s is the terminal sort of fame which can never be diminished, though certainly she is far more infamous than at any other time in her near-15-year career. fifteen years as the sociosexual revolutionary pop vamp freedom fighter for equality and the expression of the sexual and spiritual self. Perpetrator of a thousand peerless, iconographic images of the late-20th century from disco-goth troll to conical-brassiered superwoman to irredeemably sensational beauty (for ‘Vogue’, the greatest pop video ever made). And, while we’re at it’, simulator of masturbation in front of the Vatican while simultaneously being fondled by several beautiful young men of nil-disguised homosexual persuasion. And, let us never forget, creator of some of the most inspirational and joyous pop music the world has ever known.
In the late-’90s she hasn’t taken all her clothes off, bothered The Pope or ‘blown’ a bottle for years. In the past three years, she redeemed (critically, for unfathomable reasons) a spectacularly faded cinematic career through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s frankly bloody awful Evita and its celebration of mawkish melodrama with no speaky bits in and Jimmy Nail and veered, terrifyingly, towards the barren wasteland of power-balladeering occupied by the Devil’s own shower-singin’ trinity, ie, Mariah, Whitney and (choke) Celine Dion.
Thankfully, she now appears to have that lot out of her system and brings us ‘Ray Of Light’, a dazzling space-pop album of late-’90s dub-trance dreamscape atmospherics, easily her best of this decase and co-written, mostly, by ‘Justify My Love’ remix boffin, William orbit. In parts it could be a British trip-hop album, features fiddling by Massive Attack’s strong arranger Craig Armstrong and shimmers throughout with the ochre threads of the east, which it would do, seeing as it’s all about, erk, “spiritual enlightenment”. If it is the very essence of post-rock clubland cool (Britannia Division), William Orbit assures us there was nil calculation to make it sound as such.
“Calculated is very much the wrong word,” he notes. “We listened to very little outside music, in fact I’d mention something and she’d say, ‘I don’t want to hear it!'”