Madonna is not yet in the building, but Interscope’s nondescript New York City HQ is primed for her arrival—the lighting is soft, the hallways are specially perfumed, and my palms are already moist. I’m sitting in the green room with four members of Madonna’s team—all of them bubbly, chatty women—but apart from that it’s a total sausage fest: 15 male, mostly gay journalists, and me. When word reaches us that she’s made an entrance, banter ceases and we all stare silently at the questions in our laps. I inhale two glasses of white wine to calm my nerves and become very aware that I need to pee, but I’m too scared to get up in case my name is called when my overalls are round my ankles. My father is already texting me excitedly, “Well???”
My dad is particularly invested in how my 20 minutes with her Madgesty will pan out because back in ’87 he took me to my first ever concert: Madonna on her Who’s That Girl Tour. I was only six years old but flashes from that night remain in sharp focus, like my pale pink ra-ra skirt, my mom’s lace gloves, and the strings of pale plastic pearls I looped round my neck. I remember the enveloping applause, too, and that point in the set when the then 28-year-old singer dedicated “Get into the Groove” to San Francisco and plucked a skinny Chinese guy from the 22,000-strong throng to dance with her. My Madonna moment, his Madonna moment, they’re just one among millions.
Rebel Heart is Madonna’s thirteenth studio album, and since half the record was leaked this past December, the singer’s been on a media blitz. Right now she’s everywhere—talking to all the major media outlets, floating through the air at the Grammys, falling on her ass at the Brits. Although you could argue she’s been pretty much everywhere since her 1983 hit “Everybody” saw her side-to-side shimmying out of the Lower East Side, onto dance floors, and into the charts. For the subsequent 30 plus years she’s been making waves and generating headlines whether it be thanks to game-changing albums or image reinvention, infuriating the Vatican and outraging prudes, or fighting for self-expression, gay rights, and human rights in general. Most recently Drake dedicated an entire song to her.
The mercurial multihyphenate is a pop culture pioneer, an exhaustively snapped and scrutinized mega-watt celebrity—which is a subject she examines in new song “Joan of Arc.” It’s easy to assume that harsh words and romantic bust-ups have no effect on Madonna, but sandwiched between the party cuts and big-balled bluster there have always been songs that reveal chinks in her armor and never more so than on Rebel Heart.
At 56 years old, Madonna’s sold 300 million records making her the top selling female artist of all time. Of all time. Which brings us to Kanye West, just one among the fleet of collaborators Madonna’s cherry-picked to assemble this record. Alongside West her roll call includes Diplo, Ariel Reichstadt, Blood Diamonds, Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper, Nas, DJ Dahi, Avicii and his troupe of Scandi songwriters. Oh, and Mike Tyson. As such it’s a pin-balling record, clocking in at 14 tracks, (with the deluxe edition and the super deluxe edition offering 19 tracks and 23 tracks, respectively). It’s a hefty amount of new material to serve up when modern day music fans are thirsty for single smashes rather than cohesive collections, but in fact Rebel Heart services this very generation. It is not a well-plotted journey, but a feast of contrasts. She follows “Joan of Arc, with the big-yourself-up club banger “Iconic;” the air horn-blasted, reggae-pop of “Unapologetic Bitch” is brassy by comparison to the terse-yet-tender kiss off of “HeartBreakCity.”
“Bitch I’m Madonna” has Diplo-writ large in every clipped smack and booty-bass beat with Nicki Minaj adding extra sass, and of course what Madonna record would be without her favorite juxtaposition—the frisson between religion and raunch. On the panting, pouting “Holy Water,” she orders the listener to their knees, “Kiss it better… / Make it wetter,” she orders before asking “Don’t it taste like holy water?” Well, Madonna’s innuendos have never been an exercise in subtlety. Does she always succeed in creating music that’s cool, effortless, and of the moment? No. The aforementioned “Holy Water” is a tad jarring and sorry Kanye, “Illuminati” is among the weaker works here, but Madonna continues to keep us on our toes like no other performer in the history modern music.
The week before we meet she held court with journalists, junket-style at Sotheby’s, against a backdrop of Keith Harings and Jean-Michel Basquiats. Beside her stood a bottle of tequila and two shot glasses—the challenge being if an interviewer asked a question she deemed dumb, they’d have to take a shot and if they hit one out the park, Madonna would knock one back. Today there’s no tequila as Madonna’s feeling a tad under the weather and I’m ushered into a room that smells like eucalyptus and scented candles. She stands up from the white leather couch to greet me, a slight five foot five upped a few inches thanks to black bejeweled heels. She’s immaculate in a semi-sheer, intermittently beaded silk Pamella Roland dress that hangs modestly below the knee. Still, it’s slit in all the right places, at the arms and the décolletage, her black lace bra playing peekaboo. She looks astonishing—even with that gold and diamond grill—her eyeliner impeccably flicked outlining watchful blues eyes. They assess me. “I like your overalls,” she says. I dressed like a 12-year-old to meet the Queen of Pop. We sit down and get to it.