There’s an approximate 100% probability that any living human over the age of, say, 25 has some sort of specific Madonna-related memory. Perhaps you slow danced to “Crazy for You” at a high school prom, memorized the “Vogue” choreography in your dorm room, warbled out “Express Yourself” at a bachelorette party, had a dancefloor epiphany to “Ray of Light”, or fumbled through some sexual experimentation with Erotica throbbing in the background. Perhaps, like me, you grew up worshipping at the altar of “Into the Groove”-era Madonna and quietly contemplated your own burgeoning sexuality after obsessively viewing Truth or Dare around five million times. Even if you aren’t a super fan—or even a fan at all—there’s no escaping Madonna. She is everywhere.
It is not hyperbole to say that Madonna profoundly influenced the ways in which an entire generation of young people thought about music, fashion, and—in particular—sex. She was one of the first celebrities of her time to advocate on behalf of gay people and speak openly about AIDS. She was a provocateur of the highest order, even when it wasn’t necessarily in her best interest. (Go back and watch some of the now quaint-seeming news coverage regarding the release of her 1992 Sex book just to have a laugh at how radically the cultural landscape has—and hasn’t—changed). She has also sold over 300 million records. These are all good reasons to talk about Madonna, but they still aren’t the most important reason: She essentially built the house that everyone else—Britney, Beyoncé, Nicki, Gaga, Sky, Rihanna, Katy, Ariana, even Kanye—all now get to call home. She devised the archetype of pop stardom as we know and understand it today. And, with the exception of Michael Jackson—the King of Pop to her Queen—Madonna’s enduring impact on popular culture remains pretty much unequaled.
But what does Madonna mean in 2015? And what does being Madonna mean in 2015? It’s not an easy subject to unpack. It’s also a question that Madonna herself seems to struggle with. On her forthcoming 13th studio album, Rebel Heart, the 56-year-old pop paragon chooses to re-examine rather than simply reinvent. As a result, the 19-track opus is, in many ways, the entire Madonna mythology writ large—a record that vacillates between empowerment anthems, romantic missives, and the now-requisite assertions of complete and total dominance (see: “Bitch I’m Madonna”), with stops along the way to revisit her lifelong obsessions with sex and Catholicism.
As usual, Madonna’s knack for choosing of-the-moment collaborators remains in full-effect, and this time around the long list includes Diplo, Kanye, Avicii, DJ Dahi, Blood Diamonds, Ryan Tedder, Ariel Rechtshaid, Nicki Minaj, Nas, Chance the Rapper, and Mike Tyson. While this roster of talent makes for what is arguably the most all-over-the-place thing Madonna has ever released, it doesn’t stop her from also getting surprisingly personal. Tracks like “Joan of Arc”—in which she examines just how much being Madonna has cost her—and the title track are some of the most vulnerable self-examinations she has ever committed to record. Elsewhere, she swaps life stories with Nas on “Veni Vidi Vici”—a song in which she recalls her time as a “baby on the street” running wild on New York City’s Lower East Side in the early ‘80s. For a record that is trying so hard to sound of-the-moment, Rebel Heart’s most interesting moments tend to be the ones where she drops the braggadocio and sex talk, and pauses to examine her own identity. For Madonna—an artist who has famously thrived on radical evolution—perhaps the most radical thing she can be at this point is herself.
Given her experience as one of the world’s most talked about human beings for the past 30 years or so, Madonna is—as one might imagine—a formidable interview subject. Sitting down to chat with her on a cold recent Friday night in Midtown Manhattan is both intimidating and surreal. It’s also really fun. Corseted, camera ready, and sporting a bejeweled Chanel whistle around her neck, Madonna is both friendly and forthcoming—just as happy to talk about art and poets like Anne Sexton and Mary Oliver as she is to talk about pop music. One might imagine that a sit-down with a celebrity of Madonna’s stature would involve a lot of preemptive stipulations, but the only real caveat I’m given regarding our discussion comes from Madonna herself. “If you ask me a question I think is stupid then you have to take a shot of this tequila,” she says, producing a bottle. “And if you ask me an amazing question, something that really sets me on fire, then I have to take a shot of tequila. Don’t worry though, this is really good tequila.” In the end, we both drink.
Pitchfork: You have worked in lots of different mediums—acting, directing, theater, philanthropy—but always come back to pop music as your primary means of expression.
Madonna: Yes, my home base—pop music and the Catholic Church.
Pitchfork: And sex.
M: [laughs] Yes. Why not? All three together, if possible.
Pitchfork: What makes pop music such a powerful medium for you?
M: It’s very primal. It’s also like poetry, when it’s good. I like that you have four minutes to zero in on something and evoke a specific feeling and take people on some sort of journey. When I discovered that I could write music, it felt like the most natural way for me to connect with people and tell my stories. I’ve always thought of that as what I do: I tell stories.
Pitchfork: I was really surprised by this new record. To be honest, I was also kind of relieved…
M: That you didn’t hate it? [laughs]