Live To Tell
After 30 years of provocation, a fiery Madonna explains why she isn’t nearly done pushing limits.
“She’s coming out,” a choreograph says over P.A. system, sounding tense. “Everyone gets your horns and masks on.” A couple of nights before the Grammys, 22 shirtless, flawlessly fit male dancersm each equipped with a bejeweled face mask and hazardous-looking black bull’s horns, line up on a reharsal-studio stage within Sony Pictures’ Culver City lot, awaiting inspection. madonna struts out of a dressing roomfar across the studio, dressed in a matador outfit, sans pants. Trailed by a hairstylist and a makeup artist, she spends at least 30 seconds eyeing each dancer, probing for any tiny imperfections in the fit of their leather costumes and masks. “I don’t want oil on their bodies,” she notes. “I had the same problem on the video. You can use body moisturizer.”
Twenty-eight choral singers, most of them less finely sculpted specimens, assemble by the nearby bleachers. Madonna gives them even more individual attention. On their red robes is a logo from her new album, Rebel Heart – a detail even HD cameras will never pick up. She asks the ones who wear glasses if they can take them off; suggests hairstyles and, occasionally, cuts (“The nice thing about hair is that it grows back”); critiques beards and sideburns; and in one woman’s case, reaches out and begins braiding curls herself.
All of this work is for five minutes’ worth of TV time, the debut performance of her new single, the deep-house-inflected “Living for Love.” In keeping with the lyric “Love’s gonna lift me up,” it ends with a prone Madonna soaring 15 feet into the air via a harness. It’s a lovely image, though as she hovers tonight she breaks the spell by asking, “Are my boobs coming out of my costume?”
In between takes, two small children come up to the stage. They’re both nine years old – the boy, David, is in crisp white linen; the girl, Mercy, is wearing a blue sweater and skirt, a sparkly bow in her hair. “Hi, Mom,” they say, in unison, and Madonna smiles, offering a hand for her youngest kids to kiss.
As the downtime stretches on for a few more seconds, she begins to lose patience. “Are we having a break right now?” Madonna asks into her microphone. “Or can we go? I have things I need to do.”
Four days later, Madonna is back in her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There’s a lot of impressive art just in the second-floor sitting room, including a Leger above the fireplace and Frida Kahlo’s “Mi Nacimiento” resting casually on a stack of books. Family pictures going back to Madonna’s childhood are on a glass end table, and sheet music from Mercy’s lessons sits on the piano in the corner. There’s a highly eclectic collection of books on the shelves, from art tomes to Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn to a biography of the late John F. Kennedy Jr., a rumored paramour.
More books are neatly stacked on the cream-colored coffee table, which precisely matches the couch – Gay New York, Luc Sante’s Low Life, Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland. Alongside them is a set of black binders filled with photographs – references for a movie she plans to direct, based on the 2013 novel The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.
Also on the coffee table are my twin digital recorders. Madonna reaches down and lines them up more evenly. “I have OCD,” she says, brightly. She asks for my zodiac sign. The answer – Taurus – seems acceptable. “Strong-willed people,” she says. “They don’t like to change. But very loyal.”
I laugh a little, then find myself assuring Madonna that I’m not sneering at astrology. “Oh, OK, good,” she says. “You can’t be a human being and laugh at it. Because it’s a science, it really is. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of charlatans. In general, and in specific.”
Thanks to an overnight flight, not to mention decades of insomnia, Madonna is exhausted. “I was doing yoga earlier,” she says, settling onto her couch. She’s wearing a black, high-necked Dolce & Gabbana blouse and matching skirt, with Prada boots. There’s a small cross around her neck, a gold grille on her teeth and a Jacob the Jeweler watch on her wrist. “And I literally fell asleep in corpse pose. But you know, yoga is a preparation for death. Yogis get to a point where they can literally slow their heartbeats down. And then as they get older, they go into the woods, and they sit in their loincloth or whatever it is, and they choose to stop their heart. Anyway, that’s what yoga’s all about. It’s not about twisting yourself into a pretzel. It’s about preparing for death. Detachment from desire. What a great way to start an interview!”
I was struck by your extraordinary attention to detail – going over each singer, each dancer. What is that all about for you?
I’ve always been that way, and then it’s just developed over the years, as I’ve done more things – especially film directing. I really want to see everything. If it’s around me and it’s part of my show, I need to be a part of all of it. From the creation of the music, to the surface of the floor, to everyone’s hairstyle, to the details with the buttons and the bows and the snaps and the zippers. All of those things! I don’t know where it started, but I think it’s just gotten worse [laughs].
Or better, yeah. Because I do think that those details matter.
When you’re making a new album, how do you deal with the pressure of living up to your past work?
I don’t think about my old stuff. I just move forward. I mean, it’s funny, because when I work with people, they’re referencing other things. Diplo kept wanting to play, like, the bass line for “Vogue” or something from “La Isla Bonita” over and over again. I’m like, “OK, let’s move on.” I forget about stuff. I don’t feel like I have to live up to anything. I’m just thinking about what I want to write about.
At the same time, the new song “Veni Vidi Vici” is very self-referential, even dropping old song titles.
Yeah, because every once in a while, it is good to look back and tell a story about how a girl from Detroit came to New York.
I mean, it is an amazing story. Are you able to recognize it now?
[Softly] It’s crazy, what’s happened in my life and what I’ve been through. If I really think about it, I’ve had an amazing life. And I’ve met so many amazing people. I saw [Like a Prayer producer] Nile Rodgers at the Grammys, and I just gave him the longest, biggest hug. I feel like I’ve survived so much, and been through so much. And sometimes I miss the innocence of those times. Life was different. New York was different. The music business was different. I miss the simplicity of it, the naiveté of everyone around me.
Some people are very invested in the idea of “Who’s the Queen of Pop?” Is that a crown you’re interested in?
Well, I do think of myself as a queen, but I don’t think I’m the only queen. There’s room for other queens. We reign over different kingdoms.