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Madonna Interview : Arena

Madonna - Arena / January-February 1999

And Still I Rise – A meeting with Madonna : The Last Pop Giant On Earth

On a Sunday afternoon in October Madonna leaves her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and stands in the street. It is unseasonably warm – T-shirt weather in fall – and she has, she thinks, never been happier than the day before when she celebrated her daughter’s second birthday by holding a party at which a group of teenage Indian girls performed traditional dance. She approves of dance as an element in her daughter’s development; it encourages her to be creative, expressive, free. Anyway, to cut a long story short, she has lent her car to the indian girls to get them to the airport. She wants them to be taken care of.

Which is why she is standing in the street trying to hail a cab. The minutes tick by and she looks at her watch. She doesn’t like being late for appointments, she’s insistent on that: act professionally, do your job, even the bits you don’t especially like. Cabs come by, but only with passengers in the back. Even if you’re Madonna, and everyone knows your face as well as you do yourself, sometimes a beacon of yellow light just doesn’t come over the horizon. Imagine! The Most Famous Woman In The World, The Last Pop Giant On Earth, forlornly standing at the kerb waiting for her luck to change. The minutes tick by and, goddamit, there’s no cab in sight. The warm weather means there are a lot of people on the street and – Ohmygod! Isn’t that Madonna?! – her famous person’s disguise of black sunglasses wears thin. She’s rumbled. In the quarter-hour she’s on the street she is accosted by maybe 20 people. She loses count. Still no cab. She’d like to run. She’s been running all her life, these days mostly from what she calls her ‘demons’.

For years she ran from a middle-class, Middle-American upbringing in search of fame, chased it relentlessly and now, aged 40, she can’t get away, it defines her, possesses her. But she hatches plots and schemes to escape its clutches, to operate in a private space, finds way to work some much needed freedom. She is, if nothing else, her own woman.

The cavalry arrives. She jumps in and the car takes her off downtown. Maybe the driver recognizes her, maybe he doesn’t, this woman who has engineered herself so intensely through constant purposeful intervention. But it hardly matters, she is a person that we all think we know so intimately, so excessively – nakedly even – that we think that maybe there;s nothing else to know, no need for further familiarity. Madonna knows better than this, she knows that we hardly know her at all.

‘I ran to the lakes / And up to the hill / I ran and I ran / I’m looking there still / And I smelt her burning flesh… / Her decay / I ran and I ran / I’m still running today’ from ‘Mer Girl’ by Madonna

Madonna: For me [the] running is running from the idea of death, facing my own demons, facing my mother’s death and dealing with… whatever. People get obsessed by the idea of fame and being acknowledged by people and having approval and all these things for any number of mostly unhealthy reasons. So if you do start to better yourself you have to figure that one out – why? What is it that I’m looking for ultimately? What is it that I want? Why am I here? And so the running is a symbolic running really, from the truth of not wanting to face myself. Running from fear, running from being alone, running from being abandoned. All of these things.

Isn’t the only reason you’re now confronting these kind of existential questions because you’re successful and materially fulfilled?

Madonna: But the things I’m thinking about are deep and profound. [They’re] not easy things to think about. In fact it’s quite the reverse. What I was thinking about and doing was much simpler, you know? To really, really try to figure things out, to go deep and examine myself and really say ‘OK, why am I here? Why is anyone here? What is my purpose?’ There’s nothing easy about it.

Why are we here?

Madonna: [laughs] I don’t think that’s something anyone can tell another person. Do you know what I mean? Because everyone is here for a different reason, but I don’t think we’re put on this earth just to work hard, earn a lot of money and die.

What is the purpose of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone and her costumed, carnival pop life? This is a question she is currently in the process (as she is most likely to describe it) of trying to fathom, 16 years on from her first success in the New York clubs and a belt that read ‘Boy Toy’. To be sure Madonna is alone. There’s no one else left. The pantheon of Eighties pop stars who could rock a stadium from Rome to Rio has been sacked, its false idols collapsed or worn down by time. Madonna, the first woman to fill a stadium, knows this, although she tries not to think about it too much, tries to keep moving, and has been vindicated – 1998 has been a good year for her. She has released an album, Ray Of Light, which was enthusiastically received by press and public alike, the single ‘Ray Of Light’ swept the board at the MTV Video Music Awards, and she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from music channel VH1, although she picks awards up for just getting out of bed these days. Ray Of Light, which has now sold over eight million copies worldwide, saw her team up with English producer William Orbit to create fluid soundscapes that provide a lush backdrop and rhythmic mantra to what is lyrically a rawer, more vulnerable Madonna. ‘I hadn’t worked with her before,’ says Orbit. ‘But Ray Of Light was clearly very personal. She was really laying it bare.’