Famously, Madonna smells nice. She first appears from the gloom of the concrete-and-steel hotel lobby, her face glowing pale. She wears a black ribbed jumper, loose trousers, black-wedged Spice Girls shoes. She is petite – even the Most Famous Woman In The World is smaller than you thought! – frailer even, although the body is athletic, all business. The shoulders are square, the walk, rangy and loose-hipped. The walk of an athlete. We sit down and mmmmm! – doesn’t she smell good? We sit in a circular room lined with padded faux leather. Perched on a stool Madonna leans against the wall. The lights are dimmed and the air conditioning is on too high. The room is separated from the rest of the lobby by a velvet rope. (Madonna spends more time than she would perhaps like in private nooks and dens and fuselages that you and I will never see.)
The face is fragile. It’s not conventionally beautiful, but unexpectedly beautiful, like a painting that starts to reveal itself the more you look at it. She looks at you sometimes, and although you’ve seen the face a thousand – no, many more – times before there is much about it that you haven’t taken in. The greenness of her eyes, for instance, which contrast dramatically with her pale face. She looks better with dark- or honey-colored hair than she did in her peroxide days when it seemed she would do anything to shoehorn herself into the vestiges of fuck-me pop stardom.
She knows that all the things that you have read about her are mostly false. What is true is that Ray Of Light affirms the belief that she’s at her best when she’s riding the prevailing cultural mood, when she is in harmony rather than discordant, truculent troubled, as she seemed to be at the start of this decade when she reached a personal law after releasing Erotica, publishing Sex, and suffering poor reviews for the Movie Body Of Evidence during 1992. She is not the kind of person to let things creep up slowly upon her, so we must deduce that Sex was an attempt of a kind to engage us in some kind of discourse.
‘I see a lot of things I did in my Sex book now in advertising and I think, well, I was happy to get the shit kicked out of me so that you guys could have this freedom.’ she says, laughing long and hard.
There was a part of you that wanted to provoke?
Why? Because you wanted to change things? Because you felt that America needed it?
‘Because I was dealing with my own demons.’ she says. ‘Because I couldn’t deal with the fact that people were constantly saying, “Oh, she’s sext and she’s this and that, but she doesn’t have any talent.” And it really irked me that you couldn’t be a, you know, sexually provocative creature and intelligent at the same time. So I went to the extreme and pushed the envelope to kind of prove to myself more than anything that that was bullshit.’
And you think that you achieved that?
‘Yeah. Uh huh.’
Do you feel like you’ve changed things for women?
‘Yeah. I sort of lived out a lot of things that they wanted to do,’ she says. ‘ You have to go through a process. I sort of grew up in public. I went through a whole period of saying, “Fuck you, I will wear what I want to wear and act in a way I want to act and I will grab my crotch if I want to and I will say fuck on TV and I will do all the things that men are allowed to do and you’re just going to have to deal with it.” And that was me trying to figure things out, because ultimately a lot of women are very different, and you don’t have to act like a slovenly pig [laughs] to get respect. But you do have to go through things. I grew up in a very repressed home, in a very strict kind of Puritan family environment and, in a way, America is that way too. So, you know, you have to get to the other side and everyone has to go through their form of rebellion to figure out that they didn’t actually have to do so much kicking and flailing.’
Do you think that you provoke such a string reaction because America doesn’t like the idea of a woman being sexually liberated?
‘Or anyone being liberated. I mean look at what they’ve done to President Clinton. [She takes on a stern English voice] We do not have sex in America.’
Not with interns.
‘Not with cigars.’
She is famous for having sex. With men, with women, with herself. She has sex with the famous, and people become famous for having sex with her, but the fact remains that she cannot have sex with anyone more famous than her. Not anymore. Mostly she cannot meet anyone who has not seen her naked. She practices yoga for two hours a day and doesn’t eat lunch but returns phone calls instead. She has revealed herself to us intimately in a book and in the movies, but rarely in interviews. To read interviews with Madonna is to encounter a set of different women, all of them smart and talented, but some waspish, other compliant; some warm, other distant. She is bored easily and likes to be active. Madonna likes to do things and some of these things get her into trouble of a kind. At times she has offered us hope and a belief in the power of self-creation and at others she reminds us that getting what you want, arriving at a place of your own conception, can offer as bleak a vista as any.
She is wary of being misunderstood, even though she talks eloquently and at length and favors explanation over occlusion. She changes her opinions just like normal folk, and maybe just because she might have heard a question before. She uses a lot of British vernacular, including the word ‘bollocks’, and is the only American who can say the word ‘wanker’ without making a fool of herself. She looks like a woman of 40, which is just fine, because this is her age and she is The Last Pop Giant On Earth. She has never known the zero-degree freeze of failure.