M IS FOR… MUSIC, MOTHERHOOD, MONUMENTAL FAME, THE METAPHYSICAL, METAMORPHOSIS, MONEY, MAINTAINING INFLUENCE, MALAWI AND ASSUREDLY – OH, MOST ASSUREDLY – MADONNA
Interview by Decca Aitkenhead. Photographs by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. Styling by Benjamin Bruno.
While I wait for Madonna, I find myself wondering if this is how people feel when they are about to meet the Queen. Universally recognisable, yet simultaneously unknowable, the star has occupied our collective consciousness for so long that the majority of people alive today would be unable to recall a time when they did not know her name. But if royalty evokes timeless continuity, Madonna’s life looks more like permanent revolution. Were I waiting to meet the actual Queen, I would know what to expect, whereas who is about to walk through the door is anyone’s guess.
Since her first mainstream hit single, “Holiday” in 1983, she has variously been a singer, actor, dancer, filmmaker, activist, author, philanthropist and mother of reinvention. She has been a Kabbalah spiritualist, a punk club kid, an English country lady, a dominatrix; she has played Eva Perón and Breathless Mahoney, and channelled Marilyn Monroe. But the blandly impeccable Georgian façade of her central London townhouse when I arrive one March afternoon betrays no clue to who Madonna might be today.
A staffer leads me into a book-lined drawing room in the office suite on the ground floor and directs me to a low armchair in which, she explains, it has been decided I shall sit. A little later she will reappear with a platter of parmesan tempura and sweet potato chips “from the chef ”. Every design detail in the room is flawlessly tasteful; the olive green walls, gunmetal shelving, dark wooden flooring beneath a rich red Persian rug. On the walls hang framed black-and-white photographs of African tribespeople; on the shelves sit neat piles of books about art and classic novels. But taupe screens obscure all of the windows, blocking out the light. It’s so dark in here, I can’t even read my questions without using the torch on my phone, and so heavily soundproofed that the clamour of life outside is dulled to an eerie muffle. The only houses this airless I know belong to Wall Street bankers on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the aesthetic overwhelmingly masculine and defined by money and power.
In everything I’ve ever read about the star, one word crops up more than any other: “intimidating”. Already, I’m beginning to see why. She has a reputation for conducting interviews as a hardball negotiation. Will the Madonna I’m about to meet be more business tycoon than artist? I’m still playing this slightly nervy game of Through the Keyhole in my head an hour later, when the double doors finally swing open. “Hello.” A petite blonde figure wrestles with the locking device. “Damn it, this needs someone tall.” Being nearly a foot taller than the pop icon, I jump up. This will be the only time she needs my assistance.
Madonna may be too small to reach the top of her study doors, but the album she’s about to release is colossal. Madame X is a striking departure from the artist’s heavily EDM- influenced 21st-century work, taking us on a world tour of musical cultures, from Morocco to Jamaican dancehall, Cape Verdean Batuka to Colombian reggaeton. Gone is Madonna’s lyrical preoccupation with love and sex; in its place are new anthems dedicated to political injustice in the world. Portentous and powerful, Madame X sounds like a call to arms, urging us all to confront the crises facing the world. Most of the album is co-produced with Mirwais, Madonna’s long-time collaborator who produced her 2003 album, American Life, hitherto considered her most political output. MadameX,Isuggest,willquicklyclaimthataccolade.“Well, Mirwais is extremely educated and opinionated and cultured, and we just end up getting into thousands of philosophical discussions about everything that’s going on in the world,” she agrees. “So it just happens that us together is like a combustible, political, musical manifesto. If I dare say so.”