Between Madonna’s triple-wide town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the sidewalk stands an iron gate so formidable, you half expect to find Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch on the other side. Yet no wall—steel, fire, or otherwise — could prevent the leak of tracks from her latest album, Rebel Heart, at the end of last year. On the day of our date with Madonna, justice has been served. An Israeli man allegedly responsible for the hacking was arrested earlier that morning. Madonna, splayed on a sofa in her living room sans makeup but fully loaded in long chain necklaces and oversize rings, is rattled by the news. “Strangely, I don’t feel thrilled,” she says, jangling a stack of bracelets. Even here, surrounded by family photos, a library of well-thumbed books (Anne Lamott’s child-rearing memoir, Operating Instructions, betrays a lot of love at its edges), and cherished paint- ings by artists both famous (Fernand Léger) and friend (Keith Haring), there’s a sense of unease. “I’m happy he’s caught,” she says, “but he’s been hacking into my server and the servers of people around me for more than a decade. It’s a deeply disturbing violation. This is only the beginning.” If we’ve learned anything from her Madgesty’s 30-year reign, it’s that no man — nor anyone or anything, for that matter – can keep her down.
Take, for example, The Fall. A month after we meet, Madonna will wipe out onstage during a live performance of “Living for Love” at the Brit Awards. The clip — a perpetual loop of the singer falling over and over again, her Armani cape ballooning like a parachute — goes viral before the show is even over. But what the six-second Vine doesn’t capture is Madonna’s recovery. She gets back up, she carries on, and she, well, Madonnas the hell out of the performance. Madonna (v): to persevere and provoke, to own your ambition, beliefs, and of course, sexuality. It’s no wonder that among the top-10-grossing concert tours of all time, she’s the lone female act — outshining and sometimes outselling The Rolling Stones and the boys of U2. “I wouldn’t want a penis,” she wrote in her controversial 1992 book, Sex. “I think I have a dick in my brain. I don’t need to have one between my legs.” Think like a man? The real key to success just might be to think like Madonna.
Cosmo: Let’s talk about the album title, Rebel Heart. After 30 years, what are you still rebelling against?
Madonna: Don’t be fooled, not much has changed — certainly not for women. We still live in a very sexist society that wants to limit people. Since I started, I’ve had people giving me a hard time because they didn’t think you could be sexual or have sexuality or sensuality at the same time. People still like to put women in categories — good girl, bad girl, virgin, whore. When I was starting my career, people tried to put me in a category and diminish me. Now I’m being discriminated against because I’m 56 years old, and people don’t think I have the right to continue to be successful, to be sexual, to have fun. That is a kind of sexism and discrimination. No man ever gets criticized for his behavior because of his age. It’s only women. So for me, the fight has never ended.
Why do you think people get worked up about the sexuality of older women?
You can have a successful career, but eventually, it’s “We want you to get married, have children, and go away.” Or “We’re comfortable with you if you desexualize yourself in some way, shape, or form. If you neuter yourself or you become man-like, then we can accept you.” The reason I look up to women like Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, and Martha Graham is that they did not fit into the conventional role of how a female should act. They didn’t fit into what society expects a woman to do.
It’s been 50 years since Helen Gurley Brown brought a new sexually liberated message to Cosmopolitan. Did you think a lot about feminism when you were starting out?
I didn’t think about the word feminism as much as I thought about women who were feminists. I was influenced by writers like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers — women who didn’t take the path most traveled. I wasn’t thinking, Oh they’re feminists and I want to be a feminist. I was just thinking, They’re strong women and I want to be like them. I wasn’t categorizing or labeling, but I was certainly grateful that they existed as role models.
And Now? How do you feel about calling yourself a feminist?
I think humanist is a better idea. I don’t like the idea of segregating. Human beings all need to be treated with dignity and honor and respect — gay, straight, bi, black, white, male, female, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, whatever. The revolution of love is not about just pushing the rights of women, it’s pushing the rights of every living creature on this planet.
Do you date – or is that just impossible given that you’re, you know, Madonna?
It’s a challenge. I generally meet people through work. Musicians, writers, producers, dancers. I’m attracted to people who are creative, but I don’t have a dating manifesto.
It seems like nothing can break your spirit. Would you say that’s true?
That’s absurd. Even strong women have moments of weakness and vulnerability. I have my nervous breakdowns; I just do them privately.
This album reads like a who’s who of the music industry – Kanye, Diplo, Nicki Minaj. How do tou go about choosing who you work with?
We pick one another. It was my manager’s idea to work with Avicii’s team. I didn’t know that Tim [Bergling] was a songwriter. I thought of him as a DJ/producer, but he had two teams of writers. I would go from room to room, sitting and writing with them. I called them my Viking Harem. I don’t remember how Diplo came along, but he was somebody whose music I liked a lot. He brought a whole army of people with him. I think he thought I was going to be quite difficult. He was nervous, but then little by little, all the people started getting pushed away. [Writing] is a trust game, some people you immediately have a connection with and they get your sense of humor. You click into their frequency. Other people are strangely uptight and you’re thinking, Okay I can’t wait until this is over. Natalia [Kills], I loved her from the minute she walked in the room. And MoZella, she’s a Michigan girl. I clicked with her immediately.
How hard was it to have so many people involved?
The whole writing process was like a train that kept running. I kept picking people up. Some people stayed on the train longer than others. They would get off at stations, and they would get on at other stations. Diplo kept coming and going. Kanye would come and go. We’re living in an age when these DJ/producers are working with lots of artists. Nobody’s doing entire records with anybody. So I was going crazy thinking, Can’t I just have you for a whole week? Why do I just get you for two days? There was a constant battle for people who were very busy traveling. That drove me bonkers. But that’s how everybody ended up getting into the mix.
You and Kanye in one room must be pretty intense – what was it like working together?
It’s a little bit of a bullfight, but we take turns. He knows that he’s walking into a room with a person with a strong point of view, and I do too. I listen to what he has to say, take it in, and he listens to what I say and takes it in. He knows that I have the final say on my songs at the end of the day, but I respect his opinion. We didn’t agree on everything, but he has good ideas. There was no screaming match ever on this record. Actually, I may have screamed at Diplo once. But that’s only because he ran out to do a photo shoot in the middle of a session without warning me [laughs].
Tell me about the song “Unapologetic B*tch.” What was the inspiration?
It’s about a guy who f*cked me over. It’s got nothing to do with society.