GQ: What are the three things you find least attractive in a man?
Madonna: 1) Laziness. 2) Not being impeccable with his word. 3) Leather trousers.
GQ: Apart from Guy Ritchie, who is the greatest living Englishman?
Madonna: I can’t think of any living today, but there were some guys who were living at one time or another: Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin,Sid Vicious.
So, she moves to London and suddenly starts making the best records of her career, records which even the critics like. While Madonna’s influence runs through late 20th-century pop like a rogue hormone, she has rarely been afforded the credit she deserves. Because she’s had more self-administered make-overs than David Bowie, the popular perception is that without a pantechnicon full of costume changes Madonna would have been just another jumped-up waitress with more mouth than was good for her. Yet the facts speak for themselves. Fifty-one British hit singles, nine number ones, more hits than the Beatles, even more than ELO! And while Elvis might have lasted for 20 years, he rarely punched above his weight (an impossibility, obviously).
Getting it is easy, keeping it more difficult. But let’s face it, Madonna thrives on longevity. She’s a lifer, and has learnt how to devour her audience instead of them devouring her. It might seem easy for a glorified showgirl to surf the waves of fashionability for, say, three to four seasons; but to last for two decades, as Madonna has done, makes her more special than almost any of her contemporaries. But which contemporaries are we talking about here? And from which decade? She has out-lasted Michael Jackson, George Michael, Duran Duran, Prince and every other iconic Eighties superstar.
Her album, Music, has turned her into a critical darling for perhaps the first time in her career (when was the last time you heard the word “bourgeoisie” on a number-one record?), its supercharged cyber-pop making the woman who has redefined the disco Zeitgeist time and time again seem relevant once more. Suddenly Madonna is hip. Using producers like Mirwais Ahmadzaï (who she introduced “one cool-ass French dude” on stage at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, and then as as “a direct descendent of Jean-Paul Sartre” at her Brixton concert three weeks later), Guy Sigsworth and Mark “Spike” Stent, she has made something of a modern classic, while “What It Feels Like For A Girl” has to be one of the most nimble-witted songs she’s ever recorded. It sure beats listening to Radiohead.
“Once I found my way, I wanted everything simple, direct and meaningful. If it wasn’t new, if it wasn’t important, I wasn’t interested.” When she says, “I’m quite fond of Ray Of Light, but I have to say that I think Music is my best album so far,” you understand why Warren Beatty, an old beau, rechristened her “the mouth”. And he wasn’t being pejorative.
As a phenomenon Madonna has been consistently attracting attention since 1983, the year of “Holiday”, “Lucky Star” and “Borderline”. And it is for her music that she now wants to be remembered, not as a human tornado, the familiar cry of any celebrity who feels their intellect hasn’t been fully appreciated.
“I want my music to be reviewed, not whether my ribcage is too small or not,” is a familiar refrain. “You want to be thought of as attractive, but it’s a very competitive world and there’s always going to be another beautiful girl around the corner. Even though people don’t admit it in the music business, people are very looks-conscious. And just like in the movie business, men are allowed to not meet the conventional standards of beauty and still be celebrated. It’s much harder for women.”
William Orbit, who produced Ray Of Light as well as a few tracks on Music, feels Madonna’s never had the credit she’s deserved. “At the Grammys, it was a little implicit that there was a guy behind it all, and she’s the chick,” he said recently. “And it’s really far from that. The one with all the equipment is assumed to be pressing all the buttons. She presses all the buttons. She hasn’t shouted about her musical abilities, but she is the consummate songwriter.” Unsurprisingly, she is tireless in her quest for what she wants. “My persona in the studio is, ‘I’m in a hurry’.”
On November 28 last year, at London’s Brixton Academy, in what the Italian fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana described as a “cyber-roundupinstallation” (they could call it what they liked — they designed it), the Stetson-toting self-styled pop bitch flung herself through 30 minutes of new product (the singles from Music, mostly) as well as one old hit, the song that kick-started her career. “Technically I was doing a promo tour for my new album but I wanted to throw in an old song for fun and ‘Holiday’ seemed to be a universal favourite,” she says. “In addition to that, it’s one of the only old songs that I’ve done that I can still sing and not feel that I’ve totally outgrown it.” When she says this it’s hard not to imagine her adding a Fast Show-style “which was nice…” But thankfully she doesn’t.
Never has such a moribund venue been transformed into such a delicious fantasy. Dolce & Gabbana have been kitting out Madonna in shimmery black outfits for the best part of a decade, but it was the first time they’d addressed themselves to her stage sets too. Gravity-defying mechanical bulls, beat-up trucks, designer horseshoes, Tinseltown tumbleweed and a small army of unnecessarily well-defined young topless cowboys — it was cowgirl’s wet dream. A camp spaghetti western in miniature, this was line-dancing for ironists.