In April 2016, a month after Madonna had kicked off her final leg of her Rebel heart world tour with a circus-themed and highly personal Tears of a Clown show, and a matter of days after the sudden death of her friend and pop peer Prince, we sent Madonna some questions with a view to arranging an interview. Here’s what came back…
As someone who has written so many songs, have you reached any conclusions as to why love is the dominant theme in pop music?
“Yes. Because love is the dominant theme in life. The thing that drives us, shapes us, excites us and destroys us. Why wouldn’t we write about it?”
How did you come to write “Love Song” with Prince on the Like A Virgin album?
“‘Love Song’ was not on Like A Virgin, it was on Like A Prayer. Writing songs is a mysterious affair. One can never predict what one is going to write. It’s always about what’s in the air that day, and the person you are working with. ‘Love Song’ is supposed to be ironic. It is a love song in denial. We were being provocative when we wrote it.”
In your work, both you and Prince have explicitly addressed the idea of revolution. Do you think it’s possible for a pop act to be revolutionary or to inspire a revolutionary act?
“I don’t consider myself a pop act. I consider myself an artist. And it’s an artist’s responsibility to be revolutionary in our work. It’s our responsibility, our duty and our privilege.”
Looking back, are there any moments in the history of your own work that strike you as having had a particularly revolutionary impact on contemporary culture?
“I think the movie Truth or Dare had a very big impact on pop culture, particularly in the gay community. It’s the first time people saw men in a film being openly gay and not apologizing for or being ashamed of it, but celebrating it. It was the first time many people saw two men openly and passionately kissing one another in a commercial film. In addition, it was the beginning of the reality film and TV phenomenon. Before that people didn’t live their lives in front of a camera. I didn’t know this was going to be revolutionary at the time. I only realized it after having people’s feedback when it came out.”
Has fame become more of a burden with the expansion of digital and social media, now that everywhere you go people carry cameras and are online?
“I was already famous before social media, so for me fame isn’t the burden. Fame is the manifestation of the by-product of my work, and that was two decades before social media. Now to me the burden is people are more focused on fame than actually doing the work or being an artist. Now it’s easy to become famous. What isn’t easy is to develop and grow as an artist without being distracted or consumed with fame.”
If you could be anonymous for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
“I would be an anonymous fly on the wall of a non-working day in the life of Barack Obama.”
Do you think you are now accepted by the establishment? Do you consider yourself to be a part of the establishment?
“Absolutely not, and I hope I never am. Acceptance by the establishment equals death.”
Does being such a public figure make it easier or harder for you to rebel than at the start of your career?
“I think, I’m just as rebellious now as I used to be at the beginning of my career. I’m still considered to be provocative. I’m still doing things people don’t think are appropriate or acceptable for a woman, for someone my age. Even the fact that I have had a career that has lasted over three decades and I continue to be creative and productive is viewed as provocative.”
How much freedom do you think you have?
“To me the definition of freedom is to be without fear, so I am free when I am fearless. My fearlessness depends on what is going on in my life, what day it is, what mood I’m in and if Mercury is in retrograde.”
Today, what factors restrict your freedom – as an artist, and as a human being?
“I feel that I don’t have the same freedom as a man has in our society. I believe that we live in an ageist, sexist society that seems to be specifically focused on women because men have the freedom to behave however they like whatever their age is. We live in a time when a woman is considered dangerous or hysterical if she thinks or behaves in an adventurous way, in a joyful way, in a sexual way, in a frivolous way, or in an experimental way past the age of 35. So those are the restrictions that impinge on my freedom as a woman and as an artist. But as a freedom fighter I will continue to fight against these discriminations.”
Do you pay much attention to what media say about you? Does it ever worry you?
“Unfortunately one does have to think before one speaks because we don’t live in a society that allows for irony, wit or sarcastic humor – all areas in which I am comfortable. Which is why most of the things you read that I say are most likely taken out of context and misunderstood. I continue to suffer the indignities of literalism.”
You took to Instagram in its early days and with great enthusiasm. What is its appeal to you?
“I like Instagram because it’s like keeping a diary and every day I get to share different aspects of my personality, my life, and what inspires me, what infuriates me, or what causes I want to fight for. It allows me to be mysterious, ironic, provocative and proud. I get to use it as a platform to bring attention to people or issues that I think are important. It allows me to be the curator of my life.”
When do you know that a track, an album or a tour is a success? How do you measure it?
“Martha Graham has been quoted for a phrase, ‘Divine dissatisfaction.’ I feel most artists feel that way about their work, I feel that it is possible to measure the success of your work. Ultimately it’s how you feel about it, not how the rest of the world feels about it. For instance I could love the way a song turned out and I could work and work on it, but at a certain point one has to stop and share it with the world. But one is always wondering if one could have done something better or different… changed on thing here, altered one thing there. I think that’s the curse, privilege and beauty of being an artist. ‘I love this song but it could have been better. I love this film but this scene is too long. If I has more time it could have been different. The show I did was amazing except for that one moment…’ I am my own worst critic. One is never completely satisfied. I could be proud of something I’ve done and yet dissatisfied at the same time.”
Do you get to decide what is the ‘other part of you who no one sees’, and how do you protect it?
“Of course I get to decide what people don’t get to see. A lot of that is my family life, and it’s important to me to keep that as private as possible.”
Was your Tears of a Clown show less about Madonna the icon and more about Madonna the human being?
“It’s about all those things. Because Madonna the human being is an icon and Madonna the icon is a human being. My Tears of a Clown show allowed me to talk to the audience and to do a show that was more about the process of performing. It was more about working things on stage in front of people and more about sharing the rehearsal or a work in progress with others. That’s certainly more liberating than saying ‘TA-DA! This is the finished show!’ Because then you feel everything has to be perfect. With Tears of a Clown I got to make mistakes and acknowledge them, laugh about them, I got to tell jokes and play with the audience. It was fun and liberating.”
Has the success of the Tears of a Clown show tempted you to present more spontaneous performances in the future?
“I enjoyed it immensely and I will be doing more in the future. Even if my manager doesn’t like it when I wear a clown suit. Clowns are deeply underrated and undervalued in society.”
What pushes you to keep on creating?
“Love, of course.”