The conventional wisdom is that Madonna became more famous than everyone else because she was dying to become famous. What set her apart was her bottomless maw of ambition. And over the years, her statements — “I want to rule the world” — supported this theory. Today she put it this way: “First of all, I wanted to make a living. I was tired of being broke. But second of all, all I wanted was a song to get played on the radio. That’s all I was praying for. One song.” In Portugal, she felt like a girl without that desperate desire, less brittle than she had been — playful, interactive, open to diverse influences, as she was in the past. “When I was living on the Lower East Side and I didn’t see many concerts, I knew about Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde and the Talking Heads and David Bowie, but there was no pressure for me to be anything specifically, to sound a certain way, to look a certain way,” she recalled. “That’s an important thing, because it allowed me to develop as an artist and to be pure, without any influences. What I try to do now is to remember that girl.”
Not letting the past interfere with the future might be as difficult for her as anyone who rose to a high level in a profession. I asked how she felt about her old hits. “If I’m in a car or I go into a restaurant, I’m out somewhere, and one of my songs starts playing, I just go, ‘Ugh,’ ” she said, “probably because I’ve had to hear it five billion times already, and I want to escape that.” Ambition was certainly part of what kept her going, but it didn’t seem to be all of it. When I asked her how much longer she thought she would make music and where she thought she would end up, she said, “Straight to the moon.”
Madonna’s catalog is primarily composed of declarative anthems, mini pop arias and songs about longing or lies or mental disconnection. In her love songs, she celebrated her object of affection, often described as an angel or celestial being; for someone so raunchy and blasphemous, sanctified tropes always seemed to find their way into the tunes. “Madame X,” her new album, her 14th, is darker than usual, though it also includes fanciful summer love songs. She experimented with musical genres like dance, fado, rap and Cape Verdean batuque and explored her anger over world leaders like Donald Trump “who seemed to be systematically removing all of our personal freedoms,” she told me. She visualized herself as a freedom fighter traveling the world to spread the gospel of love and anti-discrimination — fighting misogyny, homophobia, racism, guns, the rise of authoritarianism.
Some of “Madame X” was recorded in London, but she didn’t build a recording studio at home — “Horrible idea,” she told me, “my house would be shaking all the time” — though she had an editing facility for videos and film. “That’s good because I can drop in for an hour and then go back to see my kids, or go back to my other life, and not have to get into a car and go somewhere,” she said. “But it’s also nice to get into a car and go somewhere and get out of your house. Otherwise I would never get out of my house.” In her professional life, a small group of assistants, managers and dancers orbited her like moons. Though they liked to refer to her as “M,” thus expanding her domain over one of the alphabet’s 26 letters, this entourage, always the most honest reflection of a star, struck me as witty, sensible and self-possessed. They were pros who had learned not to fear her, or how to disguise that feeling.
The entourage helped accomplish her infinite professional goals, and she acted as a de facto cultural consigliere, taking them to museum shows and recommending books to read. I heard them say “She’s plugged into a different frequency” a couple of times. Madonna believed in following her intuition. I heard her describe meeting her collaborators as “the universe conspires to bring us together.” Guy Oseary, her charismatic manager of many years, said that once she completes an artistic vision, she moves on fully. “Every time we finish a project, it’s a clean slate,” he said. “I don’t know what happens next.”
To hear the album, I walked through dark-walled rooms with full bookcases and shrub-sized flower arrangements in divine red-pink-purple and down the stairs to her home screening room. Everything was perfect. The phone cords looked as if a sailor had coiled them. A silver teapot shined so brightly that I saw my reflection. The small square screening room, on the same floor as her gym, was like a Tiffany & Co. jewel box, but navy rather than robin-egg blue. Every surface was velvet. Footprints covered the carpet like brush strokes on a canvas; I imagined Madonna whirling around, stretching, dancing. A set of weights rested in a corner.
The art was even more striking. Madonna spent her first major paychecks on paintings. She had collected Frida Kahlo since the ’80s, mesmerized by the artist’s cool gaze, as well as geometric Art Deco nudes by Tamara de Lempicka and works by Francis Bacon and Salvador Dalí. Near the screening room, a print of John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to “Imagine” hung over the toilet — an intentionally hilarious location — and large portraits lined the halls, not only of Lennon and Bob Marley but also Alfred Hitchcock pretending to strangle himself with a tie.
Madonna is short, and the art was hung low, for her own appreciation. She wanted to be face to face. “Confrontational — they’re hung in a confrontational way,” she told me. In the study, while we talked, she pointed to a photo portrait of East African warriors taken by a friend on their trip to Kenya’s Rift Valley. “The girls on the right are the bead girls, and it’s kind of like a mating ritual, and they’re singing. The girls are holding sticks up in front of the men, and they have to jump really high, and while they jump, they have to tell a story.” She continued: “But here’s the sad thing. When the boy turns a certain age, he has to leave his bead girl behind, and his wife is chosen for him.” She let me absorb this, then smiled mischievously. “I imagine there’s probably a few people who don’t follow the rules.”