Fans love aging musicians not only because they are time-travel machines — they love them for those musicians’ defects, for the way that as long as they’re still creative, they hold a mirror up to our own aging and offer clues to where we are going. And if they’re your heroes and you’ve traveled a long way with them, you know you have the same defects. When Madonna literally controlled the light around her, when she applied her massive intelligence to beauty products, it was part of her way of maintaining control, of hovering above. But even if I had the same defects, of wanting to always be in control, I wasn’t Madonna — I can’t control the light around me, I probably wouldn’t attract young lovers, I didn’t want to rule the world. I was an old mom in the playground with Go-Gurt on her shirt.
Madonna was up in the sky most of the spring, moving between London, Portugal, Los Angeles, Israel and New York, where she stayed at her apartment on the Upper West Side, though she lost a lawsuit with her co-op over letting her adult children stay there without her. In early May, she did not attend the Met Gala, as she always does; when the cameras caught her at Kennedy Airport on the way to Tel Aviv, she placed what looked like a scarf completely over her head like a mask, then perched her sunglasses on top of the scarf, having a little fun with the moment.
Two nights before, she arrived at the Midtown Hilton to receive an award from Glaad, the nonprofit that advocates L.G.B.T. acceptance in the media. A screen flashed an inspirational hashtag for those maturing with H.I.V., #AgePositively. Men in tuxedos, including one with a pin on his lapel reading “Shoot Loads Not Guns,” chatted over a stereo blasting “Get Together,” her club hit about love on the dance floor. Anderson Cooper, one of three people who presented her award, said: “As a gay teen in New York City in the early 1980s, there were a lot of times that I couldn’t see a future for myself. I was scared and confused and often felt alone.” He added: “Through her, I saw that there was a community out there for me. There was a life waiting for me, for all of us — a life full of rays of light and full of love. And you know what? She was right.”
Madonna arrived, swishing through the crowd in a pair of red sunglasses. She took the stage as the goddess that everyone in this room expected her to be — a survivor — working in some comic relief by saying she wrote her speech after midnight with a Red Bull and cracking a bratty joke at the expense of the Bravo star Andy Cohen, who was also receiving an award. “Andy, you’re legendary,” she drawled. “I can’t say why.”
While she was becoming a “creamy smooth pop icon goddess,” she said, she lost many friends to AIDS, including her ballet teacher from Michigan and the artist Keith Haring. She described the disease destroying her locals-only scene in Lower Manhattan. “I saw people starting to behave differently toward people who were H.I.V.-positive or who had AIDS — not wanting to shake their hands or eat chips out of the same bowl or touch the same doorknob,” she said. “It made me sad. It made me feel sick. It made me want to kick everybody’s ass.”
Then she started talking about Malawi, where more than 70,000 children were living with H.I.V. I had never heard her make an overt connection between being unable to save her friends in the early days and the philanthropy she has done in Malawi, as well as adopting four of her kids, but now she made the link clear. She quoted lines from a new song on her record: “Life is a circle. Death and loss brought me new life. Brought me to life. Brought me to love.”
It was a little dramatic, but as she spoke, I realized what set Madonna apart: Her career had not only been about ambition, or ratcheting up achievement. It had been one long process of meaning-making, of understanding herself through her art. Some of it wasn’t for public consumption anymore; she might not tell us as much about herself as she used to. But she was always crafting a narrative, whether the story was about young women’s empowerment or biblical salvation, being reborn in sweat on the dance floor or in motherhood.
Most of us realized, as we aged, that we couldn’t make the puzzle pieces of our lives fit and made peace with that. Madonna kept reaching into the past to discover more and more about herself. There was no one truth, only the deepening of your own understanding. At one point, she said to me rhetorically: “What is the truth? Your truth when you’re 18 is not going to be your truth when you’re 28 or when you’re 38. Life is not black and white. It’s gray, and one minute you’re going to feel so strongly and believe in something so strongly, and then maybe you won’t in five years.”
© New York Times Magazine