The Big Read – Madonna: ”People pick on me. That’s just the way it is”
Controversy has followed Madonna through her entire career. Too loud, too outrageous, too provocative, too everything. But if you ever thought she’d slow down, think again. Her latest reincarnation, Madame X, is an eye-patch-wearing alter-ego bent on saying the unsayable, pushing the boundaries and cha-cha-cha-ing her way to pop glory. NME Editor Charlotte Gunn has an audience with the Queen Of Pop in London.
It’s 11PM in a low-key Marylebone hotel and, in the bar, a small cabal of journalists wait for an audience with an icon, each one slightly sick with nerves, some drinking to steady them, others silently reading through their notes.
Down a corridor and inside a large suite, a quite-perfect figure sits on the couch. Dressed in a polka-dot, flamenco-style dress, fitted black military jacket and – most notably – wearing an elaborate eyepatch which we now know to be synonymous with the latest era of her career, there, right there, is Madonna.
“Je suis fatigué,” she says, with movie-star drama. It’s been a long day.
Now, if there’s one way for a major music icon to disarm an already-flustered journalist, it’s by dressing like a pirate. Do I mention the eyepatch? Do I not? I decide it’s unwise and spend the 30 minutes that follow trying desperately not to stare. Turns out, the eyewear is the signature garb of Madame X, a multi-faceted persona the world will become familiar with in the coming weeks, thanks not least to a controversial appearance at Eurovision in Tel Aviv, but, at the time of our meeting, is having her first semi-public outing. I should have guessed there was more to it – Madonna doesn’t get pink eye.
Earlier that day, NME is summoned to Universal’s offices in London to hear Madonna’s very-very-strictly-under-lock-and-key 14th studio album, ‘Madame X’. The record, out today (June 14), is not a one-listen beast: a brilliant, surprising and, at points, utterly baffling collection of songs inspired by Madonna’s move to Lisbon to become a “soccer mom” in 2017, and the eclectic music scene she found herself immersed in after upping sticks.
Madonna’s third child (of six), 13-year-old David Banda, has aspirations of being a professional footballer, and with Lisbon home to some of the best football academies in the world, and Madonna taking a liking to the “charming” city, they decided to move the family out there. When we meet, Madame X, the mother, is feeling homesick: “David has a week off from school right now but he has a tournament so he couldn’t be here. I call him up, like: ‘I’m really sorry, I miss you so much, I love you so much’ and he’s like, ‘Mom! I love it, stop apologising, it’s great.’”
But David is not the only one to benefit from the move to Portugal. The culture has been key in shaping this phase of Madonna’s sound, with Latinate flavours accenting a broadly political record (with some epic Madge party bangers on there too in the shape of ‘Faz Gostoso’, ‘Medellin’ and ‘Bitch, I’m Loca’).
“I didn’t make a Latin record intentionally” Madonna explains. “It just sort of happened because I was living there. The first group of friends I met were all musicians but they were from all over the world, not just Portugal. It was a melting point of so many different cultures and musical genres which started percolating in my brain. I wanted to take the folk music I was listening to but make it more modern sounding, something you could dance to. I was first inspired by it, then I turned it into a challenge.”
Challenging herself is something Madonna has done at every point of her career. Whether it was her days hustling for fame in New York, the game-changing Blond Ambition tour 30 years ago, which set the bar for pop performers with its ambitious (and hella raunchy) stage show, or simply every time she’s reinvented herself, Madonna’s boundary-pushing approach to her art is just one of the things that has helped her outsell Whitney, Beyoncé, Mariah and Rihanna to be the biggest solo female recording artist of all time.
Alongside peers such as Michael Jackson and Prince, Madonna was – and is still – one of the most famous people on the planet. In a world obsessed with fame, how does a person begin to handle that?
“It has its pluses and minuses,” she says. “The great thing about being famous is that you have a voice and you can spread messages and fight for people who don’t have the ability to fight for themselves, and share your wealth with people who need help.”