Along with a back catalogue including many of the world’s most brilliant pop songs, Madonna’s legacy – and a core trait of the Madame X alter-ego – is about fighting for change. Being an early advocate of the LGBTQ community, Madonna’s support for equal rights dates back decades, but gained particular notoriety when highlighting the plight of the gay community during the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York. Madonna lost two close friends to the syndrome: ballet teacher and mentor Christopher Flynn and her friend Keith Haring, the celebrated artist. The backlash to fighting for equality at that time was harsh.
“During the AIDS epidemic, I was getting involved with a lot of groups and speaking up and I was enraged by how I saw people being treated. I came to the LGBTQ community and put my arms around them. While everyone else was running away from them, I was running towards them.”
But Madonna’s association with the community, combined with an ignorance about the disease, led to rumours in the press that she herself had been diagnosed with HIV. She remembers this as a particularly upsetting time.
“It was so crazy. For months I was going around saying I wasn’t HIV positive but then I thought, What if I was? Does that make me a bad person? And are you going to treat me differently? It was a crazy time and it really hurt me a lot. That’s just one circumstance where people – ‘scuse me for swearing – really tried to fuck with me.”
Do people still try and fuck with you?
“Yes. People pick on me. That’s just the way it is. People like to pick on me. I don’t take it as personally as I used to, or it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. But if you have an opinion in this day and age, you have to be prepared to take a beating.”
Madonna and the press have had a long, tumultuous relationship. In the weeks since our meeting, an article is published which focuses heavily on her most recent milestone. Now 60, the star is battling ageism as well as sexism, and it rightly infuriates her. She called out the journalist’s focus, saying it “wouldn’t happen if she was a man.” A valid objection, and likely true, but it’s the turn of phrase – Madonna says she feels “raped” by the piece (“and yes I’m allowed to use that analogy having been raped at the age of 19”) which fuels even more controversy. The media fires are stoked. Twitter is offended. The cycle continues.
But true to form, Madonna carries on regardless, never silenced, always outspoken. On ‘Madame X’ the album, produced largely by French producer Mirwais (with whom she co-produced the whole of ‘American Life’ – the pair last worked together on ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor’) she tackles issues of sexism, gun control, freedom of speech, racism and gay rights.
“A lot of the music I make with Mirwais ends up being political because we have very similar minds and we think about what’s going on in the world a lot,” Madonna says. “He’s very philosophical. We get into debates about what’s right and what’s wrong and somehow, it just sparks things inside of us.”
Controversy does seem to follow Madge around, and by no coincidence, but on the track ‘Killers Who Are Partying’ she reels off a list of persecuted minorities, suggesting an affinity with each and every one. The intention is good – Madame X in freedom fighter mode – but as a white woman of privilege, can she really claim to know what it’s like to be African, Palestinian, a gay man or Native American?
“But I’m a human being,” she responds sharply. “And they’re human beings. And I’ve always fought for the rights of marginalised people so it’s not like I woke up one day and decided I was going to be the voice of a certain minority. I consider myself a marginalised person, I feel like I’ve been discriminated against my whole life because of the fact that I’m a female and now I am discriminated against because of my age. I am saying ‘no, we belong together’ and it’s a song about unifying the soul of all humans. And I have the right to say that I want to do that.”
There’s no denying the sentiment is one of love and unity, which is more than can be said for a lot of people in the world today; namely, one Donald Trump who is reverting on LGBTQ rights at an alarming rate.
“I’m horrified, for all the things we fought for and won and now it does seem like everything is turning back to where we were in the ‘50s. It’s quite disturbing but we haven’t lost the war yet. We do need a new president, though.”