In the run-up to the release of the record, mysterious social media trailers have tease Madonna’s enigmatic eye-patched alter-ego, somewhere between Eva Peron, a Romany gypsy and a radical general. In the run-up to the album, fans heard five songs, among them the cha-cha-cha-ing ‘Medellin’, the Stanley Kubrick and Joan of Arc-inspired ‘Dark Ballet’ and the trap-heavy ‘Crave’ and ‘Future’.”
Madame X has set out her stall from the off: she is described as a “secret agent, travelling around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom, bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer, a professor, a head of state, a housekeeper, an equestrian, a prisoner, a student, a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint, a whore.” Sounds exhausting, but perhaps being the most famous woman in the world does leave you with quite a lot to do.
We talk about what it was like for Madonna starting out, as the kid from Michigan, moving to New York with no money but a lot of determination and a dream of being a star. It was her dance teacher who first gave her the name Madame X, for she looked different every time she came to class – an ’80s Madge, often not living up to the school’s ideas of how their students should present themselves.
‘Madame X’ the record is reflective, almost nostalgic at points, for that time when all of this was still ahead of her, when she wasn’t constantly fighting to dispel that “other version” of Madonna: the one “that’s out in the world that has nothing to do with who you are.” The Madonna with a naivety that manifests itself as fearlessness. For all the talk about how the music industry is yet to catch up with #MeToo, it’s come a long way since the ’80s when things were impossibly tough for young female artists.
“I would say there were plenty of situations where men were wanting to abuse their power. I was the starting-out artist begging for help and I would go to people who ran labels or influential DJs saying: ‘Can you help me out? Can you listen to this song? Can you hook me up?’ Can you sign me to your record label?’ and, a lot of people said: ‘Yeah, if you’ll do this,’ and usually it was a sexual favour.”
“Oh yeah, for sure. And there was one time where I was so broke and I was so sick of being broke I thought, ‘Wait, could I do it?’ But I didn’t do it in the end. I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I knew I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I did, so I just kept going on as I had, being a starving artist and waiting for my ship to come in and – ironically – I was signed by a gay man who didn’t want anything to do with me in that way and he just really appreciated my music.”
Madonna, then. Nothing if not principled. On that birthday milestone that we won’t dwell on, earlier in the year, which she spent in Morocco with those closest to her, she gave a speech: “Women have a life span and at a certain age they’re expected to go away. I’m not interested in that.”
Observing the resilient, intimidating, brilliantly-talented woman who sits on the fancy sofa in front of me – one eye looking right at me – I consider how easy it would have been for her to bow out, having already achieved more in one fraction of her career than anyone could hope to in a lifetime, but how incredibly dull a world without Madonna would be.
“The pressure to be silenced comes and goes,” she muses. “Let’s see what happens when my record comes out.”
And with that, it’s nearly midnight and our time is up. It’s hard to imagine what the rest of Madonna’s evening involves, all dressed up for our benefit, but tired – or fatigué, as she had it – and missing her boy. Bed and a cup of camomile? A night cha-cha-ing her way around London?
Earlier, Madonna spoke about the preconceived notions about her. This latest incarnation seems, perhaps, more intentionally unknowable than any version of the original superstar we’ve seen before. The eyepatch is armour, the name a defence. I leave feeling as flustered as when I arrived, but clearer on Madame X’s message: empowerment, righteousness, multiculturalism, voicing the voiceless. Madonna’s always been fearless. Madame X is fearsome, too. Long live the queen.