It’s hard to think of any celebrity who has done more than Madonna to promote public awareness of gay culture — especially minority gay culture — but even as she has sprinkled stardust in neglected corners, she has also been accused of getting rich on the appropriation and mining of gay subcultures. Of course, censuring Madonna for ransacking gay subcultures could be viewed as just another variation on the time-honored practice of devaluing the accomplishments of female recording artists by attributing them to male collaborators. This impulse, which is sinister precisely because it is typically reflexive and unthinking, has been in the news of late: In January, Pitchfork published an interview with the singer Björk in which the avant-star expressed frustration with journalists for misreporting that her new album, Vulnicura, had been produced by 24-year-old musician Arca, a.k.a. Alejandro Ghersi, when in fact Björk herself had co-produced every track. “I’ve done music for, what, 30 years?” Björk vented to the music site. “I’ve been in the studio since I was 11; Alejandro had never done an album when I worked with him.”
When I quote Björk’s words to Madonna, she sympathizes. “People are always saying, ‘So he’s the producer,’ or ‘Who produced it?’ and I have to say, ‘I did. I co-produced that with Diplo. I co-produced that with Kanye.’ Whatever — everything is a co-production. I’m the one who stays in the studio throughout, from beginning to end — all of these people come and go.”
One week later, during a follow-up conversation after our late-night rendezvous, Madonna declares, “Gay rights are way more advanced than women’s rights. People are a lot more open-minded to the gay community than they are to women, period.” For women, she feels, the situation has hardly improved since 1983. “It’s moved along for the gay community, for the African-American community, but women are still just trading on their ass. To me, the last great frontier is women.”
Coming from Madonna, the analysis seems significant. I ask her to elaborate. “Women are still the most marginalized group,” she says. “They’re still the group that people won’t let change.” To be a successful woman, she asserts, “you must fit into this box: You must behave this way, dress this way.” Immediately after our first interview, Madonna was snapped by a paparazzo upon exiting the building and endured criticism from The Daily Mail for wearing a “sheer corset, which left little to the imagination.” This seems to be Madonna’s point: Thirty-three years after she became, by her own reckoning, the first female pop star to make use of subcultures and to express herself “with an overt sexuality through her work” (“Before me, if it was anyone,” she says, “maybe Debbie Harry, but she was less overt”), Madonna’s costume changes are still attracting harassment from tabloid moralists.
She continues: “You’re still categorized — you’re still either a virgin or a whore. If you’re a certain age, you’re not allowed to express your sexuality, be single, or date younger men.” Now in her 50s, Madonna has become a cougar virtuoso, cycling through three male-model boyfriends under the age of 30 in less than four years. This is behavior, Madonna points out, for which “a man would never be questioned or criticized.” Madonna seems to be thinking primarily of straight men: Grand old queens with a taste for youth, like Liberace — or Stephen Fry — might empathize with Madonna’s predicament.
With Rebel Heart, Madonna enters a new period, and the Madonna era enters its fourth decade. Over the years, we’ve seen many “new Madonnas” come and go, but the new Madonna is still always Madonna herself. Or as Madonna jokes, “I’m the new old Madonna.” Joan of Arc, the most famous woman of her day, died a martyr at age 19, betrayed. Madonna, 56 years young, has made it clear that she will countenance neither martyrdom, nor marginalization, nor relegation to the status of “national treasure.” She will not retire quietly into Cher-like fag-haggery or into Paula Abdul–ish irrelevance. If the kids are using Snapchat, she’ll use Snapchat to release her video. If her hardcore fans are on Grindr, she’ll live-chat on Grindr. Madonna will follow pop culture wherever it goes—over a cliff and into the sea, if need be. Her new album is many things. Above all, it is not her last.