There is the argument that some things in Madonna’s career shouldn’t have been attempted once. Seducing a black saint in the Like A Prayer video for example, or maybe giving a beer bottle a blow-job during the In Bed With Madonna film could be considered unwise moves. Then there was the lesbian-based tomfoolery with Sandra Bernhard, and a naked romp with a variety of men (Vanilla Ice), women (Naomi Campbell) and animals in her Sex book. On the plus side, the subsequent bored public response to these incidents highlighted the fact that people would much rather hear Madonna’s music then indulge in her extra-curricular whims.
Ever since she’s continually adapted herself and her music to the times (an observation she acknowledges by snoring and exclaiming “Boring!”). There have been occasions when she’s seemed a little too keen to keep in touch – recruiting Ali G for the Music video, for example, today insisting that The Office is “sickly funny” – but mostly it seems genuine. Crucially, she has been, or has appeared to be, her own driving force. She’s still interested in new music – current favourites include the new Massive Attack and Lemon Jelly albums – without co-opting any one thing wholesale. And while old hands like Tom Jones enlist Wyclef Jean’s production talents in gauche attempts to remain hip, Madonna has ensured Mirwais and Ray Of Light producer William Orbit have enhanced her rather than moulded her.
“Different things inspire me to write,” says Madonna. “I could be having a guitar lesson and something will just come to me. Or Mirwais will send me over music-rough stuff that doesn’t have an arrangement basic chord progressions, American Life came about itself like that.
“The music has to jar my brain in terms of lyrics. Sometimes I write free verse. I have a journal and I note down ideas I get from newspapers and books.”
Is it difficult to find collaborators who aren’t hopelessly intimidated by you?
“I don’t say to anyone, Are you intimidated by me?” She bristles. “Obviously, if you feel comfortable with me I can feel it. We can have a chat and a laugh, but I’ve never sat down with someone I wanted to work with and not got along with them. William Orbit was very nervous when I met him, dropping things all over the place, but I found that really endearing. I don’t dwell on it.”
Madonna has been famous in an all-consuming way for 20 years. She has sold 140 million records. Her two singles compilations took in 32 tracks and still left a handful of hits. Her pointy bra fetched $23,850 at an online auction in 2001 and last year she reportedly earned £36 million.
Do you know how much money you have in the bank?
“Not exactly. Move on.”
With teen pop dominating the US charts, her influence now is arguably more prominent then it’s ever been. The likes of Pink, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears have notably followed her blueprint of success through naked ambition and hard work.
“I arrived at a different time,” she says. “Before the time of Svengalis holding talent searches: finding a girl that looks right and can carry a tune, and then figuring a way to market her. I’m not saying those girls can’t grow into something, but I really don’t know where we’re going with the world. Everything’s so homogenized.”
She is interrupted by the Polo lounge’s evening entertainment: a grim-faced young singer-songwriter. Madonna listens to the opening notes of his first song. “Everybody also wants to be Thom Yorke these days,” she notes drily.
On American Life Madonna casts herself as being entirely at odds with her fame. On the clattering rap section which concludes the title track she serves up an itemized list of her payroll which runs to a lawyer, a personal assistant, an agent, a driver, a pilot, a chef, three nannies, five bodyguards, a trainer, a stylist, and a gardener. None of these, she claims complete her life. The notion that vast wealth doesn’t automatically lead to happiness is, of course, your average mega-rich celebrity’s habitual moan – it has yet to trouble any of them enough to call it a day and live an untroubled life of pastoral existence in somewhere like Vermont, however.
“I know it sounds clichéd,” she says. “But I’ve had 20 years of fame and fortune, and I feel that I have a right to an opinion on what it is and what it isn’t. All everyone is obsessed about at the moment is being a celebrity. I’m saying that’s bullshit and who knows better than me? Before it happens you have all kinds of notions about how wonderful celebrity is and how much joy it’s going to bring you. Then you arrive…
“In America, more then any other place in the world, you have the freedom to be anything you want to be. Which is all well and good, but it only works if you have a value system and we seem not to have one anymore. It’s whatever it takes to get to the top, and that’s what you gotta do.
“It’s the allure of the beautiful life,” she continues. “Look like this you’re gonna be happy. Drive this car you’re gonna be popular. Wear these clothes and people are gonna wanna fuck you. It’s a very powerful illusion and people are caught up in it, including myself. Or I was. “