Superstar. Chameleon. Truth-teller. Sexually liberated provocateur. Feminist. Mother. Artist.
This list of wholly accurate words and phrases you could use to describe Madonna is long and impressive. But, it’s not complete. Yes, she’s one of the few modern-day celebrities who can truly get away with a single-word moniker that’s universally known and understood in every corner of the globe. But, much more interesting than that is the fact that Madonna has never shied away from the opportunity to evolve — even now, at the stage in her career where most artists would rest on their laurels and coast. Even more interesting still, she’s a profoundly thoughtful human being who goes much deeper than you could possibly imagine.
With the release of her 13th studio album, Rebel Heart (which drops tomorrow), she’s proving that at 56, she’s as relevant as ever — maybe even more so. Despite a leak that forced her to move up the timeline and delivery of this album by several months, she’s managed to whip up a frenzy among fans that is likely to result in the most expensive tour of 2015 (outpricing even Taylor Swift).
And, she’s been smart about the whole campaign, releasing a new video on Snapchat, giving fans a chance to chat with her on Grindr, and doing an AMA on Instagram. Those are just a few examples of her creative approaches to marketing music to a fan base that’s evolved considerably since she put out her first eponymous album in 1983, but they don’t read like gimmicks, which is easily proven by the love and attention fans — both new and old — are doling out. Madonna found herself among the most talked-about arrivals (and performers) at the Grammys this year. When she suffered an injury after a fall on stage at the Brit Awards last month, the world came to her defense, when petty gossips gloated at her misfortune.
However, none of that is what you notice when you get the opportunity to sit down with the musician for a quiet chat. Clad in corseted lace and leather, with a diamond-encrusted whistle around her neck, Madonna reads immediately as Madonna, the superstar. But, once you start to talk and your nerves fade away a bit, all that’s left is a thoughtful, fiercely confident woman who has many, many ideas about the world around us. Both what’s wrong with it and how we can inspire the change we need to make life better for people — and especially women — around the globe. In the wake of International Women’s Day, we can’t imagine anything better. Ahead, all the insights we gleaned from our conversation with one of the most powerful celebrities in the world.
There’s an incredible braggadocio to “B*tch I’m Madonna,” your song with Nicki Minaj. Somehow, it’s still rare to see female pop stars go there, though. Was that a leap for you at all?
“No. I mean, I think a song like ‘Express Yourself’ is just as sort of audacious, and it’s certainly empowering. But, this is just a little bit more cheeky. I feel like I’ve earned the right to say, ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna. Don’t f*ck with me.’ I’m allowed to do this now. I’ve earned my stripes.
Do you think stars should have to earn their stripes to be able to project cockiness like that?
“Yes. I think it’s good to earn it. I think everything has to be earned, and, you know, you’re going to accept that kind of energy coming from somebody who’s had a lot of life experience and understand that it’s coming from an informed place, versus somebody who’s just starting out.”
On your path to that informed, experienced place, you fielded a lot of hate from people who didn’t understand your brand of self-expression, or agree with your ideas about social justice. What do you want your newer fans, who didn’t grow up seeing that, to know — especially about the lessons you learned during that time?
“It is important for them to realize that things that they take for granted weren’t always as they are now. When I was coming up, the gay community was exceptionally marginalized, and if you were HIV-positive, you were treated like you had leprosy. There was a lot of discrimination and a lot of prejudice and a lot of craziness, and also, there wasn’t a cure for AIDS. There was no ARVs. There was no way to keep people who were HIV-positive alive, so I was growing up in a time where people I loved and artists that I admired were dying all around me.
“I think people take it for granted now that if you have HIV, you can live a healthy life. Or, if you’re gay, you can live an openly gay life. These things were not the norm when I was starting my career. And, nor was a woman expressing her sexuality. I mean, now, we have artists like Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus, who will very clearly and openly express their sexuality. But, when I did it, I got the shit kicked out of me for it. So, I think it’s important for people to understand that it wasn’t always this way — not for women, not for the gay community. We should all examine, even in pop culture.”
So, given the progress that we have made — especially in light of the president’s addressing bisexual and transgender rights for the first time ever in the State of the Union, and with the Supreme Court finally agreeing to hear gay marriage — what do you think the next social issue is that we need to focus our attention on?
“Well, I think that we still live in an incredibly sexist society, even though it seems like women have made a lot of strides. A woman is still put in a category, still put in boxes. You can be sexy, but you can’t be smart. You can be smart, but you can’t be sexy. You can be sexy, but you can’t be 50.
“So, we live in a very ageist society, which means we live in a sexist society because nobody ever gives men shit for how they behave, however old they are. There is no rulebook. As a man, you can date whoever you want. You can dress however you want. You can do whatever you want in any area that you want. But, if you’re a woman, there are rules, and there are boundaries. And, I feel like a lot of my biggest critics are women.”
How do we solve for that?
“I think, as a whole, women need to be more supportive of each other.”
Is mentorship the answer there? Or, do we need change that’s deeper and more radical than that?
“That’s part of it. I think women need to embrace one another. In our society, we have always wanted to pit women against each other. Strong, powerful women aren’t comfortable in a room with other strong, powerful women — or they’re two bitches that have to fight each other, or be competitive with one another. And, I think that we need to get rid of those stereotypes, and women need to embrace one another and be more vocally supportive of one another. Be happy for other women’s success. That’s important.”
Do you think there’s room for women to criticize each other in that world view?
“I think it depends on where the criticism is coming from. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with criticism, as long as it’s coming from the right place — as long as it’s constructive criticism. But, there’s no point in making disparaging remarks about somebody just for the sake of tearing them down and making them feel bad. And, that’s what an awful lot of people do.”
Speaking of woman-on-woman hate, you and Camille Paglia have had a complicated relationship over the years, where she was equal parts champion and critic of what you did and how you did it.
“I think she hated me.”
Ha. But, at the same time, when everyone was up in arms over your video for “Justify My Love” she came most vocally to your defense, in a 1990 New York Times op ed. She wrote, “Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives.” That taps into a conversation we’re still having today about women and sexuality. Because, of course a woman should be able to own her sexuality and still be perceived as powerful. But, in today’s pop world especially, is that display of sexuality always empowering — in the way you meant it to be? Sometimes, my fear is that while those ideas are completely right, the way they’re executed recasts something that’s really as much about titillating men as about empowering women. It’s almost hiding under the guise of feminism.
“That’s not the way I meant it. But, yes. For instance, when I published my sex book, I think that what freaked people out most about that was that it was from a very female point of view, and a lot of men were extremely uncomfortable with it — and I wasn’t doing it to please men. I was doing it to please myself, and I think that really unnerved people. And, I think more women need to do that.
“I think a lot of women who are perceived as being sexually liberated are actually playing into the hands of what men want, what men feel safe with. And, you know, it would be good to know that you could be a viable, successful pop star in today’s world without having a big ass, for instance. I’ve had this discussion with my 18-year-old daughter, who’s said, ‘Mom, what’s going on? It’s like if you don’t have a video where you have a big ass, people aren’t going to watch your video.’ And, you know, it’s interesting for her to make that observation.”
You have formed the opinions and ideas of so many people when it comes to taking risks and not giving a shit about what people think. How do you summon that kind of fearlessness?
“Well, it’s important to be fearless and educated. You can’t just say, ‘I don’t give a shit, and I’m going to say what I want and do what I want and not be informed.’ You need to be consciously aware of what’s going on in the world, and you have to know your worth. Your worth ultimately isn’t on the outside of you, but on the inside of you — because that’s what lasts.
“What builds character is taking the road less traveled, sticking to your guns, earning your way through life, and not playing into what people expect of you. It’s about not doing things because you want approval, but doing things because they reflect who you are and what you want to say. Those are self-empowering ideals.
“Of course, we all have to care about how we look, and, of course, we all do. I mean, we can’t negate that, but the measure of one’s worth has to come from the inside, and we don’t live in a society that encourages that. We live in a society that encourages the opposite. That’s why I think it’s a scary time for women right now.”
How do you find that strength to deal with that, on a personal level?
“Surround yourself with like-minded people. Always aim to be the stupidest person in the room, so that there’s always somebody who you’re looking up to; someone who’s inspiring you and teaching you. Also, find something to love about yourself. I mean, we live in a culture that is really focused on self-loathing, and I think it’s really hard for young women growing up right now.”
You’ve always seemed incredibly resilient, and, well, bulletproof. But, in “Joan of Arc,” you reveal a surprisingly vulnerable side of yourself, with lyrics like, “Each time they write a hateful word / dragging my soul into the dirt / I wanna die.” Do you really take notice of the haters in that way?
“Yeah. I mean, it’s not like I’m paralyzed by them, or that I’m sobbing in my room, but sometimes, actually, I’m astounded by how passionate people are in their hatred. That’s very disturbing — sign of the times.”
But, you’d still primarily define yourself as tough? As resilient?
“Well, I am. Otherwise I wouldn’t have survived, but I’m human, so how could I not have my moments of vulnerability, of weakness, of doubt? Like, am I doing the right thing? Am I making the right choice? Have I done the right thing? Am I saying the right thing? But, I think it’s important to have moments of self-doubt. And then, of course, it’s also important to not overthink things and to move on and to not look back and be paralyzed by it.
“I mean, if you have a moment of doubt, or if you feel vulnerable, that’s God’s way of protecting you. You need to have those moments, otherwise you just barrel through life without any kind of consciousness. You’d be a robot.”
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