She shakes her head and flutters the fake lashes her makeup artist has put on her. “It’s terrible,” she says, sighing. “All my life I’ve been going out of my way to get my father’s approval. And he’s never been impressed.”
With half a dozen dancers, three choreographers, her longtime publicist Liz Rosenberg and a retinue of Warner Bros. executives in tow, Madonna heads to the stage to rehearse “HungUp.”Though she’s just performed the song perfectly in Portugal, she insists on rehearsing it three times until the lighting and choreography cues are perfect.
In the Eighties and early Nineties, it often seemed as if Madonna went out of her way to be controversial – from the burning crosses of the “Like a Prayer” video to the graphic depictions of bondage, homosexuality and, um, hang gliding in her Sex book. Yet now that she’s settled into adult life as a mother of two with a spiritual bent, she’s under more scrutiny than ever. (Though she proudly boasts that she recently received a letter from Dr. Spock’s wife defending her child-rearing techniques, which include not letting her kids watch TV and teaching them to be bilingual.)
“It’s funny that I’ve supposedly made my career out of being controversial, so now even my child-rearing and my spiritual life are freaking people out,” Madonna responds. “It just goes to show.” She pauses and smiles. The lines in her face deepen, making her appear not older but more cerebral. “I don’t know what it goes to show:” She grows silent and thinks a little more. Her eyes squint, her aquiline lips purse and then, suddenly, her face goes smooth again. “It just goes to show that people are not comfortable with what’s not familiar,” she finally announces, triumphant.
Madonna pulls off her black sweat shirt, revealing a white tank top cut low in the back, exposing the back of a nude-colored bra. Though she looks great on camera, in person she seems overly thin.
One of the subjects Madonna has received the most flak about lately is her status as a Kabbalist. Technically, Kabbalah is a mystical branch of Judaism. But in the modern sense of the word, it’s the non-denominational teachings of an organization called the Kabbalah Centre. Founded by Philip Berg in the early Seventies, the Kabbalah Centre is chiefly a self-help institution that has taken a mystical branch of Judaism and cleaned, simplified and reworked it for mass consumption in an era of over estimulated materialists looking for spiritual and psychological peace of mind. Until recently, the Kabbalah Centre and its books and courses were looked at as benignly as, say, Wayne Dyer or Deepak Chopra. Madonna describes it not as a religion but as a philosophy.
More recently, however, the Kabbalah Centre has been under attack for its fundraising methods and for the statements and qualifications of some of its leaders, among other issues. As a result, the bad publicity has trickled down to Madonna, who has donated millions of dollars to the Centre.
While the Kabbalah Centre remains a far cry from the much more controversial Church of Scientology, Madonna does have empathy for Tom Cruise right now. “We’re both in the take-a-lot-of-shit club together,” she says. “I don’t really know what Scientology is, and because I don’t know, I’m not in a position to have an opinion about it. But I don’t think anybody else knows either, either. They need to shut the fuck up.
Despite the strong language, there is no anger or hostility in her voice, only the strength of conviction nixed with the weakness of a persecution complex: “It’s like, why doesn’t anybody give Christians shit? I don’t get it. It’s really scary. When you think about it, there’s corruption in all organizations. Once things get big. there are always bad apples. Look at all the corruption and deception involved with the Vatican and the Catholic Church. It’s crazy. If I became a born-again Christian, people in America would be way more comfortable with it.”
Considering her penchant for learning, Madonna’s interest in Kabbalah makes sense. In most of her courses, she is learning about a complex and fascinating subject: herself. And changing oneself at a deep identity level is a difficult, timeconsuming, constantly challenging task. It is, for Madonna, a narcissistic exercise in not being a narcissist.
“As corny as it sounds,” she says, “if I didn’t have some kind of spiritual belief system, if I couldn’t find a way to make sense out of the chaos in the world around me – not my personal chaos, but the chaos in the world -1 would be a very depressed person.”
Like pop artists from Green Day to Moby, Madonna has been outspoken in her antipathy to the Bush administration. When Bush won the 2004 election, for example, she spiraled. “I was just frigging devastated,” she recalls. “It was a real sad day. I don’t get how people can have all these facts and still turn away from them.”