Well, you’re wearing a cross.
I like crosses. I’m sentimental about Jesus on the cross. Jesus was a Jew, and also I believe he was a catalyst, and I think he offended people because his message was to love your neighbor as yourself; in other words, no one is better than somebody else. He embraced all people, whether it was a beggar on the street or a prostitute, and he admonished a group of Jews who were not observing the precepts of the Torah. So he rattled a lot of people’s cages.
A rebel heart, you might say.
He was a rebel heart for sure.
What do you make of Kanye West, who co-produced three of your new songs?
He’s a brilliant madman. He can’t help himself. Like, he doesn’t have the same filters other people have. He has to blurt things out – he’s always saying inappropriate stuff. But he also has brilliant ideas in the studio, if you can get him to pay attention long enough. He would come and go. He would drive me bonkers, because he’s got so many things going on in his life. And this seemed to be the theme of my record, working with people who can’t get off their phone, can’t stop tweeting, can’t focus and finish a song. It drove me crazy. I was, like, running around with a butterfly net. But I feel like the music business needs him, because everyone’s become so politically correct, so safe. I don’t always agree with the things he says or does – I don’t always like his music, even. But he’s a beautiful mess. I love him.
Do you see yourself in him at all, or an earlier version of yourself?
You never jumped on stages.
Well, I think he takes award shows too seriously. I never got too engaged with who wins awards or not, because I don’t honestly think it’s that important. So that part of him I can’t relate to. Like, what’s the point of fighting for somebody to… like, “This person should have got it”? Don’t come to an award show looking for justice!
You hung out with Taylor Swift at the Grammys – it occurred to me that by being sort of the anti-Madonna, she might be most like you. Your bellybutton was a big deal in the Eighties, and her thing was never showing hers.
On purpose? I wasn’t aware of that. She has an opinion, and she’s going against the norm. So in that respect, she is similar to me, yeah. And also, people just want to give her a hard time all the time because they think she’s a goody-two-shoes, so of course I want to embrace her.
In some ways, any young female pop star can be seen as a sort of funhouse-mirror version of you. How do you process all that in your head?
There’s a part of me that feels jealous, like, “Oh, it’s so much easier now to be famous,” or “It’s so much easier to get your stuff out there.” But on the other hand, it’s also harder, because you don’t get a chance to find out who you are as a performer without a huge audience. In my coming-of-age time, ther was no Internet, no social networking, nothing. It was just show after show, hoping one day somebody would notice you. All of that time you put in develops you, and you’re doing it anonymously. And that’s really helpful, not only to your growth as an artist but also to your psyche, to your confidence about who you are. To be judged and be picked apart by the public when you’re 18 years old, I don’t envy those girls. It’s too much.
On the flip side, it seems one of the only acceptable prejudices in pop writing, and in the world at large, is ageism.
It’s the last great frontier, you know? We’ve fought the civil rights movement, we fought for gay rights. There’s so much political correctness, where people would never dream of thinking of judging somebody because they’re gay or because they’re black or because they’re Muslim or whatever. But it’s still the one area where you can totally discriminate against somebody and talk shit, because of their age. Only females, though. Not males. So in that respect, we still live in a very sexist society.
People tend to admire the physical efforts of Jagger and Springsteen – but it’s different for you. That could be seen as a blatant double standard.
Yes, it’s extremely blatant.
So do you just ignore it? How do you deal with it?
I don’t ignore it. I take note. I think, “That’s interesting.” No one would dare to say a degrading remark on Instagram about someone being black or gay, but my age? Anybody and everybody would say something degrading to me. And I always think to myself, “What’s the difference between that and racism, or any discrimination? They’re judging me by my age. Why is that acceptable?” I don’t understand. I’m trying to get my head around it. Because women, generally, when they reach a certain age, have accepted that they’re not allowed to behave a certain way. But I don’t follow the rules. I never did, and I’m not going to start.
So when, for example, your ass is out on the red carpet – is that deliberately flaunting the idea of what someone…
Yeah. “This is what a 56-year-old ass looks like, motherf*ckers.”
Well, I mean, that’s what yours looks like. Perhaps not the average…
Well, you know what? It could be the average one day. That’s the thing. When I did my Sex book, it wasn’t the average. When I performed “Like a Virgin” on the MTV Awards and my dress went up and my ass was showing, it was considered a total scandal. It was never the average, and now it’s the average. When I did Truth or Dare and the cameras followed me around, it was not the average. So if I have to be the person who opens the door for women to believe and understand and embrace the idea that they can be sexual and look good and be as relevant in their fifties or their sixties as they were in their twenties, then so be it.
In the lyrics of “Joan of Arc,” you say, “Each time they take a photograph / I lose a part I can’t get back,” which sounds more like Sean Penn’s old attitude to the press.
There are certain mystical belief systems that believe that taking pictures takes an aspect of the soul, but beyond that it’s just the idea that once you’re captured in a photograph, then a million presumptions are made of you, and you are forever frozen in that one moment, and you are perceived to be the embodiment of that moment, and that, of course, is an illusion.