Since the beginning of your career, the transformation of your image has been the only constant. Between your first two albums, 1983’s “Madonna” and 1984’s “Like a Virgin,” you went through your first major reinvention, from a punky brunette club girl into a blonde in a wedding dress. Where did that come from?
I don’t know. I guess the music I started to write had more of a seductive quality, and I unconsciously morphed into that. It also had to do with the fact that I was doing more photo shoots. I was being styled and dressed. Before that, I was doing everything myself. I had no makeup artist, I was taking my dance tights and tying them around my head and throwing a few rosaries around my neck. After that, it was [photographer] Steven Meisel, and fashion people putting me in corsets. I think people put a lot of emphasis on the whole reinvention of my image, and it’s always been a lot less calculated than people think. It’s just evolution and what I’m interested in, the books I read or movies or clothes that I see. Just call me Zelig. Wasn’t that the Woody Allen movie where he took on the personality of whoever he’s talking to? I think it’s boring to stay the same. A girl likes to change her look.
When you were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there was a video montage of your career. When you took the stage, you made a joke about “all my bad hairstyles.” Which Madonna fashion era do you look back on with the most disdain?
I think it was the purple-lipstick/fluorescent-green-sweater combo. So many of those hairstyles. It’s OK, it was the Eighties. It was a bad-hairstyle era, let’s face it.
On the flip side, is there a time you look back on when you say, “Fuck, I was pretty hot.”
Like I’m going to admit to that! And be annihilated for the next 10 years for it? I’m not answering that one.
There’s the famous story of you performing at Radio City Music Hall in 1985, when the whole audience was filled with Madonna clones. But that first tour, the Virgin Tour, began in Seattle and worked its way across the country. Was it Madonna-mania from the beginning?
That whole tour was crazy, because I went from playing CBGB and the Mudd Club to playing sports arenas. I played a small theater in Seattle, and girls had flap skirts on and tights cut off below their knees and lace gloves and rosaries and bows in their hair and big hoop earrings. I was like, “This is insane!” After Seattle, all of the shows were moved to arenas. I’ve never done a bus tour. Everyone says they’re really fun.
You didn’t write ‘Material Girl” or “Like a Virgin.” What were your first impressions after you heard those demos?
I liked them both because they were ironic and provocative at the same time but also unlike me. I am not a materialistic person, and I certainly wasn’t a virgin, and, by the way, how can you be like a virgin? I liked the play on words, I thought they were clever. They’re so geeky, they’re cool.
I feel lucky to be able to afford a Frida Kahlo [painting] or live in a nice house, but I know that I can live without it. I’m resourceful, and if I ended up in a log cabin in the middle of the forest, that would work too. These things are not mandatory for my happiness. That’s what I meant by “I’m not a materialistic person.”
Did you have the sense that those two songs would become such huge hits?
No. They just resonated with me. I’ve never been a good judge of what things are going to be huge or not. The songs that I think are the most retarded songs I’ve written, like “Cherish” and “Sorry,” a pretty big hit off my last album, end up being the biggest hits. “Into the Groove” is another song I feel retarded singing, but everybody seems to like it.
That’s because “Into the Groove” has an amazing bass line.
Yeah. Thank you, Stephen Bray. [Bray, an ex-boyfriend of Madonna’s from Michigan, co-wrote and produced many of her biggest Eighties hits.] It always starts with the bass line and the beat. You build it from the ground up. Like on “Holiday,” “Hung Up,” “Music.” I think it has to do with being a dancer, because it’s all about the bass line when you’re a dancer. You have to feel it in the center of your gravity.
How do you respond to criticism? When the nude photos appeared in “Playboy” and “Penthouse,” for instance, you were totally defiant.
That was the first time I was aware of saying “Fuck you” with my attitude. You’re trying to put me down because of this? I’m not going to let public opinion dictate my own feelings about myself. I’m not going to apologize for anything I’ve done.
Your former manager Freddy DeMann thought your career was over after the “Like a Virgin” performance at the 1984 VMAs. Were you concerned afterward?
He was white as a ghost. He was very disappointed in me, because I was rolling around on the floor, my dress went up, and you could see my underpants. What was I thinking? “I dropped my shoe, I don’t know how to get it and put it back on, and I am going down on the ground.” It was a lot of things. It was scary and fun, and I didn’t know what it meant for my future. A million things were going through my head.