Nevertheless, uniquely among her peers, she is still resolutely a pop artist, still making music informed by what is happening in the charts and the clubs. These days, she sometimes learns about it via her 13-year-old daughter, Mercy, an “urban queen” whose taste in hip-hop apparently sits badly with her Elton John-loving brother, David: “He says the lyrics degrade women, and he’s right.”
“There’s nothing forced about it,” she says of her continuing quest to personify pop. “This is the music that I listen to in my house, this is the music that inspires me. Oh, you’re not allowed to make youthful, fun, sexy music if you’re a certain age? That’s a load of” – she dips into an English accent – “bollocks, to speak your language.”
And, whatever ups and downs her career has taken, she very much belongs to a select band of stars so impossibly famous that interviewing her is, by default, a discombobulating experience. Not because she’s difficult or unpleasant in any way; far from it. There’s no mistaking a certain don’t-mess steeliness, but she’s thoughtful and engaging. It’s just that she’s her. As she talks, I keep catching myself thinking: bloody hell, that’s Madonna.
This state of affairs is compounded by the fact that she has turned up dressed as, well, Madonna, or rather Madonna as Madame X, the persona she inhabits on her new album, complete with the same bejewelled eyepatch that will subsequently cause Graham Norton to congratulate her for appearing at Eurovision “despite clearly suffering from a terrible case of conjunctivitis”.
Madame X is apparently “a secret agent, travelling around the world, bringing light to dark places, a spy in the house of love, curious, hungry for knowledge, wants to wake people up”. The album itself is a lot of things that fans want a Madonna album to be: provocative, personal, political, funny, quite eccentric and, as she puts it, “cheeky”, a charmingly decorous way of describing the lyrical content of Bitch I’m Loca, a track that ends with her urging the Colombian singer Maluma to “put it inside”. It reunites her with Mirwais Ahmadzaï, the French producer who worked on her two undisputed latterday classics – 2000’s Music and 2005’s Confessions on a Dancefloor – and serves up an eclectic grab-bag of mumble rap, reggae, post-Despacito Latin pop, pounding hi-NRG, an electronic version of Dance of the Reed Pipes from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, and fado, the latter influenced by her relocation to Lisbon two years ago.
She “100% moved there only for David” – he plays football for Benfica’s youth academy – and initially endured “a few months of lonely anguish, not really knowing anyone, not speaking Portuguese, trying to figure out how to fit in that world and make my children comfortable”, before making friends and being drawn into the city’s music scene. She talks enthusiastically about house parties “where you can’t move for musicians playing fado” and tiny bars without music licences where audiences are forbidden to clap the performers “so you have to rub your hands together as a sign of applause, which is pretty cool”.
The lyrics, meanwhile, variously touch on school shootings, the sitting US president, the decline in the value of celebrity, and sexual abuse and harassment. She’s not sure why the music industry hasn’t yet had a #MeToo moment to rival Hollywood’s. “It’s all the same – there are people abusing their power everywhere, in all areas of life, not just film and not just music. A musical artist is allowed to speak in a more personal way and be themselves and talk about issues in a way that say, an actor is not; they don’t have a voice, the voice and the opinions belong to the director or the studios. And if you’re a movie star and you want a part in a movie, there are a lot of people, mostly men, who are willing to exploit and abuse that power to degrade women. And they’re untouchable.”
She has recently spoken of how Harvey Weinstein was “incredibly sexually flirtatious” with her and “crossed lines and boundaries” when they worked together on 1991 tour documentary In Bed With Madonna. “Harvey Weinstein was untouchable. His reputation was universal – everybody knew he was, you know, the guy that he was. I’m not into name-calling, but it was like: ‘Oh, that’s Harvey, that’s what he does.’ It just became accepted. And I suppose that’s the scary thing about it. Because if people do things enough, no matter how heinous and awful and unacceptable it is, people accept it. And that certainly exists in the music industry, too.”
She came up against it herself in the years when she was trying to get a record deal. “I can’t tell you how many men said: ‘OK, well, if you give me a blow job’, or: ‘OK, if you sleep with me.’ Sex is the trade, you know? I feel like maybe there isn’t a movement so much because we’re already used to expressing ourselves in a way, or fighting for things, although I do wish there were more women in the music business that were more political and more outspoken about all things in life, not just … the inequality of the sexes.”
My time is nearly up, and our conversation turns back to the old American Bandstand footage of an ambitious 25-year-old. She says she still has ambitions: “Well, I’ve just put a record out, so I must still have ambitions. Yes, I want to be successful, I am ambitious. Yes!”
But you’ve been as successful as a pop star can ever hope to be – does that not curb your hunger a bit? She frowns. “But I don’t think my ambition has ever really been generated by what you maybe perceive as conventional success. I mean, being super-famous or super-rich was never my goal.”
Hang on a minute: you said you wanted to rule the world. “When I said I wanted to rule the world, I didn’t say: ‘I want to be the most famous person in the world.’ I didn’t say: ‘I want to be the richest person in the world.’ I said I wanted to rule the world.” She thinks for a moment. “Well, what did I mean then, in my very young mind? I think I just meant I want to make a mark on the world, I want to be a somebody. Because I grew up feeling like a nobody, and I wanted to make a difference. I think that’s what I meant.”
And with a handshake, she’s off, or rather, I’m off: politely ushered from the room, while Madonna sits on the sofa, immaculate, still sporting her eyepatch, looking as much like a somebody as it’s possible to imagine a human being looking.
© The Guardian