To date, Madonna has adopted just the one child from Malawi. David, who has joined Madonna’s other children, 11-year-old Lourdes and 7-year-old Rocco, in a town house in London. It was the birth of Lourdes, in 1996, that put Madonna on the road that ended in Malawi. “If you have children, you know you’re responsible for somebody,” she explained. “You realize you are being imitated; your belief systems and priorities have a direct influence on these children, who are like flowers in a garden. So you start to second-guess everything you value, and the suffering of other children becomes much more intolerable.”
If anyone ever won a lottery, it’s this child, David. who one moment was living in poverty in Africa and the next had been down to a palace in the great frozen North. You see him in the film, bowlegged and stocky in the endearing way of the destitute man-child, looking adult, wizened. It’s no mystery why Madonna picked David. Look at him, he’s adorable. It was this adoption–the fact that Madonna went into an orphanage of AIDS-infected children and somehow came out with a child who did not have AIDS and is not an orphan–that set off the furor, especially in the British press, that the movie seems meant to address. Laws had been brushed aside, the request expedited. As if the dynamic of colonialism or First World/Third World were being played out between this one superstar and this one child. Then David’s father, Yohane Banda, turned up. He told reporters he had placed his son in the orphanage only temporarily, and let him be adopted at the urging of authorities. “The government people told me it would be a good thing for the country,” he told The Christian Science Monitor “They said he would come back educated and be able to help us.”
What a strange life for David, being carried off to London — like Pocahontas, the beautiful Indian girl found in wild America — because, as Conrad wrote of London, “this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Like Pocahontas, who marveled at the brick buildings and endless streets and was shown off and feted, but still lonely, because the Empire has everything but what is most important — a kind of purity or righteous connection to the land. “Africa is not doing great,” Madonna told me, “but. on the other hand, how much have they contributed to the destruction of the world? Nothing compared to what we have, and we have everything.” In other words, Madonna brings this boy into her house and gives him everything, but gets something in return: a living totem of life as it was lived before machines.
After the movie, I was brought to the office of Madonna’s manager, where I sat in a boardroom and listened to Madonna’s new record (Hard Candy) on an iPod. It was a long day. The morning flight. the articles, the movie, the record. then the interview. It was like being brainwashed. Like being dropped in a vat of Madonna. But it’s how they wanted it — how I was purified and prepared. Like they do in the cults. Make sure the mark is softened before he sits with the eminence. As Madonna herself told me, “I just wanted you to know where my head is at.”
Madonna made the record with Justin Timberlake, who co-wrote five of the songs and sings on four, Pharrell Williams, and the producer Timbaland. “I didn’t have any idea what kind of music I wanted to make,” Madonna told me. “I just knew I wanted to collaborate with Pharrell and Justin. I needed to be inspired and thought, Well, who’s making records I like? So I went, ‘I like that guy and I like that guy.’ It’s not like we hit it off right away. Writing is very intimate. You have to be vulnerable and it’s hard to do that with strangers. I had ups and downs before everybody got comfortable, but I grew very fond of Pharrell and Justin.”
Many of the songs are hybrids, traditional Madonna super-pop, workout tunes giving way to white hip-hop, Justin Timberlake showering cascades of rhyme. I was listening to the music, and it’s at record I think Madonna fans will like. because it’s filled with songs you can imagine blasting from the room where they hold spinning class, but I kept thinking about Britney Spears. I mean, here is Madonna, singing with Justin, whose very public breakup with Britney marked the moment the pop tart began her battle with the furies. And, of course, I was also thinking of those MTV Video Music Awards in which Britney, already well on her way to madness, frenched Madonna. In light of this record. and all that’s happened, I wondered if, in the course of that kiss, Madonna somehow extracted Britney’s south from her body, or implanted the crazy chip. When I began to ask Madonna about Britney–specifically in relation to the paparazzi–she stopped me (before I even said Britney’s name) with a raised hand, saying, “Yes, I know. I know exactly what you’re going to say. It’s very painful. Which leads us back to our question: When you think about the way people treat each other in Africa, about witchcraft and people inflicting cruelty and pain on each other, then come back here and, you know, people taking pictures of people when they’re in their homes, being taken to hospitals, or suffering, and selling them, getting energy from them, that’s a terrible infliction of cruelty. So who’s worse off? You know what I mean?”
I took notes as I listened to Hard Candy. There area dozen songs. Now and then, I took a break. Now and then, my mind drifted. Now and then, Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s longtime publicist, who wore heavy glasses with dark frames, came in to see how I was doing. Later, when I looked over my notes, I found just a few bits worth preserving:
– Madonna is turning. 50 in August.
– Madonna made her fortune selling sex — what will she sell when the thought of sex with Madonna seems like a fetish?
What if there were just the songs — no videos, no movies, no concerts. How would we judge Madonna?
– How closely does the movie career of Madonna parallel the movie career of Elvis?
(With the first film being the only one that matters.)
– First you sit alone in at screening room. watching Madonna among Africans, then you sit alone in at boardroom, hearing Madonna with rappers.
– To reach Madonna, you must pass through many rooms.
– The lyrics to her song “Candy Shop”:
I’ll be your one stop
Candy shop …
Have some more …
My sugar is raw
Sticky and sweet