Fashioning images: images that riff on Scripture, images that riff on junk culture, images that riff on other images – that’s been her genius. If you go back and consider her career – because Madonna is one of the stars of the age so presumably tells a story greater than her own, about her people or time – you will see there has been nothing but images, spun off one after another, like souls flying off the mighty wheel. Beautiful artifice, puzzles, surfaces, masks. So you decide that only the first Madonna was real, the sexy round-faced girl in lacy gloves, but when you go back and look, you see this Madonna too was borrowed – as she borrowed from Marilyn, as she borrowed from Evita. It came from the downtown dance joints and club kids, the last of the 70s punk and art scenes. (In the early 80s, Madonna dated the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.) So you decide that only Madonna before Madonna was real, the girl whose mother died, who let hair grow on her legs, who pestered her father to send her to dance class, then lit out. But when you go back and really look, the details seem so vague and generic that that too dissolves. It’s like a tub filled with suds, and you search and search but never find the naked lady. I think Madonna is aware of this, which, in part, explains her interest in Kabbalah, which is a search for timeless things, for depth. She is hunting for what might be salvaged, for what will remain when she is 65, when she is 70. For a pop star, there are, in a way, two deaths – or maybe more: maybe a pop star dies again and again.
Iinterviewed Madonna for almost two hours. Liz Rosenberg took me in. We went down a nondescript hall, made two turns, went through a door, and here, finally, was the room at the center of the maze. Madonna sat bolt upright on a leather couch. She wore a white dress – at least, that’s what I think she was wearing. She was stunningly beautiful. I mean, you’ve seen this person only on TV or in movies, in two dimensions, now here she is. What’s more, when I was in high school, I dated so many girls because they looked like Madonna that I had the feeling I had slipped off my chains and made my way out of Plato’s cave and was seeing the real thing at last.
Madonna’s hair was blond and pulled back from her face, which was porcelain and perfect in the way of Grace Kelly in Rear Window, when she moves in to kiss Jimmy Stewart, who is sweaty. Something clean in a dirty world. I turned on my tape recorder. Liz Rosenberg sat in the corner, working on her BlackBerry.
Madonna spoke of Africa: “If you’ve got one iota of compassion, you can’t ignore what’s going on. You have to figure out a way to be a part of the solution.”
Madonna spoke of New York, how it’s changed: “It’s not the exciting place it used to be. It still has great energy; I still put my finger in the socket. But it doesn’t feel alive, cracking with that synergy between the art world and music world and fashion world that was happening in the 80s. A lot of people died.”
She spoke of the music business: “Well, there’s one thing you can’t download and that’s a live performance. And I know how to put on a show, and enjoy performing, and I’ll always have that.”
She spoke of the long career: “Honestly, it’s not something I sit around ruminating about. Who is my role model and how long can I keep this going? I just move around and do different things and come back to music, try making films and come back to music, write children’s books and come back to music.”
She spoke of Guy Ritchie: “We make different kinds of movies. I don’t have the technical knowledge he has. He’s got a vision, and his films are very testosterone fueled. Mine are much more from a female point of view, and I can’t help but be autobiographical in everything I do.”
She spoke of having children, how it changes everything. I asked her to name her favorite children’s books. She said Winnie the Pooh, Pippi Longstocking, Horrid Henry. I told her I had never read Pippi Longstocking.
Madonna: Do you have a daughter?
Me: No, three sons.
[Madonna looks at me accusingly.]
Me: I didn’t choose it – it just happened. Madonna: Do you believe that? You think things just happen?
Me: I think that just happened.