“I was tired of being dragged up and down on the roller-coaster ride of ‘Things are good / things are bad,'” says Madonna. “‘I’m successful / I’m not successful…. People are saying nice things about me / people are being horrible about me.'” A remarkable statement this, from a woman who has amassed a near-Cleopatran fortune through her peerless ability to provoke reactions which she can use to fuel further provocations.
That was then, Madonna will tell you. If you had met her seven years ago, she insists, you’d have seen an entirely different person. “I would have been a lot more selfish,” says Madonna, apostate from the cult of her own celebrity. “I had no kids, so it was a very ‘Me-me-me’ universe. Not thinking before I spoke, before I acted … I was going through life robotically, even though I thought I was a badass, motherfucking, rebel, outside-of-it-all person. I was still a sheep in many ways.
“I wasn’t a total pig or anything,” she continues, hewing to farmyard allusion. “I was a decent human being, but I just didn’t think of the big picture. My life was very small-picture.”
So what does the big picture look like for a shape-shifting icon with no visible peer? A middle-aged sophisticate in a pandering, youth-addled culture?
There is a telling moment in the Guy Ritchie version of Swept Away in which Madonna’s humbled character defends her vanity to her noble-savage lover. “You don’t have to compete with 18-year-olds!” she howls. Former pop tart Madonna acknowledges that she is at a similiar remove from the sexed-up Mouseketeers who define distaff pop today. “I think about it, sure, but all I can do is acknowledge it and get on with my life. I’m still going to write the music I want to write. I can’t pretend that I’m 18 years old.”
This assertion was certainly borne out by Madonna’s 2001 Drowned World Tour, which stood in direct opposition to the scientifically designed, focus-grouped extravaganzas that in our day pass for pop concerts. Madonna played several of her biggest hits, but mostly she used her newer tracks to frame a lavish and admirably self-indulgent performance-art happening. Is there another popular artist today who would confront her audience with a spectacle combining a punkish dance troupe, samurai warriors, Hong Kong action choreography, and Japanese anime cartoons? When Madonna ceded the stage to her own video-geisha image, the screen was obscured by loincloth-clad dancing boys suspended upside down on ropes. For Drowned World, read Crouching Twyla, Hidden Mummenschanz.
“I get fixated on all these things, and I have to put them in my show. I keep a mental file and I try to incorporate everything,”, says Madonna, a cultural omnivore who swears fealty to pop music while remaining open to other forms.
“Tim Rice came backstage in London and said, ‘You’ve got to do a musical,'” she reports. “And I said, ‘Could somebody please write a good one? It’s not like anybody’s busting down my door with something awesome.'” (Any umbrage suffered by veteran lyricist Rice was doubtless salved by the royalties from The Lion King and Aida. his glutinous Broadway triumphs.)
For the moment, Madonna appears to be content with the unprecedented stability she has found with her current partners, both romantic and musical. As the studio rematch with Mirwais looms, she is happy to live la vida low-key in her Wallace Neff dream home, in the apparently unneurotic bosom of her family, taking her yoga classes, studying Kabbalah — and playing those acoustic guitars. “Lately I’ve been doing Cat Stevens songs, just singing to myself,” she says. “‘Wild World’ … and ‘Morning Has Broken’- I play that song every day, practically.”
Madonna started taking guitar lessons shortly after Rocco’s birth, when her husband gifted her with an ax. “I fancied playing with someone,” says Ritchie, himself a keen strummer. Sadly, there hasn’t been as much duetting as he’d hoped. “We tend to get ratty with one another when we play together,” Ritchie confess. “I’ve got no sense of time — and I always want to lead … ”
There is a foot the persistent rumor that Ritchie and Madonna have collaborated on another pregnancy. Madonna denies this, even offering to expose her flat stomach to disprove the evil-tongued gossip.
Ritchie and Madonna do have one joint effort in the pipeline, however, something that puts a new twist in her convoluted career arc. “I’ve just written a collection of children’s stories with my husband,” Madonna announces proudly. “In fact I’m just finishing one at the moment.”
Guy Ritchie, nihilist turned Kabbalist, explains that said volume is a not-for-profit collection of spiritual allegories for the five-to-eight crowd, a book that “does something to shatter the illusions that we’re all misguided by…. There’s always a wise man or woman in each story.”
Madonna savors for a moment the stunned silence that this benign bombshell creates. A spiritual children’s book by the author of Sex? By the taboo-busting performer who in her videos has writhed in lingerie with transvestites and gotten nasty with a black saint, the woman who said “fuck” 13 times on a single episode of Letterman?!
Madonna throws her arms up like a magician at a kids’ birthday party.
“Hey! Nothing is what it seems.”
© Vanity Fair