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Madonna Interview : Vogue

Madonna - Vogue / October 1992

Her driver speaks up: “That’s not true. Someone told me they saw William Baldwin coming out the other day.”

Madonna smirks. “That’s because he was visiting me.”

She is trying to convince her co-op board to let her pay for the installation of garage door, so her car can come right into the building. “They charged me seventy-five bucks just for the remote to open the gate to the driveway! she gripes.

Madonna seems in a sunnier mood a few weeks later, in a midtown recording studio working on the final mixes for Erotica. She playfully joshes with the engineers and synth programmers and snacks on Marshmallow Fluff; her hair up in a girlish ponytail, she’s wearing a cannily shredded flannel shirt, cutoffs, boots, and a distractingly swooney perfume. With the speakers at car-throttling volume, she listens instantly to a pair of slinky, jazzy songs cowritten and produced with Andre Betts, who worked on “Justify My Love,” that feature similar hot-and-heavy spoken segments. Each is instantly memorable – partly due to their over-the-top bawdiness. “My Secret Garden” invited the listener, “plant the seed, and I’ll watch it grow.” “Where Life Begins” could be the Ur-Madonna song, imploring “Go-down, where it’s warm inside… That’s where all life begins… that’s where my love is.” “Erotic,” cowritten and produced by Shep Pettibone (who did the same for the number-one hits “Vogue” and “This Used to Be My Playground”), might make even Prince blush: “Erotic, erotic, put your hands all over my body… I’ll give you love / I’ll hit like a truck / I’ll give you love / I’ll teach you how to – uuuuuuuuh!”

A CD single with a remix of “Erotic” will be packed inside the cover of the $49.95 Sex, which Warner Books publisher Nanscy Nieman says has an advance order of more than five hundred thousand copies. Time-Warner, the corporation also behind Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” and Malcolm X, seems confident that in America a naked white woman can get away with a lot more than aggressive black males. Nieman had only a few rules of thumb: “I told her, ‘No sex with children, no sex with animals, no sex with religious objects, and no actual penetration.’ And that didn’t seem to be a problem… Some readers will be – how can I put this – shocked. Some will be excited. And some will discover that their fantasies haven’t gone anywhere close to the edge.”

Lounging on a couch in the studio, Madonna riffles though some second-generation photocopies of pages from Sex. She’s clearly antsy to get back to the mixing board, but her impatience gives way to glee as she flashes some of the book’s eye-popping images.

She wrote the text with help from former Interview editor Glenn O’Brien, who creates the ad campaigns for Barneys New York. It includes a series of letters to “Johnny” from “Dita” (a nickname she has for herself because of 1930s film star Dita Parlo); one taunts that her friend “Ingrid” (Sandra Bernhard’s ex, but that’s another story) just “ate my p*ssy.” Another story tells the “most erotic sex I ever had” with a young Puerto Rican boy. There are also her theories on pornography and strip bars. {“There’s a really good club in L.A. Called Peanuts,” she confides to me, “but you have to go on Lesbian Night.”)

But the pictures alone make her program clear enough: she will expose middle America to images that disturb it, hoping to break down barriers (and make a buck). There’s a shot of her standing in a window in the Chelsea Hotel wearing only a tank top; there’s a series with socialite Daniel de La Falaise in a Times Square male strip club that culminates with him and Madonna getting it on in the dressing room “while everybody watches!”; another of de La Falaise holding a mirror in such a way that you see Madonna’s breast where his should be; another of one-hit wonder Vanilla Ice (“We used him for his kitsch value”) standing behind her bare breasts. There’s Isabella Rossellini and a topless Tatiana Von Furstenberg – “Royalty, OK? Oh my gawd! There goes Lancome! Geez Louise!” – and there’s one of Madonna in a nipple-baring S&M outfit, lashed to a chair, with a pair of head-shaved women kissing her and holding a knife to her throat. (“I’m trying to set up the humorous tone,” she explains. “They’re just two nice girls from Poughkeepsie! Ha!”) “We asked a lot more people to participate, believe me,” she says. “Hundreds of people, but they all wanted to know too much.”

Madonna - Vogue / October 1992

Her favorite photo, in the “Nude-in-Public” section, finds her hitchhiking on a Miami street, stark naked except for high heels and a handbag. “It was very liberating,” she says. “It felt really free. It’s the most unpermissible thing. You’re not supposed to be out in public without your clothes on, and yet there wasn’t anything sexual about it – I couldn’t stop giggling, the looks on these people’s faces in the picture she resembles Dietrich, she replies, “Dietrich? She wishes!”

If Madonna has her way, her sexual/commercial assault is sure to cause even more tongue clucking and hand wringing than the Night Porteresque video for “Justify My Love,” which merely boosted her sales. Indeed, she become virtually critic-proof; when I asked Liz Rosenberg for old stories for research purposes, she fearlessly included Luc Sante’s 1990 New Republic piece that called Madonna “a bad actress, a barely adequate singer, a graceless dancer, a boring interview subject, a workmanlike but uninspired (co-)songwriter, and a dynamo of hard work and ferocious ambition.” Madonna doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, as long as they have an opinion, and most people do. In January, Delta books will publish Desperately Seeking Madonna, edited by Adam Sexton, who convincingly likens her ongoing impact to that of JFK’s assassination. The book is a fascinating compendium of Madonnathink, ranging from Harvard instructor Lynne Layton’s feminist explications de video to a Letterman top-ten list to a New Yorker cartoon to Sports Illustrated. Other sources range from Karl Lagerfeld to Reverend Andrew Greenley to Helen Garley Beown to punk rocker Henry Rollins (who wrote that Madonna makes him feel “like I wanna do a whole lotta push-ups or go to a hardware store”).

Lynne Layton has pointed out that Madonna’s work, “upsets rigid opposites such as fantasy/reality, viewer/viewed, commercialism/art, [and] male/female,” to which could be added appropriator/originator, open/hidden, bitch/nurturer, crude/erotic, and calculating/impulsive… you name it. She’s become a pop-culture Rorschach blot.

“It’s her spontaneity that makes her endure,” says Madonna’s friend Alek Keshishian, who directed Truth or Dare. “A lot of people try to freeze her in a moment; I think it’s more interesting to note the lack of premeditation in how she behaves. She’s completely a creature of the moment. The fashion thing is its most obvious manifestation: people think that she goes on a retreat with all her advisors and business gurus and decides on her new image, but she’s as spontaneous as anyone else. It’s just that her closet is bigger… She’s an avid viewer of foreign films, and she draws a lot from them. But what she really has is confidence in pulling off whatever she decides to wear – it’s a childlike confidence, like playing dress-up in the attic.”

Madonna has long had that self-assurance. Sire Records’ Seymour Stein signed her in 1982 from his hospital bed on the basis of one song: “I was really impressed with how determined she was,” he says, “I don’t want to use the word ruthless; at the time, I said, ‘She’s somebody who would take a shortcut through a cemetery at night to get somewhere.’ You could tell in her eyes.”