Madonna is not yet in the building, but Interscope’s nondescript New York City HQ is primed for her arrival—the lighting is soft, the hallways are specially perfumed, and my palms are already moist. I’m sitting in the green room with four members of Madonna’s team—all of them bubbly, chatty women—but apart from that it’s a total sausage fest: 15 male, mostly gay journalists, and me. When word reaches us that she's made an entrance, banter ceases and we all stare silently at the questions in our laps. I inhale two glasses of white wine to calm my nerves and become very aware that I need to pee, but I’m too scared to get up in case my name is called when my overalls are round my ankles. My father is already texting me excitedly, “Well???”
My dad is particularly invested in how my 20 minutes with her Madgesty will pan out because back in ’87 he took me to my first ever concert: Madonna on her Who’s That Girl Tour. I was only six years old but flashes from that night remain in sharp focus, like my pale pink ra-ra skirt, my mom’s lace gloves, and the strings of pale plastic pearls I looped round my neck. I remember the enveloping applause, too, and that point in the set when the then 28-year-old singer dedicated “Get into the Groove” to San Francisco and plucked a skinny Chinese guy from the 22,000-strong throng to dance with her. My Madonna moment, his Madonna moment, they’re just one among millions.
Rebel Heart is Madonna’s thirteenth studio album, and since half the record was leaked this past December, the singer’s been on a media blitz. Right now she’s everywhere—talking to all the major media outlets, floating through the air at the Grammys, falling on her ass at the Brits. Although you could argue she’s been pretty much everywhere since her 1983 hit “Everybody” saw her side-to-side shimmying out of the Lower East Side, onto dance floors, and into the charts. For the subsequent 30 plus years she’s been making waves and generating headlines whether it be thanks to game-changing albums or image reinvention, infuriating the Vatican and outraging prudes, or fighting for self-expression, gay rights, and human rights in general. Most recently Drake dedicated an entire song to her.
The mercurial multihyphenate is a pop culture pioneer, an exhaustively snapped and scrutinized mega-watt celebrity—which is a subject she examines in new song “Joan of Arc.” It’s easy to assume that harsh words and romantic bust-ups have no effect on Madonna, but sandwiched between the party cuts and big-balled bluster there have always been songs that reveal chinks in her armor and never more so than on Rebel Heart.
At 56 years old, Madonna’s sold 300 million records making her the top selling female artist of all time. Of all time. Which brings us to Kanye West, just one among the fleet of collaborators Madonna’s cherry-picked to assemble this record. Alongside West her roll call includes Diplo, Ariel Reichstadt, Blood Diamonds, Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper, Nas, DJ Dahi, Avicii and his troupe of Scandi songwriters. Oh, and Mike Tyson. As such it’s a pin-balling record, clocking in at 14 tracks, (with the deluxe edition and the super deluxe edition offering 19 tracks and 23 tracks, respectively). It’s a hefty amount of new material to serve up when modern day music fans are thirsty for single smashes rather than cohesive collections, but in fact Rebel Heart services this very generation. It is not a well-plotted journey, but a feast of contrasts. She follows “Joan of Arc, with the big-yourself-up club banger “Iconic;” the air horn-blasted, reggae-pop of “Unapologetic Bitch” is brassy by comparison to the terse-yet-tender kiss off of “HeartBreakCity.”
“Bitch I’m Madonna” has Diplo-writ large in every clipped smack and booty-bass beat with Nicki Minaj adding extra sass, and of course what Madonna record would be without her favorite juxtaposition—the frisson between religion and raunch. On the panting, pouting “Holy Water,” she orders the listener to their knees, “Kiss it better… / Make it wetter,” she orders before asking “Don’t it taste like holy water?” Well, Madonna’s innuendos have never been an exercise in subtlety. Does she always succeed in creating music that’s cool, effortless, and of the moment? No. The aforementioned “Holy Water” is a tad jarring and sorry Kanye, “Illuminati” is among the weaker works here, but Madonna continues to keep us on our toes like no other performer in the history modern music.
The week before we meet she held court with journalists, junket-style at Sotheby’s, against a backdrop of Keith Harings and Jean-Michel Basquiats. Beside her stood a bottle of tequila and two shot glasses—the challenge being if an interviewer asked a question she deemed dumb, they’d have to take a shot and if they hit one out the park, Madonna would knock one back. Today there’s no tequila as Madonna’s feeling a tad under the weather and I’m ushered into a room that smells like eucalyptus and scented candles. She stands up from the white leather couch to greet me, a slight five foot five upped a few inches thanks to black bejeweled heels. She’s immaculate in a semi-sheer, intermittently beaded silk Pamella Roland dress that hangs modestly below the knee. Still, it’s slit in all the right places, at the arms and the décolletage, her black lace bra playing peekaboo. She looks astonishing—even with that gold and diamond grill—her eyeliner impeccably flicked outlining watchful blues eyes. They assess me. “I like your overalls,” she says. I dressed like a 12-year-old to meet the Queen of Pop. We sit down and get to it.
Noisey: Your list of collaborators on this record is really a who’s who of the current music landscape. Of course you’ve been collaborating for years, but songwriting is so personal—particularly on this record—and it always strikes me as such an intimate space to invite what is often times ostensibly a stranger into the room to work with. Is it ever hard to bare your soul to these producers—who are often men? Does that ever get easier? How do you break down those barriers?
Madonna: It is all about chemistry. Some people are easier to open up to, and feel comfortable around than others. I did work with some women, MoZella was around a lot for many of the songwriting workshops that I did. She was great and we hit it off immediately. Also Natalia Kills I got along really well with. Diplo is really easygoing and fun, so is Toby Gad, and all of Avicii’s songwriting team, I call them my Viking Harem—wonderful, funny, smart, easygoing, warm, intelligent people, so I was lucky. I would say 75 percent of the people I wrote with immediately made me feel comfortable and at ease so I could not be afraid to make a fool of myself, which is inevitably how you feel when you’re first writing.
Sure. I’m sure that’s part of the process, though. You call Diplo kindred spirits. How so?
I think we have a lot of the same references. He’s interested in a lot of the same things, like he’s a big fan of Keith Haring, for instance, so am I. He has a child that goes to the Lycée Français, so do I. We like a lot of the same music. He loves fashion. He has a quirky sense of humor. I feel like he’s my long-lost naughty brother. I love him.
He is a bit naughty.
Oh my God. He’s so naughty!
Did he act up in the studio with you?
No, no—he was always respectful to me, but I mean, he did tend to run around a bit more than I wish he would have.
I was curious about what your children last introduced you to. I heard that they occasionally popped into the studio and offered their thoughts and you've said they keep you abreast of what’s going on. What was the last thing they shoved in your direction that you were excited about?
Let me think, let me think, let me think. My son is really in a retro mode, so he’s playing a lot of 90s hip-hop, which I already know and have heard and listened to, but he’s also into reggae, and he’s into punk. We listen to the Dead Kennedys a lot, so I wouldn’t say he’s turning me onto new stuff. However, Lola is more, she’s always playing stuff and I’m like, “Who’s that? Who’s that?” I don’t remember a lot of the times. “Oh, did you hear the new Jack Ü record? Check this out!” She’s really into Azealia Banks. She has very eclectic taste.
For instance, did MNEK come to your through your kids?
No, MNEK came to me through Diplo.
It was exciting to see him in the credits because he’s such a small, but awesome up-and-coming London artist. To see that he was working with you, I thought that was a really cool move.
I love him. He’s very talented.
In your most self-referential track “Veni Vidi Vici” you say, “I came / I saw / I conquered,” which reminded me of that line that you said to Dick Clark and also to A&R Michael Rosenblatt back in the early 80s—and to anyone around for that matter—“I wanna conquer the world.” You were so tenacious and ambitious even then. What was the fire under your ass?
The fire under my ass was probably growing up in the Midwest and feeling like I was living in a very provincial world where I never felt like I belonged where I was. I grew up without a mother. I was always interested in painters like Frida Khalo, writers like Anna Sexton and Sylvia Plath, so I was very drawn to women who were very independent. Who led very unconventional lives. So it was like, “OK, I’ve gotta get out of here, and I want to be an artist, too.” I very clearly could see that I was not in a world that was going to encourage that behavior. Then, like I said, also growing up without a mother—there was a lot of death around me when I was growing up, so I really felt the fragility of life, and I had this sense that time is precious, so I need to move fast. It was a combination of all of those things.
Now that you’re a mother yourself, and having lost your mother so early on, does it make you think about death? Are you scared of it?
Well who isn’t? Nobody wants to die. I want to live forever and I’m going to.
See my mom’s like, “No way. When it’s time to go, I’m going.”
No, I’m having too much fun. Nuh-uh.
When you were five years old, you said you already knew you wanted to move to New York. Was it everything you dreamed of when you arrived?
Oh, it was way more than that. It was insane! It was like sticking my finger into an electric outlet.
With all of the incredible artists that you were meeting and becoming friends with at the time, did you have a sense even then that it was a special time and these people were going to leave their mark historically?
No. I mean, personally, I didn’t meet all of those people right away. When I first came to New York, I was just a naïve Midwesterner saying hi to everybody—being way too friendly. And being horrified. I had never seen homeless people before. It was crazy and New York was crazy then. It was so different than it is now. I was a dancer for a while. I was broke. It wasn’t until I really decided to switch into being a musician and a songwriter, and I moved to the Lower East Side, that I started meeting artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. While I felt we all fed off each other’s energy and we were all inspired by each other and jealous of each other, collaborating with each other, I had no idea then what their place in the world would be now. But not my own, either. So we were just artists having fun, happy that anyone was interested in our work.
This record is pretty raw with regards to your emotions—“Heartbreak City” in particular is very direct when you sing, “You got just what you came for / A bit of fame and fortune.” How do you keep yourself open to love with experiences like the ones which you detail here. Are you an optimist? Are you still…
Open to love? Absolutely. I just chose the wrong one. Date a guy who’s already a somebody.
Right. Well I feel like we should all know that by now, right?
Yeah, but, you know, sometimes you think you know people, and you find out later that you didn’t. People surprise you. People are really good actors. Some people are just straight up sociopaths.
True, true. I have dated some of those.
All of us have.
Do you think that there’s still one person for you?
Of course. Definitely, I have faith. I have certainty that my soulmate is waiting for me. I just have to be ready for him. And he has to be ready for me—it goes both ways. I may have already met him, it just hasn’t happened yet.
Do you find it cathartic to get all this stuff out in songs?
Oh, God, yes. Extremely.
Has anyone ever come back to you and said, “Hey Madonna, what the fuck?”
You mean a dude? No. They never do. Too much pride. Secretly they regret, of course, secretly they’re ripping their hair out.
Probably not-so-secretly. I re-watched Truth Or Dare recently and I was struck by how a significant portion of the doc covered you fighting for your own right to express yourself and also gay rights. While at least in America we’ve made strides in terms of gay rights, it does feel like with reagards to sexism, little has really changed.
Nope. So once again, here I am, at the front of the gate. Trying to push it open.
Do you feel like you’re bashing your head against a brick wall sometimes?
Uh-huh. Yeah, but it’ll happen. I’ll get the shit kicked out of me and in 20 years, Miley Cyrus will just wander through like, “What?” She’ll walk around in her fur bikini in her 50s and no one will even bat an eyelash.
Why do you think it’s so difficult for people, women included, to get their head around it?
A lot of it has to do with the fact that people don’t usually have careers that last so long. I mean, there definitely are, but I think that has something to do with it. We as human beings, our life expectancy is getting longer and longer. And we’re learning how to take better and better care of ourselves. If you eat right, and you take good care of yourself, and you stay out of the sun, and you exercise, and all those things, you can be healthy and be in shape and have nice skin. You can have the same energy.
I can tell you this right now, when I go on tour, I have more energy and can kick the asses of any of the dancers that I work with. When I say that, I mean, they couldn’t keep up with me, and they’re one-third my age. So it has got to do with training and what I’ve been doing all my life, you know? So part of it has to do with the fact that I don’t stop. It’s like, if you keep driving a car, the motor will always work for you. If you park it in the garage, it stops. It’s a physical thing, it’s a biological thing, it’s a physiological thing. But also, it’s a passion thing, too—it’s in your brain. I still have so much shit I want to do with my life, so much that I’m interested in. I’ve always been pushing envelopes and breaking boundaries, trying to change the rules.
I’ve always been very outwardly spoken about my sexuality and freedom of expression, freedom to choose whatever I want to do, regardless of the fact that I’m a female. So why would that change now? I still have lots to say and lots to do. I don’t think people are used to it. It’s like, it hasn’t happened before. So they’re like, “Wait a second…” It’s just, again, it’s what people are not familiar with. It’s like, people are never comfortable with what they’re not familiar with. So they’re just going to have to get familiar with it! And they’re going to get comfortable with it. And they’re going to accept it.
But then hand-in-hand with that, comes this whole new culture of criticism coming from anonymous sources online. That didn’t exist 20, 30 years ago either.
Right, because 20 years ago, what woman in her 50s was doing what I’m doing? So, it didn’t exist because it didn’t have an opportunity. No one had an opportunity to fire their arrows at anybody.
But I don’t think it’s just that, it’s the way culture has evolved so that women of all ages, are being scrutinized in a way that’s more fiercesome and exacting. It’s not just you, in general, women in the public sphere, especially pop, are in the firing line in a new way.
Like the way that everybody dealt with Miley Cyrus, or the minute that Beyoncé’s un-airbrushed photos emerged.
Because we live in a sexist society. We’re not that advanced when it comes to women and women’s rights. Women are a big part of it. Women are the first people to tear other women down. Women do not support other women, and they need to a lot more than they do.
I’ve been snooping on your Instagram and Miley pops up here, there, and everywhere…
She’s my little sister. I like her. I appreciate her sense of humor. She’s irreverent. She’s funny. She gets it. She’s a fighter. She doesn’t give a fuck. She’s an unapologetic bitch.
Your lyrics in “S.E.X.” are pretty explicit. Do your kids ever go, “Ugh, Mom.”
Yes, to that song in particular. It just so happened that for a couple of weeks, every time I was working on that song, my 14-year-old son would walk into the room. He was like, “Mom, aren’t you done with this song? Ugh, God.” Then he’d walk out. I’m like, “Look, this is the professional side of me. And you’re gonna have to deal with it.” He’s cool with it. He’s fine. They accept it.
Is it hard to discipline them when you’ve broken so many rules and played so many roles?
No, because I’m an adult. When they’re adults, they can make decisions for themselves, but until then, they’re going to live according to my rules.
One of my favorite quotes of yours is, “You don’t want to be the smartest person in the room, you want to be the dumbest,” because then you can learn and observe and be inspired. It must be pretty difficult to be the dumbest person in the room these days.
Yeah. That’s true. I have a circle of friends that are worldly and cultured. They read a lot, and are interested in politics and history. I obviously gravitate towards those kinds of people—other artists, creative people—but not all creative people are necessarily intelligent. It’d be nice if they were.
Who do you confide in? Who’s your best friend?
I’m pretty close with my sister Melanie. Other people would be my agent Maha [Dakhil].
Earlier, you said you felt you have so much more to achieve. Like what?
Well, the first thing that I want to do is know that I’ve raised four loving, compassionate, intelligent children that will do good for the world, so that’s one thing. I’d like to make more films and I’m going to. I’d like to be a part of any solution that will bring peace in the world. Whatever that means and whatever that takes. Yeah, I’m at the front of the line. Sign me up. Freedom fighter.
Final question, I know you said you were going to work with Drake, and of course Drake named a song after you on his latest album… he’s kind of cute, no?
Yeah, he’s cute. Why, do you think he’s cute?
I think he’s pretty cute.
He's pretty emo but I would date him.
Would you? OK. We could maybe double date him. [Laughs.]
We would share him?
There’s enough Drake to go around. So I’ve heard. [Laughs.]
Kim Taylor Bennett still wears her Who's That Girl shirt. She's on Twitter.