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Madonna: 21st Century Icon

Celebrating the queen of reinvention’s birthday with our 2008 cover story where she talks fear, anxiety and still trumping collaborators half her age

Inside the private office of Madonna’s London home the walls are filled with powerful, personal images she has collected over the years. Splice them all together and they might provide a quirky visual collage of her psychology. Madonna chooses to sit on the couch, wearing blue jeans, a simple shirt over a black bra and natural, understated make-up. Her hair is relaxed and she has an air of studied calm about her. There is no fuss nor pomp nor ceremony. If you were expecting a diva in erotic riding gear and crop, you’ll have to wait until the next tour. If you thought she’d be in kimono and white slippers, then you’ve got the wrong pop star. In these intimate surroundings and with her natural dancer’s grace, she comes across as more youthful and beautiful than when she appears on tour or on the world stage, misshaped and exaggerated by the media’s distorting lens. For her latest album, Madonna has collaborated with chart-busting producers and writing partners Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake.

Are they the sexiest producers in the world?

Madonna: In terms of the way they look or the music they make?

Both?

Madonna: (Laughs) Yeah... they’re hot!

Music from the new album plays through crystal-clear Bose speakers wired to Madonna’s laptop. A self-portrait by female art icon Frida Kahlo hangs directly in front – Kahlo looks back, defiant, tough, warrior-like, with a wild, playful monkey around her neck. 

“Sticky and sweet,” sings Madonna, the vocals repeating over the swirling beats on the Pharrell-produced opener “Candy Shop”. . . 

“I think Pharrell is a natural musician,” continues Madonna. “I like his inventiveness – he would grab my acoustic guitar, which he couldn’t play, but start playing percussion on it. He would find bottles and start playing them with spoons. He is very inventive in the studio, he’s not precious and I like his lo-fi approach to making music.” 

“That suga is raaawww,” raps Madonna

“He is also a little kid and silly... he would come to work, take these Mickey Mouse slippers out of his giant Hermès bag and put them on... (laughing) I don’t feel like he took himself too seriously.” 

In a photograph by Helmut Newton, a girl who looks like a Sex-era clone of Madonna sits at the edge of a bed with a gun in her mouth, as if she’s about to blow her head off. "4 Minutes to Save the World", is an urgent, clarion call of a song. Timbaland’s horns and pulsating, thrumpy funk beats underscore Madonna’s sexy, breathy vocals and the Michael Jackson-like melody sung by Justin. Imagine Superwoman, Batman and Robin entwined in an apocalyptic threesome – this would be the soundtrack. “Save the world”, exclaims Justin at the end of a song loaded with irony and double meaning. 

“I can totally relate to Justin as a songwriter,” says Madonna. “We would sit down together and say okay, let’s come up with a concept. What story do we want to tell? We would riff off of each other and play with words. He likes to play with words and the rhythm of words and so do I.” 

“See my booty get down,” raps Madonna 

And what about Timbaland?

Madonna: He would seem like he was disappearing from the room, then he would take his headphones off and suddenly blast something on the speakers and give the thumbs up. So he was sort of a silent godfather to the whole project.

There is something both deeply facile and also genuinely inventive about the album. Taking its cue from the uptempo future-disco sound of Confessions, it’s still essentially a club album, but this time it’s laced with hot and horny R&B dancefloor firecrackers. The album comes purposefully loaded with mainstream US chart sex appeal, but it also has a more contemporary hip hop edge... if Dangermouse’s Grey Album was the literal template for layering white pop with hip hop, then Madonna’s new album is the next genre flux, a sonic collage that could yet come to be the synthesis of what Timbaland and Pharrell have been working towards for the best part of this decade – the sound of a self-satisfied America teetering on the edge of nihilism; or to put it more graphically – the sound of sex without consequence. 

“Sex with you is incredible,” breathes Madonna

So, how would you describe the mood of this record?

Madonna: I felt more introspective because I was writing with Pharrell and Justin. On Confessions, which I wrote all the lyrics to, I wanted to stay away from anything serious, even though the word ‘confession’ implies seriousness. I just wanted to make a frivolous dance record, and with this one I had to dig deeper and go to a different place... For me, it’s a true collaboration, intellectually and artistically.

The stars have lined up with Madonna for good cause. It’s New York Fashion Week and Gucci have erected a giant tent on the grounds of the United Nations for a night hosted by Madonna in aid of her foundation Raising Malawi. In attendance are Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, a heavily pregnant J-Lo, a less pregnant Gwyneth, Drew Barrymore, and many more. But the most unexpected star to emerge is Madonna’s daughter Lourdes, who handles questions from the press with charm and natural ease. As Madonna takes to the podium in the subdued glamour of a simple but elegant grey-crepe Gucci dress, she appears approachable, ambassadorial even. In a heartfelt and convincing speech, she talks about changing people’s lives and changing her own in the process: “I’ve spent the last 25 years in the entertainment business. I have earned a reputation for being many things. For pushing the envelope. For being a provocateur, for never taking no for an answer, for endlessly reinventing myself, for being a cult member, a kidnapper, for being ambitious, outrageous, irreverent, and for never settling for second best. And that’s just the good stuff. Then one day I woke up and I asked myself – what is being the best? And how can I be the best when I know that millions of people around the world never have a shot at being ‘best’? If I am because we are, then what am I doing about the ‘we’? ’Cause God knows I’ve taken care of the ‘I’."

What surprised you most about that night?

Madonna: I was surprised how nervous I was. When I got up, I felt responsible, I had a lot of pressure on me, but I didn’t factor in how nervous I was going to feel. It also ended up being a lot more intimate than I thought. There was something both really grand and intimate about it.

What was the high point of the night?

Madonna: When Rihanna started playing and I knew I could relax. I could dance and not worry. Before that, I felt like I was responsible for absolutely everything.

The phrase ‘I am because we are’ was obviously the slogan of the night – would you say that you have always been compassionate about other people, or was it something you discovered later on in life?

Madonna: I think I was always compassionate about people in my immediate circle... I have always been a caretaker to my family, to my brothers and sisters, to people around me, people I work with, like the musicians and dancers. I have always taken people in, wanted to rehabilitate people. But I never thought about my responsibility to the world at large. 

A trailer from I Am Because We Are, the documentary film Madonna produced, introduces us to the prophetic Zulu phrase that explains how our lives are inextricably bound to the poverty trap and the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa. The trailer is inventively edited and shows harrowing black and white photography of the victims of Aids alongside touching cinematography of Malawian life. Candid interviews with leaders and citizens alike are spliced through the imagery. There is clearly an emergency in Africa, but why did Madonna choose Malawi? As Madonna says, “I didn’t. Malawi chose me.” “The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know and the more you cannot turn your back on things,” says Madonna. “I suppose that’s why people generally don’t want to know more, because at a soul level they understand that the more they know, the more they have to do. We live in a world full of distractions, so we can pretty much keep ourselves so busy that we don’t have to engage... yeah... so, I guess the challenge is to live in the world and enjoy all of the things the world has to offer, including the distractions, but not be so distracted that you don’t notice that there is a world going on around you.”

“Save the world,” says Justin Timberlake at the end of the new single

Madonna wears headpiece by Nasir Mazhar; corset by Christian Lacroix; boots by Miu Miu; necklace by Stephen Webster; gloves by Chanel Photography by Steven Klein

How did you manage balancing working on this record, while you were producing the film on Malawi and putting the fundraising event together?

Madonna: I find that I now use making music as a kind of antidote to things that are more anxiety provoking. Confessions On a Dance Floor was a release for me and in a way that’s how working on this record was. I had set up an editing suite in the basement for the documentary, and would go from sitting there watching hours and hours of footage of people dying, to going to the studio. I cut out a lot of stuff that people just couldn’t handle – a lot of really painful things. And to see this imagery over and over again, of children dying and mothers weeping, burying their children and vice-versa... I needed a release from that. Going into the studio was that release. I’m not going to say it was easy, but it was the opposite.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” sings Madonna 

“I think all fears lead from the fear of death itself,” she will say later 

Do you have an unrealised dream for a performance?

Madonna: I have always wanted to do intimate performances. My dream is to go around doing shows in opera houses but you know, who makes money in opera houses?

If that’s your dream though, you have to do it once.

Madonna: Yes, but when I create my shows they are usually quite intricate. They don’t expand and collapse to varying stage sizes. So, I kind of put myself in a corner and only pick venues that can accommodate my type of monstrous production. I have always wanted to do grand shows but in really intimate venues, which never seems to be possible.

But isn’t that the challenge – to make the grand seem intimate?

Madonna: I just love theatre and the magic of theatre. I love going to shows like Cirque du Soleil because you are so close. You can hear people breathing and you can see their sweat, you can see the work. And yet you can still be pulled into the magic of everything, and be tricked by the illusion of one spotlight and also the danger of it being live. You know, you can’t take it back. It’s in the moment. If you make a mistake, then you have to own that mistake, every night is different and every second is different. Each audience that you have changes your performance. I love that more than anything.

Do you think that you will always push yourself to perform at such a physically demanding level? With so much emphasis on dance and so much emphasis on your body as well?

Madonna: Yeah, probably, because I’m a masochist. (Laughs)

Madonna is holding a beautiful black and white portrait of Edith Piaf. It shows Piaf as a tiny spotlit figure on the Olympia stage. Shot from high in the stalls, it simultaneously captures all of her power and vulnerability. “I love this picture,” says Madonna. It shows a performer loved but all alone – at once present and yet isolated, an island of solace in an atmosphere of tender admiration.

“I'm not worried about fucking up - I really have a panic attack, that everyone else is breathing my air. It's hard to describe” – Madonna

Do you feel vulnerable or invincible on stage?

Madonna: Both.

Can you describe some of the emotions that run through your mind during your shows?

Madonna: I have moments where I feel incredibly invincible and know that I have the audience in my hand – I know that everything is absolutely perfect... and then I have panic attacks, where I feel like everyone is breathing my air and I cannot live up to everybody’s expectations, and I might just die on stage.

What do you do to pull yourself through?

Madonna: I normally try to turn my back to the audience, take a deep breath and remind myself that it’s all temporary. So, it doesn’t matter if you fuck up? I’m not worried about fucking up – I really have a panic attack that everyone else is breathing my air. It’s hard to describe. When you have panic attacks you cannot rationalise them, obviously there’s enough oxygen for me but it never happens outdoors, it’s normally in indoor sports arenas that feel very close... suddenly, I feel claustrophobic. It’s not a fear of performing. 

A series of female Olympic divers photographed by the legendary Leni Riefenstahl are framed and propped along the wall. It was Riefenstahl that created heroically stylised films for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and who – despite her artistic credibility and unbiased eye – was forever labelled as a Nazi propagandist because of her documentary Triumph of The Will. She was snubbed by Hollywood but kept working, making incredible photographic series such as the Nubas of Sudan. Filth and Wisdom, Madonna’s narrative feature film has just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival to very mixed critical reviews. Yet Madonna is resolutely proud of it and star Eugene Hutz’s performance. Either as an actress or in this case, co-screenwriter and director, Madonna has found little love from the movie industry. Yet there have been some convincing performances (Desperately Seeking Susan, Dick Tracy), some occasional high points (Evita), but really it is in the realm of short films like Steven Klein’s X-STaTIC PRO=CeSS, which can be seen on Jonas Akerlund’s I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, where Madonna comes into her own as a multi-dimensional artist and performer. Madonna is without doubt the short-form video star of the century, and one who has elevated it to a fine art. 

It says in the blurb for Filth and Wisdom, ‘Whether we take the path of wisdom or the path of filth, we end up in the same enlightened place.’ Do you believe that?

Madonna: I think one must choose – even if you choose the wrong path, you’re going to get to the end quicker. I don’t think the universe conspires to help a fence-sitter. I think you’ve got to make a choice and go down either road. I think if you choose the path of wisdom, sooner or later you are going to be wanting filth. If you choose the path of filth, sooner or later you’re going to be wanting enlightenment. So you end up in the same spot. 

You can’t balance the two?

I didn’t say you couldn’t, but I think it’s wrong to judge people on either side. I think there is as much to learn in the gutter as there is up in some enlightened place... absolutely. And in fact, I find people who have been to the dark side and come out of it are ultimately much more interesting people.

Because they have survived and have a story to tell. . .

Madonna: The most light comes from converted darkness... 

On Madonna’s desk are portraits of Guy Ritchie and her children, seven-year-old Rocco, 11-year-old Lourdes, and their most recent addition David. She has always presented a threat to conformism and even now, established as the best-selling female artist of all time, even on the cusp of turning 50, she is more than ever able to radicalise public opinion on almost any issue, from her cosmetic nips and tucks, to not letting her children watch television. By riding the globalisation of MTV and becoming the first female major video star, Madonna’s symbiotic relationship with the media, her fans and the public was sealed. She always drew the line in interviews between what was public and private information. However, the lengths she was prepared to go to become public property were never in question. Now with family and spirituality in the mix, she tries to redraw the lines but some would say it’s too late. The less she gives of herself now, the more they still try and take.

“If it’s against the law, arrest me. If you can handle it, undress me,” sings Madonna

I want to ask you about fear and what you are most afraid of? I think that all fears lead to the fear of death. So, being perfectly honest – death.

Does that include a living death – acceptance?

Madonna: The end of anything is an implied death. The end of a relationship, the end of a career, the end of life, the physical life as we know it. Am I sitting around being consciously afraid of it? No. But I think it’s more of an unconscious thing. If we ever have fearful moments, if you trace it, you really dig deep – it will all lead to that one thing.

Do you find age an advantage, or do you see getting older as an issue?

Madonna: Well, it’s an advantage in terms that you’ve got a lot more experience and you tend to not make the same mistakes. And you feel a bit wiser and less impulsive. It’s great to feel experienced. But I also work with people who are half my age, so I feel like I have to work even harder to keep up with everybody... but the fact of the matter is I can kick all of their asses! I guess I’m okay for now (laughs). It does keep the flame under my foot, though.

Do you still feel emotionally connected to the images from your past, or do you feel disassociated from them?

Madonna: Sometimes, I see a picture of me and I really remember that moment – and it brings back memories, very specific memories. And other photographs that I see, I just think – who’s that? I don’t know that girl! (Laughs) I don’t regret any of it, but I do sometimes think, ‘Oh god, what was I thinking... Why did I wear that, why did I do that?’... all kinds of things. 

“I’ll be your one stop (one stop) Candy Shop,” sings Madonna.

The music continues…

Director of photography Sharif Hamza; Photographic Assistants; Sebastian Mader and Matt Hawke; Lighting technician David Devlin; Retouching Allan Finamore at Epilogue Imaging