“Mmm. Now. Yeah. Let me see if I remember ...
'My love is a glorious, something, of song
A fabulous... extemporanea.
And love is a thing that can never go wrong ...
And I am the Queen of Romania.'
"Ha! Ha! Oh I do love Dorothy Parker's poems. They're so bitter. And so true ... "
Her version of the words is not far wrong. [“Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song, A medley of extemporanea; And love is a thing that can never go wrong; And I am Marie of Roumania.”] But she is not the Queen of Romania. She is perhaps the world's most famous woman, and her name is spelt on a golden necklace that rests upon her chest. "Madonna" it announces, dangling over what the French would term her "décolletage", meaning that her outfit is very low-cut. And she flaunts a cleavage like the barmaids all had when beer was tuppence a pint.
Madonna looks both older and younger than she does in the photos and the videos: a little more lined and possibly tired, but also less mature and grand. Her manner is quite teenaged, not femme fatale. She seems up for mischief, and yet quite conscious of her power. At the same time, her very frankness is almost innocent. These combinations are odd, and they give her the air of a prematurely wise child. Her current style is 1930s Hollywood meets early 1970s flash: Jean Harlow and Angie Bowie. She is not bewitching, but is certainly beautiful. She wears the nose stud that so troubled Norman Mailer in a recent interview. If you saw her in the street, you'd think: she looks like a girl who looks a bit like Madonna.
She is receiving visitors in a suite at the Ritz Hotel, always favoured by Americans of means – and a place that Ernest Hemingway saw fit to get pissed in – here in the Place Vendôme, in Paris. A gaggle of fans is standing outside the revolving doors. The room is down a dark, narrow corridor. Halfway along there sits an athletic young black man: he tenses at your approach, relaxes when you're cleared. In the ante-room is a stack of PR photos in case you want one autographed, and copies of Madonna's US press biography. (It begins, "We have been here before – on the cusp of discovery, the crux of delight, the crucible where true artistry and mass appeal entwine." It ends, five pages later, with "We know her. We love her. And we will follow her anywhere." You're right. It's a load of bollocks.)
The common observation that writers make after meeting Madonna is that she is small. But actually, she isn't tiny. So why this sense of dislocation?
It's partly because she is not so steely and Amazonian as the pictures suggest – in fact, she seems rather delicate. But mostly it's her global fame and reputation. It's like the proverbial butterfly wing that displaces a little air in Peking, and triggers tidal waves the other side of the world. Madonna speaks and she causes explosions in outer space. All that, from this little person here?
And there is one more puzzle, which we will shortly investigate. Why is she wearing Betty Boo's clothes?
Just before the interview, Madonna puts something on the coffee table which she says will "inspire" her. It is a signed publicity photo of Tom Jones. So it happens that my opening moments of small-talk with Madonna are – at her instigation – on the subject of women removing their knickers.
Composure unravelling, just a touch, I remind her I've been asked to concentrate on her music.
"Oh, excellent," she beams; then sighs, mock tragically, "I so rarely talk about music."
Mostly, of course, your press concerns the way you're plotting the downfall of Western civilisation.
"Exactly," she nods, solemnly. "It's all my fault."
So then there's some polite chat about her new album Bedtime Stories, which is the reason for this interview. A track I like especially is a smokey soul ballad called Forbidden Love. She is interested to hear this, and asks if I noticed the line that she whispers in the backing track. Yes, I respond confidently. In fact I'd meant to ask her about it: "Protection is the greatest aphrodisiac.”
"No!" She seems hurt. "1 say rejection. Rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac ...”
I groan inwardly at the gaffe.
" ... which is not an original thought," she goes on, now leaning forward, confidingly. "I believe it's Proust. But it's so true, wouldn't you say?"
Do I think that rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac? I swiftly improvise some evasive, subject-changing answer.
"Well!" is all she'll say. "I don't know why you like the song, then!"
Anyway . . . all these softer songs; the mellower feel of the album, does that arise from your – um - private life?
"I've been in an incredibly reflective state of mind. I've done a lot of soul-searching, and I just felt in a romantic mood when I was writing it, so that's what I wrote about."
Two of the less romantic songs are Survival and Human Nature, each a direct response to your detractors.
"They're very specific. The other songs could be about anybody, but in these two it's quite obvious that I'm addressing the public. And they're basically saying the same thing: Hey, get offa my back; don't hang all of your hang-ups on me."
Madonna commends her record for its "woven-together" quality, despite her method of using various co-writers and producers. These, in the main, are US R&B figures, including Babyface, Dave Hall and Dallas Austin, but also Britain's Nellee Hooper. The most unlikely collaborator, though, is without doubt the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman, whose lines Madonna quotes on the track Sanctuary: “Surely whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow…”
Well, what music spoke to Madonna as a child? Was it Motown?
“That’s what was always on the radio, that’s what my friends were listening to. Other things influenced me too. I was always listening to classical music at my ballet lessons. Mozart and Chopin, Vivaldi, Bach, so I knew that. And there was what my father always listened to which was Tony Bennett, Henry Mancini, Harry Belafonte…”
Q: Did you not hate that stuff on principle, as a daughter ought?
“No, I loved it.”
Q: What about The Beatles?
“They were there, but I was more eager about The Supremes. I was really into girl groups. But I had older brothers playing them, so I’d say they were a subliminal influence on me.”
Q: What was the first record you bought?
“Young Girl by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap.”
Q: In the Civil War uniforms! Their follow-up was Lady Will-Power, which was almost the same song.
[She sings it:] “Lady, willpower… it’s now or never!”
Q: Your first concert?
“I think it was David Bowie. And he blew my mind. Ziggy Stardust in Detroit. What he did on stage was so inspiring, because he was so theatrical.”
Q: Was that significant? The cliché about him was that he always changed identities…
“I’ve heard that. I respect him as an artist, aside from his music. He really played with ideas, and iconography and imagery, and his work was very provocative. He’s a brilliant man. And a gentleman, too.”
Q: Who did you see in the clubs when you arrived in New York? Debbie Harry?
“I never saw her perform live with Blondie, I wish I had. One group I saw around that time who blew me away was Kraftwerk, they were amazing. I saw John Lydon too, with Public Image, the one time I’ve been to a concert where I thought I was going to get crushed in the mob. Mm, who else did I see?
Q: Chrissie Hynde?
“Yeah! I saw her play in Central Park: she was amazing. The only woman I’d seen in performance where I thought, ‘Yeah, she’s got balls, she’s awesome!”
Q: Did you think, There’s a woman there, I can do it too?
“No, I knew that I could do it: she didn’t give me licence to think to think that I could do it. But it gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”
Q: Did punk affect you?
Q: Can I throw more names at you? Just say what you think.
Q: Bob Dylan.
“I used to listen to that one record, Lay Lady Lay, in my brother’s bedroom in the basement of our house. I’d lie on the bed and play that song and cry all the time. I was going through adolescence, I had hormones raging through my body. Don’t ask me why I was crying, it’s not a sad song. But that’s the only record of his that I really listened to.”
“I’m more aware of Morrissey in his sexual politics than his music. I’ve listened to some of his records, though not on a regular basis. But I think he’s a brilliant lyricist.”
Q: PJ Harvey?
“I know who she is. I don’t know her music.”
Q: The Grateful Dead?
Q: Pink Floyd?
“Nnn. Pink Floyd… That just sounds like music for men. I can’t relate to it. It’s very male.”
Q: Elvis Presley?
“He’s God. I feel like I’m talking to my analyst now. I’ll throw a word out and you’ll tell me what you think of.”
Q: Early or late Elvis?
"Well, early of course."
Q: George Michael?
"An incredible songwriter."
Q: There's a faint parallel between you, in that when you made those first bright, poppy dance singles, he was doing likewise in Wham!, but since then ...
"Yes, and I'm sure he's about as comfortable singing songs that he did with Wham! as I am singing Material Girl at this point. [Which is, her voice implies, not at all.] Some things you just can't go back to."
Q: Has country music ever meant anything to you?
"No. I'm sure if I sat down and listened to it, I'd get into it more. [She talks about her sister marrying the modern country artist Joe Henry, who's introduced her to more of that music.] Growing up, I always thought of it as music for rednecks. I don't think that's necessarily true, I'm just ignorant about it. Patsy Cline I love, but I think her stuff is more pop-oriented."
Q: Would you ever do an Unplugged-style album?
"It's an appealing idea to do something with a small ensemble of instruments, sitting on a stool and all that. It's just that it seems like everyone's doing it, and I hate to do what everyone's doing. I'll probably do it when it's not fashionable."
Q: What is the biggest disappointment of your musical career?
"The fact that my Erotica album was overlooked because of the whole thing with the Sex book. It just got lost in all that. I think there's some brilliant songs on it and people didn't give it a chance. That disappointed me, but I'm not disappointed in the record itself."
Q: Of which record, apart from the new one, are you proudest?
"I would have to say the favourite record that I've made is the soundtrack to Dick Tracy. I love every one of those songs."
Q: I take it that's based on your judgement, and not the world's reaction to it?
"My judgement is never based on the world's reaction."
In claiming to scorn the world’s reaction, she does not lie: she plans to do more acting. Though she prefers the theatre, Madonna reports that her upcoming projects may include a two-week stint with filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. But just now it's the musical Madonna who is busiest, and she expects to tour again next year. Indeed, of her two careers, it's music that pleases her best: "As a songwriter it's a much truer expression of my soul, without anyone else coming in to dilute it. As an actress I can act my little heart out, but very often 50 per cent of what you do ends up on the cutting room floor, and the film’s editing can change your performance greatly. But it’s a challenge.”
Q: You've stuck with the acting career, despite ...
"Well, I know there are many people who think I have no acting career. It's very difficult. Because I'm a huge 'celebrity', quote-unquote, I have a lot of baggage dragging behind me, and it's hard for people to disassociate the media portrayal of me when they're watching the film. Very often people either can't believe it's me playing a character, or, for instance in Body Of Evidence, I think people actually thought that was me, because it came out at the time of my Sex book, So it's hard for people to separate, and I have the extra challenge of finding the role that will rise above all of that"
Q: Why do so many musical stars go into films? It so often goes wrong.
"Well, it's a great art form. And once you start making videos, writing narrative stories, filming them... you just think, Might as well make a movie. It's a natural progression. It holds an allure, but it's not an easy business."
Q: And the traffic goes the other way, doesn't it? Hollywood people always seem to want to be rock'n'rollers.
"Absolutely. It goes more that way. Even athletes have a fantasy about being a rock star."
Q: And the number of actors who’ve become successful musicians is ...
"Even smaller. Yes, well. Hmmm. [She smirks, as if thinking pleasant thoughts.] Of course, it's more difficult because an actor spends so much time disappearing into his character, and a musician is so much about exaggerating who you are."
Q: Why are you always working?
"Life is short. My idea is that if I want to do something, I do it. People portray me as this workaholic but I'm having a really good time, and it's a privilege to be able to do it. So I do."
Madonna now has her own label, Maverick, within the Warners set-up. She speaks with pride about her acts, Candlebox and Me'Shell NdegeOcello – "She'll be around for a long time," Madonna asserts – and although she concedes that other signings have not prospered, she says that there are more on the way. The A&R work can be wearying: "There's not a lot of originality out there." And she reveals her label has gone after the veteran black hardcore band Bad Brains. That much is surprising. Her next statement is astonishing.
“I would like to sign Betty Boo,” she says, describing the young London pop-rapper as “fabulous”. “In fact I’m wearing this [a slinksome leopard-skin thing, draped about her shoulders] that she gave me. I loved her first record. I think her second record was horribly ignored. [After the first flurry of chart singles, notably Doin’ The Do, Ms Boo was dropped by Warners.] But she’s really talented. I met with her in New York and she’s looking for a deal. She’s brilliant. Hopefully, it’ll work out.”
The point of Madonna is to cheer us up. Not unlike Betty Boo, but on a vaster scale. Yet in America she is discussed to a phenomenal extent. She seems caught in that nation’s psychic crossfire; enacting its fantasies, but also representing its innermost anxieties. Eminent authors and top academics debate her endlessly. (To read even a fraction of it can be tiring: the only known antidote is her greatest hits collection, The Immaculate Collection, which offers sweet relief and a smart reminder of all that’s truly important about her.) She’s even deeper in disgrace since she went on a US talk show and used language which, by all accounts, would induce heart attacks in polite parlour rooms, and draw concerned glances on the fo’c’sle of a whaling ship.
She is used to notoriety by now, and to poor notices for her movie appearances. But even Madonna was shocked by the bashing given to her 1992 book Sex (metal-bound; much nudeness and rudity; Madge and chums in immoral frolics; one-star review in Q). Many claimed that Madonna, the arch media-manipulator etc, had at last been wrong-footed. This was a new development. Previously, things didn’t happen to Madonna – she happened to them.
Now she faced condemnation from the moral fundamentalists and ridicule from elsewhere. Even though the book sold well – and newspapers that rubbished it were careful to re-print as many pictures as they could – its hyping left a poor after-taste. In all, it probably did nothing for her career.
It certainly did little for the idea that sex deserves privacy. She is for openness, believing it the opposite of ignorance; and, if ignorance begets bigotry and guilt, so openness will bring happier times for all.
There is a thicket of thorny problems inside all this. You don’t need to be a religious zealot to wonder if it’s all quite right; the beliefs that she offends are often deeply held, and some of the sceptics are actually rather thoughtful. Is she up to the job she’s taken on, or would she echo the poignant cry of Kenneth Williams, as he played the dying Julius Caesar: “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”
Q: For someone who is, basically, just an entertainer, you’ve become a battleground for debates about all kinds of things.
"Yes. Sexual politics; feminist politics ...”
Q: What fame is supposed to be ...
"Yeah. Well I think because I dealt with so many of those issues in my work, whether it be in Truth Or Dare [her 1991 "rockumentary", released in Britain under the inferior title In Bed With Madonna] where I showed the inner workings of the life of a celebrity, and these are things that people always cover up ... And sex, I talked about my sexual fantasies with different videos and songs. I talked about asserting your power, using everything you had, being feminine, if not feminist, being a sexual creature. My whole idea about empowering yourself is to use whatever strengths you have. To be in a man's world successfully you don't have to be like a man or dress like a man, or think like a man.
"All of these ideas went so against the grain of what you are allowed to talk about in public if you're a popular entertainer. All of a sudden it opened up the discussion, the people that were on my side, and the Moral Majority that was against me, then everyone started reviewing those opinions in the media. And it's still going strong. But I see my influences everywhere. And I'm amused by it." She laughs.
Q: Being said to cause enormous changes in society is a big gig to land on anyone, but ...
"Yeah, I'll say!"
Q: But, to whatever extent, do you think you’ve done any good?
[Quite matter-of-factly.] "Absolutely. It's always good to provoke ... a discussion, and get people to think. You cannot be an inspiration to people or a role model unless you have a point of view.”
Q: Is it good or healthy to make sex such an open subject of discussion?
"Yes, absolutely. Most of our sexually delinquent behaviour is a direct result of sex being such a taboo subject, such an unspeakable thing. People keep everything inside; they're afraid to say what they feel or what they need. Something's gotta give. It's not healthy not to say what you prefer, who you are, what you desire. To live with that kind of shame has a very negative effect on people. And on society."
Q: But so many of the things that people find sexy are to do with repression. Bondage images… It’s like, considered in the abstract, a nun seems a sexier thing than a sex therapist.
Q: But the one symbolises repression of sexuality, the other is all for bringing it out in the open. How do you get around that?
"How you get around it is, that's the hypocrisy of it all. People are naturally attracted and intrigued by the forbidden. It's human nature."
Q: But if the forbidden is no longer forbidden, if taboos are lifted, and everything is spoken about openly ...
"Yeah but speaking about it doesn't … I disagree. That’s like saying, Oh, do you feel you’ve revealed too much about yourself? And I always say, Don’t confuse physical nudity with what’s inside of my soul; they’re two different things. And talking about sexuality, provoking discussions about it, getting people to feel comfortable about discussing their sexual preference, does not mean that you’ve got to take every sexual taboo and rip it open, and put it out there, talk about it. That’s not what I mean.
“What I mean to say is, if you find a nun sexy, that’s all right. I don’t mean to say, Get the nun to take her clothes off, you see what she looks like and there’s nothing sexy about it, so OK, get over it. That’s not what I’m saying.
Q: But could it be that the more sex is talked about, the less interesting it becomes?
“I disagree with that. I think the more you feel comfortable about your sexual fantasies – not that you have to go out and say it, say who it is or stand on top of a building naked – the more you don’t feel that you’re a freak and bad and evil… To have sexual fantasies, to think a nun is sexy, to wanna be tied up, there’s nothing wrong with it. All I’m saying is that it’s healthy. You shouldn’t feel a sense of shame about it.”
Q: You know the accusation that sex is always an easy marketing tool. In any walk of life, including records and magazines, it helps to sell things.
“Well, it is. But I have a message. So… One does what one has to do to get attention. And in a way it’s almost like, to me that was the innuendo of it all. I called my book Sex because it was a very provocative title and I knew people would buy it because of that. And I knew people would want to buy it and look at the pictures and yet they denounced it at the same time, so I thought, that’s a statement of our society in itself. People want to know about it, but if you ask them about it, they’ll say it’s bad. To me, I was trying to make a point with it all.
Q: In a recent interview you said you were being punished for the public stance you’d taken.
“I only said it once and the writer of the magazine printed it 200 times in the article and made it seem as though I’d repeated myself over and over. She said to me, Do you think, in fact, you are being punished? And I said, Yes. So now it’s like every time I open up a magazine: [pretends to weep piteously] I’ve been punished! Boo-hoo. Get out the violins.
“I’m not feeling sorry for myself. But I do actually feel that it’s true. After I put the Sex book out, because what I was dealing with was such a taboo, and because pop stars aren’t supposed to have a point of view… You’re supposed to stay popular and do things that are popular, that’s what the word means. Once you cross that line there’s a lot of fury to reckon with. And I think that because everybody did buy the book in spite of the fury that it caused, I think people made up their minds that they weren’t going to be duped, and they punished me by… Every review of the movie or the album was really a review of the book. It was transparent: they weren’t even talking about the songs or the music. OK, I thought, I get what’s happening here. It was a shame, but I understand it.
Q: Do you regret that book?
“Not in the least.”
The interview time is almost over. Beyond the balcony, shadows are lengthening on the Place Vendôme. Madonna remembers Paris as “one of my start-off points”. She lived here for a while in 1979, working in a Revue with the disco singer Patrick “Born To Be Alive” Hernandez. Then she ditched her dance career to try life in a New York band, The Breakfast Club.
She says she loves the place. But right now, as fans stand vigil in the square down below, her isolation seems unenviable. It’s one of those unusual moments when a star’s life seems less, not larger, than one’s own. Having an hour to kill before this interview, I’d wandered Paris in the brilliant Autumn sunshine, entirely at ease, and enjoyed it immensely. How much is that worth? I’d want millions to of dollars to give it up.
Q: Have you been out today?
“No. Oh, I’ve been out on my balcony. I had the fabulous privilege of going out on my balcony.
Q: What’s the score if you do want to go out?
“The score is I’m trampled. I have got to [sighs, recites:] get in my car, be with my bodyguards, they’ll chase us where we go, be there when we get out. The problem when I go to Europe to promote something is, everyone knows I’m here. It’s impossible to get out and be incognito. So I can’t really enjoy the city unless I can come here when I’m not doing something. I mean, I have been going out, don’t get me wrong. I just go out with… a thousand of my closest Parisian friends!”
There’s something eerie about the patient crowd outside. Madonna suggests they may be here for other people as well: it’s Fashion Week and there are supermodels in the hotel. But even so…
Q: You must get a strange view of fans, if the ones who are most visible to you are the kind who stand around outside of people’s houses. They’re hardly typical, but they must give you a weird impression.
“The ones who stand out front of my place in New York are the ones I’ve been seeing for years and years and years.. I think, My God, don’t they have anything better to do? If there’s one message I’ve tried to get across in my music, it is to do something with your life. Believe in your dreams. You know what I mean? Express yourself. But they’re not listening, they’re just following me around.
“Don’t misunderstand me. I’m flattered that I have fans. It means a lot to me that they’re there and they want my autograph. That kind of energy, you do get a kick out of it. But seeing the same faces over and over for years gets a bit psychotic. They cross the line where it’s not about admiration any more, it’s about obsession. And obsession is never really about you, it’s about them.”
Well, I venture breezily, it’s getting on now. Perhaps they’ll go home for their dinner soon.
She doesn’t smile. “I doubt it,” she says.
Also on the site: Madonna's Celebration and Madonna's Evita CD.