One approaches an interview with Madonna with the same reverence and terror you would an audience with the Pope. Except the Pope hasn’t been entertaining, scandalizing and enlightening fans for more than 30 years.
But, as Rebel Heart races up the charts, the Material Matriarch consented to an intimate conversation with members of the gay press—including yours truly.
In person, Madonna is smaller than you expect, but no less regal or magical. At nearly 9pm, after a long day of press ops, she’s still a vision of glamour, with nary a wisp of hair out of place. She makes a point of asking all our names looks us directly in the eyes when we speak to her.
At first we all avoided discussing the leaks—the numerous Rebel Heart tracks and demos that appeared online over the past few months, forcing Madge to move up her release date and reconsider other aspects of production. But when it became clear she still had a lot to say about the subject, we dove right in.
There was little territory that was forbidden, in fact: the Queen of Pop was happy to discuss her kids, her frustrations with Avicii and Diplo, her infamous “reductive” reference to Gaga, and what she thinks the gay community is missing today.
Just don’t ask her to give up any tours about her upcoming tour. “Why would I do that? I want it to be a surprise for you.”
Did the Rebel Heart leaks change anything about the album that was released?
It changed everything. First of all, it drove me insane—and made me feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety. It made me second guess everything, because suddenly I thought, ‘Oh god, everyone’s heard all these demos.’
There were some demos that I actually liked the demo version of, and I thought, ‘Well they heard the demo, now they’re going to be expecting other things.’
Then they heard the next level of versions, and it kept making me think ‘Should I change it, or should I just leave it how it was?’ I was second guessing everything rather than having to just choose for myself and put it out as I would normally, as an artist…
The way he leaked it and the way the stuff started coming out and coming out and coming out in all these different incarnations, it kind of drove me crazy. Then it started making me think I don’t even know what version I should be putting out.
Some people were like ‘Ooh, I love it! I love it!’ and I was like, ‘No, don’t love it, because that’s not the thing.” So, it was crazy-making…
From now on I’ll stay off the Web—everything HAND-DELIVERED!
Songs like “Veni, Vidi Vici” have a kind of self-reflective tone, with references to earlier hits. Were you feeling nostalgic when you worked on Rebel Heart?
I didn’t set out to write certain kinds of songs—I just set out to write good songs. That was the mood I was in, and that was what I was channeling. Sometimes I was in nostalgic moods and looking back.
Sometimes I was in a mood to write a song as if I was writing in my journal and reveal certain parts of me that I was ready to reveal.”
“Body Shop” is one of my favorite songs on the album. The music is very folksly, but the lyrics are very…
Well, yes. Was that your intention to contrast the instrumentals with the lyrics?
Was it intentional? No… it just happened. I was working with Toby Gad, who spent a lot of time in India. There’s a sitar [in “Body Shop”] and the song has a very Indian flavor to it. I liked the idea of the body of a car as a kind of sexual metaphor — What you do to a car, what you do in a car — drive. So, lots of innuendos, and lots of fun.
And we all love a really cute mechanic, right?
Of all these collaborators you’ve worked with on this album, what was the biggest surprise that came from that?
I felt like I wrote a lot of good songs with Avicii’s writing team, and I didn’t expect that. I ended up writing a lot of personal and very soulful songs with [that group]—who I refer to as my Viking harem—who are all really wonderful, intelligent, soulful people. And they made me feel really comfortable. I guess I felt like I was safe enough to write those kinds of songs, and that surprised me.
And Diplo was very particular. He pushed me a lot, and it served me well.
What inspired the “Living for Love” video?
The thing about that song, it’s such a passionate song, I had to present it in a passionate way. I used mythology to tell the story, with the story of the minotaur and the matador and fighting and fighting for love and the color red and flowers and horns and death and naked men. You know, the important things in life.
I don’t want to make every video the same, but I did love the richness of that video. To me, it felt like a painting that came to life. That’s what I was trying to do. I wouldn’t want to do that for every video. When I do ’Bitch I’m Madonna,’ it’s going to be a whole different aesthetic.
You’re doing a Grindr chat. What’s your perspective on the new hookup culture apps like Grindr and Tinder have created?
It’s part of the modern world we live in. I think there are just as many assholes meeting the old-fashioned way as there are meeting in the new hookup culture.
Have you seen a change in the gay community and your gay fans from the start of your career to now?
When I first came up, the whole AIDS epidemic was starting, and the gay community that I experienced from the beginning of my career was mostly — and overwhelmingly — concerned with staying alive. And, also, I felt really aware of the preciousness of life and time. The gay community and people who were HIV-positive were treated so badly, and I was very disturbed by things. But I also saw a lot of love and connection in the gay community at that time.
Like all progress that is made in all marginalized communities or groups, I think after time goes by and you earn certain rights or you break through certain barriers, you could sometimes, maybe, take it for granted what you have now that you didn’t have before. And then that would lead to a certain lack of community, in a way, caring in a way, that I saw before.
What still frightens you?
What are you reading right now?
I’m trying to get through two different books. One is The Goldfinch and the other is a Bob Fosse biography.
Do your kids have a favorite song of yours?
They really love ‘Bitch I’m Madonna.”—that’s my teenagers’ favorite song.
My son youngest son David’s favorite song — he plays guitar — and he likes “Devil Pray.” That’s his favorite.
What do you love the most about pop music?
I love how accessible it is.
What do you despise about pop music?
Despise? That’s such a strong word. I’m not crazy about how sort of homogenized it’s become. It used to be much more diverse. Maybe it’s just what’s played on the radio sounds very much the same.
But I can’t say I “despise” it, that’s just too much. In our house we don’t use words like “despise” and ‘hate,’ we say “strongly dislike.”
This interview was edited and condensed from a press roundtable with several outlets.