Q: Is Los Angeles a necessary evil – the place in the world where you feel least bothered?
Madonna: Unfortunately. It’s the dullest town, therefore there isn’t much going on, therefore there aren’t a lot of paparazzi hanging about. It’s the one place I totally get left alone in. There’s so many people who work in the industry here, it’s not shocking to see famous people about, going shopping.
Q: You’ve been in London a lot over the last couple of years. Does it swing?
Madonna: I’ve been there recently, and for ten days it was incredible. I thought after the Princess Diana thing it would be so great and that I was going to be left alone so I rented a house in Chelsea. Then I found out that it wasn’t that they were leaving me alone, they just didn’t know where I was. And when they found out and the fans found out, then… then it was a nightmare. Then I wished I was in a hotel, because at least in a hotel you’re so high that you can’t hear them on the street. I would love to live in London but I don’t think I could handle the whole press thing. It’s pretty intense. It’s more intense even than New York, where the attention kinda comes and goes. In London it’s every day.
Q: There was a brief feeling after the death of the Princess Of Wales that it would stop. That it would change. Did you believe it would change?
Madonna: Yeah. Do I think it has? No. Not at all.
Q: Coming out of filming Evita straight into that – the tragic ironies must have been overwhelming. An iconic woman vocally mistrusted by pockets of the society she lived in, and yet inspring this enourmous, popular…
Madonna: …Fandom! Following! Yes, there are a lot of interesting parallels. On the one hand there seemed to be many people against Princess Diana, outraged by her behaviour and constantly needing her, but when she died, how astonishing was that, the revelation of how truly loved she was by some? Which just goes to show you that meanness is a lot louder than kindness. You know what I mean? Because there really were a lot of people that loved her and supported her. It’s just that people who didn’t screamed the loudest. So that’s what you kinda got swept up in if you were reading the press and stuff.
Q: It caused a big debate about the British character. After being told for years, not at least by Americans, that we were tight-arsed and very bad at…
Madonna: …Expressing yourselves. Yes. Well, I mean no. I don’t think that at all. I know some really unhinged English people. But London’s great now – I’m good friends with Stella McCartney.
Q: The first words on the record are “I traded fame for love / Without a second thought”. You seem very ambivalent about fame and its cost. You’re not sure whether it’s been worth it or not.
Madonna: The ambivalence is true. I’m not going to sit here and say, Oh God, being famous is the worst thing that ever happened to me, but on the other hand it’s a real cross to bear, the real thorn in my side. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything – I’ve been blessed with so much. I’ve had so many privileges – but, being famous, it’s like agony and the ecstacy. You get to meet people and have experiences that no-one else gets to have. On the other hand, you don’t have any anonymity. What I am very clear about is the place it’s had in my life certainly, at the beginning of my career, what it sort of took the place of. At the end of the day, though, I’m not gonna stomp all over it and say, This is shit, but I think I have much better perspective on it all than I’ve ever had. I realise, and I’ve been realising this for years, that the approval, the headiness of being swept up and being popular and loved by people in universal ways is absolutely no substitute for truly being loved. But if you have to have a substitute, it’s about the best there is.
Q: There’s the line, “Had so many lovers / Who settled for the thrill of basking in my spotlight”. Was that a depressing realisation? Did they really have much of a choice?
Madonna: Well it’s not to say that they were only attracted to me for that, but I realise that that was a big part of it. Power is a great aphrodisiac and celebrity is a great aphrodisiac.
Q: Do you feel disappointed in those people?
Madonna: No. Not at all.
Q: You once said rejection is a great aphrodisiac.
Madonna: That too, haha!
Q: You need a lot of aphrodisiacs.
Madonna: I think everyone does. I’m speaking for everybody. I mean, rejection – doesn’t everybody want the thing they can’t have? For fleeting moments of madness, that’s all you want, and then you wake up, pull yourself together and you move on with your life.
Q: Is the conviction that you’ll never find a… well, a soul mate, a haunting one?
Madonna: It has been. When you think about what I do and the kind of life I lead and the fact that I’m famous, I don’t think it’s a lifystyle that’s very attractive to people, unless they like the idea of attracting attention, unless they’re really superficial. You find yourself in a strange position. I come with a lot of baggage and it takes a strong, courageous person to have a relationship with me. I have those moments when it seems impossible. The moments of thinking, Oh forget it.
Q: The song “Nothing Really Matters” must be about Lourdes. Are you trying to say that this is the first love of your life that has no side to it?
Madonna: It has no side. She doesn’t know about me being famous. She hasn’t got a clue. And it’s completely unconditional love, which I’ve never known because I grew up without a mother [Madonna Ciccone Snr died of breast cancer when her daughter was 6]. I mean I did have my father, but I think that the love that you got from a mother is quite different. It’s had a huge impact on me, as I suppose it has on everyone who has children. But definetly, when you have children you have to step outside of yourself. You can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself, or feeling like you’re a victim in any way, shape or form. You really look at life from a totally different perspective.
Q: How is she coming along?
Madonna: She kisses everything. She kisses dogs, she kisses strange people on the playground. She says “dog” a lot, and “No”. She’s very good at saying no.
Q: You seemed to name her in the hope that she’d be some sort of healing influence.
Madonna: Absolutely. A healing influence on my life. Lourdes was a place that my mother had a connection to. People were always sending her holy water from there. She always wanted to go there but never did.
For someone who must be fairly certain that everyone she has a conversation with has already seen her naked, Madonna wears it well. Madonna, it is fair to say, has been a fruity. In her widely execrated Sex book, she wrote – and the prudish can change channels now – “Sometimes I stick my finger in my pussy and wiggle it around the dark wetness and feel what a cock or a tongue must feel when I’m sitting on it.” Perhaps we didn’t need to know this, but we all read it anyway.
Madonna’s relationship with the idea of intimacy is a unique one. Inside her Erotica album [an oddly coy record: its one "fuck" was bleeped] she is depicted licking her armpit, elsewhere bound and gagged and sucking a toe. The effect is strangewise distancing.
Equally, we can marvel at the woman that picked up lover Carlos Leon while jogging in Central Park, sympathise with the survivor of the media madness [and boose and fights] that enveloped her marriage with Sean Penn and feel her desperate would-be mother portrayed in ex-boyfriend Dennis Rodman’s [imaginative, she maintains] autobiography, but empathy is in short supply. Madonna, as we have come to think we know her, puts up barriers even as she sultrily beckons.
Remarkably, Ray Of Light blows all that out of the water. “Mer Girl” ends the album, but was one of the first things recorded for it, a one-take vocal whispered quietly while William Orbit’s portentous track bubbles delicately about her. Madonna mourns her mother and depicts herself fleeing head-long from her past. “I ran to the cemetery”, she intones, “and held my breath. And thought about your death.” Bingo, and at least, real intimacy.
“She stepped out of the vocal booth, and everybody was rooted to the spot”, recalls Orbit. “It was just one of those moments. Really spooky.”