The Women of Rock Interview
By GERRI HIRSHEY
At 39, hers is the most scrutinized female life of the 20th century -- with the possible exceptions of Diana Spencer's and Marilyn Monroe's. The willing architect of her own fame and notoriety, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was born in 1958 to a homemaker and a Chrysler engineer in Bay City, Mich. The family moved to Pontiac, where their home was fiercely Catholic: Mrs. Ciccone taught her girls that it was sinful to have pants that zipped up the front. Piety proved no defense against earthly disease, and she died, after a long struggle with cancer, when Madonna was just 6. Her teen years were committed to a single goal: getting out of the house -- and Pontiac. She spent a year at the University of Michigan, then bounced to Manhattan as a dance student, hawking her demos like any pushy hopeful.
In the 13 years since she writhed across MTV screens in 1984's "Lucky Star," Madonna has sold more than 100 million records worldwide and had 29 Top 10 hits. She has appeared in 15 films; most recently, she carried Alan Parker's megaproduction of "Evita." I last spoke with Madonna just before her 1992 book, "Sex," was published; at that time, she told giggly stories about guerrilla photo sessions at a Miami gas station wearing a black lace body stocking. Her nights are much different now. Last year, Madonna gave birth to Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon, a child conceived with trainer Carlos Leon.
Madonna is close to finishing a new album. As we spoke, she was awaiting the arrival of her yoga teacher. "She was in one of the first all-female bands," Madonna said. "Have you heard of the Ace of Cups? They toured with the Grateful Dead. I like to poke her brain, get information out of her."
When you were growing up, what were the first female voices that really spoke to you?
I grew up in Pontiac, so Motown was a big part of my upbringing. But I was also really, really into Joni Mitchell. I knew every word to Court and Spark; I worshiped her when I was in high school. Blue is amazing. I would have to say of all the women I've heard, she had the most profound effect on me from a lyrical point of view. Motown, I liked the sound of it.
You've said that you always knew you'd have to leave home. How and when did you start plotting your escape?
When I was 5, I knew I wanted to move. I knew that I was living in a really sheltered world. In high school I decided that as soon as I graduated I was getting the hell out of Dodge. I had a choice between going to the University of Michigan and moving to New York. I went to UM for a year and I liked it a lot. But I decided I wanted to cut to the chase. So I moved to New York. I was 18. I didn't know anybody in New York. But I had this fantasy about New York since I was a little girl -- that I had to go there. I took my first airplane trip to the Big Apple, came into LaGuardia [Airport], took my first cab ride, and got dropped off in Times Square.
What do you recall as the hardest part of being ambitious but poor?
[Laughs] Not having a place to take a shower or bath. Having to go out to dinner with idiots so I could come home and use their bathrooms. Living a hand-to-mouth existence didn't bother me so much. Not having a huge amount of comfort for me was like the bathroom problem, you know. I lived in the Music Building for a year -- I was basically squatting illegally. I was only supposed to be rehearsing. There was only a sink and toilet on each floor. Trying to make that work and feel clean was a bit of a nightmare.
Once you were on the road to becoming solvent, what did you do with your first royalty check?
I bought a synthesizer and a bicycle. I lived in SoHo, on Broome and West Broadway, in a loft. I just wanted to ride my bike everywhere. I carried it up six flights of steps -- along with my synthesizer. Separate trips.
Early on, can you recall any instances where being female in the music business might have made things more difficult?
I didn't take the time to notice; I didn't think about it. I saw it as a struggle that I was going to embrace and I didn't think, "Oh, I have it harder because I'm a girl." I thought, in fact, that maybe people extended things more to me because I was a girl. I don't know.
In reading about you, I've been rather shocked at the violence and sexual content of the negative comments about Madonna. Where do you think that's coming from?
It's human nature. If something about another person really, really bothers you and gets under your skin, it elicits a violent reaction to something in yourself. I absolutely think that's true of me and other people.
Do you think that even in this age of insatiable celebrity curiosity, you may have upset people by giving them more than they thought they wanted -- that with "Sex," and some of your other very revealing projects, you may have been a conduit for their secret desires?
People couldn't take having the mirrors turned on them like that, absolutely. Sexuality has always been forced down our throats, but it's always been from a male point of view. The woman is always objectified. And in this circumstance it was the opposite. I think that not only men but women responded in a really hostile way.
People didn't attack me in a personal way before the book. After the book, they did. I'm talking about criticizing everything from my choice of men to my body -- things that have nothing to do with my work. I also found myself the subject of almost any interview anyone did with a female. Writers used to just throw my name up there just to get six paragraphs of sensationalist journalism.
Yet you sound as though you've worked your way through this avalanche of scorn ....
I don't take it as personally as I used to. I'm a much more forgiving person now. I'm sure my daughter has had a lot to do with it. But I feel much more compassion toward people who have hostile feelings towards me. Because I know that it's coming from the opposite place than it appears to be coming from. And once you accept that format and learn to forgive people ... it's just been a lot easier for me. Everything. Being famous has been a lot easier.
How and when would you say you made this turn?
It's just an evolution, really, since I made Evita. Because going down to South America and getting beaten up the way that I was in the newspapers every day -- and sort of living vicariously through what happened to Eva Peron -- then finding myself pregnant. Going from the depths of despair and then coming out on the other side . . . you know, becoming a mother, I just have a whole new outlook on life. I see the world as a much more hopeful place. I just feel an infinite amount of compassion towards other people. That's the effect that she has on me -- in addition to many others. It happened before she was born. The peace began once I left Argentina and went to London. Absolutely.
If motherhood has helped you forgive your detractors, has it also affected your more positive relationships?
Yeah, I do have a close set of women friends now. I'm much closer to women who have children now; I'm drawn to them. Being surrounded by good friends always helped. But having my daughter helps me deal with [the celebrity circus] because everything else pales in comparison anyway. She's almost a year old. She just started walking, the drunken walk.
You're working on a new record now, which means more videos, a tour. Given the level of expectations now -- "What's Madonna going to do next?" -- do you feel more or less pressure to come up with something astonishing?
I feel much less pressure. In a way, I feel I have a lot more freedom than other people do. Does total creative freedom exist? [Laughs] Yeah, you just have to be willing to not be popular.
And you'd be comfortable in that place?
[Bigger laugh] Please! I got there some time ago. In a way, it's very freeing, you know. When the whole world turns on you, and then people start to be nice to you again, you go, "Well, I can handle anything. Whatever."
At the MTV Video Music Awards, you spoke out on the media hounding of Princess Diana. Do you have any personal theories on how these obsessions have become so acute?
We've chosen technological advancement over spiritual involvement. There's a huge gap, and I think that has a lot to do with it. I think because of TV and the Internet, people have forgotten how to be resourceful. So they're just living vicariously like leeches through other people. And they become spectators. They don't inhabit their own bodies anymore.
When fans can get close enough to speak to you, what is it they want to know about Madonna?
I can't remember the last time someone got that close. That mainly happens on tour. Mostly people come up to me and ask me about my daughter now. That's nice. I do enjoy going to the park with her and when I do, people inevitably concentrate on her. It's fantastic -- I love it. You know, since Princess Diana's death, I have to say I've had a lot more freedom. I spent two weeks in New York right after it happened and I haven't had so much freedom in, like, 10 years. I went to the park almost every day with my daughter and pushed her in a stroller and nobody bothered me. And I was in shock. Except for one day, I never saw paparazzi.
Many of the women artists I've talked to acknowledge a serious double standard in the rock industry in terms of male and female images. As someone who's used the video form and visuals to such advantage, do you see it as a challenge or a burden?
Ultimately it's a burden. I want my music to be reviewed, not whether my rib cage is too small or not. You want to be thought of as attractive, but it's a very competitive world and there's always going to be another beautiful girl around the corner. Even though people don't admit it in the music business, people are very looks-conscious. And just like in the movie business, men are allowed to not meet the conventional standards of beauty and still be celebrated. It's much harder for women.
But you can't deny that bold visual presentation of self has been a big part of your success.
Yeah, it's been part of the attraction but ultimately it's delusional. And it's only 1 percent of what I am. And what everybody is.
So can you envision a day where you'd just stand there with a mike?
Holding a flashlight underneath my face? I've threatened it. [Laughs] I just might. Just to be different. Doing the [Rolling Stone cover] photo shoot yesterday was really difficult for me. I used to really enjoy it. I used to enjoy doing video shoots. I don't have any patience for it anymore. I feel like I've done it all a billion gazillion times. There isn't the thrill of turning myself into something else and creating something else. It's just not as much fun as it used to be.
The act of writing music or singing it or performing is much more exciting than trying to be beautiful. Ever since my daughter was born, I feel the fleetingness of time. And I don't want to waste it on getting the perfect lip color.
Have you been thinking about how to explain this remarkable life of yours to your daughter?
I think it's just going to evolve. My daughter's in the recording studio with me every day. She hears music -- it's a very visceral thing, she knows it's my voice. It's going to happen over time. I think she can understand what I do fairly soon. And then the rest of my life -- I'm going to explain it to her, but I don't think it's something a person can plan for. I think it will unfold. I'll figure it out.
[Here Madonna informs me, "My yoga teacher-slash-rock chick is 'waiting.' ..."] What's your next project, besides the album?
I've got about a month to go on that. I'm very excited about it. I might do another musical, with Goldie Hawn, and then go on tour. So, like, release the album, make a movie, and go on tour at the end of the summer. But I don't know. I'm getting much better at not being so organized and planning down to the nth degree -- and seeing where life takes me.
(RS 773, October 23, 1997)
©1998 Designed by Wilber Valenzuela for WVM Productions
Last revised: July 31, 1999.