Over the course of three decades, Madonna has become synonymous with provocation, panache and pop prestige. No less central to the diva's record-smashing career, of course, has been her ardent gay audience.
The community has, once again, played a prominent role in the lead-up to the March 10 release of “Rebel Heart,” the Queen of Pop’s 13th album and most musically diverse offering in a decade. To promote the album, Madonna teamed up with the gay social app Grindr, giving five lucky users the chance to chat with her one-on-one. She also tips her hat to those fans on the album’s most self-referential tune, “Veni Vidi Vici,” with the line, “And when I struck a pose, all the gay boys lost their mind.”
On the eve of the “Rebel Heart” release, HuffPost Gay Voices and five other LGBT media outlets caught up with Madonna at the offices of Interscope Records in New York. In typical Madonna fashion, the superstar held court in an intimate, all-white music room that was perfumed with eucalyptus oil.
She looked fit and glamorous in a flowing black and gold dress, and was as succinct and confrontational as one would expect, directing the individual journalists to form a semi-circle in the room, facing her directly.
“It’s better if we all can look each other in the eye,” she said. “I prefer it. I’m Italian, I don’t like anybody behind me.”
Although she’s in the midst of a whirlwind publicity tour, the Queen of Pop was in a particularly chatty mood, sharing candid thoughts on “Rebel Heart” and its occasionally troubled history, her gay fans, social media and more.
You were forced to change the release schedule for your new album because of the song leaks that took place last year [and earlier this year]. The next time you go to create a new album or film, is your process going to change because of these new threats?
Yeah. I’m never going to put anything on a server and send information back and forth, as it had been done. That was the first mistake. But then the last leak came from the mastering lab, and that was just a technician’s oversight after everything that had happened and everyone knew that we had to crack down and be really super secure -- we were hand-delivering everything -- someone sent the record on the server again, and my hacker is very clever, obviously. So, again, it was not up for very long, but it was snatched, so I would never do anything like that again. Hand-deliver!
Did [the leaks] change anything about the way the tracks were sequenced, or…?
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. Suddenly I thought, “Oh God, everybody’s heard all these demos!” There were some demos that I actually liked the demo version of, and then I thought, “Well, they heard the demo, now they’re going to be expecting other things.”
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 starting coming out and coming out and coming…it kind of drove me crazy, because it started making me think, “I don’t even know what version I should be putting out.”
As someone who has always admired your work, I found it devastating, too -- I thought, "What a horrible thing to do."
Yeah. And also very confusing, because a lot of things were being sold on my supposed “fan” sites, and I kept thinking…my fans should be supporting me and protecting me so…I don't know. The whole thing confused me. Still does. And what [my hacker] did was a white collar crime. He's in jail in Israel. So I don't even know what's going to happen to him. I hope he goes to jail for a long time, but I don't know what's going to happen. Let's not dwell on that subject!
You’ve been such an important part of the gay community for so long. What would be some differences between the gay audiences you see coming out in 2015 versus the audiences you saw in 2005 or 1995 or 1985? How have you seen the community evolve around you?
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. I felt really aware of the preciousness of life and time… and people who were HIV positive were treated so badly. 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 can sometimes take 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.
What's your whole perspective on [Grindr and] hook-up culture?
It's part of the modern world we live in. I think that there are just as many a**holes meeting the old-fashioned way as there are meeting in the new hook-up culture.
Thematically and lyrically, [“Rebel Heart”] is a lot more self-referential that you have been in the past. During the process of the writing and the production was that something that you did intentionally or was it just part of the process?
I don't know. I didn't set out to write certain kinds of songs, I just set out to write good songs, and that was the mood I was in and that's what I was channeling. Sometimes I was in nostalgic moods and looking back, sometimes I was in the 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.
On the song “Body Shop,” the music is folksy and made me think of a lullaby, but then you listen to the words, and they are…
Was that your intention to contrast the music with the lyrics?
Was it intentional? No. Again, it just happened. I was working with Tony Gad, who spent a lot of time in India, and … the song has kind of an Indian flavor to it. And 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. So...lots of innuendoes, lots of fun. And we all love a really cute mechanic!
If you were a car, what type of car would you be?
That’s a good one. I might be a Bentley. But I might be an Aston Martin, and then I might be a Jaguar, and then I might be a Cadillac. So it depends on what day it is. Can I have a few cars? Can I be a few cars? I'm not a Smart Car.
Your music has shaped the lives of multiple generations of pop and dance music fans. When you set out to create an album, do you feel any responsibility to that fan base at all?
I don't feel like I have a responsibility from a sonic point of view, but I do feel like I have responsibility to impart some kind of wisdom and inspiration to people, yeah.
We're all very excited about the upcoming tour. Can you give us a preview of what you've got planned?
No. Why would I do that? I want it to be a surprise for you.
You've worked with so many people over the years, who has pushed you the furthest as an artist and a performer?
Working with Toby Gad… he really pushed me a lot [as a songwriter]. He was constantly questioning my choice of words, and sometimes I would get really irritated with him. I started calling him an S.S. officer, which he's clearly not. He's the sweetest, most lovely guy ever.
He really pushed me, and Diplo really pushed me. He really was particular about lyrics and phrasing and my vocal performances. He pushed me a lot, too. In the end it served me well on this record.
You released your “Living For Love” video through Snapchat, and you're doing Grindr and all these different types of social media. Is that going to be a continuous theme throughout the rest of this album?
I like to try new and different ways to present my work to people, so yeah, why not?
The “Living For Love” video…I think this was your first time bringing what you do with your tour visuals to a full-on music video concept. Is that also something that we'll get to see again?
I guess so. 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 that story of the minotaur and the matador 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. But I wouldn’t want to do that for every video. Like, when I do “Bitch I’m Madonna,” it's going to be a whole different aesthetic.
[Regarding the song] “Veni Vidi Vici,” was it just a trip down memory lane for you?
It was a trip down memory lane. To be in this business for over three decades…I don’t actually think about it that much, but a lot of the people that I worked with were asking me so many questions. In a way, I think I underestimate what I’ve been through and what I’ve witnessed. So I think it was just important to do that … to dwell in a bittersweet nostalgic point.
At this stage in your career, what still frightens you?
What are your reading right now?
One is The Goldfinch, and the other is the 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 David, who plays guitar, likes “Devil Pray.” That's his favorite.
What do you love most about pop music?
Well, I love who accessible it is.
What do you despise about pop music?
Despise? That’s such a strong word. Well, I’m not crazy about how homogenized how it's become. It used to be so 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,” that’s too much. In my house, we don't use words like “despise” and “hate,” we say, “strongly dislike.”