Madonna Looks Back: The Rolling Stone Interview

Days after her 51st birthday, pop's reigning queen reflects on three decades of provocation, scandal and monster hits

Madonna on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Herb Ritts
Madonna on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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Outside Madonna's London home, which sits on a quaint street in the Marylebone neighborhood, hangs a sign that reads someone famous may have thought once about living here. Today, that someone is on break from the last leg of her Sticky & Sweet Tour, and the house is buzzing with activity. In the basement, film editors are piecing together two new music videos. In the dimly lit foyer, with deep-blue walls and an old-master painting of a carnival in Venice, other staff mill about: an assistant, a construction worker, a maid and Madonna's trainer, who is irritated about an unbecoming tabloid photo showing Madonna with sinewy arms. "I get hundreds of e-mails from people around the world who want that body," the trainer complains. But in Madonna's world, after 27 years of scandal and provocation, one unflattering pic is barely a blip on the radar. In the past three decades, Madonna has sold over 200 million records (more than any other female artist by far); her Sticky & Sweet Tour is officially the highest-grossing tour ever by a solo artist, raking in $408 million. Just a few days before our first interview, 80,000 fans in Warsaw sang "Happy Birthday" to her. Madonna, who turned 51, fought back tears and told them, "I love my job. This is the best birthday present ever."

During two extensive interviews, which continued inside a palatial hotel suite in Budapest, Madonna — an artist who rarely looks back — delved deep into her unmatched musical legacy. Growing up in a Detroit suburb, Madonna had her world rocked at age six by the death of her mother. Always an extrovert, Madonna performed for the first time in a junior high talent show, slathered in body paint. She defied her strict father by dropping out of the University of Michigan, where she was studying dance, and moved to New York in 1978, eking out a living as a nude model while performing at clubs like CBGB. Her debut album, 1983's Madonna, featured the hits "Holiday" and "Lucky Star," and she skyrocketed to fame a year later on the strength of Like a Virgin — and her panty-baring performance at MTV's Video Music Awards.

A quarter-century later, Madonna continues to reinvent herself. She just released Celebration, a two-disc greatest-hits package featuring 36 singles (dating back to "Everybody," from October 1982) and two new songs, including "Revolver," a collaboration with Lil Wayne. It kicks off with her 2005 hit "Hung Up." "Because it's a badass song," Madonna explains — but also because it's her biggest global single ever, topping the charts in 45 countries.

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When Madonna appears this morning, her face is flushed from a workout, and she's wearing a black top with a heart pattern and a kabbalah string on her left wrist. She's wearing no makeup, and her voice has just a faint trace of the British accent she's adopted over the past decade. Since her divorce last year from director Guy Ritchie, she's moved back to New York, where she bought a massive town house on the Upper East Side.

Twenty years ago, she seemed incapable of not blabbing about, say, the intimate details of her doomed marriage to Sean Penn. But now she's a little more cautious, careful to clarify the exact parameters of my questions and to calibrate her responses — she attributes this caution in part to kabbalah. "I don't think I was cruel, mean or heartless in the past, but back then I could gossip or speak badly about people, or say things without thinking what the consequences would be," she says. "[Kabbalah] has changed my way of looking at life, so naturally it will change the way I think about life: not thinking like a victim, taking responsibility for my actions and my words."

But what does one call her? Madonna? Ms. Ciccone? Madge? "Everyone I know calls me M," she says. " 'Madge' is a press thing in England. I heard two versions of where it came from. One is that Madge is an English colloquialism, like a name that would suit a housewife, which is the opposite of who I am. The other is that it's short for 'majesty.' I like that one better."

You grew up in Pontiac, outside Detroit, where some of your first musical influences came from going to parties and barbecues in your largely African-American neighborhood. What do you remember?
Motown was everywhere. Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross and the Jackson 5, that's what I grew up on. But when I was in high school we moved to a suburb that was predominantly middle-class and white. There weren't any more house parties, there wasn't music blaring from the house next door. I felt estranged, and that's when I created my own world. That's when I decided I'd be a professional dancer. I became more of an introvert, and I'd sneak out of the house and go to concerts. I was aware of the power of music at that point, not that I could articulate it to anyone.

What were the first shows you saw?
My first concert was David Bowie at Cobo Hall [in Detroit] when I was 15. He had mime artists with him. It was amazing. I wish I could have seen him as Ziggy Stardust. My second show was Elton John, and my third was Bob Marley. Not bad, right?

Not bad at all. Did you drink at the shows?
When I was in high school? No way. I was a geek. I didn't really have a drink until I got divorced the first time [from Sean Penn], when I was 30.

It's interesting to hear you talk about Bowie as an influence.
Because everyone thinks I was born in a disco. My older brothers were in the basement listening to the Who and the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," the Who's "Baba O'Riley."

You performed "Baba O'Riley" at a talent show in seventh grade.
I had my girlfriends paint my body with fluorescent hearts and flowers. I wore a pair of shorts and a midriff top, and I just went mad. I had a strobe light and black light. I'm sure everyone thought I was insane. It was my first time onstage. That was the beginning of my provocative performances, I guess. I just went for it. No girls would talk to me after that, and the boys looked at me weird.

Do you still consider yourself a geek?
I say stuff like "oopsie-daisy." Growing up, I didn't feel cool, I didn't fit into any crowd. "Geek" is not a word anyone uses to describe me, though, except perhaps [Confessions on a Dance Floor producer] Stuart Price, who once said, "You know, you're a nerd at heart, nobody knows it." I took it as a compliment. I'm silly and geeky and nerdy and not cool.

You moved to New York after dropping out of the University of Michigan to become a dancer. How did you transition from dancing to singing?
It was just a question of circumstance. Because I was a dancer, I started going to auditions for musical theater, which forced me to sing. Most of the people auditioning were much more professional than I was — they brought sheet music, and they'd give it to the piano player, and I would just wing it and sing songs I knew from the radio, like an Aretha Franklin song or some other ridiculous embarrassment.

By 1979, you were living in Queens with Dan and Ed Gilroy, who had a band called the Breakfast Club, which you ended up joining. Around that time, you wrote your first song.
It was called "Tell the Truth." It was maybe four chords, but there were verses and a bridge and a chorus, and it was a religious experience. I had decided that if I was going to be a singer, I had to earn it. I had to learn how to play an instrument. We were living in an abandoned synagogue in Queens, and in return for music lessons I modeled for Dan, who was a painter. I was his muse, and he taught me how to play power chords. While they were off at their day jobs, I'd play drums. I learned by listening to Elvis Costello records. Then one day, I wrote a song, and the words just came out of me. I was like, "Who's writing this?" When their drummer quit, I got to be the drummer, and one night at CBGB I begged them to let me sing a song and play guitar. That microphone position was looking more and more inviting.

In 1982, you were signed to Sire Records on the strength of demos that included "Everybody," which went on to become your first single. When was the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
I was living on the Upper West Side, 99th and Riverside, and at about 7:00 at night I had the radio on in my bedroom, on [New York disco station] KTU, and I heard "Everybody." I said, "Oh, my God, that's me coming out of that box." It was an amazing feeling.

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Did you call your dad?
I don't think I called my dad. I don't think he would have been very impressed.

How did you celebrate?
At that time I was hanging around with a lot of graffiti artists, Futura 2000, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Jean-Michel introduced me to Andy Warhol. I remember we were all at a Japanese restaurant on Second Avenue and Seventh Street, where Keith had done a bunch of drawings on the walls, and Jean-Michel was telling me how jealous he was of me being on the radio. Because he thought that I had a more accessible form of art, and more people would be exposed to it. Andy told him to stop complaining.

Haring, who died in 1990 of AIDS, and Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988, were the defining artists of their generation. How did you meet them?
I was introduced to Keith by a roommate, but I had already seen his work on the streets, subways and buildings. Then we started hanging out at [legendary New York nightclubs] Danceteria and Mudd Club and the Roxy. The Rock Steady crew was there. We'd dance, we'd watch break – dancing crews there and on the street.

Did you do graffiti?
Walls, subways, sidewalks . . . 

What was your tag?
Boy Toy.

No shit! Who came up with Boy Toy?
It could have been Futura. He's clever. He painted the whole inside of my bedroom on 99th, which my landlord was not happy about. We had a little gang — [actress] Debi Mazar was part of it. We called ourselves the Webo Girls — like hue-vos, girls with balls.

Do you own paintings by Warhol, Haring or Basquiat?
I have a few of each. Keith and Andy did four pieces for me as a wedding present when I married Sean. They're pictures of me from the cover of The New York Post when all the nude photographs of me came out in Playboy and Penthouse. The headline says I'M NOT ASHAMED. So they took all these Post covers and painted over them. They're in my house in L.A. — a signpost, a watershed moment. I also have a leather jacket that Keith Haring painted on that I would never give up.

Since the beginning of your career, the transformation of your image has been the only constant. Between your first two albums, 1983's Madonna and 1984's Like a Virgin, you went through your first major reinvention, from a punky brunette club girl into a blonde in a wedding dress. Where did that come from?
I don't know. I guess the music I started to write had more of a seductive quality, and I unconsciously morphed into that. It also had to do with the fact that I was doing more photo shoots. I was being styled and dressed. Before that, I was doing everything myself. I had no makeup artist, I was taking my dance tights and tying them around my head and throwing a few rosaries around my neck. After that, it was [photographer] Steven Meisel, and fashion people putting me in corsets. I think people put a lot of emphasis on the whole reinvention of my image, and it's always been a lot less calculated than people think. It's just evolution and what I'm interested in, the books I read or movies or clothes that I see. Just call me Zelig. Wasn't that the Woody Allen movie where he took on the personality of whoever he's talking to? I think it's boring to stay the same. A girl likes to change her look.

When you were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there was a video montage of your career. When you took the stage, you made a joke about "all my bad hairstyles." Which Madonna fashion era do you look back on with the most disdain?
I think it was the purple-lipstick/fluorescent-green-sweater combo. So many of those hairstyles. It's OK, it was the Eighties. It was a bad-hairstyle era, let's face it.

On the flip side, is there a time you look back on when you say, "Fuck, I was pretty hot."
Like I'm going to admit to that! And be annihilated for the next 10 years for it? I'm not answering that one.

There's the famous story of you performing at Radio City Music Hall in 1985, when the whole audience was filled with Madonna clones. But that first tour, the Virgin Tour, began in Seattle and worked its way across the country. Was it Madonna-mania from the beginning?
That whole tour was crazy, because I went from playing CBGB and the Mudd Club to playing sports arenas. I played a small theater in Seattle, and girls had flap skirts on and tights cut off below their knees and lace gloves and rosaries and bows in their hair and big hoop earrings. I was like, "This is insane!" After Seattle, all of the shows were moved to arenas. I've never done a bus tour. Everyone says they're really fun.

You didn't write "Material Girl" or "Like a Virgin." What were your first impressions after you heard those demos?
I liked them both because they were ironic and provocative at the same time but also unlike me. I am not a materialistic person, and I certainly wasn't a virgin, and, by the way, how can you be like a virgin? I liked the play on words, I thought they were clever. They're so geeky, they're cool.

Not materialistic?
I feel lucky to be able to afford a Frida Kahlo [painting] or live in a nice house, but I know that I can live without it. I'm resourceful, and if I ended up in a log cabin in the middle of the forest, that would work too. These things are not mandatory for my happiness. That's what I meant by "I'm not a materialistic person."

Did you have the sense that those two songs would become such huge hits?
No. They just resonated with me. I've never been a good judge of what things are going to be huge or not. The songs that I think are the most retarded songs I've written, like "Cherish" and "Sorry," a pretty big hit off my last album, end up being the biggest hits. "Into the Groove" is another song I feel retarded singing, but everybody seems to like it.

That's because "Into the Groove" has an amazing bass line.
Yeah. Thank you, Stephen Bray. [Bray, an ex-boyfriend of Madonna's from Michigan, co-wrote and produced many of her biggest Eighties hits.] It always starts with the bass line and the beat. You build it from the ground up. Like on "Holiday," "Hung Up," "Music." I think it has to do with being a dancer, because it's all about the bass line when you're a dancer. You have to feel it in the center of your gravity.

How do you respond to criticism? When the nude photos appeared in Playboy and Penthouse, for instance, you were totally defiant.
That was the first time I was aware of saying "Fuck you" with my attitude. You're trying to put me down because of this? I'm not going to let public opinion dictate my own feelings about myself. I'm not going to apologize for anything I've done.

Your former manager Freddy DeMann thought your career was over after the "Like a Virgin" performance at the 1984 VMAs. Were you concerned afterward?
He was white as a ghost. He was very disappointed in me, because I was rolling around on the floor, my dress went up, and you could see my underpants. What was I thinking? "I dropped my shoe, I don't know how to get it and put it back on, and I am going down on the ground." It was a lot of things. It was scary and fun, and I didn't know what it meant for my future. A million things were going through my head.

It wasn't just your performances that were provocative. You didn't write "Papa Don't Preach," but it's impossible to imagine anyone else singing it. Why did that song speak to you?
It just fit right in with my own personal Zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities, whether it's the pope or the Catholic Church or my father and his conservative, patriarchal ways.

What was the fallout?
There have been so many fallouts, they all get confused. But for "Papa Don't Preach," there were so many opinions — that's why I thought it was so great. Is she for "schma-smortion," as they say in Knocked Up? Is she against abortion?

Any ideas you've had that you haven't gone through with because they seemed too extreme?
I did a photo shoot with Steven Klein for my last album cover, and I painted my face black, except for red lips and white eyes. It was a play on words. Have you ever heard of the Black Madonna? It has layers of meaning, and for a minute, I thought it would be a fun title for my record. Then I thought, "Twenty-five percent of the world might get this, probably less. It's not worth it." It happens all the time, because my references are usually off the Richter scale. That's why I have people like Guy [Oseary, her manager] in my life who look at me and go, "No, you are not doing that."

A lot of fans consider "Live to Tell," from your 1986 album True Blue, to be your defining song. What do you remember about writing it?
Sometimes when I'm writing songs, I'm just channeling. I could say that "Live to Tell" was about my childhood, my relationship with my parents, my father and my stepmother. But maybe not. It could be about something in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel or a story that I heard once. It's true, but it's not necessarily autobiographical. I could say the same thing about "La Isla Bonita." I don't know where that came from.

Are you telling me you never dreamt of San Pedro?
I don't know where San Pedro is. At that point, I wasn't a person who went on holidays to beautiful islands. I may have been on the way to the studio and seen an exit ramp for San Pedro.

How did you come to write "Vogue"?
I wrote it when I was making Dick Tracy. After we shot the movie, [then-boyfriend] Warren Beatty asked me if I could write a song that would fit my character's point of view, that she could have conjured up. She was obsessed with speakeasies and movie stars and things like that. The idea for the lyrics came through that request. Coincidentally, I was going to Sound Factory and checking out these dancers who were all doing this new style of dancing called vogueing. And Shep Pettibone, who co-produced "Vogue" with me, used to DJ there. That's how it grew together.

What has been the biggest challenge of your career?
Working on Evita with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It's a whole different singing sensibility. I had to seriously work with a vocal coach to sing with strength and conviction. A lot of the stuff was recorded live, and I was in the recording studio with strange producers and writers, a huge orchestra and huge shoes to fill. The first song they wanted me to record was "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," which is the hardest song. I think I almost started crying. I felt very intimidated. Halfway through the recording sessions, I started to relax.

In 1998, you returned after a four-year break with Ray of Light, working with British electronica artist William Orbit. Why him?
After Evita I had a baby. Getting out of the world of pop music and pop culture for a while, I came back to it feeling very hungry, very curious, looking for something new. During that time I'd been listening to William Orbit's Strange Cargo records. He's very eccentric, he lives in his own world. I'd been away for so long that when I got into the studio with him, I felt like I'd been shot out of a cannon. I had so many ideas, and Ray of Light reflects that.

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Most of your albums have been collaborations with under-the-radar producers like Orbit, Mirwais [2000's Music] and Stuart Price [2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor]. But for 2008 's Hard Candy, you turned to proven hitmakers like Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. What was your thinking?
I always go, "OK, who's making music that I like right now?" I really, genuinely like the music of Timbaland and Justin. Justin is a brilliant songwriter. I mean, "What Goes Around . . . Comes Around"? Brilliant. I thought it would be a challenge to work with him.

Has anyone ever turned down an offer to work with you?
Sure. Or it's "I don't have time." I wanted to work with Eminem. I don't think he wanted to work with me. [Smiles] Maybe he's shy.

In 1996, you had your first child, Lourdes. Since then, your family has grown with Rocco, whom you had with Guy Ritchie, and David and Mercy, whom you adopted from orphanages in Malawi. Do your kids have favorite Madonna songs?
Definitely. Lourdes likes all my old songs. She's really into the Eighties, from the way she dresses to the music she listens to. Rocco likes anything that I did with Timbaland. Basically, he's a hip-hop and electronic boy. David's favorite song is "Ha Isla," that's what he calls it. He's my biggest fan. Everybody says that when he watches the show, he stays frozen from beginning to end, and he studies everything, and he knows every dance step. [Smiles] He's not jaded like my older children.

You and Lourdes, who is now 12, went to a Lady Gaga show together in New York. Do the two of you go to a lot of shows?
We've just started. We like the same music. I think Lady Gaga is great. When we saw her, I actually felt a kind of recognition. I thought, "She's got something." There's something quirky about her. She's fearless and funny, and when she spoke to the audience, she sounded intelligent and clever. She's unique.

Can you sense an artist's ambition?
Yes. There's people like Justin Timberlake, who's really good-looking and laid-back. He's sort of a Cary Grant. I love him, I love working with him, but I don't recognize myself in him. But I can see myself in Lady Gaga. In the early part of my career, for sure. When I saw her, she didn't have a lot of money for her production, she's got holes in her fishnets, and there's mistakes everywhere. It was kind of a mess, but I can see that she's got that It factor. It's nice to see that at a raw stage.

Another artist you admire is Sting. What do you talk about with him?
I would consider Sting my friend, but I'm more friends with his wife, Trudie. He's an incredible musician who plays 50 different instruments, and I'm always a little intimidated by him. I always think he looks down on me. Not down on me, but I'm just a pop star. He's a real musician. We don't talk about music that much when we get together. He's usually sitting in the corner, playing chess or playing some 16-stringed instrument that I don't even know the name of.

Last year, you and Guy Ritchie got divorced. . . . 
You don't have to lower your voice when you say that. It's not a bad word. I thought we were talking about music, though. If you can connect the idea of divorce to music, I'll talk to you about it.

Then let's talk about the lyrics to "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," from Hard Candy: "I should just walk away/Over and over, I keep on coming back for more."
What can you say? It was a challenging year. I think work saved me, and I'm very grateful that I had work to do. I may have thrown myself off a building. Life is an adjustment. It's different. My sons aren't with me right now, they're with their father, and I'm not very comfortable with the idea of my children not living together. There are pros and cons, but I feel good now.

What do you love about having kids from three different countries?
The more diverse the world you live in, the more open you are. My two youngest children are from Africa, which has opened my eyes and given me a new perspective on the world. My house is like a Benetton ad. I have French nannies, my security guards are Israeli, I have assistants from Argentina and Puerto Rico as well as a Japanese assistant and chef, and another chef from Italy. It's wonderful, I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way. My life is a cacophony of different languages and music.

I was at the show last night in Budapest. I was struck by how none of the songs you performed were in their original arrangements.
Even my new songs, I have to reinvent them, or after a couple of months, I'll just get sick of them. When you reinvent them, you have to sit for days with the musical director and your band. Inevitably, you end up sampling someone, and you have to get permission, and pay more money. People have told me, "You could just go out there and play guitar and sing your songs like Paul McCartney," but I'd be too bored. Most of the joy of the shows is the magic of creating them — the theater. I'm a perfectionist. I like hard work. I like to sweat.

Clearly. You sang "Into the Groove" while jumping rope.
I always have to do something really impossible during my shows, and that's my really impossible moment. It's very hard to sing and dance at the same time, that's why most people that dance don't sing, or at least not very well.

In I'm Going to Tell You a Secret, the documentary from your Re-invention Tour, you're all iced up like a basketball player after the shows.
I come home and sit in an ice bath for 10 minutes. It's really painful when you get in, but it feels so good afterward. I'm an athlete. My ankles get taped before the shows, and I have treatments and physical therapists. It's from years and years of abuse, dancing in high heels, which is not great on your knees. All dancers have injuries, but we just deal with them. We get acupuncture and therapy, and just keep going.

When you look into the audience, what do you pick up on?
Sometimes it's just a look of pure enthusiasm. I was in Munich the other night, and this dad was in the front row with his daughter on his shoulders, and she was completely enraptured, smiling from ear to ear. Or two guys with their shirts off, covered in tattoos of me. Those are my go-to guys.

When fans in Warsaw sang "Happy Birthday" a few days ago, you choked up.
When people in the audience start to cry, it has a contagious effect. Crying is complicated, because when you're crying, you don't sing well, because it chokes up your throat. But over the course of this tour, a lot of emotional things have happened. Obama was elected right before we went onstage [in San Diego]. We were saying our prayers before the show, and I had tears streaming down my face, and I said, "I feel like I'm living a dream." I got down and kissed the ground. I feel like crying about it right now.

You once told Rolling Stone, "There are times when I've thought if I'd known [fame] was going to be like this, I wouldn't have tried so hard. If it ever gets to be too much, or I feel like I'm being overscrutinized, then I won't do it." What are your thoughts on fame these days?
It's worth it if you can understand it's a means to an end. My work has allowed me to do things that have nothing to do with music. To know that my experiences in Africa have changed people's lives for the better, to see their lives change before my eyes . . . how can I not feel positive about that? I'm not always positive, I can assure you. Yesterday I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It's a good thing the interview is today.

Grumpy?
Supergrumpy. When I'm sleep-deprived, I'm not very fun. But, you know, every day I take a moment to be aware, to have a sense of consciousness about how my words and actions affect people. I do it when I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed. "What am I going to do with my day? What did I do with my day?"

Most of the time, you're satisfied?
Sometimes I am, sometimes I fail miserably and think I do nothing but wreak havoc and cause chaos. But I'm a human being. I just have to make mistakes, then forgive myself afterward.

This story is from the October 29th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. 


From The Archives Issue 1090: October 29, 2009