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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

October 29, 2009
Madonna on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Madonna on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Herb Ritts

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.

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Madonna

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.

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