Madonna Looks Back: The Rolling Stone Interview

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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.

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. 

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