Madonna opens her strong new album with “Living for Love”, a jubilant house jam about moving beyond a debilitating breakup. But love, of course, is only one of the things that pop’s most paradoxical superstar is living for these days.
On Rebel Heart, released Tuesday after a batch of unfinished songs leaked online in December, Madonna, 56, mingles feel-good dance tracks like “Living for Love” with bitter recriminations such as “Unapologetic Bitch”, in which she tells an ex, “When we did it, I’ll admit it, I wasn’t satisfied.” Elsewhere, declarations of her continued relevance (“Iconic”, “Bitch I’m Madonna”) sit next to “Joan of Arc”, a delicate ballad about feeling the sting of criticism.
With songwriting and production input from hit makers that include Kanye West, Diplo and Avicii, Rebel Heart is also one of the singer’s most stylistically varied efforts. It gathers sonic strands that she helped weave into the pop mainstream.
Madonna spoke about the album Monday night by phone from her home in New York, where she’d just sat down to a late dinner. “I hope you don’t mind that I’m eating,” she said. “It’s potato soup with corn. So good.”
As we’re talking, Rebel Heart is due to come out in about two hours. Does releasing an album feel like the end of the race or just the beginning?
Oh, my God, that’s the beginning. Well, you know what? It’s not the beginning. The beginning was the beginning. It’s the middle.
The run-up to an album is much more intense now than it was a decade or two ago. You have to work harder earlier.
There’s a lot more product out in the marketplace, and there are so many outlets that people have to hear music, whether it’s iTunes or SoundCloud or YouTube or whatever. So the combination of the technology and all the ... What’s the word I’m looking for? I don’t want to say “talent”, necessarily, because not all of it’s talent.
You told Rolling Stone recently that you miss the simplicity of the music business the way it used to be.
Of course I do! Who wouldn’t?
What was more simple?
I made a demo, I took it to a nightclub, I gave it to a DJ, he played it, people danced to it, an A&R guy was there, he signed me, I made a record. Then my song — if everyone liked it, fingers crossed — was on the radio. It was just simpler. There wasn’t Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat. Even before MTV, there was really just live shows and the radio, and that was it.
You also didn’t have situations where half your record leaks before you’re ready to put it out.
Half of it? You mean all of it. Or practically all of it, in various incarnations. That’s part of the technology thing, which brings people perhaps a little too close.
When that happened, you spoke frankly about how invasive it felt. Three months later, has that feeling diminished?
Oh, no, it’s still very fresh on my mind, and I’m still very upset about it.
You don’t think the official album has supplanted the leak in people’s brains?
I think their brains have been contaminated by what they’ve heard. And because I was continuously being hacked into — with all the different versions from all the different producers I was working with in all the different recording studios — it started making me second-guess everything. I had extreme anxiety.
Some of the demos that I had done, I actually liked as demos; I liked the simplicity of them. But then people were commenting on them: “Oh, I can’t wait to hear the finished version.” And I thought, Well, what if this is the finished version? And then other people were saying they liked things as demos that I had changed the production of.
In a way, it was almost like doing a test screening of a film. I went through this with my last film I directed, where the audience’s comments actually weighed in and gave Harvey Weinstein the right to say, “If you change X, Y and Z on your film, I’ll spend more money on the marketing.” But that’s not the movie I want to make. So from the point of view of the artistic process, it was devastating. And it still is.
The album really embraces a sense of contradiction, even more than your work usually does. There are points where you move directly from one emotion to another that might be perceived as its exact opposite.
Could you give me an example?
Going from “Joan of Arc” to “Iconic”. That’s really two sides of a coin.
A duality. A paradox.
A paradox, right.
Well, that’s what life is.
And that’s something you want to capture in your music.
I do. Because I think that’s the essence of life. Everything isn’t black and white; we live in the gray. And unfortunately everyone takes everything too literally. I can be as vulnerable as I can be a badass. And I’m not claiming that as my unique quality; I think other people can do that too. It’s just whether you can express it or not.
Sometimes you squeeze that duality into one song — “S.E.X.”, for instance. To me that sounds like both an embodiment and a critique of a heavy-breathing sex jam. The words are super-raunchy; the beat slithers. But there’s something weirdly dispassionate in your voice.
What’s that song saying?
It’s kind of a social commentary about the way everybody hooks up now and the lack of intimacy. When I made my Sex book I was being incredibly ironic, but I was also saying, “Look, it’s not only a man’s place to objectify a woman — a woman can objectify herself too.” In the song “S.E.X.”, when I do the sort of rap in the middle and I do the list (of sex toys), I made myself sound like I have a lisp. Go back and listen to it. It’s meant to be ironic — even though there’s some very handy items on that list.
“Holy Water” does that a little bit too. The double entendres are so over the top.
At this point all my songs about sex have to be tongue in cheek. There’s no other way I can approach it. Since exploring sexuality has been such a big part of my career as an artist, I felt like I wanted to address it, but almost from a voyeuristic way, like I’m on the outside looking in.
What if a listener doesn’t grasp that?
Well, let’s face it: There’s lot of subtleties in life that are hard for most people to grasp. Don’t you think?