Madonna has been an agent provocateur for nearly two decades, and she's still got plenty of opinions to offer. Her anti-Bush, pro-cellulite, grenade-happy video for ďAmerican LifeĒ has had lots of tongues wagging of late. Not bad for clip that was squashed before it ever received any mainstream play.
Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the artist herself was the one doing the squashing. Sensitive to the way her choice of imagery would be received during the war in Iraq, our most daring pop star pulled her own video.
But now the new American Life album has arrived, and longtime fans can get all the no-holds-barred action they need. Madonna says the hi-techno/folk guitar extravaganza depicts her journey from Ď80s Boy Toy to chilled Kabbalah student. Itís been a long, strange trip - the new cover art positions her as a Che Guevara of the heart - and itís not over yet. Who thought weíd see the day when the arch-media manipulator would decry the shallowness of American Idol?
Maddy's much buzzed-about guest spot on Will & Grace put her in cahoots with the sitcomís star, Megan Mullally. In an exclusive VH1 interview, the prime-time actress gets her subject to spill the beans on the ideas driving the ďAmerican LifeĒ video, her creative process, what sheís learned from her kids, and why it's now cool to let flab speak for itself.
Megan Mullally: I just saw the original video for ďAmerican LifeĒ and I think itís genius. Tell me about it.
Madonna: Did you have a strange reaction to it?
Mullally: It was very powerful. It is what it is. I think itís art and that people need to take it at face value and let it work on them.
Madonna: I had a certain intention when we started shooting the video. Then when we started editing it, I started seeing other things take shape - other stories and ideas and themes emerging - which I had no intention of doing. But thatís part of the creative process. I feel like I've mixed up a lot of ideas into one big stew. It does the video a disservice to try and explain exactly what it means
Mullally: Itís very powerful, like the video for ďWhat It Feels Like a Girl.Ē
Madonna: Theyíre both about female rage.
Mullally: Itís very feminist. I love your dancers. They're like real women!
Madonna: Theyíre voluptuous, strong girls who can really dance. That was one of the taboos I wanted to explore. The women you see in videos are always stick figures. Itís such a taboo to have women with rolls of flesh on them, but to me, theyíre so beautiful and strong. When you sit down you have a fat roll even if you're not fat. My six-year-old daughter has a fat roll. I feel very consoled by that. Itís cool.
Mullally: Where were you were coming from when you were putting the album together?
Madonna: ďAmerican LifeĒ describes my state of mind when I was writing the album. I looked back at the last 20 years and realized that a lot of things I had valued werenít important. Iíve also realized that the American dream - the idea that you can start with nothing and make so much with your life - may start out with a very pure intention, but you can get sidetracked along the way with all these things dangled in front of you: more money, more fame, more this, more that. Your priorities get very mixed up. You start to value the wrong things. The only thing thatís really going to make you happy is the state of your soul, the way that you treat people, the love that you have in your heart. I know that sounds really corny, but itís the truth. Thatís what ďAmerican LifeĒ is about and essentially the entire record is that journey that I go on. Itís full of wonder and sometimes itís angry, but hopefully thereís a lot of resolution and joy as well.
Mullally: We donít really focus on whatís important in our culture.
Madonna: TV is just all these reality shows like American Idol. People want to be famous and they donít even know for what. And at the end of the day there has to be a ďfor what.Ē If you donít have the intention of using the power that you have when youíre famous for the betterment of the world, then it is a waste of time.
Mullally: Youíve said that you donít watch any television or read magazines or newspapers.
Madonna: Right. I know there are some good programs on TV. Before I did your show I watched some episodes on videotape and thought, ďWow, this is really good. The writing is really good.Ē But itís like Iíve got my kids, Iíve got my husband, Iíve got my work, Iíve got my spiritual life, Iíve got my exercise. There isnít time! I donít have the luxury of turning on a television. Am I going to get something out of it? Am I going to learn something from it? If not - Iím not really that interested.
Mullally: Tell me about the song ďHollywood.Ē
Madonna: Itís Hollywood as metaphor, Hollywood as a place where superficiality is [valued] above all things. Itís about our societyís fascination with the way things look, being caught up in that illusion and making all your decisions based on something that isn't true. Itís quite frightening actually.
Mullally: On ďHollywoodĒ you sing, ďI tried to leave it but I never could.Ē But in a sense, you have. Youíve experienced an awakening.
Madonna: Totally. What I really mean by that is I've tried desperately to not care about wanting people's approval. Most of the time I succeed, but not always. Itís hard to stay in the entertainment business and still be detached from wanting peopleís approval.
Mullally: Itís also hard to grow up in public like you have, but somehow youíve turned it toward the positive.
Madonna: I've tried. I've had my dark moments - that's for sure.
Mullally: Ten years ago you didnít seem settled. You were exploring your darker side and your sexuality in stuff like the Sex book and the Erotica album.
Madonna: I was working out a lot of my rage.
Mullally: But people can see how far youíve come. It might give them hope that everyone can change.
Madonna: Absolutely. Itís not like I'm ashamed of who I was ten years ago, but I was going through life in a willy-nilly way. I was slashing and burning. Sometimes you have to do that to let go of your past. I was angry about the way people perceived me. I was angry that if you were perceived as being sexual then you couldnít be intelligent. I was in a very provocative mood and thought I was going to liberate all of the women of the world. Did I succeed in doing that? Iím not sure. At the end of the day, a lot of what I was doing at the time was ego-driven. I was trying to shock people, and at the time I felt very self-important.
Mullally: Youíre going through it and everybodyís watching. That exacerbates the whole experience.
Madonna: It does make you feel a little bit vulnerable. I mean, at the end of the day everyone changes. Everyone grows. But [in a case like mine itís] always documented and you always have to explain it. I felt that I was constantly being held accountable for everything. I mean, Iím not feeling sorry for myself. Itís been an incredible ride to go through all of it and still see the beauty of life and still have hope for humanity and not lose my own sense of adventure.
Mullally: Have your kids contributed to that growth of yours?
Madonna: Enormously. In the entertainment business you can become incredibly self-obsessed. If you live in front of the camera, thereís the exercising, the clothes, the hair and the nails, the skin. You spend your entire day preparing yourself. It goes on and on and on. Then you have children and thereís no time to do all those things. Itís the best thing that could happen to throw everything in perspective. Either I practice my guitar every day or get my nails done. A lot of frivolous things go out the window.
Mullally: Thatís really good.
Madonna: The other thing I find is that my children help me see myself and my own shortcomings. I get anxiety-ridden watching my daughterís reaction to things. Then I think, ďOh my God, thatís me.Ē Your children really are mirrors of you. Theyíre sparks of your soul. You learn to embrace your children for all of their shortcomings and in a way youíre doing that to yourself.
Mullally: Do you see anything of yourself in your son Rocco?
Madonna: My daughter is very emotional, very passionate, and very dramatic. I see her acting out and I get really frustrated with her. Iím like, ďWhat a drama queen!Ē She is that side of me. My son is like a clown. Heís got this irreverent, cheeky sense of humor. Heís that side of my personality. Itís great.
Mullally: You told me that you never do any shopping. Why not?
Madonna: Well, I love clothes. That sounds so lame and superficial, but itís a form of creative expression. Using clothes to change who I am is such a big part of my work, but I find the idea of going shopping repulsive. I canít go through a rack and look at things. If I didnít have my stylist Arianne Phillips come to my house with some clothes to wear, I probably would end up wearing the same Adidas tracksuit every day.
Mullally: But Arianne Phillips isnít a stylist. Sheís a costume designer.
Madonna: Which is why I love working with her! She really thinks about character rather than whatís the latest thing to wear. Weíve worked together for so long, we have a kind of silent communication. She knows what I like and what looks good on me.
Mullally: Tell me about what you do with your friends.
Madonna: I really have no friends. [Both laugh.]
Mullally: Youíve got me! [Laughs.]
Madonna: Itís hard. I donít have as much time for a lot of my friends as I used to. We end up talking on the phone and emailing more than seeing each other these days. But I do have a handful of really good friends and I am very grateful for them.
Mullally: Are they mostly people that youíve known for a long time?
Madonna: Yeah. I have a kind of family around me thatís been working with me for years. I consider my manager to be one of my best friends. Sheís known me for 15 years so. My sister is an excellent friend of mine - obviously sheís known me for ages! [Laughs.] I like to keep people around me that Iíve known for a long time. I have lots of surrogate mothers!
Mullally: Youíre seen as the mother of reinvention. Can you ever foresee one of your incarnations being a beautiful older woman with wrinkles and gray hair?
Madonna: I already have a few wrinkles and gray hair, so donít let the camera zoom in too closely! [Laughs.] Thatís the direction Iím going in. Fat rolls and wrinkles - right on!