Material Girl. Veronica Electronica. The Queen of Pop. Madonna has taken on many names and personas over the course of her career. Now, with the release of her 14th studio album on June 14, the pop icon dons yet another. This alter-ego shares her name with the record’s title: Madame X.
According to the artist, Madame X has multiple identities — a dancer, a professor, a head of state and a housekeeper, to name just a few. All of these identities are explored throughout the album. Madonna’s refusal to be pinned to a single role can be heard in the video for “Medellín,” the album’s lead single, a duet with Colombian singer/songwriter Maluma.
“I just feel like that’s kind of been my journey in life,” Madonna told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the story of this album, which comes four years after its predecessor, 2015’s Rebel Heart, and breaks from past expectations in notable ways. In Madame X, Madonna sings in Portuguese and Spanish in addition to English and highlights multicultural influences that she’s encountered while she’s been living in Lisbon, Portugal. In addition to Maluma, the album features collaborations with Swae Lee, Quavo and Brazilian singer Anitta.
Garcia-Navarro spoke with Madonna from London about some of the creative forces behind Madame X, from experiences she’s had in Lisbon to her Catholicism-filled childhood in the Midwest. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and read on for more that didn’t make the broadcast.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: The video for “Medellin” starts with a prayer you whisper: “I will never be what society expects me to be.” Tell me about that line.
Madonna: Well, I just feel like that’s kind of been my journey in life. Starting in high school, growing up in the Midwest, not fitting in. Not fitting into any socially acceptable group, deciding to become an artist, and discovering artists like Frida Kahlo and writers like Charles Bukowski and Flannery O’Connor. I just knew right away that there were other artists in the world and other people in the world that also didn’t fit in with society and that’s kind of what was the springboard for their creativity.
For instance, Anne Sexton was one of my favorite poets, and one of the things that I think inspired her writing, but that she received so much criticism for, was that she revealed too much about herself. She was too confessional. But then, therein lies the rub, because aren’t we here to make art that people can relate to? That’s the kind of art that inspires me, and that’s the kind of art that I wanna make. But honesty is a commodity right now, because if you tell the truth, you might offend people. People don’t like to hear the truth. So that’s why I said “I will never be what society expects me to be.” I didn’t feel that way then, and I don’t feel that way now and nothing’s changed.
Do you think it’s a double-edged sword, that thing of being too confessional, that you have to reveal yourself to be true to your art, but at the same time, you can get judged for it?
As long as it’s about creativity and art, no, because I don’t think I’m pandering to people. And I’m not in my bathroom taking hundreds of selfies or, you know, just having nonsensical conversations with my iPhone about nothing. I feel like, if I am going to reveal things about myself, there’s usually a reason for it. I’m either trying to get an idea across, or I’m trying to make people laugh. I like to always think that there’s some kind of meaning to what I reveal, and that it’s not being confessional just to be confessional. I don’t need to talk about when I’m having a yeast infection, for instance. Sorry to be so disgusting, but…
I was about to say I welcome not having that conversation. [Laughs]
You have obviously been on a musical journey. Tell me about “Batuka” and how it came about.
Living in Lisbon, going to places where people play music — which is everywhere — I befriended a gentleman named Dino de Santiago. One day, he said, “I’ve got a surprise for you. You’ve got to come to this place.” It was off the beaten path; it was very bizarre. It had, like, deer antlers on the walls, and I don’t really know what it was, it was like a club that nobody went to. But suddenly, it was full of people.
There was a DJ playing for a little while, and suddenly the music stopped, and the crowd parted, and then sitting in a semi-circle were these women called Batuqueros. They’re from Cape Verde. And they started playing on these drums called djembe. And they were beating out a triplet rhythm, and singing in Creole call-and-response, and taking turns getting up and doing ritualistic dancing and singing. It blew my mind and really inspired me. And I ended up collaborating with them on my record.
There’s something really powerful about women singing together in that way.
Yeah. The first title of this song was “Fernalism,” because it was meant to be a feminist manifesto, this song. And I didn’t want to say “feminism,” because that sounds so conventional or predictable, so I just did a play on words. But then I decided, “Oh, no one’s gonna get that either. That’s just too abstract.” So I called it “Batuka” because that’s what it is, that’s the style of music that it is. That seemed to work. Created by women, played by women.
Why don’t you like the word feminism?
Oh, it’s not that I don’t like it. It’s like saying the word “politics.” It just means a lot. In a way, it’s too general. I think a lot of people just don’t really understand what it means, either. Because a lot of people think that if you say you’re a feminist, you don’t like men and that’s simply not true, in my case.
The video [for “Dark Ballet”] is extraordinary, playing on themes about Joan of Arc. And the main part is played by Mykki Blanco, who is a queer icon. Mykki, in the video, is burned and tortured. Why did you want Mykki to play this role?
I fell in love with his work, with his courage. And then I found out, as fate would have it, that he lived in Lisbon.
I played my whole album for him and he had really interesting responses to all the songs. And then he started talking about all the things that he’s had to fight for, and all the bullying that he’s endured. But he wasn’t coming at it from a victim point of view, and I admired his strength. And I was thinking about “Dark Ballet,” because I do believe that Joan of Arc, well, she must have had moments of doubt and darkness … Mykki was saying the same thing to me: “Regardless of what you do to me, what you say to me, how you treat me, what you threaten me with, I’m still gonna be me.” So, instead of me playing Joan of Arc in the song, to have him taking on sort of a double-layered persona — like, he’s me and Joan of Arc and himself. So, to me, it’s a perfect marriage.
The Catholics play the oppressors, which is a theme in your work.
Don’t they always. [Laughs] I’m just kidding.
You come back to that again and again.
But I’m obsessed with Catholics, also. That’s the thing, that’s the paradox. I grew up with priests and nuns, and I always looked up to them. I mean, my grandmother’s kitchen was always filled with priests and nuns. And, you know, everything was about the church, while everybody was slugging back the martinis. It was fabulous.
I wanted to be a nun when I was growing up because I thought they were these really elegant, superhuman creatures, until I realized that sex wasn’t in the picture. So, that swiftly threw me off my path.
I’m presently sitting here in a chair with about 20 crucifixes hanging around my neck. Jesus is never far from me. Do I believe he is a Son of God? Yes! Do I believe he is the Son of God. No! I think we are all sons and daughters of God. Still, I feel very close to Jesus.
You have been the subject of intense media scrutiny for your entire career. And you have objected to this round of coverage quite vocally. So, I’m wondering what you want people to know about Madame X right now.
I feel like I’m gonna limit myself by saying that because I want them to know so many things. It’s really not about what I want them to know about me, it’s what I want them to know about my observations about life. And that is that life is a paradox. We all need to be more curious, more open-minded, less judgmental, less discriminating, more accepting, more loving, more adventurous. Madame X would like that to happen in the world. That’s what I want people to know.
Web intern Rosalind Faulkner contributed to the digital version of this story.